Book Review: “Said-Songs” by Jesse Graves Explores the Mysteries of Poetry and Place
“SAID-SONGS: ESSAYS ON POETRY AND PLACE” by Jesse Graves (Mercer University Press, 232 pages, $ 20).
In a chapter of Jesse Graves’ “Said-Songs: Essays on Poetry and Place” in which he discusses mid-twentieth-century Knoxville author James Agee, Graves recalls his own childhood in Sharps Chapel, Tennessee, about 40 miles north of Knoxville.
“I grew up in a remote, mostly strange place, far from the country, with no neighbors or lights of other houses in sight,” Graves writes. “The evenings were quiet, and my mom and I would often sit on the porch and listen to hake and nightjars in the summer.” Amidst “unknown sounds and shadows and changes of atmosphere”, Graves felt he was “surrounded by mysteries of all kinds”.
That the East Tennessee State University professor chose his own memories as a way to engage with another author’s work is typical of this collection of essays, interviews and reviews, which, according to Graves, represents his youthful attempts “to learn the mysteries and conceptions of poetry”. First reading Agee’s 1938 essay poem, “Knoxville: Summer 1915,” while a freshman at the University of Tennessee, Graves felt he had “seen through a window “his own childhood on the road.
It is clear throughout this collection that reading and writing are personal acts for Graves. The title of the book comes from the poet AR Ammons, one of the heroes of Graves, who used the expression “songs said” to describe “the music of the word” in poems about the Carolinas. Reading them, Graves heard the music of the country speech he had grown up with and adopted the line.
“Said-Songs” comprises five sections, each skillfully blending a subjective voice with an analytical voice. The first section explores Graves’ own journey, inspired by other Appalachian writers, as well as poets such as William Wordsworth, whose work is deeply rooted. One of his main concerns is “what to do with memories of people and places that are now lost to me,” writes Graves, now author of four collections of poetry. This includes not only family deaths, but also displacements such as those Graves ancestors experienced in the 1930s when the Tennessee Valley Authority inundated farmland to build dams.
The second section examines the work of other Southern writers, including Robert Morgan, Ron Rash, Maurice Manning, Jeff Daniel Marion, Karen Salyer McElmurray, and Nancy Peacock. Place is also a recurring theme here, but its definition is surprisingly extended in the transcript of a 2014 discussion on McElmurray and Peacock’s blog “Marginalia”, in which digital form is seen as a new kind of “place.” which eliminates the border between public and private.
The third section of Graves explores poetry and music, examining the poetic sequencing in the album “Josephine” by Magnolia Electric Co., the musicality in the poetry of David Bottoms, and the concept of the sublime in the work of John Ashbery. Again, there is an interest in modern media. “Contemporary poetry and independent roots music cross contemporary culture like two arms of the same river,” Graves writes. Each has been “led astray from their traditional distribution points and methods” by the Internet. Referring to Bottoms’ argument that the role of the poet is akin to that of radio, Graves says that everyone is “a receiver of the offerings of the world and a sender of the messages received”.
The fourth part focuses on Agee – Graves’ neighbor in space if not in time. “Knoxville: Summer 1915,” he says, alerted him to the idea that he was born in the perfect place to become a poet. “When I read Agee, I couldn’t believe something so beautiful had been written about my part of the world, about a place I knew so well and the people who lived there.” Beauty is also a theme in her chapter on “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”, Agee’s 1941 book on Alabama sharecroppers during the Depression. Originally a mission of Fortune magazine, Agee’s book presents farmers as having a “fully integrated place in the world”, rather than as sentimental victims of circumstance. Referring to Agee’s critical work on ethics, Graves argues that aesthetics matter too. For Agee, “[T]ethics and beauty cannot be separated either by intention or by accident. “
The fifth section, “Surveying the Land of the Word,” consists of previously published reviews and interviews, including one with Chapter 16.org.
Although “Said-Songs” is an academic book, reading it gives the impression of sitting on a wide south porch – perhaps like Graves’ mother’s – and striking up an unusually friendly conversation with a friend. attentive. The prose is serious and sincere and full of observations like this: “The imagination must move through a poem like blood through a body, the animating force invisible from the outside.
As for reading, Graves says: “[T]there’s always going back, and you won’t be the same reader you were the first time you passed that fork. “
This is undoubtedly true.
For more local coverage of the books, please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.