Jim Wayne Miller 1936-1996
by Robert Morgan
Presented at the Hindman Settlement School, August 31, 1997
My first contact with Jim Wayne occurred in the fall of 1963 when, a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill, I was editing fiction for The Carolina Quarterly. We published some short stories by Jim Wayne Miller that year, including one where two brothers from the country attend school. When the teacher asks the students what they had for breakfast most students lie, telling the teacher what she wants to hear. "They recited: bacon, eggs, toast, milk, cereal, - all the lovely approved things." But the younger brother Eugene doesn't understand the game and answers that he had biscuits and sawmill gravy, and then adds, "and new molasses." The older brother, who narrates the story says, "A half-mad, hysterical laugh rose to the high ceiling of the gym and bounced back before I realized that it was I who had laughed. I cringed down, ashes inside, and looked to see whether anyone on either side of me knew that Eugene was my brother."
This scene is also included in Jim Wayne's 1989 novel Newfound, and it illustrates the consistency of his writing from the very beginning. And it illustrates the humor and wit of his work, and the complexity of his point of view. For though the story is told by the more sophisticated older brother, the sympathy is clearly with the more honest and confident Eugene. The story is an example of the irony that runs through all Jim Wayne's work, for he was fascinated by the paradoxes of identity, vanity, honesty.
My second contact with Jim Wayne came the next year, in 1964, when a thin crisp volume of poems called Copperhead Cane arrived at the office of The Carolina Quarterly. I was just beginning to discover contemporary poetry then, and the poets bright young writers were talking about were Robert Lowell, Berryman, Robert Bly. But here was a collection of poems about the mountains where I had grown up. It had never occurred to me one could make poems about The Blue Ridge Mountains. Fiction, yes, but not poems. Not only were Jim Wayne's poems vivid and colloquial, there were in rhyme and meter. Many were sonnets. "Endings have a wile, a mountain cunning,/ and only seem to sleep, like groundhogs sunning/ on rocks" a poem called "In a Mountain Pasture" began.
I was struck at once by the voice, and by the formal mastery. With a shiver of recognition I read: "Catch up the hounds by collar and scruff,/ And drop the cattle gate!/ The fox has holed in Reynold's Bluff,/ The moon is low, it's late!/ He savors flame and crowds the fire,/ A stubborn leaf in frosty air,/ The wrinkled brown old hunter."
And there were other things in the lean volume that grabbed my attention.
There were passionate, eerie poems that I did not know how to describe.
Some were poems concerned with eros and death unlike any I had seen or
would see until I later read the Austrian poet Georg Trakl. The sonnet "The
Fencepost II" ends like this:
It was thrilling to see a young poet ring changes on his lines, running the phrases through permutations and paradoxes of birth and rebirth, surrender and triumph. The poem had a fugal effect, with the combinations and recombinations creating an hypnotic, epigrammatic explosiveness.
Just as spooky was the poem about the ghostly presence of the Indians
in the mountains, "On Sandy Mush Creek" which begins:
But the most memorable poem of all, and the eeriest, was a tiny poem near the end of the volume called "After Love."
Spent wave of locked love's undulation,
Going back to Jim's early poems I have been struck again and again by how much his own man he was from the beginning. These poems shine as brightly as if they were written this morning. They do not reflect the fashions of 1964, but have a timeless, crafted quality. They have the authority of form and the authority of felt experience. The are authentic in detail and natural in speech.
From the very first Jim showed his independence from the fashions of the academic poetry establishment. As I reread his poems I kept thinking of his courage and tenacity in the face of indifference. He had the courage to be himself, and to see himself, to speak for himself over the decades with little concern for the whims of the creative writing industry, The fact that he made what he wrote seem natural, even inevitable, shows the success of his intense concentration and talent. Rereading his poems I felt again and again what a brave man he was.
From the first Jim's poems showed a fascination and even intimacy with death. His second book of poems was called "Dialogue With a Dead Man." The poems reveal his vivid sense of history and the way poems speak across time, across generations, to the past, and to the future. In Jim's poetry and fiction there is an intense appreciation of the community across time. The poems are haunted by kinship and connection with spiritual presences. In "Stalking" he says: "In underwater windrows, drifted streaks/ of last year's fallen leaves,/ you are the trout that strikes/ and quickly moves./ I see only rings/ widening."
In the poem "Listening" he says, speaking to the ghost-double, and to the reader, "I am a live man walking with you,/ wanting to throw a shadow into life."
In the poem "A Dark Place" the narrator says: "I've followed you so far down into death/ I'll never find my way back to home ground./ Once I turned, at the place of bones and coiled/ air rattling, and looked back and saw the world/ with a dead man's eyes."
the poems are dialogues with the past, with American history, as well as with the interior self. Poems such as "Berry Picking" and "On Native Ground" have a metrical and lyric perfection, as well as perfection of idiom. But even in the brightest poems, there is a delving underneath, into interiors, into secret places and darker knowledge. In the latter poem he says:
A waterbead quivers on my hand:
Also in Dialogue With a Dead Man we see Jim begin to celebrate and honor, and lament, the passing of a way of life. In a poem such as "Howard Lays His Burden Down at Last" we see a new direction, and the touches of humor that would characterize so much of Jim's later work.He pulled each day on like a shoe a size
Too small, and though it plagued and pinched , he wore it
for the future's sake. He moved through
the planned rows of his life waging war
with fire and chemicals on beetles, mites
and moles, starlings and thistles - every varmit
out to eat his farm from under him.
The volume concludes with "Family Reunion," one of his most powerful and memorable poems.
Here the living and dead mingle
For the dead have come too,
I don't have time to go into Jim's later poetry. But most of you know it anyway. The Brier poems, the poems of deracination in The Mountains Have Moved Closer, are among the best known and most loved in our region. No one has been able to better describe and enact the sense of loss, and the paradoxes of identity in the mountains. The narratives, and dramas, the monologues and multiple voices, have captured for all time the ironies of our place in geography and history. Many lines are among the most quoted in Appalachian poetry.
"The river turned,/ sure of where it was going, in no hurry." ("Winter Days")
"He was/ settled in a suburb, north of himself." ("Down Home")When the folks would come from the magazines, he'd get rid of them before suppertime so he could put on his shoes, his flowered sport shirt and double-knit pants, and open a can of beer and watch the six-thirty new on tv out of New York and Washington
He had to have some time to be himself. ("The Brier Losing Touch With His Tradition")
"We've run off and left ourselves. ("Brier Sermon")
In Brier, His Book we see Jim Wayne take his place in a populist tradition that runs from Whitman and Sandburg, Mark Twain and Bill Monroe and Woody Guthrie, to Gary Snyder and Ted Kooser and Thomas McGrath. He is bardic and he is prophetic. He speaks in tongues and sings dark deep-down blues. But he also makes us laugh, and delights with adroit wordplay and ingenious conceits.
"Every moment a water drop/ teeming with infusoria." ("The Brier Moves to a New Place")
"They'd see the longest memory also saw the furthest up ahead." ("Brier Plans a Mountain Vision Center")
"His book/ tastes like water remembering earth it has passed through." ("The Country of Conscience")
Jim Wayne's poems are witty, clear-eyed, dramatic, and unsentimental. More than many people realized, he was often a very experimental poet, trying new things with voice and form. His poems are charged with a relish for dramatic improvisation. I love the way he recovers the out of the way and forgotten, and celebrates the wisdom of work with hands. He can shout like a revival preacher or the caller of a square dance. At the same time he is a poet of informed political conscience and consciousness. Rereading his poems reminds us that he is not only a poet of the mountains, but of the planet.
When I heard the news of Jim Wayne's death I realized that we owe him a debt we will never be able to repay. He has done more for Appalachian writing in our time than anyone else. As poet and fiction writer, critic and editor, anthologist, playwright and teacher, he has stimulated and presided over a generation of literary activity in the Southern mountains. At one conference, symposium, workshop, lecture and reading after another he gathered us together and helped us define ourselves and our work.
I must confess that I did not understand at first the importance of what Jim Wayne was attempting. It was only in the early 1980s that I began to see how essential his work on Appalachian writing was, how necessary and unprecedented. He saw the need to collect, publish and define what was going on in the region, and he saw it was necessary to place Appalachian writing in the context of American culture and history. As a scholar of European languages and folklores, Jim Wayne's vision was at once local and universal. What he did was crucial for me, for us, and contemporary literature. As we say in the mountains, he was clearing some newground.
It is astonishing how many lives Jim Wayne touched through his poetry and prose, through his readings and lectures. Perhaps the major archive of Appalachian literature at on time was contained in the back seat and trunk of his gray Buick. Wherever he went, to Hindman, to Boone, to Asheville, or the West Virginia Writers Conference, he carried his collection of files, books, lists, bibliographies, xerox copies and works in progress. In conversations at Hindman, when an obscure poem or essay might be mentioned, Jim Wayne would hurry out to his car to dig up a copy.
I enjoyed especially working with Jim Wayne at the Appalachian Writers Conference. One of the pleasures of coming here was to sit with him and the other writers at the end of the day and talk. Jim Wayne had so many good stories, and so many jokes, that we often stayed up far into the night. I lost hours of sleep because I didn't want to miss anything that he might say.
Knowing Jim Wayne has helped me to know myself better. Through his historical and critical work I was able to see what I was doing in a new light. Listening to, or reading, his critical prose was a special delight. Jim Wayne had a subtle and illuminating sense of the advantages and limitations of the regional, and of the way poetry discovers and defines place, and reaches beyond place.
Jim Wayne could not have been such an authority on the regional if he had not been an authority on the nonregional also. He was deeply learned in the history of ideas, and he knew how to place his insights about the mountains in the context of wider and older cultures. He loved popular culture also, especially movies and country music. He was an expert on modern languages, and he knew Heidegger as well as shape notes.
It is easy to forget that Jim Wayne spent his professional life as a teacher and scholar of German literature and language, of German and Europena folklore and intercultural studies. Perhaps many think of his two careers, as Appalachian poet and novelist, critic and writer, and scholar of German, were unrelated. But I believe they were closely related, and I believe that his two careers stimulated and nourished each other. I think the connection between Jim's poetry and his critical ideas, and his study of German poetry and culture is very deep. I do not have time here to investigate the many ways German poetry and poetics informed his own creative and critical work.
But I do want to mention in passing that the greatest gene pool in North America is not English or Welsh or Scotch Irish, but German. To some extent the German presence in our culture is suppressed, invisible, I myself often mention my Welsh and Scottish ancestors, but rarely my great-great-great grandfather William Capps who fought in the Revolution, or John Peter Corn, another ancestor and veteran of the Revolution. German immigrants were the masons and architects, the smiths and builders of early America. They were perhaps the hardest working and most pious people of the frontier. I don't think it was just an accident of an NDEA fellowship to Vanderbilt that drew Jim to the study of German and German culture and folklore. Shall I say, his work in German was germane to all his other work. Let me quote three words common in German critical writing. You tell me if you think the are related to the spirit and content of Jim's life work.
Sprachgeful: meaning a feeling for perfect of idiom, literally language feeling.
Dinggedicter: meaning poetry of things, poetry of intimacy with things of the world, with the nonhuman. "The world of luminous things," as Czeslaw Milosz calls it.
Einfuhlung: meaning empathy, literally one-feeling, or a feeling of oneness.
I'm sure the way German culture is so earth-rooted and blood-connected fascinated and inspired Jim. And the German interest in folklore and folkmusic must have stimulated him early to look back at his own region, at the music he had heard since a boy from his neighbor Bascom Lamar Lunsford. It must have been a pleasure to encounter the seriousness German scholars gave to volkslieder and volkskunde.
It seems unthinkable that Jim Wayne is no longer here to consult. I last saw him at the Kentucky Book Fair in the fall of 1995 and we sat behind the Gnomon Press table most of the day catching up on gossip and news of the region. When I got back home I received a package from him containing articles, poems, and bibliographies that had come up in our discussion.
Jim Wayne's lectures at Hindman were exhilarating. After the talks we would return to the cabin and continue the discussion he had initiated. And sometimes the conversation would be followed by songfests. One of my favorite memories is of sitting up late into the night singing hymns with Jim and Dana Wildsmith, Rita Quillan, George Ella Lyon, Lee Smith, Leatha Kendrick, and Jonathan Greene.
Like Thomas Wolfe, Wilma Dykeman, John Ehle, Jim Wayne was native of Buncombe County, North Carolina. He knew Bascom Lamar Lunsford and Cratis Williams. To me he was a contact and connector with many of those I did not know, some of whom I could never know. Jim Wayne took the responsibility for teaching us about ourselves, and through his influence, through his writing, through his poems and stories, he isstill teaching us, and will continue to teach us, and delight us. Even as I say this I can hear his laughter at some wordplay, some wicked turn of phrase.
I would like to celebrate here the way Jim kept to the large perspective, as well as the local and personal. It was his sense of cultural history that enabled him to help create a field, to clear a newground, where little had been before. Jim had what he called "a nostalgia for the future." I would like to honor his loyalty and versatility.
"He was the most generous human being I ever met," Dana Wildsmith said after his death.
I would like to celebrate his sense of connectedness to people, to older writers such as Jesse Stuart and James Still, to Cratis Williams and Harriette Arnow, to Bascom Lamar Lunsford, to Loyal Jones. In his allegiances, and in his sense of humor, he was an example to aspire to. He actually liked people, and liked to be with people, something not always true of poets.
I will end with a quote from Appalachia Inside and Out:
Thanks to Robert Morgan for allowing his paper to be included here. Mr. Morgan was born in Hendersonville, NC in 1944 and grew up in Ziconia, NC. He graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1965 and later received his M.F.A. from UNC-Greensboro. He presently teaches creative writing at Cornell University. He is the author of several volumes of poetry, including Zirconia Poems, Red Owl, and Land Diving.
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