Been reading an interesting piece in the new NER about the King James Bible (no, not him) and its influence on Western literature. It makes me feel a bit guilty it's taken me so long to get to this essay as I've had the issue for over a month now, but I suppose it's symptomatic of how I read journals. I almost immediately read all of the poems (in this case, familiar names abound). Then, I put the journal on my nightstand and each night I'll give the stories a try, usually only finishing if I'm compelled to (in this issue, more often than not). And then, the thing will generally malinger on the nightstand until it's moved to my "find a good reader to give this to" box. But in this case, fortunately for me, the issue hung around and I finally stumbled across Robert Alter's essay "American Literary Style and the Presence of the King James Bible."
This is an issue I've thought about a lot, one of the reasons I feel I frequently align myself with Southern writers even though I was born and raised in Ithaca, New York. I have even called myself a Southern writer--I mean, my parents hailed from North Carolina and Oklahoma (close!), I've lived in North Carolina and Virginia for 7 years now, my drawl grows deeper every month I spend in Appalachia, and I have an unrepentent beard. I remember a quote by Flannery O'Connor in which she states that the cadence of Southern literature is the cadence of the King James Bible, but couldn't find it today when I went a -googling. The closest I saw was an interview with Barry Hannah that expressed a lot of how I feel about my own writing. He's responding to a question about whether or not his religious upbringing affected his writing style:
"The preachers did not, but the Bible itself has. I just, the rhythms of the Old and New Testament, the King James version, are just as solidly set in a person of my era who went to church as a moral foundation. I make sentences, I'm sure, from Biblical rhythms."
Growing up as the son of two ministers, attending 2 seperate church services every Sunday, liturgy was a constant in my youth. Even if I wanted to (which I don't), I don't believe I could extricate my relationship to language from the Christian mythology in which this relationship was borne. The formative texts of my childhood are the all biblical, though healthily interspersed with my parents favorite writers (on my dad's side: Faulkner, Walker Percy, Carl Sandburg; on my mom's: Marge Piercy and Annie Dillard). I'm often thankful for the presence of these texts as I feel as though they add an (unintentional, though welcome) weight to the language and syntax of my poetry that would otherwise be absent. As Alter notes, while discussing the speeches of Abraham Lincoln:
"The grand concluding movement of the Second Inaugural Address aims to engage the audience in a vision of justice and healing and peace after four years of devastating warfare, and the vehicle that makes this possible is the language of the Bible. At a cultural moment when the biblical text, verse and chapter, was a constant presence in American life, the idioms and diction and syntax incised in collective memory through the King James translation became a wellspring of eloquence."
All this makes me wonder, both as a writer and a teacher of high school students, whether our youth have access to the same wellsprings. Or rather, what evidence of eloquence can they find in 140 characters. It's true, there's much less memorization in classrooms today, much less exposure to classic texts, and much more cogent statements have already been made about the age of instant media and it's affect on education; but all of this only to say: I'm extremely thankful for the rhythms of the King James Bible, which will be celebrating it's 400th anniversary next year. If you told 13-year-old me that 24-year-old me would say that, he would have kicked you in the shins and laughed in your pain-wrought doubled-over face. But today: yes, thanks, KJB, keep up the good work.
Posted a new poem on Ink Node. This one comes from the fall 2009 issue of Tar River Poetry and is a sonnet in the "Aerials" sequence of my manuscript. All of these poems are sonnets in the loosest sense of the word (i.e. 14 lines, a volta after the 8th, and slant rhymes all over the place). There are more of these forthcoming in Greensboro Review and Crab Orchard Review.
Killer first line of the moment:
"At 3 PM she feeds the penguins"
from Molly Peacock's "A Kind of Parlance"
(Cornucopia: New and Selected Poems, W.W. Norton, 2002)
Finally, after months of below-average Sunday night television, The Pacific has rescued HBO. And with Treme on the way (from the creators of The Wire), things are only going to get better...
Jon Stewart is amazing.