Enjoy Thomas Wolfe the novelist? John S Barnes saw poetry in Wolfe’s work, and through careful selection and a few skillful line breaks, he reveals it to us.
Here is an excerpt of Wolfe's writing entitled, "New Orleans -- River."
And he looked upon
The huge yellow snake of the river,
Dreaming of its distant shores,
The myriad estuaries
Lush with tropical growth that fed it,
All the romantic life
Of plantation and canefields that fringed it,
Of slow lights on the gilded river-boat,
And the perfumed flesh of black-haired women… (1)
In the blog regarding this poem I asked two questions. Let’s look at them more closely now.
1. Does Wolfe's poem still speak to us about New Orleans -- how it was, and how it is now?
I can’t answer for every reader, but once I’ve reoriented myself to Wolfe’s languorous voice I fall quite easily into the scene. It is work, however, to acquire the correct mindset because Wolfe’s style violates so many of today’s standards -- of good writing, and in some cases good taste.
Note here how he has used trochaic feet, having selected words heavily weighted in the first syllable. Such beats are used to subtly increase tension in verse, and yet, here, Wolfe has used them in a piece which, on the surface, is depicting how lush and slow-moving the river is.
Long words that take a long time to pronounce, such as “estuaries,” “tropical,” and “plantation” help to slow the reader down, to match what Wolfe had hoped to evoke. The use of hyphenated and compound words has the same effect, as in “black-haired,” “river-boat,” and “canefield.”
The use of Trochaic feet, however, subconsciously sets a sterner tone, and I for one feel the speaker must be a bureaucrat, or perhaps someone from the Army Corps of Engineers. Consider too, that few people appear in this piece, and when they do they are viewed at a nameless distance. The speaker speaks like a visitor to, not a native of, this place.
2. How differently would Wolfe's work be executed if he were writing today?
If he were like most other poets of our time, he would try harder to ground his writing in the concrete and visual aspects of the world. A piece about the Mississippi river as it flows through New Orleans would probably make reference to bridges, levees, cars and roads alongside, cranes, the skyline, speedboats, sailing boats, fishermen alongside with their rods and reels…and the industrial hubbub of the Port of New Orleans.
This particular piece, on the other hand, seems anachronistic relative not only to Wolfe’s lifetime in the early 20th century, but seems completely unanchored in history.
Needless to say, Wolfe today would never refer to “dancing darkies on the levee” (2). Although for Wolfe’s time this was acceptable, to do so now is a serious violation of cultural norms. On a technical level, to do so again emphasizes the great distance between the speaker and the people in the scene.
A modern reader used to contemporary work will require a few moments to reorient oneself to the voice of Thomas Wolfe as poet. It is worth the effort, however, in terms of technical study, as well as for the joy of rediscovering an iconic voice.
1. Wolfe, Thomas. Barnes, John, S., ed. A Stone, A Leaf, A Door: Poems. New York: Macmillan. 1945. 65.
For a contemporary New Orleans poet, please check out Red Beans and Ricely Yours and its author, Mona Lisa Saloy.