I’m trying not to see zombies on the horizon, but, you know. Georgia and all…
Aside from that. Vast blue skies at dusk.
My gut reaction is to pack a bag and head for Georgia! This poem sounds idyllic and captures a simple farm life away from noise and bustle with an evening barbecue (as I look out of my apartment window at streams of traffic stuck in a jam).
What does it all mean?
The sky, lazily disdaining to pursue
The setting sun, too indolent to hold
A lengthened tournament for flashing gold,
Passively darkens for night’s barbecue,
Beautiful imagery here, of a lazy summer’s evening growing slowly darker shades of blue as the sun sets.
I’d argue that the sky isn’t indolent about the ‘match’ that is night time, more that is it a realist and knows it’s a ‘battle’ always to be lost. The sun always sets, doesn’t it? It isn’t that the sky is laying back and letting it happen – ‘passively’ – but succumbing to what is inevitable. ‘A lengthened tournament’ – is this a nod to the time of year and the changing length of day?
‘The night’s barbecue’ – this feels like regular, community getogether?
A feast of moon and men and barking hounds,
An orgy for some genius of the South
With blood-hot eyes and cane-lipped scented mouth,
Surprised in making folk-songs from soul sounds.
All I see is angel wings and cross bows and reanimated corpses. This has got to stop.
The first line of this stanza calls to mind The Colour Purple and scenes from both the film of prejudice made easy by safety in numbers and anonymous faces. ‘Genius of the South’ makes me believe the characters in question are of African-American descent – and I truly apologise if this is an offensive term because I genuinely have lost track of what we’re all supposed to call each other lately. People are people are people at the end of the day and the first thing I will notice about you is your kindness, not any ‘difference’. Perhaps you can do the same for me?
Where was I? Yes! Georgia! Georgia and attempting not to be fixated on The Walking Dead (and failing, miserably)
An ‘orgy’. Do we mean in the literal, sexual sense? Are we witnessing some lavish, drunken party about to descend into debauchery? I shall respectfully cover my eyes and leave you to enjoy yourselves if that’s the case…
‘Blood-hot’ in lust? ‘Cane-lipped’? Chewing on something sweet like a sugar cane or are we thinking in terms of some sexual sweetness? Am I of a particularly dirty mind at the moment? No more than usual…! However, it makes me think that ‘a feast of moon and men’ alludes to sex.
‘Making folk songs from soul sounds’ – an allude to early blues or rock music? If you’re interested in the roots of rock, I strongly recommend Coursera’s History of Rock and Roll.
If I can take another step back from my gutter-like mind, perhaps this is a scene of early Georgia and we’re witnessing a gathering at the end of a long day of harvesting sugar cane, ‘blood-hot’ from a hard day’s work and ‘cane-lipped’ from chewing on a stem of sugar cane from the fields they are working in? Men and woman in comfortable companionship after a day of toiling, and companionship in whatever sense of the word you wish to interpret? An evening of music, food, loud, raucous laughter and friendship surrounding a fire as the moon shines on overhead?
And, in defence of my somewhat one-track mind, if you are unfortunate enough not to have heard some of the earliest offerings of rock music, please some of it originated in the south and it was just plain dirty! I have obviously put two and two together and made a horizontal mambo but… you know, there’s a reason for it! I refer you back to the Coursera course linked above if you want to have a listen for yourselves.
The sawmill blows its whistle, buzz-saws stop,
And silence breaks the bud of knoll and hill,
Soft settling pollen where plowed lands fulfill
Their early promise of a bumper crop.
It’s the end of the workday, the call to well-deserved rest. Is there an actual whistle to signify the end of day, or is it merely the halt of the lumber cutting buzz-saw that serves as an alarm?
I like the use of the word ‘knoll’ (hillock). The ‘soft settling pollen’ conjures image of the day exhaling in rest, both worker and crop. ‘Bumper crop’ alludes to this being a prosperous harvest.
Smoke from the pyramidal sawdust pile
Curls up, blue ghosts of trees, tarrying low
Where only chips and stumps are left to show
The solid proof of former domicile.
Smoke with a blue tint signifying the burning of a particular type of wood? High oxygen content? ‘Tarrying’ – smoke is lingering after the fire and the only wood that is left are the ‘leftovers’ of ‘chips and stumps’ in a place that used to be a permanent home. Does this mean the characters in the story are leaving? Or is this place they are in both their work and their home and there is no place to go to? The ‘chips and stumps’ evidence of a day of hard labour that they will retain nothing of, only their wealthy employer?
Meanwhile, the men, with vestiges of pomp,
Race memories of king and caravan,
High-priests, an ostrich, and a juju-man,
Go singing through the footpaths of the swamp.
‘Vestiges of pomp’ – traces of an inflated sense of self-importance?
‘Memories of king and caravan’ – are we having a history lesson of the invasion of the Europeans and the people whose land they claimed as their own from the Native Americans – ‘high-priess, an ostrich and a juju-man’. A reminder of the Trail Of Tears? Is this a case of history repeating itself? People of one race exploiting another? Were the workers in this poem feeling just as poorly treated? Are we supposed to be an observer without opinion?
Are these men going ‘singing through the footpaths’ aware of their place in history, feeling in some way superior at least to the Native Americans before them?
Their voices rise . . the pine trees are guitars,
Strumming, pine-needles fall like sheets of rain .
Their voices rise . . the chorus of the cane
Is caroling a vesper to the stars .
Are the surrounding trees acting as instrument to their singing (‘pine trees are guitars’)? I can imagine men walking along footpaths and hitting or pulling at the trees, or just the sheer volume of their voices bringing down the pine needles ‘like sheets of rain’. Or perhaps these are just deciduous pine trees and it is that time of year for leaves to fall which would fit if it is coming up to harvest time. ‘The chorus of the cane’ makes me think of comradeship and teamwork. This is the song of the workers together as one unit singing happily to the evening or in evening prayer (‘caroling a vespar to the stars’).
O singers, resinous and soft your songs
Above the sacred whisper of the pines,
Give virgin lips to cornfield concubines,
Bring dreams of Christ to dusky cane-lipped throngs.
Is ‘resinous’ used in connection to the resin of the trees in this scene, and used to show that the softness of their songs and their nature pulls the listener in? ‘Give virgin lips to cornfield concubines’ has my heart thud for a moment – restore the innocence of those who are mere ‘mistresses’ in the field with the purity of song? These songs then must be religious – ‘bring dreams of Christ to dusky cane-lipped throngs’ – restore faith to those masses made old and weary by their work.
Form – the vaguely technical stuff
Division and order
7 stanzas with use of enclosed rhyme.
I’d like to say this poem has a tone of hope, especially looking at the final stanza and the ‘restoring of innocence through song’ theme there. However, with the sky not attempting to chase the dying sun away from setting, maybe it is just a reminder that life is cyclical. That tomorrow the back-breaking work of cutting sugar cane will begin again for these people. Is that hopeful? Cynical? Realistic? Just how it is?
Suggested rhyme scheme
7 stanzas of four lines, run on and end stopped lines, predominantly masculine rhyme. Assonance and consonance used for internal rhyme.
Similes and metaphors
‘Flashing gold’ – the sun?
‘High-priests, an ostrich, and a juju-man’ – Native American tribes that originated in the Georgian area prior to sugar cane growth and harvesting?
‘Give virgin lips to cornfield concubines’ – restoring of ‘innocence’ through religious song?
Author’s relationship with their subject
The relationship here seems passive observer, there isn’t a personal story here or a particular connection with any of the characters, it is more like a retelling of a personal history they are aware of.
Other points of view (ideas from other sources)
‘The genius of the South’ is described by Eric Rettberg as ‘anyone who is able to take such a dismal situation and turn it on its axis to create a scapegoat for optimism and positivity’ and his analysis of the poem is beautiful, perfectly mirroring the change of pace of the poem from optimism in the title to realism throughout and hopefulness by the end (or, that is my take on it). He goes into a lot more depth than I ever will, but then that is not what I am about.
All analyses point to this being a glimpse into the slave trade and this poem serves as an important catalyst to promote further studying of this period of history we shouldn’t let ourselves forget. Georgia was an important character and accomplice in the slave trade with slavery being legalised in 1750, and this poem feels a bit like when you first see a person’s scars. You can see something has happened to them, but getting to know them reveals untold horrors. Whether they purposely showed you them in the first place to reach out and ask for help or you are just observant is beside the point. Georgia has a scarred history which shouldn’t be brushed under the carpet, is the point I think I am trying to make.
I cannot lie. I was looking at images of Georgia as part of my current need for all things The Walking Dead, and stumbled across this poem with giddy visions of farmland and clear, open skies and my favourite characters skipping off into the sunset.
Instead of zombies and eye candy I found a reminder that the world is a horrible enough place without dramatising it.
Which doesn’t mean I am suddenly ‘cured’.
For me, this poem could very well serve as a typical The Walking Dead episode actually. Opening up to beautiful scenery, panning down to the sheer horror of the situation, a little beacon of hope towards the end of the episode, knowing full well that the cycle will repeated the following week. Heartbreaking.
Now, if only we could say we had learned our historical lessons and we now are compassionate, lovely people who celebrate rather than fear difference. If only we had just learned that people are equal no matter what, and none of us are superior or inferior to the next. I sometimes fear we will never learn this lesson. Case and point: slavery is alive and thriving today, which is a horrific thing to remember.
Perhaps what we need is an apocalypse to put us all on a level playing field and realise how alike we are despite our differences. A little drastic, I know, but at this particular point in history, I am not hopeful we are going to learn our lessons in time.
When I read this I think of the song… well… when I first started the poem I thought of this,
But then Southern Man popped into my head instead.