The idea of the “neglected master” in American poetry is now hot, or as hot as anything in the world of American poetry can be. There is Philadelphia poet CA Conrad’s online Neglectorino Project (neglectorino.blogspot.com), in which poets submit names of other poets whose out-of-print work they admire. Since 2005, the Poetry Foundation, that 100 million-dollar-endowed gorilla of a nonprofit, has handed out the Neglected Masters Award (Samuel Menashe and Anne Stevenson are recent winners) complete with a check for $50,000 and a selected poems published by The Library of America. To be a neglected master is not only hot; it’s downright sexy.
Which brings us to John Allman, born in 1935, whose Lowcountry, his eighth book of poems, was published late last year by New Directions. If you find yourself scratching your chin trying to recognize Allman’s name, don’t feel guilty. Although he has won major prizes (two NEA fellowships), been well-published (everywhere from Mudlark to the New Yorker), and held a SUNY professorship for many years, the poetry world’s star-making machinery seems to have turned rusty wheels for Allman. And by all indications, Allman hasn’t played the fame game. Although regarded as a “poet’s poet,” that most underhanded of compliments, his work, as poet Ron Slate writes, “never suggested a poet particularly interested in that great venture called ‘establishing one’s voice.'” In his 40-plus-year career, Allman’s work never settled into any easily identifiable school, clique or coterie.
Indeed, Allman has employed just about every form and mode available to a modern poet: the narrative dramatic monologue (Clio’s Children, 1985), the meditative nature lyric (Scenarios for a Mixed Landscape, 1986) all-over-the-page “field of composition” (Curve Away from Stillness: Science Poems, 1989), prose interspersed with chatty, five-line stanzas (Loew’s Triboro, 2004). His capstone volume, Inhabited World: New & Selected Poems 1970-1995, is out of print. So John Allman qualifies as a Neglected Master.
What, then, to make of the poems in Lowcountry? They are indeed masterful, and, true to Allman’s form, do not easily fit into any school. Divided into six sections, each entitled “Leaving Home” and dated yearly from 1999-2004, the poems’ settings divide their time, as the author does, between Upstate New York (Katonah) and the beaches of South Carolina (Hilton Head). Allman seems to pay more attention to his poetic line than in previous books, and the result is a calm delivery of images that on the surface may read as a yeoman poet’s landscape odes, but on successive readings reveals notes toward a final philosophy or at least ars poeticae. Here’s a passage from “Syntax”; the speaker just placed us on the marsh, subject to its “sea-pulse, moon-drag”:
I’m bored with self, the drop-out
ego abashed at how little it confounds
the tide’s insistence. I’m fed up with
a name lifting itself into the breeze
of opinion, the sky’s azure only air
that curves to authoring roundness.
Nothing steps out of nature. Nothing
returns from the vast water that does
not crave its tidal beginning.
Each line above, viewed on its own, can claim to be a poem itself: the line “of opinion, the sky’s azure only air,” does not merely fulfill the metaphor “breeze of opinion”; the line could potentially secede and form its own, self-governing poem. This is only part of a masterful craft; here, wedded to the previous and next lines, the line abets the presentation of ideas that range from an allusion to Roland Barthes’ “Death of the Author” to a shot across the bow of the current political culture’s Whac-A-Mole white noise.
Allman offers his fair share of narrative and geographic leaps as well. In “You Ain’t Hurryin’ Me,” the speaker eats fried chicken on a house tour at Mackay Point Plantation, and watches a banjo player who
looks like a winter tourist in sandals, wearing sunglasses,
strumming a poem, the snow of South Dakota fallen from
his hair; the tall skinny woman playing bass, eyes squinched,
is Mrs. Vogel, who taught me geometry, how triangles
might bulge in a round world, tangling me in proofs,
even here, where Robert E. Lee came away with “Traveler,”
the horse who pawed the air at Gettysburg.
Bubbling up all this time travel is an indictment of the “slave/labor that planted these allees of live oaks.” The poem isn’t preachy: one of Lowcountry’s strengths is precisely its restraint of purpose, of letting the reader figure out what has just happened to them. To be sure, Allman goes back and forth between specificity and grand statement effortlessly, as though the speaker is not so much part of the landscape—the weather, the birds, the grains of sand we feel beneath our toes—as he embodies it. As our masterful author puts it at the end of “Watching Weather” as he watches snow on TV, the poems resemble a lake effect, “careless as the kiss of a stranger.”
REVIEWER: Daniel Nester (danielnester.com) is the author of God Save My Queen I and II (Soft Skull, 2003, 2004) and The History of My World Tonight (Blazevox, 2006). He edits[ed] Unpleasant Event Schedule and teaches at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY. With Reamy Jansen, he is co-editor of TBR’s “Out of Bounds” feature.