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The Enduring Relevance Of The Pastoral Tradition

"Rather than lamenting the loss of that older world," explains poet Maurice Manning, “I want to imagine its recreation.”

  • Maurice's poetry

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    A page from the collection Twenty-Four Old Regulars, a set of twenty-four 8-line poems in a mountain dialect by Maurice Manning, published in an edition of 48 by Press on Scroll Road, in 2008.

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    Photo: Steve Cody

    Poet Maurice Manning rests against a grave marker in a churchyard cemetery near his Kentucky farm.

In April 2011, Associate Professor of English and Assistant Director of Creative Writing at Indiana University Maurice Manning added another title to his name: Guggenheim Fellow.

Along with IU colleagues George Hutchinson, in American literature, and neuroscientist Olaf Sporns, Manning was selected by the Guggenheim Foundation for “prior achievement and exceptional promise” to receive an award given “to assist research and artistic creation.”

Guggenheim Fellow, Pulitzer Finalist

The author of four poetry collections, Manning received the 2000 Yale Series of Younger Poets Award for his first book, Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions, which has been described as “equal parts carnivorous nightmare, Freudian pastoral, and deep-fired family romance.” A Kentucky native, Manning’s second book was written from the imagined perspective of the historical frontiersman, Daniel Boone.

For his fourth book, The Common Man, Manning was recognized as a Finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, which was announced the same month.

The Guggenheim Fellowship will fund Manning’s proposal to complete a fifth book of poetry, tentatively titled The Gone and the Going Away.

Already underway, the poems are populated with the poet’s “imagined versions of old-timers and local characters who have a knowledge of their rootedness in a place, in particular, in the natural world.”

Recalling A Way of Belonging

Manning got to know characters of this description while growing up in Danville, Kentucky during the 1970s. He recalls,

I realized that I was catching the tail end of one world. The older people that I knew growing up had been born in the early 1900s when my little town in Kentucky was very much an agrarian community isolated from the rest of the world, independent and self-sustaining. The people who were part of that way of being in a community and that way of belonging to each other are all gone now.

Manning felt that sense of loss personally, because of his own family’s story.

I knew as a child that something had happened in my family that severed something vital. It was that my parents’ parents, who were born on farms, had to leave them, in order to participate in a money-based economy. I’ve always felt it was my obligation to repair that in some way.

From Shakespeare To Berry

Manning’s intuition about the healing potential of a reconnection to the natural world was reinforced by the literature he encountered in college and grad school. A lineage he traces from Chaucer and Shakespeare through Coleridge and Wordsworth to Emerson, Thoreau and Walt Whitman gave ballast to his conviction that “it’s not a fleeting, fanciful, sentimental thing. It is a notion that has intellectual rigor and substance and practical intelligence.”

Manning’s pantheon of kindred literary spirits culminates with a personal mentor. Renowned farmer-poet-activist Wendell Berry was his professor at the University of Kentucky. “Every day, these days, I think about his presence in my life,” Manning reflects.

Back To The Land, Against The Grain

That Manning’s rural, mid-western voice should be recognized by two of the nation’s most prestigious literary awards seems to acknowledge the enduring relevance of the pastoral tradition.

As I understand it, they’re recognizing that there is something traditional about the work that I do — but also stubborn, because it’s not recognizing current trends. My observation is that most of the poems that one runs across are set in a city, many of them in the Northeast or on the West Coast. The coasts are presumed to be the regions where all of the things we value culturally and intellectually are happening.

That Manning, by contrast, sets his poems in a quasi-historical agrarian community that no longer exists is more than merely wistful. “Rather than lamenting the loss of that older world,” he explains, “I want to imagine its recreation.”

Yaël Ksander

WFIU's Arts Desk Editor, Yaël seeks out and shepherds the stories of artists, musicians, writers, and other creative people. In addition, Yaël co-hosts A Moment of Science, writes essays for A Moment of Indiana History, produces Speak Your Mind (WFIU's guest editorial segment), hosts music and news hours throughout the week, and lends her voice to everything from accounting courses to nature documentaries. Yaël holds a MFA in painting from Indiana University, an MA in art history from Columbia University, and a BA from the University of Virginia, where she studied languages and literature.

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