An ordinary Wednesday on the north end of Lexington might not seem like the time or place to build a literary movement, but inside Al's Bar, home to the monthly Holler Poets Series, that's exactly what is happening. And in late July, the crowd at the semi-monthly spoken-word event was at maximum capacity to hear the headliner: Maurice Manning.
Manning, a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in poetry, is one of the few poets who performs for the crowd as well as he writes for the page.
"His performances are always standing-room only," says Eric Sutherland, founder and emcee of Holler Poets. "In fact, last week, every chair in Al's Bar was pulled from the old ping-pong room to accommodate the overflow crowd."
Many of those chairs seated established Kentucky writers.
"The really amazing thing was the amount of literary big names that were all there at the same time," Sutherland says. "I really couldn't believe it.
"Nikky Finney, Erik Reece, Silas House, Richard Taylor, C.E. Morgan," Sutherland says, listing the established writers he can remember in the crowd. "Ricardo Nazario-Colón, Mitchell Douglas, Sherry Chandler, Katerina Stoykova-Klemer, Bianca Spriggs.
"Oh, and Ed McClanahan, Tom Marksbury and Marianne Worthington were there, too."
Manning's following is due in part to his panache and charisma as a reader and in part to the quality and subject of his poems. Kentucky, his 'truest love'
In person, Manning does not seem like the kind of guy who can whip a crowd into a frenzy with words. He is contemplative and takes long, deliberate pauses to carefully choose each word before speaking with a soft Kentucky lilt.
A native of Danville, Manning, 45, has always focused his work on some aspect of Kentucky, something he has known since his days at the University of Alabama, where he earned a master's degree in fine arts.
"While I was away from Kentucky, I realized Kentucky would always be my sole subject," Manning says. "It is my oldest, truest love. Being from a real place with a real — and complicated — history is my heritage, and it is a gift I am obliged to return and somehow to ennoble."
From Manning's debut poetry collection, Lawrence Booth's Book of Visions (2001), which won the Yale Younger Poets Award, to the imagined world of Daniel Boone in A Companion for Owls (2004) and the pastoral poems of Bucolics (2007), his literary efforts aim to place Kentucky's land, language, culture and history within the greater context of American literature.
"Historically, Kentucky was the first state that had not been a British colony: it was the first place where the promise of the American experiment could be carried out; it was the original frontier in a country that has defined itself by many subsequent frontiers," Manning wrote via email. "But, of course, the experiment was flawed because the new state permitted the scourge of slavery. And yet during the Civil War, Kentucky was the crucial slave state that did not secede, the birthplace of both Lincoln and Davis.
"It's as if Kentucky is a tight swirl of pain and hope, promise and compromise, a place of profound ambiguity. It so happens that poetry deals in ambiguity, and those of us who write about Kentucky are fortunate because the ambiguity continues. Kentucky is the state that divides the South and the North; Danville, where I grew up, is in the center of the state. Although I realize I'm exaggerating the issue to an extent, I often think I hover around the bull's-eye in the middle of the tensions that have defined our country, and I think those tensions are still palpable."
'Our language was alive'
His most recent collection, The Common Man, the work that made him a Pulitzer finalist earlier this year, explores rural stories and voices from the past, cataloging characters, tales and a rhythm of storytelling that he inherited from his ancestors.
"My great-grandmothers were wonderful storytellers, and often they were telling stories that involved people in my family from a long time back," Manning says. "That made the stories even more interesting, and because my great- grandmothers were born in the 19th century, I grew up feeling connected to and intrigued by the agrarian world of Kentucky."
Manning pays homage to the agrarian world in The Common Man and in many of his other works, but it is the unique cadences of regional words and their delivery that shape that subject matter and distinguish his poetic voice.
For instance, note the rhythm and diction of the language in a poem from The Common Man called Pappy's Little Pistol:
My Daddy, the sometimes king of rage
and mourning, was resolved. I've done heard
the black shroud flappin' on the line,
he said. Some angel's washed it up
and hung it out: it's got my name
upon it, son, and it won't be long
before I wear it.
"Our language was alive and filled with colorful expression," Manning says of growing up in Danville. "At some point, probably by the time I was in college and was hearing the far more bland language of lectures and such, I realized that growing up, I had been surrounded by a kind of poetry. I've always wanted to keep that language alive, and by extension to maintain the kind of world that language comes from."
One way Manning keeps both the world of his boyhood and its language alive is by paying careful attention to meter and form in his poetry. The poems in The Common Man are written in couplets of iambic tetrameter, a poetry form comprising pairs of lines with an identical meter, here four sets of short-long syllables.
"While I certainly appreciate free-verse poetry, I prefer to work with a metered line," Manning wrote via email. "Something about that basic parameter helps me to see the empty page as a kind of field, and I think writing a poem is a way to be a steward of that field. I also think the language one overhears in Kentucky is remarkably, though perhaps unintentionally, poetic."
Manning gives an example of the poetry he overhears in everyday life. "Last fall I was at a gas station in Perryville," he wrote, "and I heard a man ask of a woman who'd just had a baby, 'Is the little feller doin' good?' Immediately that question jumped out at me as a line of iambic tetrameter: 'is the LITT-le FELL-er DO-in' GOOD?'"
Mentors and stars
Manning's Kentucky connections go back to the 1700s, when his ancestors first arrived, and continue through his own life. After getting a bachelor's degree at Earlham College in Indiana, he earned his first graduate degree at the University of Kentucky. While there, Manning developed relationships with notable Kentucky writers.
"As a student at UK, I took a course called pastoral poetry from Wendell Berry," Manning says, referring to the noted agrarian writer from Henry County. "Mr. Berry taught us how to read poetry and how to write a sentence, and since, he has taught me much more."
"James Baker Hall and his wife, Mary Ann Taylor-Hall, introduced me to Bobbie Ann Mason and her husband, Roger Rawlings. A few times I was the young pup at supper with Jim and Mary Ann, Bobbie and Roger. It felt like I was dining with The Beatles."
Manning also was mentored by renowned Kentucky writer James Still.
"James Still was the first person I knew who was a living poet. I was lucky enough to become friends with him and to have his encouragement. God rest his soul," Manning wrote via email. Still died in 2001. "Not a day goes by that I do not think about Mr. Still."
A disappearing Kentucky
Manning is now a teacher and mentor himself. He spends part of the year in Indiana as the associate director of creative writing at Indiana University in Bloomington. During summers, he lives with his wife, Amanda, on a farm in Washington County, growing a vegetable garden and keeping bees.
This summer, Manning is working on his next poetry collection, The Gone and the Going Away, which dwells on a Kentucky of yore, one that is more rural and neighborly and teetering on disappearance.
Despite dwelling on that loss, Manning remains positive about preserving Kentucky's unique identity in the American landscape.
"The instinct for preservation and the desire to reflect with honesty the texture of Kentucky's history and culture connects the literature coming from our region to other regions," he says. "What constitutes literature cannot be prescribed or made uniform from on high; instead it must emerge from the local ground and branch out from there to make contact with the branches coming from other ground."
Candace Chaney is a Lexington writer and critic.