Louisiana being the jazz capital of the United States (and the world, for that matter), one easily forgets the other contributions she has made to American culture. Then one remembers Louisiana is Walker Percy’s adopted home and the setting of his most famous novel, The Moviegoer. Perhaps the writers Ernest J. Gaines and Shirley Ann Grau also come to mind, the horror novelist Anne Rice and crime novelist James Lee Burke, and literary luminaries such as Grace King and Kate Chopin.
One may still forget that the Pelican State has been and remains the home of some of the most redoubtable poets of the last hundred years. In Louisiana Poets: A Literary Guide, a handsome and jargon-free new collection from the University Press of Mississippi, coauthors Catharine Savage Brosman and Olivia McNeely Pass have set out to rectify that, and very successfully, too.
This is a serious work of literary criticism and not a compendium of gossip or an attempt to push some shallow definition of literary “diversity” for its own sake. Brosman is professor emerita of French studies at Tulane University and an indefatigable poet and scholar, as well as this magazine’s long-standing poetry editor. She can easily fit into the same category as the one in which Russell Kirk placed the venerable Flannery O’Connor: that of a “woman of humane letters.” She is, in addition, a true but never prudish guardian of literary probity, as any reading of her own nonfiction and criticism will attest. Her long personal and professional connection to Louisiana has also allowed her to cultivate friendships with a number of writers considered in the guide. Her coauthor, Olivia McNeely Pass, is a professor of American literature retired from Nicholls State University, with strong and enduring ties to the state and a more than able companion in this task.
They begin their study with an admirable credo, reminding us that the general function of poetry is, in the words of a non-Louisianan, Wallace Stevens, “to contribute to man’s happiness.” This is an apt quote given the subject of their study, as it is hard to imagine any other Americans more life-loving, more giddily happy, more embracing of life and all its true diversity than Louisianans, devoted as they are to music, language, food, and custom. Such distinctiveness as Louisianans display necessitates yet another reminder from Brosman and Pass of the power of specific locality in art, whether poetry, fiction, drama, music, or painting. The amorphous culture of the present day instead favors homogeneity over actual diversity, despite claims to the contrary by advertisers and the popular media. They would have us believe that the health of any community depends on the presence of a McDonald’s on every street corner and a multiplex movie theater blasting forth the latest effects-laden blockbuster movie sequel. This culture would have us all speaking with similar inflections, or none at all, and ignoring the particularities of our own cultural histories, but true art, honest art, will not have it. It is the specific, place-grounded thing which gives weight and distinction to the general. It is an art steeped in local habits, customs, and concerns that will endure and outlive poems, paintings, novels, and music not grown in a particular place and time. All great artists are localists, whatever their genre. Brosman and Pass say it better:
Natural and human environments direct the imagination; minds are shaped by surroundings. Despite casting their nets widely, in terms of topics, tones, and versification, many poets examined here are rooted in their territory, its features and history, and its heritage, even with its historical wrongs and unsavory features… [A]rtists in the state and especially poets seem to oppose, instinctively, dissolution of traditions, atomization of collectivities, and serialization of experience.
They go on to write, “Despite today’s emphasis on globalism and the superficial international culture that has originated from it, the local remains the cradle of achievement.” As far as Louisiana goes, Brosman and Pass identify three particular hives of fervent poetic activity. The most obvious, of course, is New Orleans, a detailed delineation of which would probably be superfluous. Baton Rouge makes for an appropriate literary center, given its status as the state’s capital and home of Louisiana State University, not only one of the premier Southern colleges but also home to one of the best literary presses in the country and one of the few still publishing estimable collections of poetry by the likes of Robert Morgan, David Middleton, and Brosman herself. LSU was also the 1935 birthplace of The Southern Review, long the nation’s finest literary review and a brainchild of Albert Erskine and Robert Penn Warren, among others. Completing the state’s literary troika is a consortium of Louisiana parishes comprised of Lake Charles, Houma-Thibodaux, and especially Lafayette, known collectively as “Arcadiana” due to the influence of Arcadian French culture.
Brosman and Pass give biographical and interpretive consideration to 41 authors with Louisiana ties, and supplement those studies with an additional 18 entries in a brief appendix. When I first opened the book, I knew it would include such heavy-hitters as Warren and Tennessee Williams. Their personal and creative relationships to the state are by now the stuff of literary legend. Although neither man was born in Louisiana, both spent formative years there, and each set his masterpiece in the Pelican State, the irony being that neither of those masterpieces is a poem or collection of poems but a novel and play, respectively. To be clear, though, Williams always claimed to have put his greatest poetry into his plays, and any reading of A Streetcar Named Desire vividly confirms that statement. A third titan, at least, emerges in these pages: Pulitzer Prize-winner Yusef Komunyakaa, born in Bogalusa, Louisiana. Brosman and Pass call Komunyakaa “extraordinarily gifted…among the most prolific and talented poets of his generation.” The authors praise him for his powerful fusion of musical rhythms with language.
I was pleased to note the inclusion of John William Corrington in this guide. He is a writer who, three decades after his passing, has still not yet received his due as poet, story writer, and novelist, a fact Brosman and Pass also recognize. Ohio-born, he was brought up in Shreveport and made that area his literary home in the same manner as Thomas Hardy did his native Wessex, often making it the setting of his fiction. The authors call him “a combination of rebel and Tory, a romantic who needed to defend what he loved and fight against his enemies. He was unreconstructed, a bit of an agrarian.”
Corrington might take issue with the mildness of the latter characterization and insist on a bolder proclamation of his literary and political rebelliousness. He won my admiration for more than just his work when he proclaimed his pride in being called a Southern writer at a time when others seemed anxious to eschew the epithet. In his poetry, Corrington could write formally, often producing rhymed sonnets in the classic mode, but he viewed free verse, which he employed in numerous unorthodox ways, as a means to “eschew academism and create a truly innovative, constructive art.” In a sad testament to Corrington’s current critical standing, his collected poems had to be self-published by his widow.
Uniting these 41 artists is the effect of the weather upon their homeland. All places must contend with Mother Nature. All poets have songs to sing about her influence upon their land. However, Louisianans, as with any people located so close to the coast, are especially touched by her fury.
My first real encounter with “Hurricane Katrina literature” came a year or so ago when I read Alison Pelegrin’s collection Big Muddy River of Stars (2007). Her poems include those written from personal experience with the big storm of 2005 that left thousands of New Orleanians stranded and dislocated. Pelegrin’s other collections show the continuing influence of the hurricane, boasting such titles as Our Lady of the Flood, Waterlines, and Hurricane Party. Pelegrin contemplates and versifies Katrina without sentimentality or pathos and with much humor and irony. That Pelegrin is one of the younger poets under consideration in this superb study is good news for both American poetry and the state of Louisiana.
[Louisiana Poets: A Literary Guide by Catharine Savage Brosman and Olivia McNeely Pass (University Press of Mississippi) 272 pp., $28.00]