Tom Eblen: Poet Maurice Manning is harvesting a different type of Kentucky crop

In Washington County, fertile ground for meter and verse

Herald-Leader columnistAugust 20, 2013 

SPRINGFIELD — Clouds were gathering for an early evening shower as Maurice Manning leashed his three big dogs and took off down one of the mowed paths that criss-cross almost 20 acres behind his 1850s farmhouse.

"One of my vows when I was in grad school in Alabama was that if I ever made any money from writing, I would buy land in Kentucky," he said as we ambled through woods, past a stream and across meadows of wildflowers in full August bloom.

"Most farmers wouldn't think much of what I've done with the place," Manning said of his land, which was grazed and cultivated before nature started reclaiming it. Manning's daily two-mile walks help his mind harvest a different kind of Kentucky crop.

Manning, 47, who pronounces his first name "Morris," is attracting national attention as a poet. His first book, Lawrence Booth's Book of Visions, won the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 2001. His fourth book, The Common Man, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 2010.

Manning was a National Book Awards poetry judge last year and has been a Guggenheim fellow. His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Southern Review and The Virginia Quarterly Review. His fifth poetry collection, The Gone and the Going Away, was published in April to good reviews.

The Danville native, whose ancestors helped settle Clay and Rockcastle counties, had divided his time between the Washington County farm he and his wife, Amanda, bought in 2001 and Indiana, where he taught English at Indiana University and, before that, DePauw University.

"For a long time, I felt like I had one foot in Kentucky and one foot in Indiana," said Manning, who earned his undergraduate degree from Earlham College, a Quaker school in Richmond, Ind.

So two years ago, Manning gave up the security of tenure at Indiana to become an English professor at Transylvania University. He also is a writer in residence, along with another distinguished Kentucky poet, Richard Taylor.

"I love teaching, and teaching at Transy is especially enjoyable because the classes are small and you can get into intense conversations with students," he said. "I knew I wanted to teach Kentucky students for a variety of reasons. I just feel like I owe a debt to this state since everything I write about is Kentucky."

The poems in Manning's most recent book are like tiny short stories with colorful characters from "Fog Town Holler" in the Kentucky of his imagination. His carefully crafted verse is filled with wry humor, evocation of traditional ways of life and a reverence for nature.

"There's something about the organized rhythm of a poetic line that is a real source of meditation," said Manning, who plays guitar and is learning the banjo.

Manning has finished another book of poetry, as yet untitled, that includes "intense descriptions of the natural world," he said. "The motive for that is recognizing how thoroughly we are destroying the natural world."

Manning said he began writing poetry privately in junior high. He assumed that nobody else was still writing poetry, because all of the poets he studied in English class were dead. That changed when poet Denise Levertov visited a class he was taking at Earlham.

"It made everything seem less mysterious," he said. "She wasn't an aloof, obscure person."

Later, Manning got to know James Still, the celebrated Eastern Kentucky writer and poet, when he was in his 80s. And he found ways to connect with dead poets whose work he admired. In 2009, Manning visited England and walked the landscape that inspired the Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge.

Another inspiration was fellow Kentuckian Robert Penn Warren, the only person to win Pulitzer Prizes for both poetry (twice) and fiction. On April 24, Manning was invited to the Library of Congress in Washington to read Warren's poetry during a celebration of what would have been Warren's 108th birthday.

Manning said Warren was one of the last prominent American poets who thought poetry was a place for philosophical meditation, for asking profound questions about life. That, he said, is where he hopes his own poetry is heading.

"One of the nice things about being a poet is there's no money in it," Manning said. "Believe it or not, that gives you a lot of freedom."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: Tomeblen.bloginky.com.

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