A Gift to Art and Us
The legacy of Fred Chappell
By Stephen E. Smith
That noun rarely comes to mind when considering the attributes a writer should possess in abundance. But what a writer does — the act of creating through fiction, poetry, drama, etc. — is something anyone could do who has the heart, the skill, and the courage to do it. And courage is what Fred Chappell, North Carolina’s former poet laureate and career-long creative writing teacher, instilled in his students during his 40 years as a professor in the Master of Fine Arts program at UNC Greensboro.
Fred died on Jan. 4 at age 87, and I suspect he would find this highfalutin’ courage stuff a trifle excessive. He would laugh and shrug it off as so much puffery. But in fact, courage was Fred’s greatest gift to his students. They had to demonstrate the fortitude to survive his graduate writing workshops. If you couldn’t take the criticism, you had no business pursuing a writing career. Moreover, you’d be unlikely to take the chances necessary to produce art that’s compelling in its originality.
Fred taught by example, demonstrating great courage as a writer from his early Southern gothic novels to his last line of poetry, taking his readers into unexpected precincts, exploring new ground within the context of traditional verse and prose, while always challenging and surprising and delighting his readers.
Of the more than 30 books and hundreds of uncollected stories, poems and literary essays that might be reviewed in this space, one book stands out as both traditional, experimental and uniquely ambitious — Midquest: A Poem — for which Fred was awarded the Bollingen Prize.
Originally published as four chapbooks — River, Wind Mountain, Bloodfire and Earthsleep — the poems (each volume is presented as a single poem composed of shorter poems) appeared from 1975 through 1980, when Fred was in his 30s. Constructed around the elements of water, wind, fire and earth, the work that comprised Midquest was a startling achievement following Fred’s first volume of poetry, World Between the Eyes. When other poets were playing it safe with carefully controlled collections of verse, Fred suddenly expanded the national poetic palette by employing a startling range of forms. Reviewers labeled Midquest “a verse-novel,” but such descriptions don’t capture the variety of exploration and the sense of adventure evident in each “poem” in the collection.
The arrival of Midquest had an effect on late 20th century audiences similar to that of Leaves of Grass on 19th century readers. Within a familiar format, there’s an explosion of energy and constant exploration, all of it mingled with Fred’s depth of knowledge, range of diction, and implacable intellectual curiosity. Fred lays it all on the line and he makes it work. Midquest could only have been written by a poet of extraordinary courage.
The poem “Firewood,” which appears in Bloodfire, is nothing less than astonishing. A stream-of-consciousness foray through the mind of a persona who is chopping wood, it’s demanding of readers in its humorous wordplay and levels of philosophic allusions. As the persona hacks away at the heart of oak, he muses in some of the densest language imaginable. Here’s a bit of “Firewood”:
. . . we can
even half read the dark that sucks the fire away
& swallows, hearth being dug out of earth &
overpowering entropy of earth clouds from the
beginning the wild root mass of fire, it was sun
jammed into dirt that raised the tree, Lucretius’
seed of fire ignis semina is seed semina mortuis
(dirt we rose from, dirt we’ll never forget)
of death in that same split second, moment
split by the man’s hand hard as an iron wedge . . . .
And so the poem goes for more than 450 lines that engage, delight, mock, question, enlighten, challenge, amuse, and befuddle the determined reader, all of it sustained by an energy that’s part elegiac, folkloric, spiritual, and droll. If “Firewood” is a trifle demanding of the reader, it’s emotionally immersing and immensely satisfying as a work of art.
I was out of the MFA program and publishing books of poetry when I read “Firewood.” The sheer brilliance of the work left me with the knowledge that I’d never achieve such excellence but that I’d be compelled to try, even if it took forever. Fred’s Midquest had relegated me and my fellow poets to the status of neighborhood rhymesters.
If “Firewood” demonstrates a degree of exclusivity, “Cleaning the Well” from River is generous and inclusive — a narrative poem about a boy lowered into a well to clean out years of accumulated detritus:
Two worlds there are. One you think
You know; the Other is the Well
In hard December down I went.
“Now clean it out good.” Lord, I sank
Like an anchor. My grand-dad leant
Above. His face blazed bright as steel. . . .
Beginning his descent into the unknown, the persona imagines:
Ribcage of drowned warlock gleaming,
Rust-chewed chain mail, or a plangent
Sunken bell tolling to the heart
Of Earth. (They’d surely chosen an art-
less child to sound the soundless dreaming . . . .
What does the poet find? He discovers random objects right out of the possibilities of life:
Twelve plastic pearls, monopoly
Money, a greenish rotten cat
Rubber knife, toy gun,
Clock guts, wish book, door key,
An indescribable female hat.
Hauled back to the surface, the poet muses:
I had not found death good.
“Down there I kept thinking I was dead.”
“Aw, you’re all right,” he said.
Fred followed Midquest with more than 25 books — novels, short story collections, and volumes of poetry — material crafted with his unique combinations of precision, intellect, generosity, and courage. But Midquest remains a singular masterpiece, a poem every lover of great literature should read and cherish. OH
Stephen E. Smith graduated with an MFA in creative writing from UNC Greensboro in 1971. He was one of Fred Chappell’s students, and a friend. Apprentice House Press will publish Smith’s memoir, The Year We Danced, on May 7.