Saturday, June 02, 2001

Literary tradition often unrecognized

Poet laureate notes major Ky. writers

By Charles Wolfe
The Associated Press

        SADIEVILLE, Ky. — James Baker Hall, Kentucky's new poet laureate, remembers when a literary agent in New York asked him a thought-provoking question: Why are there so many good writers in Kentucky?

        “It is a subject for investigation,” Mr. Hall said. “The fact is that outside the state, all around, it's noticed there are a significant number of writers with national reputations working in Kentucky, and most of them Kentuckians.”

        That might surprise people in a state not historically identified with high literacy. Yet Kentucky has been producing men and women of literary talent for more than a century.

        “A lot of people don't know this,” Mr. Hall, a poet who teaches creative writing at the University of Kentucky, said in an interview at his home in Harrison County. “It seems that only after the outside world recognizes the stature of the people are the citizens of the province able to do it.”

        A long line of Kentucky poets, novelists and essayists have achieved national, even international acclaim.

        Poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren, a Todd County native, was a towering literary figure through most of the 20th century.

        He won three Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award and was the first poet laureate of the United States.

        Elizabeth Madox Roberts of Springfield was one of the first to write about poor whites and tenant farmers with her novel, The Time of Man, in 1926. Harriet Simpson Arnow of Wayne County and James Still, a Mississippian who spent most of his life in Knott County, wrote of Appalachian life and people.

        Ms. Arnow's The Dollmaker is a portrait of uprooted eastern Kentuckians living in Detroit. Mr. Still's River of Earth is the story of a coal-mining family.

        Wendell Berry and Bobbie Ann Mason, who were among Mr. Hall's UK classmates in the 1950s, have been translated into numerous languages.

        Like the others, they sometimes have been only lightly read at home.

        Mr. Still, who died in April at 94, once told an interviewer he was practically unknown inside the state as recently as the 1960s.

        “I went 20 years when nobody ever told me they read anything of mine,” Mr. Still said. “But I didn't expect anybody to. They weren't reading anybody else, either.”

        State historian James Klotter has noted the paradox.

        “Who knows what causes a state to have a literary tradition?” Mr. Klotter said in an interview. “That lack of recognition may stem from people's low educational levels. ... I'm not surprised by it. On the other hand, I am surprised that Kentucky, either in the classroom or as a state institution, has not done more to promote that literary tradition.”

        Richard Taylor, who teaches at Kentucky State University and was Mr. Hall's predecessor as state poet laureate, said the teaching of Kentucky literature in school is “more hit and miss than it is factored into the programs.

        “There should be a greater effort to make those persons celebrated in their own state.”

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