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[ Bedside Table ]

Maurice Manning’s Bedside Table: Books, Music, and Neighbors

by Maurice Manning

A brief introduction:

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending a poetry reading by Indiana University Professor, Maurice Manning. He is a man with a wry smile and an almost military carriage. His poetry has the historical, formal feel of having lived ages, but it is nimble and whimsical at the same time. It’s this juxtaposition of the old and the new that helps give Manning’s poetry its tension, which is taut as a guitar string. His performance that night captured the hundred-plus listeners with its inclusion of a few dozen new poems—ones not found in his previous three collections, LAWRENCE BOOTH'S BOOK OF VISIONS (2001); A COMPANION FOR OWLS: BEING THE COMMONPLACE BOOK OF D. BOONE, LONG HUNTER, BACK WOODSMAN, & (2004); and BUCOLICS (2007). Afterward, hunting for some clues to the origins of his poetic power, I emailed to ask him what he was reading. What follows is his response.
—Michael Garriga

In the summers I try to read fiction since I have longer stretches of time. This summer I've read Jude the Obscure and a fair amount of Melville's short fiction. Both Hardy and Melville fit nicely into some of my recent thoughts about our contemporary society, how it's changed and what we seem to have lost, and reading them helps me to refine my own thinking. These forays always manage to offer some serendipitous results. A few days ago, I was in my local public library waiting to talk to a teenage book club and I was thumbing through some county historical documents, which included a record of deeds from the late 1790s. There I found entries for the sale of slaves, as well as entries for the return of slaves, apparently to keep the biological family intact--for the "purpose of nurture and solace." I also found entries where parents had enlisted their young children for apprenticeships with local tradesmen. In one such entry, a 3-year old girl was apprenticed to a man to learn "spinning;" in another, a 6-year old boy was apprenticed to a man to be a "hatter." Lots of things intrigue me here, aside from simply imagining the lives of these real people. First of all, the sad and wrenching history of slavery preoccupied Melville, and, as immodest as it might sound, I enjoy feeling a kind of fellowship with him. The rural and village trades were important to Hardy, especially how the loss of such trades was one of the significant costs of industrialization.

I generally find more meaning and potency in the past. Here in Kentucky (just outside Danville) that past has always felt close and I've always felt connected to it, sprung from it, like it or not. Down the road from my house is an old family graveyard. One of the graves there is for a woman whose first name was America. Even though I live in the middle of nowhere, sometimes it feels like I live in the center of it all.

I've also read a bunch of poetry this summer, particularly the early Romantics like William Cowper and Thomas Gray. Somewhere in the back of my mind is Oliver Goldsmith's "The Deserted Village." At times that poem is moralistic, but I find it hard to disagree with Goldsmith's conclusions; I'm also not afraid to let literature have moral weight and impact. So, my reading of late feels like a sandwich, one piece of bread is the 18th Century village life of Cowper, Goldsmith, and Gray; the other piece of bread is the moral wasteland of the late 19th Century, the consequence of undoing the village economy, courtesy of slavery, industrialization, and empire. What happened between those pieces of bread? Obviously, a lot, a lot of unrecorded events involving people whose names are forever forgotten. That's good ground for a writer.

As for music, I've been listening to The Louvin Brothers. They manage to spread two voices as far apart as possible and still keep in harmony and still make the song sound simple. Of course, the music isn't simple at all; it's haunting, despairing, ambiguous, and strange. They sing about God and Hell, love and death, the same stuff as Thomas Hardy. The Louvins have a version of "The Friendly Beasts" which I just love. That song originates in 12th Century France, but eventually found its way to Appalachia. I've heard it all my life, and I also happen to like beasts.

Beyond reading and music, I also enjoy listening to everything that's in the air from my neighbors or folks I run into. Earlier this summer I was sitting on my front porch and a woman pulled up, honked her horn and summoned me to her car. When I got there she asked, "Are you the Rabbit Man?" That will find its way into a poem one of these days.

Maurice Manning's third book, Bucolics, has just been published by Harcourt. He lives in Kentucky and Bloomington, Indiana, where he teaches at Indiana University.

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