Jared Carter, who has retired from a career in publishing, is a Midwestern poet of stature. He won the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets and the Poets’ Prize; he has had a Guggenheim fellowship and two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. He is profiled in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, and the governor of Indiana, his home state, honored him with an Arts Award. These honors are not misplaced. For more than three decades he has contributed to high-ranked national periodicals, literary quarterlies, and poetry magazines. In recent years his verse has appeared in Chronicles.
This substantial new volume, which includes 30 new poems as well as selections from his five previous collections (published between 1981 and 2012), is the first in what is to be an “occasional” poetry series at the University of Nebraska Press, under the editorship of Ted Kooser, a former U.S. Poet Laureate. The publisher’s and Mr. Kooser’s initiative is commendable.
Carter’s work is eminently civilized. That is one side of his poetic coin; the obverse, but complementary, features are his accessibility, his concern for others, his ties to his region, and what David R. Slavitt has called “the morality of vision.” They are two sides of the same coin. What a contrast his work presents to that by today’s haters of fine culture, barbarians who apparently wish doom on the English language, its literary patrimony and that of other European traditions, and the entire idea of order, verbal and social. The so-called poetry they produce is often incomprehensible, unrelated to most lives, frequently petty, inane, and infantile, and, at worst, horribly coarse and offensive. Not content to épater le bourgeois by cultivating the outrageous, they invite anarchy of language, manners, and mind, preparing the way (at least it seems so) for general cultural anarchy. By way of illustration, I could mention names but shall refrain, although one figure, exemplary for the purpose, would deserve being singled out, given that he has rudely attacked this magazine and two of its editors.
Carter, who is not afraid of the ordinary, which makes up most of life, casts a wide net, but over familiar territory (geographic and human). “Heavens, I recognize the place, I know it!” as Elizabeth Bishop exclaimed. He can write about, and for, acquaintances in a barroom as well as for those with the most refined taste. Like his Indiana predecessors James Whitcomb Riley and Booth Tarkington, he does not fear the regional, though that very word is, under the pen of many critics, pejorative. Think of the accomplished American figures who created from local scenes and topics a world both faithful and powerfully imaginative: Mary Austin, Willa Cather, William Faulkner, Robert Frost. Indeed, it is through the particular that the general is best expressed. “The classic is the local fully realized, words marked by a place,” wrote William Carlos Williams. Many of Carter’s early poems are set in an imaginary county, Mississinewa, named for an actual tributary of the Wabash. Yet he avoids the maudlin, the excessively homey—a temptation for poets attached to their roots.
In Darkened Rooms of Summer (the title is borrowed from Henry James), Carter’s voice and tone fit easily his varied topics, the range of which expanded as his writing flourished. In one poem he describes a county road; elsewhere, he evokes, unsentimentally, two brothers on motorcycles and a bridge over Fall Creek. (One brother does not return from the ride.) Nature is not overlooked; no poet of a classic bent ignores his natural surroundings and the human connections thereto. Cicadas, a mourning dove, an evergreen, snow—the thing itself appears, and then the thing it becomes in mind. In “Landing the Bees,” an old beekeeper gathers up the swarm in a bedsheet:
If you have walked in sleep,
you know this movement
out through air, through blos-
to a new place, drawn by a bril-
liance in the leaves
and folded into whiteness. He
takes them up
as though carrying coals. If you
arms outstretched, you know this
rising of their own accord are
to themselves. It is your own
This poem does not simply evoke a task accomplished; it carries the scene to the plane of mind, with subtlety and beauty.
Portraits and personal dramas, such as “Foundling,” are central to Carter’s poetic embrace, some briefly hinted at (“Journeyman”), others recounted at length. In “Phoenix”—a monologue concerning two Kentuckians, brothers but enemies, camped with General Harrison’s army in 1811—drama is inscribed in historical action. Not quite four pages long, the account moves fast, not just by way of the storyline but also by the poet’s command of phrasing and syntax, which have the unremarked, but remarkable, facility achieved by practice and a fine ear. “Barn Siding,” a much longer narrative, concerning a scavenger of old timbers who falls as a barn collapses, similarly carries the reader along. Like a good short story, you won’t want to put it down.
Carter uses well-crafted free verse (not simply cut-up prose), blank verse, and fixed stanzaic forms, with rhyme (including off-rhymes) and traditional meters. Iambic pentameter is common, but he varies it, as in “After the Rain”—quatrains of three ten-syllable lines followed by one of six. He often uses tercets. The free-verse poems are informal (but never vulgar) in stance and language. “At the Art Institute,” for example, records a simple, if grating, scene as a visitor rolls his chair-bound paralyzed mother before the huge canvases of the Impressionists and post-Impressionists and reads in a nasal voice, obsessively and mechanically, every identifying label, without visible appreciation and mispronouncing all the French names.
This new volume comprises 23 villa nelles from Les Barricades mystérieuses (1999). The present reviewer is not an admirer of this form, inherited from the French but cultivated more by English-language poets. Of nineteen lines, two occur four times each. To depend on such visible artifice, or to tie the poem to it, is a handicap; rhetorical flexibility is reduced, and the recurrence obtrudes. Even Dylan Thomas’s villanelle “Do not go gentle into that good night” is marked by awkwardness and excessive echoes. That much said, one must admire Carter’s achievement in the form, in which he moves, in numerous examples, with relative ease. Such versatility was long the mark of the classic poet.
The 30 new poems that close this collection are in three quatrains, with alternating lines of eight and four syllables, rhymed abab. Like certain earlier pieces, they are deceptively simple, tending toward the metaphysical (in the varied manners of John Donne and Wallace Stevens). “Moth” echoes Carter’s earlier “Cecropia Moth,” in which the creature may have perished in fire and smoke when a gardener burnt a heap of dead rose canes. In the newer poem, shorter and simpler, the moth flies into a lit candle.
. . . Candle’s flame
survives, but you
No longer feel or have a name—
Though once, when new,
You landed on my finger, where
your moment’s stay
Seemed endless, till that oth-
called you away.
Though the disease has not been widely recognized, poetry is, in many quarters, sick. Not here. Carter is a poet for nearly everyone, including, as Kooser notes, those who do not like (or think they do not like) poetry. This collection will prove its worth.
[Darkened Rooms of Summer: New and Selected Poems, by Jared Carter (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press) 199 pp., $18.95]