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Southern Sentence Poem Revisited

Last week when I reminisced about my Granddaddy, Pee Wee Griffin, Seaboard Airline Engineer for some fifty years, among the many comments I received was Kathryn Stripling Byer’s: The song of a train passing has haunted many a Southern poet’s work.  Haunted, that is indeed what we are.

Yesterday I caught a snippet on public radio by a Civil War historian at Duke.  He describes Governor Graham dragging his heels about secession; as much as a third of North Carolinians opposed war.  The Duke Prof then tells about pulling into a barbecue restaurant in Kinston recently.  During the War, General Pickett encamped at Kinston on his return from a disastrous attempt to recapture New Bern from the Union.  In Kinston Pickett hanged twenty-two North Carolinians he considered deserters, though most of them had never sworn the oath to the Confederate Army.  Pickett was later accused of war crimes and fled to Canada – the historical point being that allegiances, honor, and motivations are a lot more complicated than South vs. North.  When the Professer parks at the restaurant and looks down the row of cars and pickups with Stars and Bars on their bumpers, he just shakes his head and says, “You don’t even know who you are.”

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Who are we, anyway?  That’s why there’s poetry – that we may discover who we are.  I’m pondering again the form an essentially Southern poem might take. Remember in August I suggested such a poem must include Place, Past, and Culture.  Our identity is complex, but a poem’s complexity lies in its brevity.  What sense most perfectly evokes a memory?  The sense of smell – impossible to describe, complex and heavy with nuance, a simple odor may transport you to a time and place you thought you’d departed forever.  I want a poem to do the same, to be vastly more than the sum of its words, to cause the reader to gasp and sigh at the same time.

Therefore, the SOUTHERN SENTENCE POEM MUST BE SEVEN LINES.

Why seven?  When I as a doddering old man kiss my great-grandchild, I will have held or been held by seven generations of my family.  There are seven Southern waters: spring from rock fissure, clear trout stream, green piedmont river, dam & lake, blackwater meandering, sound, shore.  Southerners more than many are subject to the seven deadly sins and seven heavenly virtues.  Don’t forget the seven bridges road in Montgomery, Alabama.  But most of all because I think seven lines is just the right length.

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So here’s another attempt:

When the train whistle blows
through the Yadkin Valley
we lay down our plastic toys,
lean across the porch rail
until the last beckoning
has trailed away, and I become
my grandson, wondering.

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Place – Yadkin Valley; Past – becoming my Grandson; Culture – porch rail and, of course, that lonesome, haunting train whistle.

Leave me your Southern Sentence Poems here or on our new Facebook Page.

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