Smile Politely

Reading in place


This column, Traveling at Home, started as a way to describe my own process of trying to stay put in Central Illinois, to dig a little deeper into one place. As I’ve tried to write about this, two things have become obvious to me and to both of my readers. First, I drive a lot, and so I write about driving. Second, I read a lot. In fact, I read while driving (usually downloaded books). And the reading and driving inform the seeing and working to stay put.

So last week’s column, and, I hope, a number of subsequent columns, could go under the unwieldy title “Traveling at Home by Reading in Place.” What I read lives in dialogue with where I live and work and imagine. Here’s another review that sets a larger context, perhaps, for “Reading in Place.” Or “Reading while Driving.”

Illinois Voices: An Anthology of Twentieth Century Poetry

Kevin Stein and G. E. Murray, editors. Illinois Voices: An Anthology of Twentieth Century Poetry. (U of Illinois Press, 2001) ISBN 0-252-06978-1.

In her poem “Woman Hanging from a Lightpole, Illinois Route 136,” Lucia Cordel Getsi describes how “midwestern landscapes unsettle” those who encounter them, especially those from other places, who “wonder how artists here can find / a frame.” In the end, the poem concludes that for someone to stick around in such a landscape “you’ve got to be tied to something.”

Getsi’s poem is included in the ambitious and important collection of verse from the University of Illinois Press: Illinois Voices: An Anthology of Twentieth Century Poetry. Edited by Kevin Stein and G. E. Murray, this volume collects the work of nearly eighty writers who, in one way or another, are tied to Illinois. The result is a sustained look at the diversity and creativity of Illinois writers, and a demonstration, in the editors’ words, “the past century of Illinois poetry mirrors that of the United States as a whole.”

For both those who read poetry regularly and those who run from it, Illinois Voices also displays the unique features of Illinois’ poetic landscape, suggesting how vigorous and troubling this particular state might be as a home for poets. From the Chicago Renaissance and Harriet Monroe’s visionary editorship of Poetry, to the apocalyptic rumblings of Springfield’s Vachel Lindsay, and on to the energy of Chicago’s Green Mill and its poetry slams, the spaces for poetry in Illinois have always had to be created and sustained by a great deal of work. With this landmark book, Illinois poet laureate Stein and well-published poet Murray shore up that tradition of hard poetic work and offer hope that such efforts will continue for some time to come.

Familiar Voices
As the anthology’s title suggests, poetry can often be understood as a long conversation between writers, one poet building on and arguing with another. The poetic trinity of Edgar Lee Masters, Carl Sandburg and Vachel Lindsay has long been the entry point into the dialogue of Illinois poets. All three writers drew sustenance from the small towns of their childhoods; all three emphasized the interplay between the rural and the urban.

In the selections here, we find standard works by each icon alongside some surprises. For instance, Sandburg’s “Chicago,” an irreplaceable, Whitman-inflected hymn to modern urban life and people, is fleshed out by being included next to lesser known, tender portraits like “A Teamster’s Farewell” and “Halsted Street Car.” “Washerwoman” combines Sandburg’s love of common working folk with a religious sensibility:

The washerwoman is a member of the Salvation Army.
And over the tub of suds rubbing underwear clean
She sings that Jesus will wash her sins away
And the red wrongs she has done God and man
Shall be white as driven snow.

Rubbing underwear she sings of the Last Great Washday.

The tone here connects his work closely with the poetic troubadour Lindsay, whose most famous poem, “Gen. William Booth Enters Into Heaven” also lauded a Salvation Army member (though that poem is not included in the anthology). Sandburg’s portraiture also connects with Masters and his famous monologues from the everyday folk of Spoon River Anthology, where Masters proves that the ancient Greek monologue/epitaph could remain lively in the American vernacular

As the anthology’s introduction reminds us, Illinois (and Chicago in particular) was central to the genesis of modernism. Sandburg’s urban vision and imagism, Lindsay’s prophetic commitment to poetry’s cultural importance, and Master’s love of the rhythms of American speech are introits to the modern poetry championed by Harriet Monroe’s Poetry, founded in Chicago and still published there.

Aside from the poetic trinity, Stein and Murray include numerous other important voices from the first half of the twentieth century. Monroe’s own verse starts off the volume, followed by many others including Archibald MacLeish, Yvor Winters, John Frederick Nims, and Karl Shapiro (one of Monroe’s important successors as an editor at Poetry). Some surprises, poetically speaking, also appear, including poems from Ernest Hemingway and Ray Bradbury, poems that, generally, confirm their status as novelists.

Of course a sizeable number of Gwendolyn Brooks‘ poems also appear. The range of her work is impressive, spanning from the Pulitzer winning volume Annie Allen to her later poems, influenced in part by the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. While this movement has often been credited with politicizing or transforming Brooks’ work, the selections in this volume suggest a less radical transformation. With early and late poems intermingled, it is easy to see how Brooks spent her entire career looking at social inequity with a sharp, lyrical eye. “The Lovers of the Poor,” for instance, incises the hypocrisy of those women with means who would love to love the poor, but mostly at a distance: “Keeping their scented bodies in the center / Of the hall as they walk down the hysterical hall, / They allow their lovely skirts to graze no wall.” It’s clear as well that Brooks’ uncompromising vision and attention to craft set an estimable example for Stein to follow as poet laureate.

After the Laureates
After the work of laureates Sandburg and Brooks (the state’s other honoree, Howard B. Austin, is interestingly, not included in the anthology), it becomes difficult to summarize the state’s (and this volume’s) poetic conversation. Perhaps that explains why Murray and Stein have included work from nearly 80 writers, often with just brief samplings or single poems from each. As one might suspect, the voices echo from urban to rural settings, from formal, careful and spare writers working in fairly traditional ways to raucous, edgy writers experimenting with new sounds.

Following (or traversing simultaneously) in the path of Brooks, Haki Madhubuti, Eugene Redmond, Sandra Cisneros, and Carlos Cumpian, to name too few, offer the urban landscapes of Chicago and East St. Louis with a variety of inflections. Their work varies but, as Luis Rodriguez puts it in “Reflection in an El Train Glass,” these voices matter as a way to reflect multiple complexions of faces “in the haze refracting glare / in myriad directions.”

Getsi, Dave Etter, John Knoepfle, Lucien Stryk, Jeff Gundy, Stein, and others pay attention to less populated places, finding they are no less complex or easy to explain. Rodney Jones, in his stark portrait of a small town physician, catalogues the various and real ailments the town’s inhabitants reveal only to their doctor, problems exacerbated by vacant stores on the streets and the hard lives each patient has lived. The poem records, however, “that someone / Listened and, hearing the wrong at the heart / Named it something that sounded real, whatever/ They lived through and died of.”

Such naming that sounds real has been the work of most twentieth century poetry in America, and this anthology presents many of the important practitioners of the art, some with more tenuous Illinois ties than others. Still, it’s impressive to see the intellectually vigorous verse of Edward Hirsch and Laurence Lieberman next to the experimentation of Paul Hoover and David Wojahn right beside the tender, tough lyricism of Dean Young and Li-Young Lee. And these appear beside a newer generation of writers represented by Allison Joseph and Quraysh Ali Lansana.

Right at Home
While I’ve been suggesting the range of styles, voices and subject matter included in this work, it’s important not to forget the cultural value of such an expansive anthology. Stein and Murray have provided readers unfamiliar with poetry and those deeply engaged in the art with an invaluable map of the poetic world, and, indirectly but equally as important, with a map to the culture and history of Illinois, and the ways various imaginations have found a frame, have learned to tie themselves to this region.

Near the end of his life, the venerable Robert Frost commented that most of what’s needed for poetry can be found right underfoot: “That’s what makes good regionalists, you see,” said Frost. “You could stay right at home and see it all.” While aspiring to be more than mere regionalism, Illinois Voices does display just how much of the varied and stimulating work of literature, of living itself has happened right here at home.


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