Favorite Ozarks Books – 11


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Down Along the Piney 2

This article first appeared in Issue 8 of Elder Mountain: A Journal of Ozarks Studies.

John Mort has quietly been assembling a significant body of work in novels and short stories that go back more than thirty years. A resident of Springfield, Mort has written fiction encompassing a wide range of subjects and locations, from Vietnam, where he served with the First Cavalry Division, to the American West, to the Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks. That stream of work reached an important milestone in September with the release of Down Along the Piney, a collection of short stories that was the winner of the 2018 Sullivan Prize from the University of Notre Dame. This prize recognizes a collection of short stories from a writer who has previously published at least one collection.

Down Along the Piney is a collection of thirteen stories, mostly but not entirely set in the Ozarks. It follows in the path Mort set down in The Walnut King and Other Stories, his 1990 short story collection, and Goat Boy of the Ozarks, his 2011 novel that takes the premise of the short story “The Walnut King” and expands it into a novel-length fiction. (Readers who first encountered Mort through his 2013 novel The Illegal will find it interesting to read the story “The Hog Whisperer” in Down Along the Piney, as the story of “The Hog Whisperer” is retold in The Illegal from the opposite point of view.) Taken together, all these works develop a distinctive and engaging portrait of today’s Ozarkers.

The characters in Down Along the Piney often find themselves in desperate situations – not necessarily physically, but emotionally or spiritually. A poignant story entitled “Mission to Mars” focuses on a young man named Brad Naylor, once the “smartest kid in high school” in a small Missouri town, whose life could be measured by its lapses. Mort writes, deep into Brad’s consciousness:

Surely, if a kid worked hard enough and could think fast enough, he’d succeed. But a kid couldn’t think at all, and story of his life, Brad tripped himself up. He got a scared little Christian girl pregnant. She was cute. Wore those short skirts. They set themselves up in a rented trailer, and saved for a house, and tried, and tried, and tried, to join the middle class.

But Brad’s talent for self-sabotage exerts itself again a few years later when he steals from his employer, the local bank, to make some missed mortgage payments. The theft is discovered, and forgiven, as is often the case in small towns; but something in Brad’s nature doesn’t allow him to accept a life of predictability and limitation. As the story opens, we see him arriving in Florida, having run away from home and family, starting a new life as a short-order cook in a run-down diner. Brad is a fugitive, but not from the law. He is a fugitive from himself.

Pressed by their circumstances, the characters experience loss and longing. This longing may be for an actual place, or for an imaginary place, or for some quality that they sense – intuitively – is missing from their lives. “The Hog Whisperer,” one of the most significant stories in Down Along the Piney, portrays Carrie Kreider, a physically and socially awkward woman, whose oddities alienate her from the people around her although they prove surprisingly useful in her job at an immense hog operation in west Texas. But Carrie’s longing for meaningful human contact pushes her into decisions that most people would call foolhardy. Another story in the collection, “Red Rock Valley,” focuses on Donald Stone, an aging gay man who has lost his longtime partner. He is called home from Chicago to the Ozarks when his father is near death:

He checked in at the nurses station and saw the doctor—a tall, grave Kenyan he could barely understand—the one time he would. “Alvin does not like the catheter. He fights, and he is a very old man.”

“He was never in a hospital. Will he get through this?”

The doctor shrugged almost contemptuously and then caught himself, as if, in the past, he’d been criticized for his insensitivity. He shook his head. “What we can, we do.”

So, Donald thought. My father is a dead man, and that is why I am here.

But in this atmosphere of double loss, Donald seeks reconciliation with his uncomprehending family and healing for his psychic wounds.

Another story in Down Along the Piney places this sense of loss right in the title: “Home Place.” Another strayed son, Wayne Dietrich, comes home to Texas County to review his relationship with his deceased parents and to try to make a new start in life. Fixing up the old home place, he reminisces:

In winter, late at night after Henry and Louise had gone to bed, he liked to prop his bare feet on the oven door, shifting them as they toasted. He read Jack London’s Klondike stories here, as the wind howled out of the woods and slapped snow against the kitchen windows, and the imperfectly dried slab wood his father bought from the sawmill shrilled with escaping steam. He heated cocoa, solved his algebra problems, and fretted whether girls named Susan and Miranda and Meg would go out with him.

“Where are they now?” he murmured, sipping soup as if it would restore life. He visualized each teenaged girl even though they all were in their thirties now, married and divorced and married again. The smart ones, the pretty ones, all left for the city and never returned. You couldn’t make a living in Texas County.

This sense of loss puts the characters into motion, sometimes in irrational or foolish ways, and puts them at odds with the prevailing desires of the people around them. They flee the real or imagined bonds that hold them down. They lash out at those who care for them, or retreat into stubborn insensibility. And occasionally, although this is rare in Mort’s stories, they engage in violence. In “Take the Man Out and Shoot Him” in Down Along the Piney, probably the closest we get in any of Mort’s stories to the hillbilly-noir gothic sensibility we see in other Ozark writers or narratives set in the Ozarks, a young man named Birdy, a former meth user from Shannon County, becomes involved with a right-wing Christian theme park called New Jerusalem near Eureka Springs.

Birdy had learned about Jesus and being saved long before, at the Granderson Treatment Center. If you went on about religion there, they treated you better, and he came to think of Jesus as his ace in the hole. Sometimes, he forgot about it, but down deep still believed he could be redeemed. He said, “I’d rather burn in hell than go back to Shannon County.”

As one can envision from this quotation, things do not go well for Birdy.

Two additional thematic tendencies deserve note. First, many of these stories can be read in terms of their religious imagery. Never didactic or overt, the stories nevertheless bring us characters who are experiencing conflict between what one must call their spiritual and their worldly selves. Some of these characters are specifically thinking about God; others are more generally contesting short-term desires with more abstract aspirations.

Another characteristic is that Mort’s work expands the cast of characters in Ozarks fiction. Not all of his stories in Down Along the Piney are set in the Ozarks, or include Ozark characters; but of those that do, there’s a rich range of characters: poor, uneducated country boys; those same country boys, grown into an aching middle age; the mid-level inhabitants of small town – firefighters, deputies, bureaucrats; fundamentalist preachers and members of their flocks; retired military men, fighting off with varying degrees of success the ghosts of the wars they fought; and to my mind the most significant, expatriates. As we know from our rural sociology, or from our literature, the longing for an absent homeland is an immensely powerful emotion. And in these stories we encounter many characters in economic or self-imposed exile from the farm or small town where they grew up. The sense of longing I mentioned earlier is particularly intense in these stories, even if the characters are sometimes unaware of what they are longing for. The Ozarks means something to these characters, living in Chicago and St. Louis, Georgia or Florida, and an important part of their story comes through their working out that meaning.

I would point to the final two stories in Down Along the Piney as examples of the importance of this impulse. In “Mariposas,” the main character is a fifteen-year-old girl named Portia, born in Arkansas to Mexican parents, who must return to Mexico when the father is fired from his job at a meat-processing plant for being too old and slow. Portia is not someone we would ordinarily think of as an Ozarks character; but she is just as Ozarks as the rest of us, nowadays, and her unhappiness in Mexico is a compound of alienation from the country most of us would describe as her “homeland” and a longing to return to the familiar surroundings of Dardanelle, Arkansas. Ironically, she sees the local girls in Angangueo as “hillbillies,” applying the familiar term of dismissal in the opposite direction of its typical use.

Angangueo, the “hometown” her parents return to, is the terminus of the monarch butterfly migration (thus the story’s title). And so one morning Portia accompanies her father as he guides a group of these tourists, Americans like herself though they would never recognize her as such, into the mountains to see the butterflies. The story’s ending is a gentle recognition of the central metaphor suggested by the title, that Portia and her family are themselves mariposas, migrating in perpetual circulation between their Mexican nesting grounds and their northern reaches for reasons that are unfathomable but impelling. The Ozarks are far from Angangueo, and yet they are not.

The final story, “The Hidden Kingdom,” follows a young man named Eddie, who is for all practical purposes wasting his life in a factory job in Georgia, until by a mere chance he wins the lottery. There is a fantastical quality to this story as Eddie sets out from Valdosta toward an unclear destination. He doesn’t seem to know where he’s going, and as he travels, everywhere seems to be the same: “McDonald’s, Papa John’s, Pet Palace, Walmart, Manny’s Chiquita, Paesano’s, Mattress Land, Home Depot, Kroger, Walmart, Baptist Church, Culver’s, Bank of America, Verizon, Checkers, Target, Comfort Inn, Wendy’s, Jack in the Box, Dickey’s.” But his direction is west and north, and finally he reaches a place where the chain stores end. A tiny town on the Piney River, sort of a rustic utopia with a winery, a canoe rental, a dulcimer shop, and of course a drug treatment center. Eddie the Ozark Odysseus has come home, and as he says near the end of the story, “Maybe you came to this woebegone, dreamy place before entering Heaven. You walked through the deserted town and topped a hill. You looked back and couldn’t remember where you parked. You walked on, free at last, toward the singing.”

            Down Along the Piney is an admirable addition to any bookshelf of Ozarks writing, with stories that are sad and sweet in roughly equal measure.

John Mort at reading

John Mort, reading from his work at the University of Notre Dame bookstore.


Christ of the Ozarks


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In the final episode of the third season of HBO’s crime drama True Detective, there’s a fleeting overhead shot of a landmark that most Ozarkers would instantly recognize.

No, that’s not the image you see, nor the image you’ll see if you drive out to this statue. What you’ll see is this:

Christ of Ozarks back-view

from TripAdvisor

Yes, Christ is looking the other way. How’s that for a ready-made metaphor?

The “Christ of the Ozarks” statue sort-of overlooks Eureka Springs, Arkansas. It faces in the direction of Eureka Springs, anyway, although it’s hard to see from most parts of the town. It’s an easy statue to criticize, with its oversized head, weirdly neutral expression, and boxy shape, almost as though it’s actually a radio tower disguised to look like a statue of Jesus. And is that a bosom? But aesthetics are not really that statue’s point, anyway.

Religion has played an enormous part in the cultural story of the Ozarks. Historians identify Baptists and Methodists as the largest of the early denominations, with significant pockets of Catholics and Lutherans in particular areas. In later years, Pentecostal denominations such as the Assemblies of God and others experienced great growth. By the time the “Christ of the Ozarks” was erected in 1966, the area, like the South in general, had been entrenched for more than a hundred years as a bastion of no-nonsense Protestantism. Even today, a new arrival is likely to experience the “have you found a church home yet?” question within minutes in a conversation with neighbors.

The religious influence has been, pardon the phrase, a mixed blessing for the area. On the one hand, the deep-rooted Christianity of many of the people I have known and loved has been a constant example of our better capabilities, our capacity for kindness, love, generosity, and unselfishness. Unfortunately, there’s also the intolerant and judgmental side as well, and sometimes those two components coexist side by side.

When I look at the statue, I see the weird history behind it. The brainchild of far-right radio evangelist and anti-Semite Gerald L. K. Smith, the statue was intended to be the centerpiece of a religious theme park that would include a replica version of Jerusalem, a premise that John Mort plays with in his short story “Take the Man Out and Shoot Him” in his new collection Down Along the PineyJerusalem never got built, although the park does have a “Holy Land” tour featuring selected replicas of Biblical scenes, the statue, and a Passion Play. I’ve searched their website and can find no mention of the park’s founder. Just as well – the Ozarks don’t really need a designated memorial to a white supremacist and Nazi sympathizer who founded the America First Party, in 1943 no less.

This statue has a triumphalist vibe to it, like some kind of Hittite monument, and quite frankly it gives me the willies. Oversized statuary always makes me question the message of the image. Mount Rushmore comes to mind, of course, with its pantheon of heroes; the nobility of expression on those faces recalls us to the potential of America’s greatness, although I’ve sometimes wondered if their crowding on the mountainside also implies that no one will ever achieve that greatness again (Where would we put him/her?). The massive monument at Stone Mountain, Georgia, likewise, places its figures into a setting of godlike heroism, although the meta-message there seems pretty disturbing.

The choice of immensity is intended to be overpowering, to bear down all doubts and questions. Don’t like this Jesus? Too bad. He’s going to be gazing down at you with that blank and inscrutable expression wherever you go. But the question remains: Why erect a two-million-pound Christ over a region that has been unflinchingly Christian for generations? It’s not as though the people down below need inspiration.

Every theme park needs a landmark, I guess.


from TripAdvisor


I Should Really Stay Away from the FSA Archives


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A recent inquiry, which I will write about later, sent me to the Library of Congress‘ Farm Services Administration digital archive, looking at images. I’ve posted a few before. This is an amazing archive of photographs by some of the greatest photographers in twentieth-century America. It’s truly a bottomless pit for the curious browser. Here are a few that showed up when I searched the archive using “Ozark” as the filter term:

Children of Ozarks Farmer - Missouri 1940

Children of Ozarks Farmer – Missouri, 1940

Ozark Children

Ozark Children, 1940

Ozark Farmer and Family 1940

Ozark Farmer and Family, 1940

Ozark Mountain Girls 1940

Ozark Mountain Girls, 1940

William Stamper and Wife

William Stamper and Wife, Who Have Lived in the Ozarks for More Than Fifty Years, 1936

Woman with Spinning Wheel

Rehabilitation Client at Spinning Wheel, 1935


Map Time!


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My affection for old maps goes back a long way, as any of my longtime friends and family can testify. Maps are fuel for the imagination, and I still use historic maps a lot.

I’ve developed a new talk that I’m ready to start giving to libraries and civic groups – it’s about the timber boom in Missouri that began in the late 1880s and continued into the teens, and the cultural and environmental repercussions of that boom. Needless to say, historic maps play a part. The one shown here is an 1877 railroad map of Missouri.

The solid line is the Iron Mountain Railroad, which had only reached as far as Pilot Knob before the war, but had by 1877 been extended all the way into Arkansas. The dotted lines are “projected” railroads; and by “projected” we can go all the way from “overtly planned” to “wishfully imagined.” I re-read Dee Brown’s classic Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow recently, and it was striking in his research how haphazard the railroad expansion was; if a speculator could get enough backers, then a railroad in that area would be built, regardless of need or connection to existing lines. Railroad mania extended to the local level in the form of county governments that would grant all kinds of incentives to railroad companies, including bonds that would burden the counties for decades afterward when the company went bust. David Thelen’s Paths of Resistance describes many instances of counties across the state that gave tremendous financial assistance to sketchy railroad companies, often assisted by liberal amounts of graft, followed by taxpayer revolts in later years as the bond payments came due. Indeed, some of the incidents of courthouse-burning that occurred in the state during the latter part of the 19th century can be attributed to taxpayers trying to wipe out the county’s tax records in a spasm of felonious retribution. (Other instances occurred because of another type of crime-covering, which I will devote a later post to.)

For the purposes of my talk, though, the item of interest on that map is the projected railroad between Van Buren and Poplar Bluff. In 1877, it was an item of fancy, although lines would eventually be built from Williamsville to Van Buren and from Neelyville (not shown on the map) to Doniphan. But the central development in the timber boom was what became known as the Current River Line, which came in from the west, snaking in from Willow Springs to Mountain View to Birch Tree to Van Buren and eventually to a town that didn’t even exist yet, the timber-milling hub of Grandin. That was the line that opened up the southern Ozarks to the timber boom.

I gave this talk at the Missouri River Regional Library in Jefferson City last weekend and was fortunate that Gene Brunk, a longtime forester in Missouri, was in the audience. Gene’s grandfather was a fireman (a boiler-stoker, that is, not a firefighter) at the smaller of the two Grandin mills, and Gene had some wonderful photos and stories to tell.


“Saving” Rural America


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Interesting article this morning on the question of how rural America can be “saved,” and what “saving” would look like. Here’s the link.

I agree with most of Hardy’s essential points, that rural America has often been undercut by policymakers who have either failed to understand the strengths and appeal of rural life, or who have ignored them in favor of short-sighted and reflexive grabs at “development” that end up damaging the very areas they’re supposedly helping. I’ve written before about how the Missouri legislature’s refusal to expand Medicaid has hastened the closure of rural hospitals (six since 2014), thus contributing to the decline of the districts that, ironically, those very legislators represent. That refusal also harms clinics, nursing homes, and general practitioners too, of course, but there’s nothing that communicates high-profile community destruction than the closure of a hospital. It’s like a declaration of unlivability.

Similarly, an over-reliance on property taxes, which in Missouri’s case is built into the state’s constitution, has cramped the ability of many areas to fund their school systems properly. Two pillars of economic development are schools and medical facilities, and without  those two (and the third pillar, a robust public infrastructure) efforts to revitalize rural communities are almost inevitably doomed. I remember a few decades ago when prisons were going to be the salvation of rural communities; towns all over the state competed for the privilege of hosting the newest supermax or medium-security. Indeed, prisons bring employment, but it’s the sort characterized by chronic underpayment; corrections workers often need exactly the kind of social safety net that rural communities are losing. What kinds of businesses are drawn to towns with prisons? Budget motels and payday loans. And don’t get me started on the folly of communities offering property tax breaks to companies for locating there; “Come to Happyville, we’ll shortchange our kids for you” has never seemed like a very good slogan to me.

If policymakers really wanted to see healthy rural areas, they would be directing resources there in a sensible way. But often, it unfortunately seems as though even the communities themselves are contributing to their own destruction, a point that I think Hardy minimizes in his article. Think, for example, about the unending debate over CAFOs (“concentrated animal feeding operations,” better known as “factory farms”). Most of the time, those arguments are framed as not-in-my-backyard debates, with the relatively small number of neighbors who will be adversely affected by the smell and waste pitted against the “general good” of economic development. But that general good only lasts until the first big flood, when the widespread costs of environmental destruction become evident. Then we discover that the next county’s “back yard” is ours too.

A Good Year in Ozarks Writing – Already


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2019 has barely begun, and I can already tell that it’s going to be a banner year for writing about the Ozarks.

I’ve been working my way through the first volume of Brooks Blevins’ A History of the Ozarksentitled The Old Ozarks, and it’s a grand piece of work. Richly sourced, comprehensive, and adroitly written, it is the history we’ve all been waiting for. I’m eagerly waiting for the second and third volumes to appear so I can snatch them up, too. If you are interested in the Ozarks, or interested in history, you must get this book – or at least make sure your library has a copy.

History of the Ozarks

And then next month, another landmark book will hit the shelves: The Literature of the Ozarksa comprehensive anthology edited by Phil Howerton of Missouri State – West Plains. It’s been a long time since anyone attempted an Ozarks literary anthology, and I can’t remember if anyone has ever put together one of this magnitude, stretching from the early 19th century to the present day. It’s being published by the University of Arkansas Press, and although I haven’t seen a physical copy yet, I’ve seen the table of contents, and it’s magnificent. I say this with a blush, since a selection from one of my books is included. I’m thrilled to be among the company.

Literature of the Ozarks

Two days into the new year, and already a memorable one. I’m eager to see what other reading treats await.

Who Loves Libraries?


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IMG_1106I do! This photo was taken at the Missouri River Regional Library in Jefferson City recently, where I was participating in an author event. My college friend Wade Park showed up, much to my delight!

I’ve done events of all types at libraries all over the state, and elsewhere. A library is one of a community’s greatest resources, a place open to all, where knowledge, entertainment, and connection is free and cherished. I’m an unabashed fan of libraries, and anyone who knows about my upbringing can say I got it honestly. My mother, a long-time librarian, instilled that love in me from a very early age. I remember going to the Fredericktown library when I was a kid and loading up on books that were WAY over my age range. The checkout clerks passed a glance, then sighed, then checked them out for me. (They did, however, tell me that only grownups could check out the art prints that I had under my arm.)

I can hardly begin to list the libraries I have visited as part of my book efforts. Some of the bigger ones have nice speaker budgets, and I always appreciate being invited to talk where there’s a check at the end. But many of the little libraries are scratching by with no spare money at all; I usually give a talk at those libraries for free, or for gas money. Libraries have given me so much over the years that I consider myself in a permanent state of debt to them. Plus, when I visit a library there’s always a chance that an old friend will appear!

Modern-Day Debtor’s Prison


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Tony Messenger has been running a mesmerizing series of columns in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about the criminal justice system in rural Missouri. The latest column appeared on Friday, and they are all worth careful reading.

The columns document how counties and judicial circuits around the state have turned their criminal justice systems into revenue-generating operations. A number of mechanisms have arisen to do this: Imposing high and ever-escalating court costs for probationers, requiring costly drug tests run by a private company, and incredibly enough, charging prisoners rent for the time they spend in jail.

The cumulative effect of all these tactics is that poor people — who are, of course, disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system — are serving as a new revenue stream for cash-strapped counties across the state. A dumb kid who messes up and runs afoul of the law gets pulled into “the system,” as it is so rightly called, and instead of simply serving his 30 days or whatever and putting the offense behind him, becomes a never-ending source of income for his county.


One can’t entirely blame the counties for this situation. Their tax bases are uncertain, especially in areas of the state with declining population (and thus sales taxes). They can’t keep raising property taxes, and in many cases have been finagled into giving property tax abatements to some of their biggest propertyholders by the promise of jobs in the future. (Boone County, where I live, has done that several times over the past few years, abating property taxes for companies that promise to locate in the county and bring new jobs.) So they look anywhere they can to make up the shortfall. Unfortunately, private companies that promise a fee for “services” like probation monitoring, drug testing, jail phone management, and the like offer a temptation that counties find hard to resist. And the disenfranchised end up bearing the cost. The subject of the most recent Messenger article is now homeless on the streets of Kansas City, not because he failed to complete his jail sentence, but because he couldn’t keep up with the mounting court costs that accumulated as a result.

We like to imagine debtor’s prisons as a long-ago horror from a novel by Dickens. Unfortunately, we seem to have re-created them in a new, corporatized, form. Any time you mix the workings of the criminal justice system and the profit motive, you are asking for abuse.


A Fascinating Resource


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This year marks the 200th anniversary of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s trip through the Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks, which resulted in the earliest systematic recorded documentation of the people and places of the region. Schoolcraft’s journal has been used by historians and scholars to understand the early landscape and culture of the Ozarks, although his attitude toward the inhabitants was condescending and his understanding of nature was limited.


The exact route of Schoolcraft’s travels has also been a subject of interest. Milton Rafferty, the dean of Ozarks geographers, devoted years to the subject, and his efforts culminated in a map published in Rude Pursuits and Rugged Peaksthe reprint of Schoolcraft’s journal he annotated and edited.

Now, thanks to the amazing work of Curtis Copeland, the GIS/Mapping Coordinator for the city of Branson, Rafferty’s map has been refined and improved. Using a complicated layering of digital information, Copeland has produced a scalable, multiple-level interactive map of Schoolcraft’s route. He previewed this map at the recent meeting of the Missouri Archaeological Society that occurred this weekend, and as an attendee of the concurrent Ozarks Studies Conference I got to see it in action. It’s a wonderful piece of work!

The map is free and available to the public at this site. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find it endlessly fascinating. With the enthusiastic reception his presentation received at the conference, I have no doubt that this resource will continue to be refined and added to as the years go by. Take a look . . . but be prepared to lose a few hours.

Making Poetry Matter


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I’ve been meditating for the past couple of weeks on a recent article in The Atlantic entitled “How Poetry Came to Matter Again.” If you didn’t see it yet, that’s ok. The article is a breezy lope through a half dozen contemporary poets, and it quotes only tiny snatches of their poetry, so it’s really quite impossible to tell from the piece whether their work is any good. From the slender supporting evidence of the article, the way a poet “matters” is by obtaining grants, being appointed to university positions, getting on award lists, and developing a large YouTube following.

Of course, those grants, positions, and awards have been with us for quite some time. These poets “matter,” in contrast to the poets of previous generations, the author tells us approvingly, because “They are immigrants and refugees from China, El Salvador, Haiti, Iran, Jamaica, Korea, Vietnam. They are black men and an Oglala Sioux woman. They are queer as well as straight and choose their personal pronouns with care.” In other words, they are poets who matter because of their identity.

I don’t feel any need to critique the nonsensical assertions of the article (I’ve been choosing my personal pronouns with care for years!), and I don’t know the work of the poets mentioned in it; for all I know, some of them could be quite fine, although the tidbits quoted in the article are uneven. It does trouble me, though, that a magazine which purports to be a champion of culture would give itself over to such shallow assertions. Even The Atlantic feels a need to prove its cutting-edge bona fides, I suppose.

The way that a poem matters – a poet matters – a school of poetry matters – is by actually mattering, across generations and across cultures, by being repeated and quoted in new contexts, spoken by others and taken to heart. Do these poets and poems matter? I don’t know, and no one else does yet, either. For now, I’m going to try to keep my eye on the page and not on the CV entries. Emily Dickinson didn’t have much of a resume, as I recall.