May 7, 2019KR Conversations

Nathaniel Perry

Photo of Nathaniel PerryNathaniel Perry is the author of a book of poems, Nine Acres, (Copper Canyon, APR, 2011). He is the editor of the Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review and lives in rural southside Virginia. An excerpt from his essay “My Heart in Every Darkness: Watching George Scarbrough Wait” can be found here. It appears in the May/June 2019 issue of the Kenyon Review.

What was your original impetus for writing “My Heart in Every Darkness: Watching George Scarbrough Wait”?

This essay comes from a series of like essays. I’ve done pieces like this on Longfellow, Edward Thomas, Geoffrey Hill, Elizabeth Bishop, Primus St. John, Gwendolyn Brooks, Elizabeth Coatsworth and others. However, when I began this essay project, I knew I would have to write one on Scarbrough. He’s been a major figure for me since very early in my poetry writing life, and one who always seems to need more consideration. And digging even deeper than that—even within my love of Scarbrough—”Evening” holds a special place in my private canon of favorite poems. If his “Letter to Spencer,” from that same first book, was the first Scarbrough poem I loved, then “Evening” was the poem I have always loved best. There are ways in which I think I’ll never do it justice—every time I teach it or introduce new people to it, I always feel like I’ve undersold the thing. So hopefully this essay manages to at least sell it at a fair price.

You bring George Scarbrough’s poems from the mid-twentieth century in conversation with elements of your current life and contemporary sensations of belonging and isolation. How did it feel to pull from a distinctly different time and tradition of poetry, particularly from this “too-little-known poet”? Is there anything of Scarbrough that stays back in a different time, or might we encounter him like the brook he writes about: by waiting for him in the place that we are know that something of him can come downstream?

You know, Scarbrough is one of those writers who always seems to be waiting for me—not the other way around. Even when I first encountered him I felt that. I think I first heard of George Scarbrough when I read an essay by Forrest Gander on “lost” southern poets—I believe he also wrote about Besmilr Brigham in that piece, I don’t remember where I read it—and the name lodged in my head. Years later, when I was in graduate school, I was in Myopic Books in Wicker Park in Chicago and found a copy of Scarbrough’s selected poems, published, as all his later books were, by Iris Press. I remembered the name and took it home. Sitting in my great aunt’s ancient rocking chair, which I had just acquired, with my brand-new dog, who is now fourteen, at my feet, I read the book and found a voice that was so alive and ready for me to find it that I could feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Some of the poems, “Letter to Spencer,” as I mentioned, or “Hymn for the Sound of Hymns” or “The Crow,” were so audaciously marvelous, I just couldn’t believe I hadn’t found them before. What does this mean, I remember thinking, about the canon? If this good of a poet is laughing at us in the darkness of obscurity, who else is out there? It startled me in a way I’ve never quite recovered from. . . . So yes, I think he is still speaking very directly to us. Scarbrough was the ultimate outsider—a gay rural American voice in the mid-twentieth century, a master of both traditional form and free verse—and he seems still to know he’ll surprise us when we find him.

You describe the sound of the guineas that briefly inhabited your yard as seeming like “a Canada goose attacking a car alarm.” Much of this essay contains a similar humor and forthright tone that seems eager to address the reader directly, even stating “we’ll get there” before you go on to connect George Scarbrough’s work to your life. What motivated this very candid and humor-ready writing? What relationship or balance do you feel it strikes with some of Scarbrough’s more somber tones?

I guess maybe it dawned on me that critical writing can, and maybe sometimes ought to be, just as personal as any other kind of writing. Those of us who love poems often love them for very personal reasons—they tell us something about ourselves and about the way we live our lives. So as I began this series of essays, I wondered what it might be like to read poems that way in the context of a critical piece—so a sort of hybrid of a personal essay and close reading. What emerged was the idea that poems might be able to teach us something about taking care of ourselves and, more specifically, helping teach our kids how to do the same. The hybridity of the enterprise then led to the slightly unusual casual tone in the readings of the poem. Maybe, too, it turns out I think we take poems a little too seriously sometimes—they might often be exactly as useful as a good joke or a good drink—and we should share them as such: Whoa, this is great, do you want to try this?

As far as humor goes—if you can’t find time to laugh at yourself, you are going to be a miserable parent. Parenting is essentially nothing but failure, so you better be able to take it with a smile. And to defend Scarbrough for a second—he’s not always somber. Many of his poems (“The Crow” I mentioned earlier) are quite funny—in fact his last project, a book-length sequence of poems in the voice of Han-Shan (relocated to Appalachia) uses humor to great effect.

In detailing the merits of Scarbrough’s work, you say it can allow a reader to “be freed from the bounds and bonds of the moment” but also encourages us to “love the moment and the whole course.” How might we hope to negotiate an adoration for specific minutes with an acknowledgement of “the whole course”? Can you say a little more about how Scarbrough’s poetry has helped you do this?

Well, you may have caught me in a bit of double-speak there, no? I guess what I mean is that Scarbrough, in his total devotion to place, seems to encourage us to love both our place and all places at the same time. I suppose that might be a bit of negative capability (and Scarbrough would have loved such a suggestion), but, for him, east Tennessee, like New England for Frost, or Ireland for Heaney (two major influences, one early one late, for Scarbrough), was always a metonym for the larger world. Alongside Geoffrey Hill, Scarbrough for me has always been one of the most important thinkers on place (and our responsibilities) in my personal canon. My own writing depends in many ways on understanding what it means to be in a place, and I couldn’t have managed even the meager poems I have managed without the guidance of George Scarbrough. This guy lived in the same place his whole life—wrote poems every day (!) in the same place his whole adult life. He was like Thomas Merton almost, or the Little Flower—a person given over almost entirely to a singular complicated devotion. While in his case it was not religious, the comparison still stands. If the cloistered religious are there theoretically to save the rest of us through prayer, then Scarbrough was there, at least for me, to save us through poems. And even though he’s left us (he died in 2008, the year my son was born), it still feels like he’s actively saving me in ways.

What project(s) are you working on now, or next? 

I’m finishing up this group of essays—two more, on Robert Frost and E.A. Robinson, will round out a collection of some kind. Also, I’m in the midst of a year-long set of weekly poems—which I’m tentatively calling “A Year in an Unremarkable Place.” I think Scarbrough would appreciate the sentiment, or at least the attempt at humility. . . .