Fred Chappell Essay - Fred Chappell Poetry: American Poets Analysis

Fred Chappell Poetry: American Poets Analysis

Fred Chappell’s poetry is multifaceted and varied, difficult to summarize because of the tremendous variety of styles, themes, forms, and approaches that he uses. He moves easily between the erudite and the vernacular, the profound and the comic, the individual and the collective conscience. He is at home in a multiplicity of styles, topics, and forms. In the preface to his poetic tetralogy Midquest, he described it as a reactionary work because he wishes to restore to his work “qualities sometimes lacking in the larger body of contemporary poetry: detachment, social scope, humor, portrayal of character and background, discursiveness, [and a] wide range of subject matter.” His poetry is informed by these qualities, particularly the precise portrayal and creation of character and background, so that the reader enters the poet’s world and finds a home there. His poetry also displays the all-encompassing quality of his learning—ranging from the theories of modern physics to the writings of ancient Greeks—and a familiarity with music of all periods and the art of the ages.


Perhaps Chappell’s best-known poem is Midquest, a long narrative poem often described by critics as a modern epic. Its four sections—River, Bloodfire, Wind Mountain, and Earthsleep—were first published as separate volumes. The titles of the four sections relate to the four elements—water, fire, air, and earth—recognized by ancient philosophers. However, these connections only begin to delineate the complexities of the poem.

Each section of Midquest begins with the main character, Ole Fred, waking on the morning of his thirty-fifth birthday, May 28, 1976. This immediately forms a connection with Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), which begins with that author lost in a dark forest at the midpoint of his life, in other words, the biblical midpoint of thirty-five. The Dantean resonances play out in other ways throughout the poem, perhaps most enjoyably in the form of the mountain storyteller Virgil Campbell, who, like Dante’s Vergil, acts as Ole Fred’s guide.

Each section consists of eleven individual poems and begins and ends with Ole Fred in bed with his beloved Susan. Although each section covers the character’s thirty-fifth birthday, the sections move from the present back to Ole Fred’s boyhood in the mountains of North Carolina and even further back to before his birth, through stories told to him by his parents, his grandparents, Campbell, and other members of the mountain community. Ole Fred also recalls moments from his years in higher education.

The poems move from the point of view of Ole Fred to those of his close family and friends, including his wife, Susan. Some are in mountain dialect, and some are stream of consciousness. Some are epistolaries; others are dream sequences, dialogues, or tall tales. Chappell employs a wide variety of poetic forms, ranging from the oldest of traditions in English—the Old English verse structure that counts stresses, contains the breaks known as caesuras, and uses alliteration instead of rhyme—to the open style of free verse. Other traditional forms used include blank verse, rhymed couplets, heroic couplets, terza rima, chant royal, and...

(The entire section is 1374 words.)