The Gleaning, Part 1

Regionalism, Form, and Theme 

in the Poetry of Jared Carter

by Timothy J. Deines

I   Introduction

Jared Carter remains largely unrecognized in the canon of contemporary American poetry despite the enthusiastic response his poetry has received from the popular press, literary journals, and high-profile literary critics.

Henry Taylor of Magill’s Literary Annual writes that Work, for the Night Is Coming, Carter’s first book and recipient of the Walt Whitman Award, “is one of the clearest and strongest first books to have appeared in recent decades.”  The Year in Poetry, 1993 considers After the Rain, Carter’s second and last book to date, “a collection to read and savor.” 

Ted Kooser echoes this sentiment: After the Rain is “a moving and masterful book, charming in the best sense of that word.”  Jeff Gundy in The Georgia Review writes that “Carter’s work is the product of very skilled, patient craftsmanship and a firm, honorable vision.”  George Cleveland in The New Laurel Review writes that Carter’s work  “contains one great poem after another” and argues for Carter as “a major writer.”

Among the few poets, literary critics, and academics who have recognized Carter as a strong contemporary voice, each considers his work worthy of serious attention. Dana Gioia, one of Carter’s most vocal supporters, writes that in Carter “one recognizes a single honest and contemporary voice,” and that in his work “There are so many good  poems. . . that it makes no sense to list them all. . . . ”  Carter “brings off one modest success after another,” he writes.  

Alberta Turner included Carter in a project entitled 45 Contemporary Poems: The Creative Process along with such poetry superstars as John Ashbery, Margaret Atwood, Gary Snyder, and Richard Wilbur.  Carter shares a chapter with Adrienne Rich and Philip Levine in Helen Vendler’s recent survey of twentieth-century poetry, The Music of What Happens

Of course, not all of the writing done on Carter’s work has been unequivocally endorsing, though most has.  But whether one is an ardent supporter of Carter’s work, like Gioia – or tepid, like Vendler – critics agree that Carter deserves a place among the American poetic elite of the last twenty years.  

Part of the reason for this, apart from quality of the poetry itself, likely has to do  with the timing of Carter’s emergence as a mature poet.  His best work arrives at a time (1980s and 90s) when the tastes of many poets and readers of poetry are turning from free  verse back towards traditional forms of poetry.  Considerations of rhyme, meter, and form have slowly crept back into current discussions of poetry, a reaction, perhaps, to what some regard as the excesses of free verse. 

In his controversial book, Can Poetry Matter? (controversial among academic writers for the very fact that he espouses a return to “formal” poetry), Dana Gioia writes that this return to formalism – “New Formalism,” as he calls it – acts as a corrective for what he considers the main problems of “recent American poetry.”  According to Gioia, these problems, embodied in much of the free verse being produced today, are: “the debasement of poetic language; the prolixity of the lyric; the bankruptcy of the confessional mode; the inability to establish a meaningful aesthetic for new poetic narrative; and the denial of musical texture in the contemporary poem.” 

Gioia embraces Carter’s work partly because much of it provides an antidote to this alleged crisis.  Carter works in traditional forms, like rhyming quatrains and blank verse, as well as free verse lyrics and narratives.  He writes poems that are both contemporary and musical yet often possess a highly formal and traditional feel.  The forms Carter uses have little to do with a conscious response to this or that trend – New Formalism, for example. More likely, they result from meditation on the subject and the subsequent formal demands of that subject.  The resulting richness of form combined with simple, direct language makes Carter’s poetry particularly accessible to the reading public. 

Carter has said that “the poem’s trajectory is towards the minds of as many people as you can get to read . . . it’s meant to be read.”  This essay seeks to substantiate the idea that Carter’s poetry represents a social art interested in reaching as wide an audience as possible through a consideration of the common.  I propose to do this by looking at four aspects of his poetry: its regionalism, New Formalist characteristics, use of narrative, and themes.  The section on regionalism will show how the development of a distinct fictional setting has enabled Carter to include readers in an attempt to “explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low,” as Emerson has written.  Carter formalizes the familiar in a variety of ways ranging from traditional verse forms to free verse. 

The section on “New Formalism” will discuss how Carter’s use of lyrical forms contributes to his overall design of writing poetry for a broad audience.  Carter is a skillful storyteller, and his narratives are a natural means for mass appeal.  Finally, I will consider what I see as the major themes in his poetry, particularly his interest in truth and beauty and the symbols he uses to convey this.  Setting, language, and form make his poetry accessible to people who do not normally read poetry.  Whether his work will find its way into public schools and private hands remains to be seen.  One hopes that it will, for the lessons it teaches us about life, death, and the spaces in between.

For Carter, as for all exceptional poets, form evolves out of his own creative vision.  Carter’s vision is to return to the vulgar (to use Gioia’s term, stemming from the Latin vulgus, or “common people”), not for superficial popularity, but to reveal the beauty and depth that lurks in the ordinary. Carter’s poems require the reader to consider the commonplace, the plain – the people, places, and things that a fast-paced, market society tends to at best skim over, at worst ignore.  Through intense observation of the local, Carter, like all good poets, is able to draw out meanings that escape the attention of less watchful eyes. 

What sets Carter apart is his identification with a particular place (middle-western America generally; Indiana specifically), his mixture of traditional and non-traditional verse form, and his use of simple words and images.  His best poems combine these elements to achieve layered meanings.  If the reader’s attention first focuses on the concrete specificity of the image, the person, or the event in the poem, upon re-reading she soon finds herself discovering unexpected mysteries and meanings.  As vehicles of mystery and discovery, Carter’s poems mirror the suggestive, momentous nature of reality.

“After the Rain,” the title poem of Carter’s latest book, is a good example with which to begin a study of his work.  By its formal and narrative style, “After the Rain” marks Carter as a New Formalist, as Gioia would have it. More importantly, it confirms the arrival of this regional American poet on the national stage of poetry, which was first announced by Work, for the Night Is Coming.  The poem begins,

After the rain, it’s time to walk the field

again, near where the river bends.  Each year

I come to look for what this place will yield –

lost things still rising here.

The farmer’s plow turns over, without fail,

a crop of arrowheads, but where or why

they fall is hard to say.  They seem, like hail,

dropped from an empty sky.

The poem is a meditation on what is to be found beneath surface appearances.  The strict verse form –  rhyming abab, the first three lines in iambic pentameter and the fourth mostly in trimeter – and enjambment work against each other throughout, so that the reader may not immediately recognize its formality.  This masking of the rhyme and meter by enjambment reflects the poem’s concern with the deceptive nature of appearances – “lost things still rising here.”  The truncated fourth line gives the reader pause, as if the seeker in the poem has suddenly stopped and bent down to examine a rock or piece of mud.  When one thinks of New Formalism, one would do well to consider this poem.  It successfully weds traditional form with language and content that are endemic to this particular region.  The poem is essentially a lyric, but its colloquial language is so strong throughout that it gives the impression of storytelling.

The meter and rhyme combine with a quiet tone to give the poem a soft, understated music (which coincides with the meditative state of mind of the speaker), and the content fulfills the traditional role of poetry to instruct.  This instruction works in two ways: ostensibly, the poem teaches how to find arrowheads, and more deeply, it teaches how to find beauty and meaning in ordinary things:

yet for an hour or two, after the rain

has washed away the dusty afterbirth

of their return, a few will show up plain

on the reopened earth.

Still, even these are hard to see –

at first they look like any other stone.

The trick to finding them is not to be

too sure about what’s known;

conviction’s liable to say straight off

this one’s a leaf, or that one’s merely clay,

and miss the point: after the rain, soft

furrows show one way

across the field . . . 

This movement between the surface meaning of the poem and deeper implications is accomplished through the use of simple, deep images – rain, field, river, place, lost, farmer, plow, crop, arrowhead, washed, earth, stone, leaf, clay – and complex metaphors – afterbirth, reopened earth – which allow the poet to layer significance while maintaining a conversational, colloquial tone:

                                             but what is hidden here

requires a different view – the glance of one

not looking straight ahead, who in the clear

light of the morning sun

simply keeps wandering across the rows,

letting his own perspective change.

After the rain, perhaps, something will show,

glittering and strange.

To see a leaf as merely a leaf, clay as clay, is to miss that which “requires a different view,” the poems tells us.  This different view is not that of the literalist, one who looks “straight ahead,” but that of the poet, the imaginative person, one who wanders “across the rows / letting his own perspective change”; who sees mud and dust as an afterbirth and the earth as a womb.  A star is most visible when seen indirectly, slightly to the left or to the right.  The viewer’s perspective, not the object, must change for clarity’s sake.  It is the same with less lofty objects like arrowheads, leaves, and clumps of clay.  How one chooses to interact sensuously with – how one chooses to see – the material world is one of the most important themes in Carter’s poems.  “After the Rain” instructs without being didactic.  It entertains without being trite.  Presented in a natural, narrative voice, the poem moves from concrete objects to abstract meditation and back, transforming the image of the arrowhead into “something. . . / glittering and strange,” a symbol for the mystery and wonder that may be found in ordinary things, including poems themselves. The poet transforms a simple object and scene into a rich and complex signifier, in this case a signifier suggestive of sensuous and spiritual re-creation.

Wordsworth and Coleridge did something very similar to this.  Jeff Gundy is right in observing that Carter’s idiom is reminiscent of “the Wordsworth of the Lyrical Ballads.  In writing the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth and Coleridge wanted to fulfill the  traditional role of poetry (to entertain and instruct), but they also wanted the profit of such discourse to be made available to a wider audience – the ideal behind the Preface to Lyrical Ballads is, of course, a fundamentally democratic one.  The profit includes a transformation of the way one apprehends the material world, not the material world of  the well-to-do but the material world of common people, poor people.  Coleridge writes  in the Biographia Literaria that the intent of the Lyrical Ballads was

to give the charm of  novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which, in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.

Carter’s work reflects this Romantic dialectic in which customary objects, people, and events are refreshed and revived and the world redeemed by poetic vision, though his work expresses little of the revolutionary fervor and sublime aesthetic that preoccupied the Romantics.  And like these Romantics, Carter’s poetry expresses a confidence that meditation upon the common – the vulgar – will reveal the wonder and mystery in the people, places, and things that fill our lives yet remain hidden from our sight.


The Gleaning 

II   Regionalism

I have touched on the explicit and implicit meanings in “After the Rain” and the ways that Carter constructs these meanings (through meter, form, and language), but it is important also to consider the poem’s context.  The poem itself introduces us to the farm field and to the persona, whose intention it is to return there to search for arrowheads.  This is all the information we really need.  But considered with the rest of Carter’s work, it acquires a deeper resonance because it becomes part of a larger landscape or region.  This field is in middle-western America, probably Indiana, and it takes place in the mid to late twentieth-century.  One can still enjoy the poem without making these associations, but one cannot fully understand Carter’s poetic vision without considering his uses of time and space.

As Helen Vendler has written, in Poems, Poets, Poetry, “Poetry is always interested in time and space.”  But when the poem is placed in a particular climate, geography, and scene “we say that we have a regional poem.”  David Perkins goes a bit further in his definition in his history of modem poetry.  Arguing that Robert Frost is a regional poet (“whatever else he is”) and William Carlos Williams is not, Perkins writes,

The essential difference is that Frost viewed rural New England as having a distinctive character of its own and valued it as a setting and subject of poetry.  Williams, on the other hand, wrote about Rutherford and Paterson, not because these cities were regionally distinctive but because they were, he felt, representative of America.

Carter follows Frost’s lead in distinguishing his region –  rural and small-town Indiana – from others, and, like Frost, he obviously values it “as a setting and subject of poetry.”  Unlike Williams’s Paterson and Rutherford, Mississinewa County, Carter’s fictional setting, does not usually represent America, though it certainly can in many instances.  For the most part, however, Carter’s poems depend on the uniqueness of a particular place in a particular historical moment (fictional or not), often moving from these particulars to universal insights into the human condition.

Carter’s brand of regionalism has not been lost on his reviewers.  Some writers have already drawn the fairly obvious connection between him and other classic American regionalists – Frost, Edgar Lee Masters, William Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson – writers who have attempted in one form or another to give voice to common, often rural, people.  Louis Simpson writes that Carter’s poetry is “strongly reminiscent of Spoon River.”  Ted Kooser likens Carter’s storytelling manner to that of “Faulkner’s itinerant sewing machine salesman, V. K. Ratcliff.”  (Carter, like Faulkner, has a knack for mythmaking – Mississinewa County immediately brings to mind Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.)  In Book World, Gioia describes Carter’s poetry as “dark” and “haunting,” “in the tradition of Frost.”  Carter himself locates Mississinewa County, says Henry Taylor, “east of Spoon River, west of Winesburg, and slightly north of Raintree County.”

Of course, a poet begins to acquire the label of “regional poet” when he sets a number of his poems in a recurring place, fictional or otherwise.  Mississinewa County, a fictional county (though a real river) in Indiana, is the explicit context for a handful of Carter’s poems and the assumed context for two handfuls more.  By setting his poems in an identifiable community, Carter is able to focus the reader’s attention on locality itself in unusual ways.  In Mississinewa County, far from the worldliness of the modern city, one learns to look more closely at everyday things and thereby discover the richness, variety, and vitality of culture that exists there.  Carter, like the other regionalist writers already mentioned, exploits the fact that most people do not see this way, thereby enabling him to do different things poetically to jolt the reader out of his “lethargy of custom.”

“Early Warning” is the first poem to mention Mississinewa County in Carter’s two books and the first announcement that Carter’s is no ordinary world.  As in “After the Rain,” the poet calls the reader’s attention to a particular people and place:

When the weather turned

Crows settled about the house

Cawing daylong among the new leaves.

It would be a hard spring,

Folks said, the crows –

They know.  There are folks

Up near where I come from

In Mississinewa County

Who study such things.

A reader who is not from rural Indiana, or from the rural Midwest generally, immediately recognizes that this place is not typical of late twentieth-century America.  First, the “folks” of Mississinewa County look to the crows for weather prognostications.  Superstitious belief provides a clue to the character of the people as well as the land.   These are

Folks who believe tornadoes

Are alive: that polluted streams

Rise from their beds

Like lepers, following after

Some great churning, twisting cloud.

Nature can be terribly menacing, almost human in its malevolence.  The region is presented through simple syntax and lexicon.  As in “After the Rain,” deep images abound:  crows, cawing, leaves, hard, spring, folks, alive, rise, beds, lepers, streams, claw. The result is peculiar hardness of tone that reflects the poem’s natural setting.  The  archaic, even biblical diction gives a timeless quality to the poem and prepares the reader  for the strange and miraculous finale:

With their own eyes

They’ve seen a cyclone stop,

Lap up electricity

From a substation, then make

A right-angle turn

And peel the roof off some

Prefabricated egg factory.

Thousands of hens, who’ve never seen

The light of the sun, or

Touched earth with their beaks,

Go up the funnel like souls to God.

The electric substation and egg factory remind us that this is a contemporary context, in contrast to the poem’s archaic language.  The egg factory provides a clue about the kind of work that the folks in this county do – work that hints at the amorality and drudgery of modern mass production.  The final image of the hens being sucked up by the tornado, despite its humorous aspect, reflects the narrow lives and, to a lesser degree, the vulnerability of the human souls who dwell there.

“Early Warning” is an early profile of Mississinewa County and its people.  In essence, Carter provides the reader a bird’s-eye view of the people and place.  “Roadside Marker” and “Meditation,” also in Work, for the Night Is Coming, achieve a similar cross-section, introducing the reader by way of an omniscient persona to “The secret of this countryside,” “The land, and all its / Joy and terror and grace,”  and historical clues like “the frontier militia” which “Cannot find its way / Through the swamp,” and the Indians who “break camp / And fade into the trees. . . .”  In other poems, like the title poem of his first book, Carter uses a first-person speaker to create intimacy between poem and reader while still contributing to the general scene:

On the road out of town past the old quarry

I watched a light rain darkening ledges

Blocked and carded by the drill’s bit

Twenty years back. . . .

The human-altered geography of Mississinewa marks the passage of time.  The poem  concludes with:

Across the cliff, dark pool of water

Rimmed with broken stones, where rain, now

Falling steadily, left no lasting pattern.

As in “Early Warning,” it is the land we are interested in, the ways that human beings interact with their environment, and the wisdom to be gleaned from patient observation of events.

In other poems, like “Mississinewa County Road,” Carter asks the reader himself to participate in the unfolding scene:

When you drive at dusk, alone,

After the corn is harvested, the wind

Scatters bits of dry husk along the road.

A farmer has draped a groundhog’s carcass

Across the comer of a wire fence

And the crows have pecked out its eyes.

Your headlights show these things

To a part of your mind that cannot hurry,

That has never learned to decide. . . . 

Soon we realize that the persona is both self-referential (second-person voice) and speaking to the reader, as if the reader is actually familiar with this particular road at this particular hour.  Carter’s own voice and experience are thinly veiled, and the reader senses that here is a poet who is intimate with his subject.  This intimacy is enhanced by the persona’s inclusion of the reader in the process.

Deep images abound in the poem and are juxtaposed with the modern phenomenon of the automobile (“your headlights. . .”), creating an understated tension of an older way of life giving way to the new.  It is in this ambivalent space between the old and the new that the speaker stands; this is the space in which he “has never learned to decide,” never learned to choose between what is passing away and what is to come.  But  despite his ambivalence, he does make a decision:

While the car goes on, you get out

And stand with the chaff blowing

And the crickets in the grass at the road’s edge.

In the distance there is a dog barking

And somewhere a windmill turning in the wind.

In a moment of imaginative sublimation, the narrator’s mind leaves his body to “stand” with the blowing dry husks, crickets, the dog, and the unseen windmill.  Figuratively, the speaker has left the brave new world of automobiles and prefabricated chicken factories and entered his preferred idealized reality (neatly symbolized by the absent windmill) of the unpopulated, predictable yet strange countryside.

So far, I have examined how Carter introduces his readers to the regional context of his poems, giving a general impression of the land and the people and using personal speaking voices to create a greater sense of intimacy between the reader and poem, and between the reader and Mississinewa County.  In Work, for the Night Is Coming, the poems are not organized linearly from the more general subject to the more specific or vice-versa.  Rather, they appear to be organized so that the reader gets a variety of perspectives on the region and its people.  Reading his work is like visiting a small town that he has built with his own hands, wandering along its streets, in and out of its houses, talking with its people, listening to the rumors, reminiscences, and stories that are told on front porches and in its soda shops.  In “Walking the Ties, we meet an “old woman who ate canned dog food,” “the red wagon she pulled through the alleys,” “the boys who shouted and threw things” at her, “the bar where she went each night to sit.”  There is Starr Atkinson, “who designed books,” and whom Carter addresses directly:

From you I learned how images balance

in the white space of each page,

how pages unfold like leaves,

how light and dark interpenetrate,

how what we do will not be noticed.

Poems like “Rushlights” and the marvelous “The Enchantment” are dedicated to real people, but considered in the context of Carter’s other poems, they are simply and gracefully absorbed into the greater life of Mississinewa County.  Mixed among the more abstract lyrics are short narratives that populate the region with a variety of characters. We meet the “weather prophet,” who was “Found, on the back stoop, frozen stiff / On the morning after the storm / . . . .whom the neighbors consulted / Faithfully each autumn for news / Of approaching snows….”  We meet the red-headed Jack and Tom Chatham, helmetless riders of Harley-Davidson and Indian motorcycles, “Who dropped out of school, of work, / Of everything, to drive again and / Again down the dark cylinders of air”; the tintypes of Sam Bass, Oliver P. Morton, and John Dillinger, all native Hoosiers; Sefe Graybill, the undertaker; and many others.

After the Rain extends and deepens what Work, for the Night Is Coming begins.  It further develops the idea that underlying the characters and snippets of narrative that abound in both books is a “Mississinewa novel,” a single thread that connects all of the poems together.  The central fictional event in both books is the building of a reservoir in Mississinewa County.  This becomes a powerful metaphor in Carter’s work and enables him to do interesting things with time.  He can introduce characters and places that existed before the reservoir and experiment with the kinds of fates they meet.  He can invent characters who are looking back at the world that was lost to the reservoir.  As a trope, it allows Carter to work out certain historical problems like the paradoxical nature of modern progress, and it is central to the idea that appearances can sometimes be a veil for unusual and startling discoveries.  Overall, it does more than any other metaphor in Carter’s books to familiarize the reader with the region and fuse Carter’s identity as poet with Mississinewa County and Indiana.  “The Purpose of Poetry” and “Foundling” represent two human responses to the building of the reservoir and demonstrate Carter’s gift of populating his imaginative world with believable characters.

“The Purpose of Poetry” begins as if the reader is being walked through a photo album of the people of Mississinewa or through a cemetery as in Spoon River Anthology:

This old man grazed thirty head of cattle

in a valley just north of the covered bridge

on the Mississinewa, where the reservoir

stands today.

Readers know a little bit about Mississinewa from previous poems but are probably not very familiar with the impact that such an event as the building of a reservoir can have on a community.  This old man, “too far up in years / to farm anywhere else,” has been victimized by the demands of progress and is told by “a man from the courthouse” that a reservoir is to be built and the old man’s land flooded.  The official suggests that he go live with his daughter in her trailer in Florida.  The significance of this place in the old man’s life is then revealed:

He had only known dirt under his fingernails

and trips to town on Saturday mornings

since he was a boy.  Always he had been around

cattle, and trees, and land near the river .

Evenings by the barn he could hear the dogs

talking to each other as they brought in

the herd; and the cows answering them.

And the impossibility of leaving it:

It was the clearest thing he knew. That night

he shot both dogs and then himself.

“The purpose of poetry is to tell us about life,” the poem concludes, and, as we are shocked to recognize, death.  The sympathetic, warm portrayal of the old man, bordering on the sentimental, is suddenly undercut by the cold fact of human tragedy and weakness. It is not what we expect in life or in a poem.  But Carter will not allow the reader to become complacent about the realities of progress or the occasional tragic responses to its encroachment.

The purpose of poetry is to tell us about life in all its guises.  “Foundling” is such a beautiful, inviting poem that it acts as something of a hopeful, though ultimately elegiac, companion to “The Purpose of Poetry.”  Here we are introduced to the lushness of  Mississinewa – the “sweet alyssum / growing among the flagstones, . . . madwort, healbite, / gold-dust, basket-of-gold . . . hibiscus and lemon grass” – and the love child who, in expectation of the arrival of the woman who practiced homeopathic medicine and her father, would

wait on the screened-in porch for their return,

finding a place to sit among stacks of magazines,

watching her trim strawflowers to bind for drying,

saying aloud the words she taught me – immortelle

and everlasting – and going out to her garden full

of unfading things: helping her gather up armloads

of ruby and amber cockscomb, stripping the leaves

from the stalks, bringing them back to the porch

to hang in great rippled bunches, dusky and velvet.

In M. H. Abrams’ words, this is a child’s view of the world, with a child’s “sense of wonder and novelty,” in which things are “unfading.”   It is a vision wholly opposed to the despair of the old man.  Mississinewa County is home to all things human, from despair to joy.  But the joy of childhood is not unfading.  The paradox of reading about Carter’s fictional world is that the more we learn about it, the more we realize that it has already passed away.  “Nothing gold can stay,” wrote Frost, and the final stanza of  “Foundling” echoes likewise the passage of time and innocence: “Over the years I grew and prospered in that green place / always shining with light from the river, that world / that is gone now, under the waters, and cannot return.”  Childhood joy has receded into elegy and a wistful longing for a past gone forever.  “That green place / . . . that world” can now only be experienced through memory and story.

I have mentioned that one of the ways that Carter enriches his region is by changing the perspective of the speaker and thus the reader.  One moment we will have an omniscient persona giving us a panoramic view of the scenery and its events, as in “Early Warning,” and in the next a first-person voice will bring us up close to flesh and blood, as in “Foundling.”  Both perspectives contribute to a feeling of intimacy between reader and poem.  “Isinglass,” by its use of apostrophe and allusion to places that the reader is already familiar with, is one of Carter’s most successful efforts at breathing life into his landscape and thereby drawing the reader further into the dynamics of the region, A poem about friendship and remembrance,  “Isinglass” eases the reader into a metaphor where eyes become a window to the past:

That was the last word I heard you say

in the white room, at the nursing home,

                            when I leaned over your bed

to see if you could recognize me

                                                          and saw instead

that we were standing out on the ice

above Monument City, in January, with

enough gear to last us till nightfall . . .

The dying friend’s eyes, no longer able to recognize his visitor’s face, instead evoke memories in the speaker of days past and their time together:

                                                              All those mornings

that first summer after the dam was built,

when we used to anchor a hundred yards west

of the island

                                we could see all the way

to the bottom, to bits and pieces of windowpane

                                                            and mirror

                  and other things still shining there –

all that time

                                I never thought of diving;

                                                                     we were close enough.

The streets of the town below the water, “like the afterimage / of an isinglass flower gleaming in the door / of an iron stove,” have become images in the speaker’s mind.  The poem swings back and forth like a pendulum between reality and imagination, preferring neither, recognizing the necessity of both, all the while weaving the reader’s emotions into the fabric of the life of Mississinewa.  For the speaker, the present moment holds infinitely more than the cold fact of a dying friend; indeed, it is the total passing away – of people, of the town – that gives the present moment its tenderness and  poignancy.  Isinglass, a micaceous material resistant to heat, represents finally the  permanence of the images which adorn memory, images which are more lasting than the realities which create them.  For the speaker, memory has become “a dwelling-place / For all sweet sound and harmonies,” as Wordsworth wrote, though these sweet sounds and harmonies are not untouched by the sadness of loss.

Storytellers always depend on personal and communal memory for the fulfillment of their craft.  When what is being told about no longer exists, if it ever did, memory  becomes a reservoir of the people, places, things, and events which gave that landscape its particular character.  All of Carter’s poems have integrity by themselves, but when they are read in community they acquire greater resonance; the particular memory embodied in one poem loses its isolation when read in a common setting.  Thus, Sefe Graybill, “the undertaker – / The only bidder on moving three-hundred-odd graves /  From the Mount Moriah churchyard to higher grounds / Before the Mississinewa began climbing its banks /  To fill the new reservoir . . . ,” belongs to the same scene as the narrator in “Monument City,” who is visiting a “favorite aunt, who had asked the undertaker – / his blue pickup truck pulled off just under the willows – / To take photographs of the house / Before the waters began to rise, and scavengers came / to pick over the buildings too big to be moved.”  The reader later meets one of these scavengers, one book and many poems later, in “Barn Siding,” a narrative about a “picker,” who “Picks over / what other people have left behind.”  Just as trees share their roots in an elaborate underground dependency, so too do the characters in  Mississinewa County depend on one another and their common way of life.

“Phoenix” is a narrative that gives historical depth to the region of Mississinewa County by focusing on an event that took place nearly two hundred years ago.  The epigraph to the poem, ostensibly taken from a state guide to Indiana, begins:

Right from Merom on State Road 63 to the junction

with the Mann Cemetery Road . . . left here across

the prairie to other Mounds, also under cultivation,

and to Mann Cemetery.

There are two interesting things about this portion of the epigraph that are worth pointing out.  One is this continuing sense that the reader is being given a tour of the region; the imagination is repeatedly thrust into a particular regional situation so that the region as a whole begins to seem familiar.  Two is the mention of  “Mounds,” which presumably means sacred Indian burial grounds.  That they are “also under cultivation” implies the ongoing troubled historical relationship between European settlers and Native Americans. This historical information suggests that Carter’s poems must be read in different ways. One is the New Critical way in which the poem is read in its own terms without any reference to historical conditions outside of it.  Another is to read them contextually.  The individual poem must be read as part of a group of poems and as part of a historical process, whether the events and characters are fact or fiction.  “Phoenix” reminds the reader that Mississinewa County, and its equivalent in reality, does not come into being easily and that the past continues to exert an influence on the present; the tragedy of the building of the reservoir was preceded in time by countless other tragedies.

This poem is the story of “two of General Harrison’s soldiers, Kentuckians who carried an old family feud into the army and killed each other on the way to the Battle of Tippecanoe. . . .”  The date given for events of the poem is September of 1811.  Before the poem begins, the reader knows what the outcome of the story will be, so the poet must tell it in such a way that it relies for its drama on something other than plot.  One thing that Carter does is to tell it from the point of view of one of the young men involved in the fight.  “We had come all this way, with the Shawnees / waiting for us,” the persona says.

                                           They were out there now,

watching.  I couldn’t risk their taking him;

somehow he belonged to me, and me to him.

I drew my skinning knife and looked across

and saw him crouched there with his dagger.

We stumbled through the shallows, smashing

against each other like a pair of rams.

The language is colloquial, and the reader immediately understands who is telling the story.  The lines often enjamb, which serves to carry the action of the story forward. Carter juxtaposes enjambment with frequent use of end-stops, particularly at the ends of stanzas, thereby providing natural pauses, or breaths, which slow the reader down.

Myth and its promulgation has traditionally been one of the primary purposes of narrative poetry – a culture’s sense of itself and its origins is reflected by the fictions it creates.  The narrative mode works well here in the creation of Mississinewa County. Most of Carter’s poems treat subjects that have a modern, twentieth-century setting, “Phoenix” is the only poem that treats a story that can be considered as a myth of the culture of Mississinewa; that is, it is a story that the people of Mississinewa County might tell among themselves.  I do not want to suggest that this was Carter’s intention in writing  “Phoenix”; it mentions nothing of Mississinewa per se.  But one need only spend a little time with Carter’s work to see that even the most apparently remote poem is somehow linked to the life of his fictional region.  It is in this spirit of reading his work that “Phoenix” seems to reflect Mississinewa’s understanding of itself and its roots.  The story of the phoenix, then, becomes a myth imbedded in the more immediate myth of the two soldiers and family members who killed each other near Big Springs in 1811.  The myth of “Phoenix” itself, in turn, is absorbed in the region of Mississinewa County.


The Gleaning   

III  New Formalism

I have suggested that the forms Carter chooses to work with have more to do with his poetic vision than with a desire to write this or that kind of verse, free verse instead of traditional verse, for example.  Just as he uses a variety of perspectives and personae to create the world of Mississinewa and include the reader in that world, so too does he use a wide variety of forms for a similar purpose.  The adage that “form is an extension of content” seems to be especially true in Carter’s case.  It is not that he chooses a particular form as much as that the content of the poem requires it.

Dana Gioia, in an effort to ascertain poetry’s current place within the “dialectic of history,” predicts that cultural historians will look back at the 1980s and 90s as a time when “[t]he return to tonality in serious music, to representation in painting, to decorative detail and nonfunctional design in architecture” fused with “poetry’s reaffirmation of song and story as the most pervasive development of the American arts toward the end of this century.”  He goes on to assert that

All these revivals of traditional technique (whether linked or not to traditional aesthetics) both reject the specialization and intellectualization of the arts in the academy over the past forty years and affirm the need for a broader popular audience.

The “reaffirmation of song and story” in the attempt to connect with “broad popular audience” seems to be precisely Carter’s purpose for writing.  His books are mixed presentations of stories and lyrics written in a wide range of modes, sometimes traditional forms, sometimes free verse, sometimes a mixture depending on the occasion.

This virtuoso ability to move from one form to another while maintaining a high level of craftsmanship gives the region additional richness and character.  In “Mississinewa Reservoir at Winter Pool,” Mississinewa County continues to unfold before the reader’s eyes.  Here, Carter uses an omniscient, yet personalized, narrative perspective as he did in “Early Warning” and “The Purpose of Poetry” to introduce this facet of the region:

A reservoir’s not like a lake;

it depends on how much water’s

coming in.  When it goes down,

in the fall, you can see where

the town used to be – brick

foundations, chunks of concrete,

things still not worn away.

Sunday afternoons in October

the people who lived there once

come back, drive their cars

down to where the road breaks off.

They walk out toward the river.

Nothing remains.  The walls of the houses

are gone, the school, the church.

There are no flowers, no trees;

even the cemetery has been moved.

The verse form is unrhymed four-line stanzas of free verse, and although it may strike the ear as a narrative, it is a lyric.  Writing on the traditional distinction between narrative and lyric, Helen Vendler says that “A lyric . . . may contain the germ of a story . . . but the poem dwells less on the plot than on the . . . feelings.”  She goes on to say that Wordsworth combined the narrative and lyric in his Lyrical Ballads, poems that perhaps told a story, but emphasized the “characters’ feelings” over the plot.  Here, the persona speaks in such a casual way that the reader is lulled into thinking that he is telling a story and, indeed, the poem contains the seed of narrative, but instead of a story that has a beginning, middle, and end, the poet is preparing the ground for the feelings of the people “who lived there once” and who now return on “Sunday afternoons in October. . .”

And yet they have come home again,

nothing can harm them now.

They walk to and fro, stopping

to speak, nodding, as though

having risen from a deep sleep

and come at last to a place

no longer having anything in it

except themselves.  And as though always.

Form grows out of content in two ways in this poem: one, by the narrative aspect and feel of the poem (on the page it resembles a ballad and sounds like a narrative), the reader is further drawn into the region that Carter creates, though the subject of the poem is the feelings of the people returning to their lost home.  Two, in a more subtle way, the consistent layering of the poem echoes the physical layers of the town: streets, foundations, “things still not worn away,” the reservoir water, and finally the former inhabitants who are still able to imagine themselves in that place.  Carter has built other poems similarly.  “The Sprinkle House at Busro Creek,” for example, where “workmen discovered brick walls between the studs,” is written in loose terza rima which, though horizontal on the page, perfectly reflects the sturdy construction of the Shaker house’s  vertical walls.  In “The Believers,” another poem about Shaker life, Carter uses seven sturdy seven-line stanzas as a formal, unadorned representation of a very formal people.

Because “Mississinewa Reservoir at Winter Pool” has no consistent meter or rhyme yet possesses symmetrical stanzas, one might conclude that Carter is dabbling in “pseudo-formal verse.”  This is Dana Gioia’s term for verse that “bears the same relationship to formal poetry as the storefronts on a Hollywood back lot do to a real city street. . . . Trying to open the window on a Hollywood facade, one soon discovers it won’t budge.  The architectural design has no structural function.”  It is strange that a proponent of Carter’s work would introduce a critical category that appears to undermine that work.  Or perhaps Gioia would agree with my view that in Carter’s case the absence of meter and rhyme in the presence of other formal characteristics – like uniform lines and stanzas – indicates the poet’s desire to achieve a specific effect. 

The call for “a meaningful aesthetic for new poetic narrative” as well as lyric would seem to allow for formal presentations that do not always correspond to “traditional” poetics; otherwise, a meaningful contemporary aesthetic would never be established, and there would certainly be no use for a label like New Formalism.  This label has value only if it is able to describe accurately the current state of affairs, or a portion of it; artists precede critics, not vice-versa.  Carter’s work may be called New Formalist because he makes good use of whatever techniques – traditional and otherwise – enable him to realize his artistic vision.

The form of  “Seed Storm,” for example, bears some visual affinity to terza rima and the syllable count is somewhat regular.  But it is not terza rima or syllabic;  it is a free verse poem organized in three-line stanzas:

Now I know, watching their slow falling,

that the cottonwoods are not simply speaking

but have begun to sing, in their own way

and that the feathery notes sifting down

all around us on this late May afternoon

are only a dream of snowfall, of weather . . .

The absence of a “traditional” form in no way diminishes the poem – it succeeds because of strong, satisfying imagery, like the synaesthetic “feathery notes sifting down.”  It does however give the critical reader pause as to why Carter should choose such an organization.  The first two stanzas are two sentences joined by the conjunction in the fourth line, “and.”  A main noun and verb control each stanza – “cottonwoods are,” in the first, and “notes. . . / are,” in the second.  The first two lines of the third stanza – “we have come through, all of us, everything / that moves or breathes or waves in the wind” – should be read primarily as subordinate to the subject and verb of the second stanza, but they can also be read as an independent clause.  In other words, the logic of the poem’s syntax contributes to the overall design of the poem; indeed, it seems to demand the three-line stanza.

Lyrics like “Seed Storm,” “Mississinewa Reservoir at Winter Pool,” and “Galleynipper,” and narratives like “Phoenix” and “Barn Siding” seem like conscious attempts by Carter to approximate traditional forms without fully reproducing them.  He does this, I think, because he wants to generate a new aesthetic that synthesizes the elements of traditional formal verse and “modern” free verse, thus reflecting the tension in his poems between the old and the new, the permanent and the transitory.  The result is a richness of variety of form that is a constant, refreshing delight to the reader – another way that Carter nudges us out of our lethargy of custom.  But Carter also writes strictly free verse lyrics and narratives – “Roadside Marker” and “Watching by the Stream,” for example – as well as good old-fashioned formal verse, like the sestina, “Poem Written on a Line from the Walum Olum.”

This poem is a story about a young man who has planned a sexual rendezvous with a woman, a student who has come to study the land.  She has given him directions to the meeting place, a piece of land that becomes an island when the waters are high.  As he searches her out, looking for the landmarks she has indicated, the region begins to reveal itself:

This mound was where the village stood, and all

you see from here, she said, to the far ends

of the clearing, they built up from the water

passing below us now.  The mussels down there

were edible then, and at the river’s edge

they cracked the shells and tossed them on the land.

Finally, the man and woman are together, and he reflects on the growing mystery of the place and the woman, who has begun to undress: “Then there was movement, as though the land / were water, without edge or ends, and all / I hoped to find or know was gathering there.”

In the sestina, the poet chooses six words for end-words which change position from stanza to stanza in a predetermined pattern; the concluding tercet contains all six words, one occurring in the middle of the line, one at the end.  When the form is done well, it is repetitive without being redundant, and it is meditative (sometimes obsessively) without being boring.  The six words chosen here come from the epigraph, “There at the edge of all the water where the land ends . . .”

One may ask why a simple, contemporary story like this would be written in an old French form.  One reason is poetic tradition: because it is a difficult form to do well, the sestina has always posed a challenge to poets.  A more compelling reason is that the form is what gives the particular meaning to the story .  Of the six end-words, two – “water” and “land” – are deep images.  “There,” “edge,” and “ends” are less concrete and connote location, whereas “water,” “land,” and “edge” limit location.  “All” implies boundlessness, while “edge” and “ends” broadly suggest boundaries or limitations.  The end words carry the poem’s meaning, which touches on the limitations of time and space and the ability of love and youth to transcend those limitations.

The poem’s magic, however, ultimately resides in its aural properties, not its visual ones.  The lines of the poem often enjamb, so that when it is read aloud one is unaware of the patterned repetition, which plays on the listener’s unconscious mind while the ear stays tuned to the story.  This is how history works on us.  It surrounds us all the time, leaving its traces in our minds, even while we attend to our present lives.  In this sense, the poem’s form is indistinguishable from its content.  It also echoes the spirit of Mississinewa County.

Please click here to be taken to The Gleaning, Part 2 and to a continuation of this third section on New Formalism.

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The Gleaning

About the Author

Timothy J. Deines is originally from Chicago, Illinois, and grew up in some of the great cities of the United States, including Los Angeles, Kansas City, and Milwaukee.  He currently lives in Lansing, Michigan, where he writes and teaches at the local community college.

The study reprinted here was written in fulfillment of a master of arts degree in English at Cleveland State University in 1998.  Currently, Mr. Deines is completing a dissertation requirement at Michigan State University on the subject of citizenship, sovereignty, and community in nineteenth-century American literature.

“The Gleaning: Regionalism, Form, and Theme in the Poetry of Jared Carter” is copyright © 1998 and 2011 by Timothy J. Deines and is reproduced here by permission.  All rights reserved.  Except for brief excerpts contained in reviews, no part of this document may be reproduced in any form without written permission from Mr. Deines.

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