Ron Cooper: Understanding Poetry

Southern Legitimacy Statement:

I was born and raised in the South Carolina Low Country in a swamp so think that airplanes had to shift into low gear to fly over it. I retrieved the bones of Quentin Compson from the Charles River and made a rocking chair from them. I repaired and now drive Hazel Motes’s car. I know why he-possums have forked peckers. My commode seat sports a mule-hide cover. I wear Ignatius Reilly’s flop-eared hunting cap. I dip snuff just so that I am ever prepared to spit tobacco juice on northerners’ shoes when they comment on my accent. I mail boiled peanuts to international heads of state. I threaten door-bell solicitors with James Dickey’s boat paddle. I eat supper.

Understanding Poetry

A flea market dollar brought a fifteenth
Brooks and Warren to my shelf.
Dug from a vendor’s splintery orange crate,
its first page was inscribed with
“University of Georgia, 1950, senior year. Anne G____”
I laid it on the back seat of my truck
with other second- or third-hand finds—
a brass orienteering compass,
a wooden slide rule,
a velvet-boxed pocket sundial—
once trusted tools for understanding things.

At home I found the book on the floorboard,
cards and folded papers spilled from between its pages.
I gathered them, sat on the tailgate to read.
3 X 5 card: “assignment—5 to 600 words—Pope’s idea on function of critic”
Creased, unlined paper, in pencil:
“allusion—reference to some incident, person, or place in lit or history
caesura—pause or gap w/in line
elegy—subjective/meditative (esp. grief)
verse texture—relationship of sounds ” etc.
Onionskin:  acutes and breves in pencil over syllables of typed “A Contemplation of Flowers.”
Ten pages from a Blue Book, rusty staples intact:
line-by-line analysis of “The Equilibrists” in ink
with marginal notes in a second hand in pencil—
checks, question marks, a “Very good!,” an “I think not”
Magazine pages from later years:
“Warren Wins Pulitzer for Promises
“Distinguished Disciples Pay Honor to John Crowe Ransom at 80”
Inside the front cover below notes to “Ode to a Grecian Urn”
and bound by a square of red ink:
“Folks! This was my favorite book of 4 years of college.
Please to take care of it on the move down South! Feb. 1979. Anne S____,”
the last name different from the girl’s of 29 years earlier.
Inside the back cover a box in a yellow highlight:
“This is my favorite book—
DO NOT LOSE or WHATEVER!
I could take this to Shady Acres. August, 2005. AGS”

I mused about the old woman transferred to a new home,
perhaps her last, chosen for her by her children
who did not treasure her Understanding.

Twenty years after she penned that last plea
to remain in the company of the words she loved,
I picture her sitting alone in acres of shade,
augering through distant memories for images of close readings,
this woman of another era, left by a later generation
like an abandoned theory.