Monongahela Books: an independent publishing company

Longbuilding_narrow Monongahela Books is an independent publishing company located in Morgantown, West Virginia. It is situated in a 19th-century storefront overlooking the Monongahela River in a ghostly district of town that vanished a good many years ago. You can still get a glimpse of it, though, on certain turn-of-the-century postcards that turn up now and again in flea-markets and junk shops.

We are easier to find on the Web, at MonongahelaBooks.com. We specialize in books of local history, military history and regional literature. Our titles include books on the 18th century frontier, the Civil War, the First World War and the Great Depression.

Our literary offerings include titles by Jared Carter, Dana Gioia, and the only book-length study of the recently rediscovered poet of the First World War, John Allan Wyeth.

Monongahela Books also carries an extensive selection of used books, mostly on American history. You are welcome to peruse our titles at leisure in our Used Book Annex.

Published in: on June 22, 2019 at 4:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

Reading & Reception by Jared Carter at Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, Massachusetts, on July 22nd

Fruitlands_croppedA poetry reading by Jared Carter will take place on Monday, July 22nd at 7:30 in the Wayside Community Gallery in the Fruitlands Museum, located at 102 Prospect Hill Road in Harvard, Massachusetts.

Fruitlands was the short-lived agrarian utopian community established in the 1840s by the Transcendentalists, Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane.

Jared Carter recently published a collection of poetry and photographs with Monongahela Books (The Land Itself, 2019) and a selection of poems from three decades with the University of Nebraska Press (The Darkened Rooms of Summer, 2014).  Both books will be available for purchase at the reading.

Carter received the Walt Whitman Award for his first book, Work, for the Night is Coming, and the Poet’s Prize (awarded annually for the best book of verse by a living American poet), for his second book, After the Rain. He has received literary fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, and was a recipient of the Indiana Governor’s Arts Award.

Additional information about the reading and reception may be found on the Fruitlands Museum website.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

See also two other posts about Jared Carter on this blog, What is left after nothing is left and Jared Carter and American regionalism.

Published in: on July 18, 2019 at 9:58 pm  Leave a Comment  

What is left after nothing is left


TheLandItself_cover

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

Summit

Small towns. A few houses and a general store.
The map might show only one road going through,
but if you keep driving around long enough,
you begin to understand how they’re connected.
There are back roads running in all directions.
You just have to get out and look for them.

People living out there have known each other
for a long time. They still have family reunions
in late August, on plank tables under the trees.
Places with names like Hadley, and Springtown,
and Coatesville. Most of them manage to keep
a grain elevator going, maybe a post office.

I’m a real-estate appraiser. These days
I spend a lot of time out looking at farms.
I’ve got a bunch of good maps in my car;
old ones, too. You don’t want to come back
to town and admit you couldn’t even find
the place you were looking for. Or got lost.

One day last September I was driving along
a gravel road between Clayton and Hadley, using
an old county map. Up ahead was a little town
called Summit, that had been a flag stop once,
on a spur slanting off from the main line
to Terre Haute. That spur’s been gone for years.

Summit was gone, too. But I found it, after a while,
figured out exactly where it had been,
right at the top of a long rise you could see
stretching for miles across the countryside.
Nothing out there now but lots of beans and corn,
blue sky and clouds. Not even fence rows anymore.

You could almost imagine the train heading west,
up that long grade, pouring on the coal, making
for high ground. When it finally pulled in,
and the telegraph man came out for the mail,
there would be a couple of little kids sitting
on the baggage wagon, waving to the engineer.

I walked up to the only place it could have been.
Right there, at the crest of the hill. Somebody
had kept it mowed. There was a strong wind blowing.
I searched around in the grass for a long time,
but I couldn’t find anything. Not a trace.
Only the land itself, and the way it still rose up.

~~Jared Carter

 

Published in: on June 27, 2019 at 11:27 pm  Leave a Comment  

Ancestral families

Where_Once_They_StoodExcerpted from Where Once They Stood: The Colonial and Early Republic Ancestors of Alpheus Appenheimer and America Swango:

“The tracing of a modern person’s lineage back through the centuries to a single remote ancestor in a vanished time and place, is the essence of genealogy.  However painstaking the research, with continual cross-checking and cross-referencing—however thorough and dispassionate the examination of evidence from multiple sources, however ingenious the triangulation of disparate data, and however rational the reliance on DNA testing for verification—the pursuit of a genetic lineage is an endeavor not untinged by the stain of romanticism. Though they might disavow it emphatically and cling to the respectable trappings of the dedicated scholar, there lurks in the shadowy recesses of every genealogist’s soul a secret Galahad, a quester after the Grail, a seeker after a direct link to some storied, half-mythic ancestor who has captivated the imagination, whether prince, or knight, or notorious outlaw.

The emphasis, in other words, is all on the individual—on direct links to particular ancestors—on traceable lineages—on great grandfathers and great grandmothers, as opposed to great uncles, great aunts, or first cousins several times removed.  This emphasis on direct lineages is mirrored in the history and legal system of every nation, and one can hardly gainsay its importance, but it is nevertheless a distortion of a core human reality: that the most basic unit in human society is not the individual but the family.

If this assertion seems less obvious now than in earlier eras, it is only because so much of human culture—through forces originally set into motion by humankind, but now utterly beyond its control—is currently in the process of disintegration. The typical American family in our time is both fractured and fractious, a mere stump of the great spreading tree that it was in its prime.

We speak reverentially of American individualism as a central national tenet, embodied in the figures of the 18th century longhunter or 19th century mountainman, the lone restless wanderer with his powderhorn and longrifle, self-reliant, living off the land, who has broken finally and utterly with the feudal European system of master and vassal: the quintessence of the free and independent man.

And while such individuals did exist—perhaps in greater numbers on the Appalachian frontier, it may be, than in any other place before or since—their role in the arduous transformation over decades of the wilderness into established settlements was peripheral at most. That prodigious under-taking, for good or ill, and the brutal struggle it entailed against the Shawnee, Cherokee and other indigenous tribes, was the work not of intrepid individuals but of grittily determined pioneer families whose other options—very often—had all but run out.

Not only was it families who turned the tomahawk claims into backwoods farmsteads, who hewed out the first wagon roads and laid out the earliest frontier towns—it was also families (not generals or governors or governments, but families) who, in many instances, raised the militias, built the forts, and patrolled the forests. Consider those self-reliant families in the Watauga valley on the far side of the Alleghenies: cut off from any hope of support against the Cherokee from the governments of either North Carolina or Virginia, they declared their independence, established their own government and petitioned Williamsburg for recognition.

Dependent on no one but themselves for sustenance from the wilderness and protection against the tribes, families on the frontier naturally turned to neighboring families for support. They joined forces against the dangers that threatened them from all sides, and, before long, sealed their bonds by marriage, until families in a given region became, in effect, one great extended family.

For us now, trying to comprehend the lives of our colonial ancestors, it is not enough simply to trace the lineages of direct forebears. They did not exist as isolated individuals, but as members of extended families and close-knit communities who, for generations, had depended on one another for survival.

For this reason, in presenting the story of Alpheus and America Appenheimer’s frontier ancestors, I have included not only fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, but brothers, sisters, cousins and even in-laws as well—for they too were family.  On the frontier, especially, families were closely bound. They emigrated into the wilderness together, endured hardships together, suffered Indian attacks and abductions together, and went to war together. Calamities were family affairs.”

BJ Omanson

Published in: on June 27, 2019 at 6:11 am  Leave a Comment  

Old Locksley takes sanctuary deep in the cavernous gloom of his house

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from Old Locksley among the Ruins:

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  It was later that year,
after weeks when the heat of midsummer
had driven Old Locksley to seek the shade,
had driven him, like a disgruntled bear,
to take sanctuary deep in his house,
deep in the cavernous gloom of his house,
with bats in the attic and dripping eaves
and high steepled windows where mystics, monks
and martyrs shone softly in sunlit glass
it was later that year, after summer’s heat
had driven Old Locksley into the hushed
recesses and curtained-off rooms of his house
a house that was more a cavern than house,
with ivy-encumbered and blackened stone
and deeply-set doorways encased in vine
or more like a mausoleum, perhaps,
with its bordering arbor vitae and yew
with crumbling foundation and groaning pipes
and crickets in corners, its redolent rooms
provisioned with humidors of tobacco
and crystal decanters of peaty scotch,
its snug little hideaways fitted out
with old leather sofas and mica lamps
enveloped in amber light  it was later,
much later that year that Locksley, at last,
emerged amid whirlings of leaves released
from willow and maple to clutter the air
all about his head and skitter across
the garden to lodge in the lower boughs
of the conifers  it was later that year
that Locksley returned to his garden seat,
returned to consider and contemplate
the melancholy decline of the year,
the shedding of gold and of crimson leaves,
the dropping of berries and migrating flocks
of sparrows in spruces, and all the subtle
foreshadowings of the coming cold . . .

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

~~BJ Omanson
 

 

Published in: on June 27, 2019 at 5:29 am  Leave a Comment  

John Allan Wyeth, Ezra Pound & the random particularity of war

BeforetheClangoroftheGun_cover_reducedExcerpted from Before the Clangor of the Gun:

“More than any other English-language poet of the war, Wyeth’s language is stripped clean of 19th-century tonalities and devices. A contributing factor to Wyeth’s modernist style might have been that, during the years immediately prior to the publication of This Man’s Army, when he was almost certainly composing his sonnets, Wyeth resided in the American colony in Rapallo, Italy, where he was known to be friends with Ezra Pound (see “Notes on Wyeth’s Years in Rapallo,” p. 99).

While it is impossible to know the nature, or extent, of Pound’s influence on Wyeth, there is no denying that Wyeth’s stringently honed descriptions—where every word contributes to the presentation and every image is distilled to its essentials—accord closely to the Imagist principles which Pound espoused in the years before the war. Even the Imagist stricture that the rhythm of a poem should possess the fluidity of a musical phrase rather than the beat of a metronome, is not violated by Wyeth’s sonnets, which display an unprecedented metrical freedom within the general constraint of the form.

Whether Wyeth developed his acute descriptive powers under the influence of Pound, or from earlier influences, is a matter of conjecture. It is at least as plausible that the minutely observed and needle-sharp descriptions of Henry James provided the primary influence on Wyeth’s technique. According to Edmund Wilson, only he and Wyeth—of their literary circle at Princeton—read James seriously while they were there, and it was Wyeth who led Wilson to a full appreciation of James’ technique.

wyethalone_cropped2_trans            Wyeth’s reliance on chance, on working with whatever objects circumstance might provide, even when they serve no apparent thematic or metaphoric purpose, has a basic affinity with a precept of another major theorist of Imagism, T.E. Hulme, who was a direct influence on Pound. Hulme’s contention was that it is not the object itself that matters, but only its description. Any object will do as well as any other, including random objects served up by chance.

The idea of employing randomness as a compositional principle may have been unusual in literary theory in those years, but in the visual arts the notion of the objet trouvé (“found object”) had been in the air since well before the war, from Picasso’s Still-life with Chair Caning, to Duchamp’s “ready-mades,” to Dada’s reliance on whatever the artist happened to pick up in the street.  It is certainly no stretch to assume that Wyeth, with his years spent in New York, London and Paris, and his lifelong interest in contemporary movements in art, would have keep well abreast of such developments.

Wyeth’s reliance on circumstantial subject matter might tempt a less well-informed critic to dismiss Wyeth’s sonnets as mere documentary reportage, but if that were all his sonnets amounted to, they would lie flat and lifeless on the page.  What we find instead is a body of work where the unsettled randomness of actual events infuses each sonnet with an élan vital, a vital spark. Far from being the equivalent of old newspapers fit only for wrapping fish, Wyeth’s sonnets are living vignettes, rich in chaos, chlorine, and all the random particularity of war.”

BJ Omanson

Published in: on June 24, 2019 at 3:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

A Young Girl’s Diary during the Great Depression: Life on an Illinois Farm

AYoungGirlintheGreatDepression_coverExcerpted from the Preface of A Young Girl in the Great Depression:

“What is especially notable about this diary, written by one so young, is how outwardly directed and objective it is.  While her own activities are recorded, they receive little more attention than those of her siblings and parents, with nearly equal additional attention given to the activities of a host of relatives and neighbors. The result is an account of an extended family, and its surrounding community, which is unusually comprehensive.

On the one hand, because she is constrained by the small amount of space is allotted for each day, her entries never exceed more than a modest paragraph. She has to pack in the information, and avoid digressions of any sort. She has to stay focused on particular facts and events and, because the life around her is so rich in the number of small events which she is determined to record, she has no space to spare for description. What matters above all is what people do.

            To an historian, this is pure gold. A major obstacle in understanding rural life in earlier periods, is the lack of sources which portray what people actually did, and how they inter-acted, on a day-to-day basis: all the little ordinary activities and events which no one thought important enough to record. But it is exactly such details as these which historians require if they are to reconstruct rural life accurately.

Farmers and their families are not natural diarists.  They are simply too busy, and too tired at the end of the day, to keep a faithful record of everything that happens and of what everyone does. Adolescents, on the other hand, have more time, and are probably more inclined to keep diaries, but they almost invariably write about themselves to the exclusion of everything else. Such diaries rarely possess any historical value.

Adolescents are naturally self-centered, and I do not mean this as criticism. Both their outward and inward lives are changing so rapidly that they can barely keep track of the daily stresses, traumas and transformations. The diary of a typical thirteen-year-old is almost entirely subjective. Everything that happens is taken personally. It is simply in the nature of being an adolescent. Their world is changing by the day, and it is a full-time job just to keep track of one’s inner turmoil. There is no time left over to follow everyone else’s activities.

Yet in Betty’s diary the degree of self-centeredness is almost nil. She is more interested in what happen to others than in what happens to herself. She possesses a natural empathy which keeps her outwardly focused. She is pleased when others do well, and sympathetic when they suffer. She writes about those around her in a plain, straightforward manner with no hint of fault-finding. She gives everyone the benefit of the doubt. And as hard as her life obviously is at times, it never occurs to her to complain.

As history, the most valuable documents of rural life are often business records kept by the farmers themselves. Regarding Al Appenheimer’s farm, we are fortunate to possess highly detailed records of the farm’s operation which cover every year from the late 1920s to the early 1970s. But for all their historical significance, such records tell us very little of what individual family members actually did on a day-to-day basis.

Another primary source for understanding the daily life of rural families are letters, but letter writers almost always concentrate on important events such as weddings, births, illnesses and deaths.  What they omit, not surprisingly, are the small occurrences and activities which comprise an ordinary working day. Letters are relatively infrequent, so that events tend to be summarized, and condensed.  They convey little of the daily rhythm of rural life.

It is this aspect of Betty Appenheimer’s diary—the faithful recording of all the little things that she and her family and neighbors do, day in and day out, through three years of changing seasons—which makes her diary such an historical treasure trove.”

BJ Omanson

Published in: on June 24, 2019 at 2:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

Dana Gioia on Jack Foley

FoleyCover8_reducedThe following is excerpted from Jack Foley’s Unmanageable Masterpiece:

“Jack Foley has been such an active figure in California letters over the past forty years that it would seem impossible to make sense of West Coast poetry without reference to him. Yet most critics do exactly that. Foley has published on the margins of official literary life. Conventional critics don’t know his work. Time will correct the oversight, but there is no harm in speeding up the process by offering a few observations on his prolific career. There are singular aspects of his work that deserve attention, especially his experimental poetry written for and performed by multiple voices. But poetic innovation is what one expects from a Bay Area Beat. What astonishes the reader is Foley’s critical prose. No one expects a Beat poet to write a major work of literary history or to develop a radically new and revelatory approach to the genre.

Literary history is an academic enterprise, something done on a Mellon grant in a research library by a tenured professor with a book contract from Oxford. On my shelf I see thick volumes with titles such as The Columbia History of American Literature or Oxford History of English Literature. There is good reason that publishers name such books after universities. The genre seems inherently institutional. The volumes resemble collectively compiled reference works more than expressions of personal critical engagement. Literature is an affair of individual sensibility—both in its creation and criticism. Literary history, however, requires the author to reconcile personal opinions with the broader external consensus. That is one reason why such books date quickly; collective opinions change as intellectual fashions change.

There are a few glorious exceptions—literary histories that combine scholarship and personality, virtues that give them considerable longevity. George Saintsbury’s three-volume History of English Prosody (1906) is one conspicuous example—a study that still feels alive more than a century after its publication. The reader may disagree with Saintsbury on a particular point, but the author remains a vital and provocative presence. Likewise René Wellek’s monumental eight-volume History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950 (published from 1955 to 1986) presents formidable scholarship with a gentle human touch. As polyglot Professor Wellek surveys two hundred years of Western intellectual history, he never forgets that the students in his imaginary seminar are a bit embarrassed at not having done all the assigned reading. Such erudite but engaging books prove not merely useful but invaluable. They provide comprehensive accounts of complex subjects in which the authors communicate their passions, puzzlements, and prejudices.

Yet how seldom is literary history done well. Years of fastidious scholarship and editorial toil often deaden the author who must diligently push the project to its contractual end, even though passion died in chapter three. Academic conventions also weigh upon the style and structure. Critical fashions mire it in short-term concerns. The genre’s problems have increased in recent years, as more surveys have been written not by individuals but committees of experts. Hefty official histories now appear without any unifying narrative line or organizing principle. Written by different authors, each chapter exists in intellectual and stylistic isolation. Pursuing their individual interests, scholars leave gaps in the historical record omitting major writers and subjects. If the genre isn’t dead yet, we can hear the carpenter sawing boards for the coffin.

* * * * *

It will seem supremely odd to any academic that Jack Foley, an Oakland poet without any institutional support or university connection, has written the most comprehensive history of post-war California poetry—a study that not only surveys the lives and work of hundreds of literary figures but also cogently addresses the contradictory impulses in the state’s creative psyche. Moreover Foley has fashioned his chronicle in an innovative way that is both engaging and unabashedly experimental.”

Dana Gioia

Published in: on June 24, 2019 at 7:06 am  Leave a Comment  

Jared Carter and American regionalism

TheLandItself_coverThe following is excerpted from the Introduction to Jared Carter’s new book, The Land Itself:

“That Jared Carter, among living writers, is one of America’s premier regionalist poets is a claim few who know his work well would dispute. Yet describing any writer as regionalist in the second decade of the 21st century is in some ways problematic. The last high-water mark of American regionalism, the 1930s, was already on the wane by the time Jared Carter was born, and regionalism’s death knell was already being sounded by such critics as Lowry Charles Wimberly – who saw in the spread of national brands and national standards the inexorable homogenization of America’s regions. At the same time, John Crowe Ransom and the Agrarians were analyzing the slow death of Southern regionalism due to the spread of industrialism, the migration from rural areas into the cities, and a host of inter-related cultural trends.

After the end of World War II, the homogenization of America’s hinterlands, due to the spread of the interstate highway system and television, received a quantum boost, with its effects becoming more far-reaching and virulent with each passing decade until, by the digital revolution of 1990s, it had come to seem as though regionalism could only legitimately be spoken of in the past tense.

And yet it was through these same decades, when so much of what was most distinctive about America’s heartland was vanishing, that Carter was turning out poem after poem, portraying characters, situations and locations as singular and sharply defined as any in literature, and he was doing so with a honed plainness of style that left no doubt as to their veracity and authenticity.

Beginning with Carter’s first book, Work, For the Night is Coming (1981), readers were introduced to a region which was at once literal and mythical: “Mississinewa County,” somewhere “east of Spoon River, west of Winesburg, and slightly north of Raintree County,” as Carter himself has explained.  It is a fictional county named for an actual river (the Mississinewa, a tributary of the Wabash) which, like the fictional town “Spoon River” (also named for an actual river), Faulkner’s “Yoknapatawpha County,” Frost’s rural New England,  Robinson’s “Tilbury Town” and a long list of other literary regions, is rooted equally in the American continent and the American psyche. Mississinewa County is a multifaceted, multidimensional “place” of such symbolic and allegorical richness that its hinterlands and far boundaries – despite several decades of appreciative commentary – remain largely unexplored. Altogether, Carter’s books contain much of what one has come to expect in a regionalist body of literature from the American Midwest: pool halls and funeral parlors, dilapidated barns and covered bridges, barbershops and taverns, and miles of highways, telephone poles and open country inhabited by farmers, druggists, drifters, drunkards, undertakers and real estate developers. Turning to any of the early and late poems in the current collection, one is struck once again by the assurance and authority in the poet’s voice. Carter’s descriptions are rendered with a pitch-perfect precision that can only come from long familiarity with his subject. He is a plein-air poet, portraying his region with a sharpness of focus and an eye for inconspicuous but telling detail that cannot be achieved at second-hand.

The answer, then, to the question of whether a genuinely regional literature is still possible in the 21st century, when America’s regions have been all but homogenized, suburbanized, industrialized and digitized out of existence, is to be found in the pages of any of Carter’s books, where the poems, like palpable artifacts plucked from field or creekbed, constitute clear evidence of a region still very much alive. Precisely how America’s regions have survived a century of destructive “progress” – at what cost, and in what fashion – are complex questions beyond the scope of this essay. But one index and proof of their survival is to be found in the literature they produce, and Carter’s books are as strong a piece of evidence as one might hope for.”

BJ Omanson

Published in: on June 24, 2019 at 6:56 am  Comments (1)  

Haunting old bookstores and how I discovered a lost classic of WWI literature

BeforetheClangoroftheGun_cover_reduced

From Before the Clangor of the Gun:

“Of the countless times I have drawn a dusty old  book from a dim shelf in a used-bookstore during the past forty years or so, only once can I claim to have discovered an unknown classic of American literature. Not that I recognized it as such at the time. Not even now, on the eve of its re-publication by a university press, can its status as a lost classic be said to be a matter of general perception. But— I rush ahead of myself.  Let me begin at the beginning.

Ten minutes walking distance from our house in Morgantown, West Virginia, in the early 1990s, stood a two-story used-bookstore of the old style: several thousand worthy, out-of-print titles of history, literature, science, travel, art, music and the like, in a 19th-century brick storefront at the periphery of the old downtown, along a high embankment over-looking Decker’s Creek. There were no romances on its shelves, no self-help books, no celebrity autobiographies, no junk. Very few paperbacks. No helpful salespeople or progressive muzak to endure, no Starbucks, free wifi, best-seller displays or any other such irritating “amenities.’  It was still in that golden, Arcadian, pre-digital age, with well-worn overstuffed chairs in out-of-way corners, a foot-stool and ladder for the high shelves and a dozing cat on the window-seat. A few dozen bins of paper ephemera, and shallow drawers of old prints and maps. If you wished to come in for two or three hours of undisturbed browsing, not a single soul would say a word to you. Or if you were in the mood for some wayward, discursive, off-beat conversation about books or any other subject under the sun, the old gent behind the counter was generally good for it— at least until the dawn of the computer age when every bookseller in the country was abruptly faced with the necessity of putting his entire stock online. As soon as that happened, the conversation dried up. The colorful old codger behind the desk was reduced to a sullen automaton jabbing a keyboard and endlessly cursing. Once computers arrived, like an alien invasion, the old havens of dust and suspended time, of relaxed and literate conversation, were facing the sunset.

I describe all this because it was the setting for my discovery. By the early 1990s I had been reading the poets of the First World War seriously for a quarter of a century— poetry, biographies and criticism—and had a personal library of over a hundred volumes just about the poetry of the war. It was part of a much larger library which filled my office (dubbed “the Dugout” by my wife) in which every square inch of wall space from floor to ceiling, and even covering the windows, was hung with equipment from the war: helmets, gas masks, cartridge belts, canteens, and even a Model 1917 McClellan saddle, as well as rusted barbed wire, rifle barrels, shell casings, bayonets, forks, tin cups and other relics dug from French woodlands and fields. But most of all the walls were covered with books on nearly every aspect of the war: Western Front, Eastern Front, Homefront, Mesopotamia, the Balkans, Africa and Italy— books on the ground war, sea war and air war. There were books on movements against the war, and on John Reed and the Russian Revolution. But it was the literature and art of the First World War which fascinated me most of all, especially the poetry.

So I remember very well the afternoon that I pulled a certain thin volume off a high shelf in Wolf’s Head Books. I had been over their WWI section more times than I could count and had looked into each book in that section with some care. Every WWI title that came into my hands was a title I considered buying and, never having sufficient funds for all the books I needed, I took my time looking each one over as a prospective purchase. I knew, or thought I knew, every title in that section. I was doing research for a book about my grandfather’s unit in France in 1918, and was especially eager to add more American titles to my working library. But beyond that particular project, I was still intently focused on the poetry of the war, and on that day I found an American poet of WWI that I had never even heard of.

wyeth1

          It was a thin black book with faded spine and lettering worn off, which is probably why I had passed over it until then. (picture to left shows copy with dust jacket).  From the moment I opened it, I was intrigued. I had never heard of John Allan Wyeth, or his book, This Man’s Army, but that in itself was not too unusual. I had turned up dozens of nondescript volumes of American war poems, published in small runs by obscure publishers, and even more often self-published. It was a time in history when poetry was enormously popular, and when amateur poets from all classes and backgrounds were as numerous as leaves in a forest. The number of books of war poems published during and immediately after the war was immense, and I had never failed to discover one or two new ones with each passing year. So holding another such book in my hands was not especially noteworthy. But my first skim through the book told me I had found something unusual. For one thing, it was a sizeable collection of individual poems, and they were all located in France, during the war, with place-names for titles and in chronological order. No other book of war poetry I could think of employed such a systematic and documentary arrangement. It was laid out like a soldier’s diary. I scanned the list of French towns and place-names, and as soon as I saw Chipilly Ridge I guessed that the poet had been with the American 33rd Division. Later investigation would bear this out.

What caught my attention most of all was that the entire book was a single sonnet sequence. I had been interested in sonnet sequences for a number of years, as it happened, and had only recently completed a sequence of fourteen sonnets describing my grandfather’s experiences at Belleau Wood. Wyeth’s sequence, however, was over fifty sonnets long and, reading through just a few of them at random, indicated that not only were they highly skilled, but unusually innovative as well. What was most exciting was that they were written, not in an elevated, formal tone, but in a cool, concise, dispassionate voice, spiced with slangy soldiers’ dialogue, French villagers’ patois, and filled with as many small particulars of life at the front as any of the finest soldier-diaries I had read.”

BJ Omanson

Published in: on June 24, 2019 at 6:29 am  Leave a Comment  
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