About this time of year at our farm in Washington County, wild dragonroot has presented itself, an early autumn jewel.
It has a bright red, knotted seed-pod that might resemble dragonlike fire, but at the top of the stalk is a half-halo of green leaves that always reminds me of a laurel wreath, the sign of esteem conferred on poets in the days of ancient Greece and Rome.
Whenever I walk by a cluster of dragonroot I think I've met a gang of poets assembled in the woods. The very word, dragonroot, is evocative and metaphorical, which has always made me feel poetry comes out of the ground in Kentucky.
I was reminded of Kentucky's rich literary tradition recently when I had the opportunity to visit Kentucky writers Fenton Johnson and Silas House and Brother Paul Quenon at Gethsemani monastery in Nelson County. Many people will know that one of the most important writers and religious thinkers of the 20th century, Thomas Merton, was a monk at Gethsemani for 20 years — it is where he wrote all of his many books.
In the afternoon, we went for a swim in one of the ponds. Then we attended vespers and had a picnic supper on top of one of the great hills in that knob country, and read poetry out loud to one another. We could see Muldraugh's Hill, the great ridge curling around the knobs into the Cumberland Plateau — a ridge that appears in novels by Elizabeth Madox Roberts and Harriette Simpson Arnow. It felt like we were sitting atop a patch of sacred ground in the midst of already sacred ground.
Yet the literary heritage we share needs a homeplace, a meeting place dedicated to preserving and extending that heritage. For the past 21 years, that place has been the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, in Lexington. Through the years, it has been my privilege to be at many Carnegie Center events I can now look back on as truly historic.
I attended the grand opening in 1992 when I was a student at the University of Kentucky. I've heard great writers from Kentucky give readings there — Bobbie Ann Mason, Ed McClanahan, Jane Vance, Crystal Wilkinson, George Ella Lyon and the late James Still. I've also been pleased to see younger writers there, such as Eric Sutherland, Marianne Worthington and Sherry Chandler.
Several years ago, I attended an induction ceremony for new members of the Affrilachian Poets. The center also hosted a memorial service for the great James Baker Hall, one of the most moving and lingering experiences of my life. Last winter I was flattered to take part in the inauguration of the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame, and later in the spring I was delighted to attend a reception for Kentucky Poet Laureate Frank X Walker.
I'm satisfied that opportunities of this kind and quality — all in the same place — do not happen anywhere else in the country.
But the Carnegie Center is more than a venue to celebrate Kentucky's literary offerings. It's also a place where many people get down to work.
Just last year through its extensive tutoring and literacy programs, the center served thousands of Kentuckians. More than 300 children received tutoring, on-site, in elementary schools and through summer programs. There are writing courses, books-in-progress workshops, foreign language instruction, and programs for visual and performing arts.
Although the Carnegie Center has a small full-time staff, it boasts more than 400 volunteers who help young people and support the many programs that reach a very wide community. In my experience as a professor, there is nothing more vital to the development of a young person's mind than to learn to savor a good book, to gaze into a book as one would look out over a ridge at sunset and declare its beauty.
The greatest gift we have in Kentucky is the land itself, our varied geography, our rivers, our mountains and hollows. It is the land that gave birth to and has sustained our second-greatest gift — the people and our unique culture, especially our arts.
Still's classic River of Earth could come only from Kentucky because it is about Kentucky, our people and our land. Mason's tremendous Vietnam novel, In Country, could not be the novel it is were it not firmly planted in Kentucky. We are truly rich in our gifts.
This week, the Carnegie Center celebrates 21 years at the center of a remarkable flowering of art and education in Kentucky and beyond. There are a number of events to mark this occasion, especially the 21st Backyard Birthday Party in Gratz Park from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday. The evening will include a special Holler Poets presentation and live music. I invite my fellow Kentuckians to help celebrate this treasure we have in our midst.
Maurice Manning is professor of English and writer-in-residence at Transylvania University.