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Excerpted from the Foreword
No other region in America is as mythologized as the South. It can at times be a troubled narration. The South was founded on a scheme of brutal slavery, aggrieved by civil war, glorified by a false lost cause, and shackled to legalized racial segregation. A Southerner’s soul-searching has long been one of agitation and anguish, chagrin and disquiet, a harrowed and mortified and tormented weave.
Running boldly beneath that narrative, on the other hand, is a heartbeat of liberty and equity too: the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and the White Sulphur Manifesto, the Underground Railroad and the Freedom Riders, the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Letter from Birmingham Jail.
These histories have now met a new, defining reality in the South, a phenomenon prevalent across the United states. The white baby-boom generation is nearing retirement and the new generation of Southerners is made up of a growing population of African Americans, Asians, Hispanics, and people of all races, blended into a melting pot of accelerating economic change. This demographic shift is at the root of a renewed vibrancy in political life in the American South, and it is at the root of a renewed vibrancy in the poetry of the American South as well.
But the South’s self-mythologizing is not just restricted to economic and political history. Southern culture is American culture. Southerners are proud of inventing American music – jazz and the blues, bluegrass and the gospel, country and western and zydeco. Southerners are proud of inventing a diverse American cuisine – corn bread and shoofy and succotash, grits and chicken fried steak, BBQ, bourbon, and red-eye gravy.
When it comes to ruminating and swapping stories about the South, Southerners will bless and eulogize, fret and lionize, despair and glorify. As a Texan, I dearly love my home state with all its perplexing and incongruities. I consider my love, as Molly Ivins once put it, “a harmless perversion on my part, and discuss it only with consenting adults.”
These dynamic renditions of the South evoke country swamps and suburban malls, lost byways and ten-lane freeways, rednecks and yuppies and snowbirds. Given the ease with which one can summon the totems of the South, and given the way that the culture and history of the South serves as an emotional lightning rod across the nation, at times unfairly, it’s worth asking what can be said about the South that hasn’t been said already?
And yet: even if it seems that nothing new can be said, that’s precisely where poetry steps in. More to the point, poetry must step in because poetry’s calling is to say the new thing. It is the art of finding new words in new orders. It is poetic utterance that dramatizes afresh the inner consciousness and outer stories of our existence.
This ambition holds true for the poetry of the American South as well. Here I mean to empathize the of and not just the South in that formulation. This anthology begins with the hymns and rhythms of enslaved people who were shipped to this continent four hundred years ago against their will. Enslaved Africans brought with them the roots of American poetry and, as a consequence, there’s been an ingrained sensibility about the tragedy of human bondage in Southern literature; as William Faulkner famously said, “The past is not dead. It isn’t even past.”
If these essential poems of enslaved Africans, which date back to the eighteenth century, present a profound moral stance on subjugation and deliverance, the poetry written b nineteenth–century Southern poets is marked by piousness baked into inflated nostalgia. These are voices that burn for the doomed Confederacy, pine for antebellum mush, and are filled to the brim with patriotic crap.