Two poets visit Sewanee

by Katie Lafferrandre

As Professor Hastings Hensel, grinning, began to introduce poets Maurice Manning and Rodney Jones, the English majors in the room all felt a little more at home—the sentiment was silently agreed upon—some writers are better than rock stars. On Wednesday, September 19 in Gailor Auditorium, Sewanee’s literary week continued with a poetry reading that featured two distinguished poets: Maurice Manning and Rodney Jones. In his introduction, Hastings Hensel declared them to be two of the best poets of all time— and in case you were wondering, the absence of any qualifiers was intentional.

For Hensel, these poets seem too big for the categories that call after them. They are not good writers for the south, nor are they good writers for the contemporary times, or even good writers for America. They stand out within the colossal category of writing itself. Indeed, Maurice Manning and Rodney Jones did nothing less than prove that their work deserves to be passed on and to last. In low, southern voices, both poets demonstrated an ability to surprise the audience, often moving from casual, slow and dripping descriptions into stunning serious questions or declarations. These poems often left me lagging behind, catching my breath, wishing that the poem would be read again. Norris Eppes, (C’14), said that both Maurice Manning and Rodney Jones “write poems meant to be heard.”

Maurice Manning read first, choosing (very generously) to read some of his new work. Manning has published five books of poetry. His most recent is entitled The Gone and Going Away, and his fourth book The Common Man was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize. He has been awarded the Hanes Poetry Prize by the Fellowship of Southern Writers and has received a Guggenheim Fellowship as well as the Lee Smith Award from Lincoln Memorial University.

Manning currently teaches English at Transylvania University. At the end of his reading, Manning presented Rodney Jones as his personal role model and a poet that he looks up to. With Manning’s compelling reading to precede it, the compliment had a weight that resonated with the audience, and it was all that needed to be said.

Rodney Jones also decided to read some new poems, the majority of which were fictions, stories and sentiments of some of Rodney’s made- up characters. Jones has published eight books of poetry including Elegy for the Southern Drawl (2001) which was a finalist for the Pulitzer prize. His book Transparent Gestures (1989) won the National Book Critics Circle Award. His honors include the Hanes Award for Poetry, the Harper Lee Award, and the Jean Stein Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Jones is currently a professor and scholar at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and he teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. The reading was followed by a swankier-than-usual reception. Attendees had the opportunity to purchase the poets’ books as well as mingle with them over free wine, cheese, and other fancy snacks. Students are looking forward to the next poetry reading, and maybe even another surprise “literary week” from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the Department of English.