Regionalism, Form, and Theme
in the Poetry of Jared Carter
by Timothy J. Deines
III New Formalism (continued from Part 1)
“Rushlights,” dedicated to the memory of Carter’s father, who appears on the cover of the first book, Work, for the Night Is Coming, is an example of Carter’s neo-formalist integration of traditional stylistic features and contemporary elements. Here, as in so many of Carter’s poems, form and content appear to evolve together effortlessly. The poem is about a man searching for some shared experience that will always remind him of his departed loved one:
Of your own footfall, nothing stays, yet in the years
since you’ve been gone, I’ve sought out ways to follow
moments we both shared, that left no trace. A swallow
banks high above the vanished barn; an owl draws near.
The movements of swallow and owl do not last, nor do “the sound of water pouring through the mill-race; a clock wound / with a brass key; a last nail hammered in the coffin.” The only possibility of finding something permanent is by seeking it out:
On summer evenings I have gone out riding, roaming
along the western road – have drifted through the husk
of lost towns, where the stagecoach still stops at dusk,
where a stump lantern lights the way in the gloaming.
Searching involves drifting between present and past, reality and dream, darkness and light. There is no distinguishing among these opposites in the persona’s mind; they are of a piece. In such a state of mind “a fiddle’s scraping, and the caller clapping hard” indicate “a wake or a wedding . . . about to begin.” This slow transition, like dusk creeping toward darkness, prepares the reader for the central metaphor of the poem:
and rode past tiers of windows filled with rushlights
marking some high moment there, some memorable sadness
or joy that only live music and dancing could bless –
that, and the burning of candles long into the night.
The “rushlights” – “Homemade candles each consisting of the pith of a rush dipped in tallow,” the epigraph tells us – can mark both wake and wedding, “memorable sadness” and “joy,” each in turn. As candles they symbolize the light of life and joy and the eventual darkness of death and sorrow. The rushlight is something that the persona and the beloved can and must share as they are human beings. It is upon this existential ground that the poem transcends its personal dedication and creates emotional space into which the reader may enter.
The abba rhyme scheme is appropriate for the occasion, Tennyson’s In Memoriam providing the traditional precedent. Structurally, each stanza ends where it began, achieving the kind of meditative circularity that is so overt in forms like the sestina and the villanelle. The language bears Carter’s markings: long sentences, simple grammar, diction that straddles the old-fashioned and the contemporary, here blurred sufficiently so that the reader is unsure exactly when the poem takes place. The similarity of form of the final stanza compared to the first five (as opposed to ending the poem with, say, a couplet) gives the impression that there is no philosophical closure in the persona’s mind:
Not far beyond the town, in the dark, the horse and I
were lost, carrying that brightness within us, until
it faded at last, and we reached the top of a hill.
I looked out and saw our way through the night sky.
The country setting, the personified horse, the persona, the tension of darkness and light also make these lines reminiscent of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Frost’s “lovely, dark, and deep” woods are Carter’s “night sky.” Both riders are lured by enchanting death, but both understand that this peace is still far off. Frost’s “miles to go before I sleep” finds its reflection in Carter’s “I looked out and saw our way. . . . ” Mary Oliver has written that Frost’s poem is “an extraordinary statement of human ambivalence and resolution.” “Rushlights,” with its introspective tone and circular verse form, captures a very similar feeling.
“Double Jacquard Coverlet,” like “Mississinewa Reservoir at Winter Pool,” is written in free verse but has high formal qualities, though it does not follow a traditional formal pattern. It is perhaps an even better example than that poem of the mirroring of sound and sense, form and substance. In this regard, it is like “Rushlights,” yet the form is Carter’s own invention, a New Formalist characteristic. This story, like so many that Carter tells, recalls a way of life, now extinct, which lingers on in the present. The fossil in this instance is a double jacquard coverlet. A jacquard weave is the result of a special weaving process by which a special design is produced on one side of a rug or blanket. A double jacquard weave displays designs on both sides, one the reverse of the other. Carter replicates this intricate, labor-intensive process in the poem.
Weavers, each time I come into your country again, I can tell.
by the changing light, by the thunderheads piled up
far to the west, darkening the sun. Entering your world once more
I begin to remember, to look out across the level fields,
to notice a luster in the windows of abandoned farmhouses,
a glimmering along the slate roofs, the brick chimneys.
The poem consists of four twelve-line stanzas. Strong nouns and verbs predominate – fields, luster, farmhouses, chimneys, piled up, arrows through. The lines, like long strands of yarn, are woven together tightly in the fashion of a jacquard weave. Indeed, the lines are so well-crafted that they may be read alternately, so that the poem, like a double jacquard coverlet, becomes the intersection of two weaves.
The reader experiences these people and events vicariously, of course, and it is a credit to Carter that the reader would not necessarily trade the reflection of the thing for the thing itself. This idea touches on the high value of art. At its finest, art is not the representation of reality; it is reality. “Configuration” is a poem about art, its humble beginnings and its mysterious ends. It is about the spirit of art and the way that this spirit manifests itself in things and people. As in “For Starr Atkinson, Who Designed Books” and “Rushlights,” Carter gives the reader the strong impression that the “I” in the poem is Carter’s own voice:
What I first knew of a life of art
was what he touched last – the summer studio,
where I was allowed to wander as a child
through high-ceilinged rooms, up stairways
lined with tapestries unraveling: bronzes
gathering dust, wrought candlesticks, rows
of Chinese vases, the August light shuttered
like strands of Aunt Carolyn’s uncombed hair,
the huge easels with their unfinished seascapes,
the closets thick with stacks of pastels
where mice made burrows, and damp seeped.
“[H]e” is Glen Cooper Henshaw, an American impressionist, according to the poem’s epigraph, born in Indiana in the late nineteenth-century. Henshaw’s life is the occasion for the poem; the “life of art” is the subject. Upon first reading, one notices the leisurely pace of the lines, wandering through the poem as the young boy wanders through the studio, taking in all of the art objects and the space where art is created. The concrete images, which have imprinted themselves so firmly in the mind of the speaker, immediately rise up to meet the reader: the studio full of rooms, stairways, tapestries, bronzes, dust, candlesticks, Chinese vases. Carter chooses plural nouns for his objects. easels, closets, pastels – giving the reader the impression that the home brims with things, as a child’s mind brims with images. The “shuttered” August light, perhaps throwing countless shadows about the studio, contributes, along with the simile “like strands of Aunt Carolyn’s uncombed hair,” to a mild gothic mood in the first part of the poem.
By frequently enjambing lines and packing them with detail, Carter is able to create a larger-than-life scene in which any curious child would love to wander around and get lost. The studio (a house, apparently) seems full of rooms, stairways, closets (“where mice made burrows”), and the things they contain. A knowledge of space is as important to the speaker’s education as a knowledge of things. The concreteness of the these opening images, combined with fairly long, enjambing lines, serves to slow down the reader. The poet’s objective seems to be to describe this place with such arresting detail that we are able to imagine ourselves in this house, and wonder if the life described here has not somehow been our life too.
No longer a recollection of the speaker’s time as a boy in the studio, the scene changes in the second stanza to a man meditating on his vicarious experience of the artist’s life as gleaned through “packets of letters,” “yellowed clippings,” photographs, and sketchbooks. The speaker “follows” the artist to New York and the Lower East Side, “the old Academy rooms / in Munich, the boat trains to London. . . . ” He spends afternoons with the artist “wandering among the bookstalls” of London, “the cafe conversations with Matisse. . . ,” Carter writes, “all this rippling from a single stone / and the force that carried it gone, leaving / only the slow parchment whispering / of old voices in the nursing-homes.” These lines are more vague than what we are used to in the poem. Then there is a shift in resonance here from reverie to elegy:
Gradually the surface resumes a smoothness:
second wife buried, paintings knocked down
and scattered, studio burned, each letter
traced, each name marked off, finally
only the quiescence of paperwork – index cards
and conjectures. . . .
The speaker’s imagination fails him, finally, bringing him back to the messiness of the present, a disorder into which the speaker’s mind has breathed life, if only for a moment:
What I first perceived, then, wandering alone
among those vanished rooms; what I last
have come to understand, having followed
that trajectory even as it began to merge
with my own . . .
. . . the configuration
of time, of love, of youth, of art
like an elaborate watermark visible
only when held up to the light.
The experience of his present reality has moved from mere perception to understanding. And despite the menial tasks that he must now perform to put the artist’s life in order, he feels that his life has been enriched somehow, though he does not ultimately know how – the final image of a watermark is apt for the mysteriousness of what has taken place. The mystery involves the transference of artistic sensibility from one person to another. Even as the life and work of Henshaw fade, the spirit that vivified them continues now in the poem before us. Running through the entire poem is the paradox of art: the creator dies, but the creation lives on.
Carter demonstrates his facility with free verse as form in poems like “Configuration,” “Mississinewa Reservoir at Winter Pool,” and particularly, “Double Jacquard Coverlet.” This is not a gratuitous point, insofar as the potential of free verse has been significantly underestimated by practicing poets. It has become almost customary to treat free verse as formless. The result has been an over-valuation of the content of a poem and an under-valuation of the poem’s presence on the page, as if form and content were two separate entities. This problem is central to Gioia’s criticism of contemporary poetry. Carter’s method is a firm rejection of the laxity with which many poets approach free verse, as these three poems show. For him, free verse appears to represent a field of possible forms from which to choose, depending upon the occasion. Accordingly, there is no discontinuity between a poem with no rhyme or identifiable meter like “Configuration” and a traditional form like “Poem Written on a Line from the Walum Olum” or “Rushlights”; each form evolves as the poem develops and in accordance with the poem’s occasion. Carter’s ability to fill his books with a variety of lyrical forms serves to enrich the experience of his poems and adds great texture to the region he creates.
I have suggested how lyrics may contain elements of narrative. Clearly, there is a “story” to poems like “Mississinewa Reservoir at Winter Pool,” “Rushlights,” “Configuration,” and others, but these narrative elements are used to serve different poetic effects – the development of character, setting, or a relationship between reader and text – not to tell a story, principally. The language of lyrics also reflects their desire to be read as lyrics and not as something else. A heightened use of “poetic” language (“carrying that brightness within us,” for example) causes the reader to reflect on the language itself, which in turn inspires various moods, among them meditative. This is one reason why lyrics tend to be short. Language is used in such a highly self-conscious way that to sustain it for too long would be to tax the reader’s attention and therefore the emotional content of the poem.
Poems that intend to be narratives, on the other hand, are usually carried along by the momentum of the story per se. Therefore, more attention is given by the poet to making certain that the story is well-developed. Work, for the Night Is Coming and After the Rain each contain a number of narrative poems: “The Undertaker,” “Monument City,” “The Purpose of Poetry,” “Barn Siding,” “At the Sign-Painter’s,” “The Madhouse,” “Phoenix,” and many others. More than any other form, narratives capture the spirit of what I see as one of the intentions behind Carter’s work: to tell stories, in verse, that are capable of reaching a popular audience. But Carter’s stories depart from the normal storytelling design in that they typically do not center around a structured plot. Rather, they tend to be anecdotal, more in the style of down-home yarns than unified stories (containing beginnings, middles, and ends). As a result, Carter’s narratives, with the exception of “Barn Siding,” focus more on the development of vivid characters and concentrated events than action-centered plots neatly drawn .
Storytelling is a universal phenomenon; the meditative lyric is not. The narrative mode of poetic expression, therefore, inherently contains the potential to take poetry to readers who may have never heard of more “literary” writers like Wallace Stevens or Elizabeth Bishop. That is to say, narratives serve the popular function of holding the reader’s attention. For Carter, narrative operates primarily as a means of conveying the local customs, attitudes, and myths of his region, Mississinewa County. Narrative also carries specific ideas and themes, particularly the relation of past to present and the truth or beauty hidden in the everyday. Finally, it is a means of presenting interesting characters and universal human situations. These ingredients overlap in the poems, of course. “Barn Siding” is the only poem in the two books that contains all of these elements, along with the only well-developed plot. The total effect of Carter’s narratives and lyrics is the sense, as I have mentioned, that underlying these two books is a kind of “Mississinewa novel,” a long and continuous story to which the scraps of narrative contribute and give historical depth.
“The Gleaning,” “The Madhouse,” and “The Undertaker” are examples of snatches of narratives that inform the reader of the various customs, attitudes, and myths that constitute the identity of the region of Mississinewa County. “The Gleaning” tells the story of a man who is killed during harvest when “the separator flies off” the threshing machine, and the community’s response to the tragedy. Their actions in a time of crisis say much about the character of the people and the customs they observe.
They carry him to the house and go on
with the work. Five wagons and their teams
stand waiting, it is still daylight,
there will be time enough for grieving.
The man is dead, but the crop still needs to be harvested. It is an accepted fact that the life of the community transcends the life of the individual. This is not callousness, but a realism among the people that, in Frost’s words, “they, since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.” Echoes of the injunction, “work, for the night is coming,” fill the air. But the right time for grieving does arrive and with it, preparation:
When the undertaker comes from town
he brings the barber, who must wait
till the women finish washing the body.
Neighbors arrive from the next farm
to take the children. . . .
The men stand along the porch, talking
in low voices, smoking their cigarettes;
the undertaker sits in the kitchen
with the family.
A new character, the barber, is introduced; the children are cared for; and the immediate family is consoled by the ubiquitous undertaker. Gender roles are clearly understood – the women tend to death, the men tend to talking about death, staying out of its way. Death is not neat and tidy and unfelt, but there is an efficiency in the communal response to it so that one understands that work-related death is not uncommon to these parts.
The story then zooms in on the barber. He has known the dead man “all his life, since they were boys / together.” The process of shaving the man is given in minute and gripping detail. The barber “works up a lather / and brushes it onto his cheeks, . . . He strops the razor, tests it against his thumb, / . . . begins to scrape / at the curve of the throat, tilting the head / this way and that, stretching the skin, / flinging the soap into a basin.” The shave is a type of gleaning, and the poem is another. Beginning with the accident and the community’s response, the poem then quickly narrows to one man’s final experience with his old friend. The four verse paragraphs, written very directly and simply, allow Carter to fully portray each phase of the man’s death and the customary response to that death, as well as introduce another character in the Mississinewa community.
Other poems reveal the attitudes of local characters, sometimes challenging the readers’ own assumptions about that time and place. “The Madhouse” is a portrayal of past heroism and the speaker’s hope that such heroism still exists. It is the story of “the former heroes / Of the high-school team,. . ./ . . . Catholics all, / . . . Swede / Svendson . . . the Baxter brothers / . . . and handsome Richard O’Reilly . . . .” “They had no peers, then or now,” it continues.
On Saturdays regularly they stood,
Hats firmly on their heads, watching
The procession of hooded Klansmen
Coming up Anderson Street, heading
Toward the Main intersection. Always
The Klan demanded hats removed
Before the flag they carried,
Always the boys at the Madhouse refused,
And began unscrewing the weighted ends
Of their pool cues. People came to watch;
The police stood apart; the Klan
Never got past the Madhouse.
Told in plain and colloquial language, the poem reflects the quiet dramas that occur now and then in thousands of small towns across the United States. Those of us who have spent our lives in cities and seldom experienced small-town middlewestern life might be surprised that such resistance to an organization like the Ku Klux Klan took place. Part of the intent of this poem is clearly to show that it did. Indeed, it is just one more example of the “glittering and strange” of Mississinewa County and reveals the poet as preserver of social experience and consciousness.
But Carter does not restrict himself to chronicles of duty and victory. His narratives sometimes reveal events that have brought shame to a community. This even-handed treatment holds sentimentality at bay and speaks a truth about the flawed nature of human beings, which sometimes reveals itself in horrible ways. “The Strawman,” reminiscent of the superstitious folks in “Early Warning,” reveals a community that has been consumed by its fear of sexuality. It is about a seamstress who is caught “Entwined with a strawman on the floor” and subsequently “Hanged for a witch” for this eccentric behavior. Evoking memories of the Salem Witch Trials, the poem explores the consequences of sexual repression within a community and how that repression can lead to scapegoating and violence.
Carter also uses narrative to convey ideas and themes, which often coalesce, that are important to him – the relation between the past and present, and the truth and beauty hidden in the everyday. The narrator-soldier asks at the beginning of “Phoenix,” “Why did we bother to join up, put on those coats / with the strange buttons…?” Later, as the two soldiers lie in a pool of water, dying in one another’s arms, the speaker, in an effort to remain conscious and either ease his brother-enemy’s death or keep him alert to it, tells what he had learned about “the creature / with outstretched wings, the bird stamped / on the ormolu buttons” of their uniforms. The phoenix is “a creature that would never die,” that “rose up from its own ashes” and “could sleep. . . on the waves / of the sea, even in the midst of a storm.” This mythical symbol had literally been under the boys’ noses the entire campaign and they had not noticed. The buttons may stand, specifically, for the familial hatred that the soldiers have inherited and, generally, for recurring traits in human nature. Clearly, the embossed buttons are a metaphor for the hidden influence of the past on the present.
The long rolls of painted canvas in “Panorama” are another image for the past’s influence on the present. Salvaged from a wagon whose driver froze to death in “the blizzard / of eighty-eight,” the rolls were determined by “the Methodist minister / . . . to be a traveling show,”
an exhibition that, when spread out and set up
in a large hall, would create some vast illusion
such as the battlefield at Gettysburg, or Waterloo,
No one ever came to claim them, and in the years following they were cut up and used “to stuff / in some drafty place, . . . / to go sledding with in winter, / . . . to fill cracks, to keep / ice-cream cool.” Some men interpreted one of the rolls as depicting “Horses, / . . . with shiny hooves.” Women, “certain aunts,” inspected another roll and “would not speak of what they saw.” The panorama becomes a metaphor for history’s lingering influence which we can see only in pieces. Even when history is told well, “each ragged piece become[s] / part of a larger pattern – recognizable now, / and lasting, but no more attainable than before.” This suggests that beauty and knowledge must always remain hidden from our view, revealed only partially through the power of art. The relationship between Carter’s poems and Mississinewa County is the same. They provide glimpses of the culture, history, and beauty of the place, but finally it remains unattainable.
As I have said, Carter’s apparent reasons for using narrative often overlap. Poems that reveal the subtle nature of truth and beauty can also contain unusual characters that greatly add to the color of the region. “The Purpose of Poetry” is such a poem. It is a powerful story about the symbiosis that can grow between a man and his natural and social environment as well as an indictment of the unjust forces that disturb that symbiosis. It is also about the old man himself, the love he feels for his dogs, the dirt under his fingernails. “Moiré” is another such poem. Here, the speaker has philosophical questions he would like answered: “how the light will fade, / through the trees, as evening comes on; where / to turn, at the highway, in order to find / a place for the night.” Readers are also introduced to the eccentric, scientific uncle, reader of Schrödinger, Planck, and Heisenberg and builder of a “universal analytical machine.” This machine, perhaps a metaphor for systematic ways of thinking about existence, is a contraption made “from player pianos, bicycle / sprockets, unidentifiable joints and gears / from automobile transmissions, and a handle / from an ice-cream freezer” which, when cranked up, instructs him in all his acts.
Other narratives focus almost exclusively on character either to enrich the region or make a statement about a universal situation. I have already mentioned the “Weather Prophet”: “Keeper of bees, string-saver, knower / Of clouds; whom the neighbors consulted / Faithfully each autumn for news / Of approaching snows.” There are the “walleyed people” in “Watching by the Stream”; “Lester Crabtree, the one-armed drayman” ; “Abe Branitsky, who sold crackers and sausage / To the boys down at the mill” ; “Max Quick,” who “wrestled with Pegleg McGee for fifty cents.” There is the druggist in “The Shriving,” who never smiled and who would tie rags around the ends of old brooms, “soak them in coal oil, then strike a match / and hoist the fuming torch into the air,” trying to burn away the caterpillar nests in the trees – and his own despair. Every small town or rural community has its equivalent stories and characters. These characters are special in their own right and give great depth and feeling to Carter’s poems. They also touch on the universal link between story and individuality: everybody has a story to tell.
“Barn Siding” is the only poem in both collections to combine characterization, local custom and myth, and the theme of hidden truth in a fully developed narrative. The anti-heroic persona of “Barn Siding” remains anonymous throughout the poem, but his type has appeared before in Carter’s work. In “Monument City,” a woman is having photographs taken of her house by the undertaker before the reservoir floods her property and scavengers come “to pick over the buildings too big to be moved.” The persona of “Barn Siding” is one of these scavengers. He calls himself a picker, someone who “Picks over / what other people have left behind.” Before the picker begins his remarkable story, he introduces the reader to the fine art of picking, particularly picking barn wood. “[I]f you’re putting up kiln-dried lumber,” he says,
and something starts to crack or splinter,
you’ve got time to get out of the way;
but old wood won’t give any warning.
You take a barn or farmhouse that’s stood
a hundred years or more, it’s had time
to gravitate, work out all the stress.
The wood’s cured; got no more surprises.
Unfortunately, the picker forgets what he knew and begins to pick a barn that collapses without warning. He escapes but not before a piece of wood catches him on the neck, breaking it. In the aftermath, as the picker lies immobilized on the ground, several other characters find their way into the story , each pickers in their own way: Rhetta, the woman whom he abused and humiliated thirty years before, and her little girl, picking berries; the Strangler, who picks up and murders young hitchhikers (and who, indirectly, leads to the picker’s rescue); and even the “‘possums and squirrels and snakes and bugs” who, the picker says, are “just like me.”
The picker is mildly obsessed with picking, a necessary quality for a picker because of the timing involved. This particular barn he “kept an eye on . . . / for a long time.” “I let others have / first choice” he says.
Couples from town like to park
along country lanes. Boys with rifles
come shoot out all the windows. . . .
. . . .
I heard the barn didn’t burn. Gave it
a few more years, let the new trees get
a toe hold. Let the grapevines grow thick.
Then one day I drove out there to see.
This obsession is reflected in the syllabic lines (each has nine syllables) and the uniform four line stanzas. The picker is a fascinating mixture of provincial small-mindedness and the wisdom that comes with experience and reflection. It is quaint that he is consumed by an occupation that consists of picking over other people’s leavings, and the reader sympathizes to some degree with the picker, though his relationship with Rhetta casts a shadow over his character.
The picker’s wisdom, as I have said, is the result of experience and reflection. At the beginning of the poem, he has retired from picking due to his accident, which he then spends the rest of the poem recounting. “Time to pay attention / to what’s happened in your life, maybe / pass it along to someone younger,” he says. “. . .When you get in trouble is when you / start to forget.” Close attention to the details of the present and the past is a recurring lesson in Carter. This sensibility is what gives the elegiac tone to many of the poems and makes storytelling so important to those who have not left the land. The picker muses at one point,
Makes you wonder why people would up
and leave a place like that. What happened,
why nobody can make the land pay,
why it all comes up in second growth.
All you hear are stories. This family
tried and lost, that man wore himself out,
this man went out to the barn during
the sale, put a shotgun in his mouth.
All that remains from before are the empty shells of barns that are constant reminders that life (a better life?) existed there once. And yet the picker, like the poet, is a constant witness to the truth that is found in the ordinary. He says near the end of the poem, “the plain truth is / we don’t hear things until we’re ready / and that could be a kind of finding, / too, even a way of life – paying / attention to what’s happening now. . . .” “Barn Siding” contains a clear beginning, middle, and end, which makes it unique among Carter’s narratives. It also treats matters of character, region, and theme in a more comprehensive way than any of the other narratives. But this poem, like all the rest, is finally subsumed by the greater reality of Mississinewa County. Like the scraps of canvas in “Panorama,” Carter’s narratives and lyrics add up to give the impression that a greater story underlies the poems – the history and mythology of Mississinewa County. Layer upon layer of poems, each provocative and entertaining in itself, contribute toward a novel or myth of Mississinewa by providing a range of description as well as historical depth. Some poems focus primarily on character – “Weather Prophet,” “The Madhouse,” “The Undertaker,” “The Shriving” – and landscape –“Mississinewa County Road,” “Early Warning,” “Glacier.” Others – “Phoenix,” “Barn Siding,” “The Strawman,” “The Gleaning” – provide mythical and historical depth. Carter, by making narrative style central to his technique, provides a successful response to Dana Gioia’s concern that the art of storytelling has been lost among contemporary poets.
“Barn Siding” is all about finding – finding barns, people, memories. It is a response to the sorry fact that “there’s no going back, / everything is gone now, or changed from / the way it used to be.” Indeed, when one considers Carter’s work as a whole, it is clear that the great majority of his poems are miniature monuments dedicated to lost time. In this sense, there is something ghostly about his work, a quality that reminds readers that Mississinewa County is doubly fictional, an imaginative representation of a place that never existed to begin with. “Barn Siding” is also about finding the truth and beauty hidden in the ordinary, a theme that Carter explores in many of his lyrics and narratives.
One of the most intriguing symbols in all of his poems is the lightning rod in “Barn Siding.” The picker, remembering back to when he was a boy, is on top of his father’s barn freeing a kite from the weather vane. He bends over the lightning rod and looks through the “big glass ball” on the end:
For a moment I saw everything
through the blue of that ball – down below
the pasture, the creek winding through it,
the four milk cows wading in the smoke
of the willow, the sky reflecting
on the water, the water and grass
and clouds all blue, the whole world blue
as though it had always been that way
and I had never known till I got
to see it through the lightning rod’s eye.
Symbolically, Carter makes use of the lightning rod in several ways. The rod, specifically the glass ball on the end, acts as a medium through which one can look back to an ideal, lost past for which the speaker perhaps yearns but which is unattainable. There is the obvious association with lightning itself; the rod may be viewed as a conduit between the supernatural realm and the ordinary world, as may be seen in the poem “Lightning.” Then there is the rod as ordinary object transformed into something mysterious, almost magical. This extra-ordinary significance reminds the readers of the wealth that is to be found in the everyday.
There are many other examples throughout Carter’s work of this delight in discovering truth and beauty in the ordinary: the icy footprints under the snow in “First Snow”; the embossed buttons in “Phoenix”; the mechanical contraption in “Moiré”; the watermark in “Configuration”; the moth in “Cecropia Moth”; the natural spring in “Eidolon”; the ring with the crystal stone in “Scryer”; the effigy in “Birdstone”; the sound of doves in “Mourning Doves”; the plaster casts in “Drawing the Antique”; the name of the book designer in “For Starr Atkinson, Who Designed Books.” The prevalence of such symbolism may provide an insight into Carter’s method. It would seem that he begins with a simple observation and moves, through the act of writing the poem, to an extra-awareness of the object, ascribing it transcendental meaning. In an interview with Alberta Turner, Carter wrote:
I accepted the task of watching and waiting, and I continue to do this, almost every day, for many things, natural and man-made. . . . [I]n the fall, I find an Osage orange tree and collect a sack full of the fruit, and bring it back and set the oranges on the railing of my porch, and look at them, and touch them, and think about them, without knowing precisely what I’m doing, or why. You never can tell; something might come of it, sooner or later.
What has come of it is a yield of interesting, rich poems which awaken readers to the profundity of the natural and man-made.
“Geodes,” one of Carter’s most emotionally satisfying poems, shows this movement from the ordinary to the transcendent and the deceptive nature of appearances. But most importantly it is about the truth hidden in the ordinary, in this instance the ordinary in the natural world. The poem begins with an acknowledgment by the speaker that geodes are “useless. . . .” “There is nothing / To be done with them, no reason, only / The finding,” says the speaker. The poem then proceeds to describe that finding :
letting myself down holding
To ironwood and the dry bristle of roots
Into the creekbed, into clear water shelved
Below the outcroppings, where crawdads spurt
Through silt; clawing them out of clay, scrubbing
Away the sand, setting them in shaft of light
To dry. Sweat clings in the cliffs downdraft.
Through the act of finding (the philosophical equivalent of picking), the speaker becomes acutely aware of his environment. The descent into the creekbed is marked by ironwood and dry roots, the clear water flows beneath the outcroppings (exposed bedrock). The speaker “claws” at the geodes like a crawdad, unearthing them, then cleaning them up. The reader’s attention is shifted from considering any meaning that the geode may hold and re-focused on the details that make the pursuit of the geode, of meaning, such a worthwhile enterprise. Even upon finding there is no expectation that any positive meaning has been discovered, though there is anticipation:
I take each one up like a safecracker listening
For the lapse within, the moment crystal turns
On crystal. It is all waiting there in darkness.
The speaker seems to be satisfied with knowing that meaning exists in some ultimate sense even if he will never know that meaning: “I want to know only that things gather themselves / With great patience, that they do this forever.”
But there remains the fact of the geode and the meaning that “is all waiting there in darkness.” According to Nancy Pollack, the geode has traditionally been considered symbolic of vision, an omniscient eye; an oxymoron of outer poverty and inner wealth; and, in Russian poetry, a symbol of intelligence, a geologic recorder of historical event, a metaphor for a keeper of cultural memory. As an omniscient eye, the geode is very much like the glass ball at the end of the lightning rod in “Barn Siding” and the ring in “Scryer.” As a symbol of concealed riches, the geode works symbolically like the arrowheads in “After the Rain.” And, as I shall show, as a metaphor for a recorder of the past, the geode holds profound implications for Carter’s vision of the role of the poet in society . “Tin Cup,” an earlier poem from the chapbook Pincushion’s Strawberry makes thematic observations similar to those in “Geodes,” but this time treats the truth to be found in man-made objects:
I know its clatter in the wind,
I know the length of baling wire
fastening it to the pump, the creak
of the handle going up and down;
I know the surge of water
hammering the cup away, circles
of rust rising to the brim
when I put it to my lips;
Rather than describe the cup itself, Carter presents it in terms of the sensuous associations it has for the speaker: the “clatter” and the “creak,” the “length” of wire, the “surge” of the water from the pump “hammering,” the “circles / of rust rising.” The cup is very nearly rendered invisible in the poem; indeed, the cup disappears from the scene. It is in this dissolution that the poem acquires its metaphorical weight as a vehicle for the transitory nature of human beings: “I know then a distant calling / to a body of dust.”
In addition to the truth and beauty that may be found in man-made objects like tin cups, there is also the supreme human distinction of written language. Indeed, part of the joy of reading Carter’s poems (and any good poems, for that matter) is that they reveal themselves slowly over time, just like many of the objects they contemplate. “At the Sign-Painter’s” is about a man’s recollection of the time he spent as a boy among workmen that his father used to hire. There were “plumbers, tinners, roofers, well-diggers, / Carpenters, cement finishers with their padded knees . . . .” But “of them all,” the speaker recalls, “I liked the sign-painters best”:
liked being left to wander
Among piles of fresh pine planks, tables caked and smeared
And stacked with hundreds of bottles and jars of leaking color
And fragrance, coffee cans jammed with dried brushes, skylight
Peppered with dead flies, narrow paths that wound among
Signs shrouded with tape and newspaper –
This description of wandering is reminiscent of “Configuration,” and “At the Sign-Painter’s” proves itself to be the true ancestor of that poem. Like the watermark in “Configuration” that is visible only when held up to the light, so do the sign-painters’ signs gradually reveal themselves. The speaker remembers that he
liked seeing the ghost letters in pencil
Gradually filling out, fresh and wet and gleaming, words
Forming out of all that darkness, that huge disorder.
The special human distinction, what sets the sign-painters apart from the other workers, is the power of language. This is why the speaker remembers them so fondly. Because of his love for language and the meaning he is able to find in the “huge disorder” of the workshop, one may also safely assume that there is good deal of Carter’s own self here.
The most important particular case of beauty and truth hidden in the everyday is the recurring theme of the lost past. This is clearly seen in the pervasive symbol of the town submerged under the reservoir, a symbol consistent with the idea that an extended Mississinewa “novel” runs beneath most of the poems. Other important examples of this are the panorama, the double jacquard coverlet, the historical background of “Phoenix,” the arrowheads in “After the Rain,” the lightning rod in “Barn Siding,” and even the “slant light of the meetinghall” in “The Believers.” Many of Carter’s characters are also recalled from lost time: Sefe Graybill; the soldiers and Shawnee Indians in “Phoenix”; the Shakers; the barber in “The Gleaning”; Sam Bass, Oliver P. Morton, and John Dillinger in “Tintypes”; the weather prophet; the ghost in “For an Old Flame.” Places, too, are constant reminders: the poolroom “on the avenue” in “The Madhouse”; the bridge over Fall Creek in “For Jack Chatham”; the bridge over Yellow Cat; the Sprinkle House; the remains of Monument City; the art studio in “Configuration.” These are the kinds of people, places, and things that “everybody knew and nobody ever bothered / to write down.”
The central metaphor in most of the poems in Work, for the Night Is Coming and After the Rain, as I have stressed, is the reservoir. This pregnant symbol works in many ways: it contains, or is a receptacle for, the past; it renders the past inaccessible, but it also provides the means, through its transparency, of discovering the past. These meanings are expressed through other images – the arrowheads, the geode, etc. – that reveal the beauty, mystery, and truth hidden in the ordinary and everyday. Indeed, Mississinewa County is a reservoir for all of these symbols and meanings. Carter’s regionalism, finally, becomes most important when one considers that Mississinewa County circumscribes nearly all of the people, places, and things that come to light in his poems.
The themes of lost time and the truths waiting to be discovered there say much about Carter’s vision for the poet and artist. In short, the poet, like the geode, is a recorder of the past, a reservoir, so to speak, for all the events and personalities of the past that are in danger of being forgotten. Carter’s poems, and the consistent use of narrative within them, are testimony to the idea that the past and the lessons it has to teach us matter; that, indeed, they are indispensable guides to ethical and artistic ways of life. This is why, in the end, Mississinewa County is a universal symbol: the people he writes about, common in every way, display all the humanity and complexity of people everywhere. With remarkable clarity of purpose, Carter exposes the false distinction between the humble and the exalted, the poor and the wealthy, the ugly and the beautiful. His poems bid us to look and look again at the texture of our lives, ask it questions, delve into it for answers.
VII Works Cited and Consulted
Aamidor, Abe. “The Heartland Poet.” Indianapolis Star 23 May 1993: Hl-3.
Abrams, M. H. The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. Oxford UP: New York, 1953.
_______. Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature. W. W. Norton & Company: New York, 1971.
Rev. of After the Rain, by Jared Carter. Publishers Weekly 6 Jan. 1981: 76.
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Trans. Maria Jolas. Beacon Press: Boston, 1969.
Bloom, Harold and Lionel Trilling, ed. Romantic Poetry and Prose. Oxford UP: New York, 1973.
Burnside, Gordon. “The Old Con Man.” Rev. of Work, for the Night Is Coming, by Jared Carter. St. Louis Magazine June 1981: 48-49.
Carpenter, Dan. “Carter’s Work Straightforward and Strong.” Rev. of After the Rain, by Jared Carter. Indianapolis Star. 14 Mar. 1993: F7
Carter, Jared. After the Rain. Cleveland State University Poetry Center: Cleveland, 1993.
_______. Pincushion’s Strawberry. 1984.
_______. Work, for the Night Is Coming. 1981.
Cleveland, George. Rev. of After the Rain, by Jared Carter. New Laurel Review 19 109-110.
Connors, Jan. “‘After the Rain’ by Jared Carter.” Rev. of After the Rain, by Jared Carter. Elwood Call-Leader 14 Apr. 1993: 5.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The American Scholar.” Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essays and Lectures. Ed. Joel Porte. Literary Classics of the United States, Inc.: New York, 1983. 53-71.
Frost, Robert. The Poetry of Robert Frost. Ed. Edward Connery Lathem. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1979.
Fry, Donn. “New ‘Hoosier’ Poet Views Life in Mississinewa County.” Indianapolis Star. 29 March 1981: 5-5.
Gioia, Dana. Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture. Graywolf: Minneapolis, 1992.
_______. Rev. of After the Rain, by Jared Carter. Washington Post Book World 4 Dec. 1994: 14.
Gundy, Jeff. Rev. of After the Rain, by Jared Carter. The Georgia Review summer 1994: 410-411
Hass, Robert. Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry. The Ecco Press: Hopewell, NJ, 1984.
Jacoby, Russell. The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe. Basic Books Inc.: New York, 1987.
Kooser, Ted. “A Spellbinder.” Rev. of After the Rain, by Jared Carter. New Letters Book Reviewer winter 1993: 8.
Masters, Edgar Lee. Spoon River Anthology: An Annotated Edition. Ed. John E. Hallwas. University of Illinois Press: Urbana, 1992.
McDowell, Robert. Rev. of Work, for the Night Is Coming, by Jared Carter. The Reaper fall 1981: 39-46.
McPhillips, Robert, “The Year in Poetry, 1993,” Rev. of After the Rain, by Jared Carter. Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook 1994 1995: 14-47
Northway, Martin. “Jared Carter: Honored Hoosier Poet.” Indianapolis Star Magazine 28 Sep. 1980: 38-39.
Oliver, Mary. A Poetry Handbook. Harcourt Brace & Company: New York, 1994.
Osburn, Margaret. “Provincial Poet.” Indianapolis Monthly Aug. 1992: 70- 72.
Perkins, David. A History of Modern Poetry: From the 1890s to the High Modernist Mode. The Belknap Press of Harvard UP: Cambridge, 1976.
Philips, Robert. “Poetic Everymen Refine their Art Word by Eloquent Word.” Rev. of After the Rain, by Jared Carter. Houston Post 13 Mar. 1994: C4.
Pollack, Nancy. “Mandel’shtam’s Mandel’shtein.” Slavic Review 46 1987: 450-70.
Preminger, Alex, ed. Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Prose. Princeton UP: Princeton, 1974.
Shaughnessy, John. “Poet’s First Words Thank Those who Helped Him Most.” Indianapolis Star 14 Nov. 1985: 1.
Simpson, Louis. “The Down-to-Earth and the Acrobatic.” Rev. of Work, for the Night Is Coming, by Jared Carter. Washington Post Book World 7 June 1981: 4-5.
Stephenson, Shelby. “Carter’s Poems are Open and Natural as Weather.” Rev. of Work, for the Night Is Coming, by Jared Carter. Southern Pines Pilot 29 Apr. 1981: B2.
Taylor, Henry. Rev. of Work, for the Night Is Coming, by Jared Carter. Magill’s Literary Annual 1982 968-970.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and Other Writings by Henry David Thoreau. Ed Joseph Wood Krutch. Bantam Books: New York, 1962.
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Warren, Jill. “Carter to Read from New Poetry Book Friday.” Indianapolis Star 22 Mar. 1984: 1-2.
VIII 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.