blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1


PIVOT POINTS  |  First Generation Poet

Dave Smith

Herman Melville notes in his essay on his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne that he would have been a better writer had he lived more with writers, had more friends who might have acted as intimate and concerned readers. He meant this, too, as an appreciation of what that friendship had meant to his own writing and, we might say, his soul. Writers write out of and because and even against the writing done by others; they are nudged, urged, impelled, driven, and lured by what they admire in the art of their colleagues. Writers who teach emerging writers are closer to this phenomenon than anyone. Their students become goads, teachers, influences, setting new bars to be surpassed, new heights to be achieved.

No better example exists of this line of continuity, I suppose, than that beginning with John Crowe Ransom. Professor Ransom established a literary community at Vanderbilt University and there, it might be said, teased into existence what has come to be called "Southern" poetry. His student Robert Penn Warren wrote the poems which are acknowledged by all hands as the prototype for the southern poem and I have publicly admitted that Warren's achievement in both narrative and lyric poetry, emphatically of the moral and ethical inquiry, has been for me a constant guide. It has been said, and I hope that it is so, that my own student T. R. Hummer has carried on in this direction, for I believe it to be consequential in our times. I think this art is a carrier of values that matter to our social future.

This is not to say, however, that anyone found in the line I describe does only what the predecessor has done. That would be a waste of energy and potential which any artist, in any medium, must find loathsome. It only matters that the individual builds on what has existed, extends in time what is useful, and modifies it according to the needs of his or her personality and his or her environment. What Melville knew and implied is that we need tales to help us live as fully as possible in a world always more difficult than it ought to be and we need our truest friends to help us make those tales. Those friends compose the line, the gifts and structures and imperatives of performance, which enables us. We must be grateful for their assistance.  

 The Clam-Rake Room
   Warren's Flowers
   Las Flores de Robert
 Penn Warren

   Notes and Acknowledgments
   Levis Reading Loop