James Still was ninety-four when he died in April, 2001, in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. He had lived, mostly alone, for over sixty years in a small log cabin on a branch of Little Carr Creek in Knott County. A writer’s writer, never widely read, he was nonetheless respected and praised by such peers as Katherine Ann Porter, James Dickey, Cleanth Brooks, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and many others. Gurney Norman, Kentucky writer and director of the University of Kentucky creative writing program, called Still the “most influential Kentucky writer of the last fifty years,” the parent of all Kentucky writers who came after 1940.
Although Still is best known for his classic novel of the struggles of a coal-mining family in eastern Kentucky, River of Earth (1940), and his short-story collection On Troublesome Creek (1941), many critics believe that in his precise and lyrical use of language, he is primarily a poet. When his collection The Wolfpen Poems was published in 1986, James Dickey said the book established Still as the “truest and most remarkable poet that the mountain culture has produced.” Wade Hall, emeritus professor and a leading authority on Kentucky literature, has said that no one had ever captured Southern Appalachian folk life better than Still. “He was basically a poet,” said Hall, with an economy of words that lifted his prose to the level of poetry. This is a view shared by, among many others, Wendell Berry, one of Still’s former students, who says Still gives his prose the economy, liveliness, and density of poetry.
Now in this new collection from the University Press of Kentucky, which has continued to keep Still’s work in print, we have the complete poems of the man that Kentucky writer Chris Offutt has called simply “the master.” Arranged primarily in chronological order by editor Ted Olson, a professor of Appalachian Studies at East Tennessee State University, the collection begins with a poem published in April, 1931, entitled “Dreams,” which makes clear that from the very beginning of Still’s career, he, like all poets, was more interested in the transformation of reality into language than mere reality itself. Although Still has often been praised for being down-to-earth, his first published poem announces, “I have plucked my roots from earthly ways” for a vase of unreality.
As might be expected from a poet who spent his entire life living in a rustic, rural setting, many of Still’s poems celebrate the beauty and majesty of nature, noting contrasts between unlimited nature and humankind’s finite life in such poems as “Burned Tree” and “Fallow Years.” Long before the ecology movement, Still was creating prophetic parables of the “perishing wilderness” and “crumbling mountains” in the face of human assault in poems such as “Artifacts.”
Although Still spent his life trying to find language adequate to communicate his love of the natural world, often, in such poems as “Wilderness,” he admits, “All speech made here will know an early withering.” Such modesty is, of course, mere Romantic humility, for Still can brilliantly capture a simple natural event with such perfection of language that the reader will smile with a shock of recognition. For example, in “Farm,” in a field of corn, “Tapers blunt to the fruiting tassel” and “Crows haggle their dark features,”
A lizard, timid and tremulous, swallowing clots of air
With pulsing throat, pauses at the smooth trunk
And runs up the sky with liquid feet.
Still says so much is already written on the natural parchment of leaves that he can but fold his hands and sink his knees into the leaf-pages, but the pages of his poetry revitalize nature and communicate what mere physical reality cannot.
Although Still obviously spent much time alone in the woods and fields of eastern Kentucky, creating profound poetry of humankind’s union with nature, his greatest literary accomplishment comes from his understanding of and love for the people of Appalachia. Refusing to condescend to, sentimentalize, or exploit those who live in the “hollers” and on the ridges of eastern Kentucky, as Jesse Stuart, his better-known Kentucky colleague, often did, Still immortalizes a number of wonderful characters and celebrates the social life of the mountains in many of his poems.
In such poems as “Horse Swapping,” “Mountain Fox Hunt,” “Dance on Pushback,” and “Fiddler’s Convention on Troublesome Creek,” Still evokes the sounds and color of the...
(The entire section is 1873 words.)