(Poets and Poetry in America)

“I have gone softly,” James Still wrote in Hounds on the Mountain. He compared himself to a child walking on “a ridge/ Of sleep . . . a slope hung on a night-jar’s speech.” He was a child “with hands like leaves” and eyes “like swifts that search the darkness in a perilous land” (“With Hands Like Leaves”). The similes define Still’s unobtrusive approach to his material—the way that he blended in, to become invisible as a speaker in the poems, insisting on objectivity and exactness of detail. In “Eyes in the Grass,” the eyes are those of a speaker unnoticed by either bird or insect. The speaker is “lost to any wandering view”; he is “hill uncharted”; his breathing is the wind; he is “horizon . . . earth’s far end.”

Southern Appalachia

This approach to a people and a place, and Still’s achievement as a poet, can be appreciated only in comparison with the way in which the southern Appalachian region of the United States has been typically depicted. The French critic Roland Barthes maintained (Mythologies, 1972) that there is an inherent difficulty in writing about mountains and mountain people, the result of a bourgeois alpine myth that causes writers and readers to take leave of their senses “anytime the ground is uneven.”

Whatever the cause or causes, southern Appalachia appears in American writing as a veritable funhouse of distorted and contradictory images that have, since the mid-nineteenth century, suited the needs, motives, and perspectives of abolitionists, social workers, Protestant missionaries, industrialists, and entrepreneurs. Southern Appalachia was known through literature either as a place of problems, poverty, and peculiar people, or as a preserve of fundamentally American virtues and values, sterling Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Celtic qualities. The region entered the popular American mind during the 1880’s by way of local colorists (chief among them Mary N. Murfree, who wrote under the pseudonym Charles Egbert Craddock), who noted the quaint and sensational aspects of an old-fashioned way of life. By the 1920’s, a careful student of southern Appalachia remarked that more was known about the region that was not true than about any other part of the country.

At a time when it was fashionable, indeed almost obligatory, for poetry about southern Appalachia to be either a witless romanticizing of mountains and mountain people, or proletarian verse, Still walked softly. He presented no diagnosis of economic ills, preached no social gospel, and offered no program. He declined to participate in the either/or literature, ambitious to do no more—and no less—than to show people in their place and tell how it was with these people at a particular time.

As a consequence, Still’s poems discover neither merely a landscape of beauty and wild freedom nor only visual blight, exploitation, and hard, unrelenting conditions. All these things are caught in a vision that is both local and universal. Still’s poems embodied certain universal themes implicit in the experience of people in a particular place and time—the themes of endurance, perseverance, and self-preservation under harsh and perilous circumstances.

Details and images created an impression of a difficult life at subsistence level. In “Court Day,” the hill folk rise and set out toward the county seat before dawn, when the day is still “dark as plowed earth.” The road into town is a stony creekbed. The waters of Troublesome Creek are a “cold thin flowing.” The fields of the county poor farm are “hungry” (“On Double Creek”). Descriptions of coal camps suggest unyielding, inhospitable conditions. Coal camp houses are “hung upon the hills” (“Mountain Coal Town”). Underground, the miners are “Breaking the hard, slow-yielding seams” of coal (“Earth-Bread”). Life is not only difficult and meagerly provided for, but is also somehow blighted. Chestnut trees are “cankered to the heart” (“On Red Bird Creek”). The ridges in “Journey Beyond the Hills” are “stricken and unforested.” Early morning hours are “gaunt,” the mist “leprous,” the day “lean” (“The Hill-Born”).

Danger and death are ever-present. Death sits “quiet upon a nest” in “Year of the Pigeons.” The furrows of the county poor farm are “crooked as an adder’s track” (“On Double Creek”). Stars in the night sky over a mountain coal camp are “cool as the copperhead’s eyes.” The underground shift of the miners is an “eight-hour death,” a “daily burial” (“Earth-Bread”). The quarry in “Fox Hunt” is “gaunt and anxious,” his life imperiled by the hounds. In the title poem, the fox turns at the head of a cove to confront the hounds. The fox’s blood laves “the violent shadows” of that place, and even the dry...

(The entire section is 1993 words.)