Coleman Barks: “auroral aliveness, powers, hilarity”

I first knew Coleman Barks in 1970 when I took his class on writers of American realism at the University of Georgia. We read Flaubert and Turgenev in that class because Coleman believed you couldn’t understand the American realists without the French and Russian authors as examples. Students thought of him as a nonconformist, an enthusiast for poets and poetry, and an interesting, even exciting figure: he took a group of students with him up to Columbia, South Carolina, to hear a reading by the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and we often ran into Coleman at parties. About that time he published his first poetry collection, The Juice, whose poems exhibited the humor, quirky whimsy, fascination with words, and playful yet serious introspection that have characterized his writing throughout his career. 

When I returned to the university in 1977 to teach, I came to know him as a colleague. He continued to promote poets and to encourage young writers. I always respected his judgment. His offhand comments about writers and writing as he passed in the halls, or in the coffee room talking to other faculty members, led me to encounters with new poets and novelists. 

I know Coleman Barks best as the creator of poems that I have been reading for more than forty years, poems eccentric and unpredictable in the best ways. They concern small and large life moments, dreams, observations, friends, children, humorous stories, random words and phrases. He excels with poems that memorialize departed friends—few poets have memorialized so many people. His poems are meditations, in that word’s deepest meaning. Taken as a whole, they make up a sort of autobiographical prayer journal in which he measures the progress of his life, things he has seen and done, people he has known; he offers both self-recriminations and self-assessments, especially in the poems he has written beginning with his collection Gourd Seed in 1993. One of his most recent long poems, the elegiac “The Night Street,” published here in The Georgia Review (Winter 2014), uses memories of an old friend’s approach to death as a way of considering his own advancing age, the prospects of mortality, and his feelings about these realities. The revelations in that poem—the accidental urination on his bookshelf, “the death meeting with my two sons”—left me awestruck. 

Along with Coleman’s longer poems, I like especially the short poems of humor, of moments and events in which he finds meaning that he unravels in ways that sometimes come to comment on the enormity of the human condition. One of my favorites is “The Railing,” from his 2002 collection Tentmaking:

A child stood on his seat in a restaurant,
holding to the railing of the chairback
as though to address a courtroom.

Nobody knows what’s going to happen next!

Then his turning-slide
back down to his food,
relieved and proud to say the truth,
as were we to hear it.

For me the most striking aspect of Coleman’s work is the informality of his voice, especially in recent times. He writes as he speaks. At times the poems seem to speak directly to his reader, not so much in a literary way as in a personal one, as if poet and listener are sitting across the table from one another, talking. At other moments he engages in the deepest forms of internal discourse, talking with and to himself, examining his life and his behavior. By informality I do not mean casualness or sloppiness; his informality should not lead to underestimation of what he is about. In the best of his poems there is a formal, often incantatory rhythm appropriate for his subject. The longer poems may be built of fragments, or may be unified meditations. Whatever the approach Coleman takes in a particular work, the result is a unity of feeling, of theme, and of spirit. In his long meditative poems, the effect can be mystical.

I find it disturbing to encounter a writer so unsettled by his life’s short tenure, so unnerved by the stroke that temporarily cost him his voice and his command of language several years ago. His willingness to address these fears with clarity and frankness is daunting. He does not hide behind metaphors. “I am so afraid of my upcoming death. So close,” he writes in “The Night Street.” The poems of his most recent book, Hummingbird Sleep, confront these concerns repeatedly. In this collection’s finest poem, “The VOICE inside WATER”—a deeply personal exploration of human mortality and limitations—Coleman doesn’t allow himself to lose heart:

I would not call my faith weak or strong.
I would not call it anything.
I feel an auroral aliveness, powers, hilarity.

At the end, echoing Whitman, he suggests how he might be remembered:

Quit crying. Don’t be afraid.
We will not be far, just a whoop and a holler.
Tall ancestral elders come close.
Lean back into the joy of the ground.
Cornsilk, myrtle, crimson.

 

Hugh Ruppersburg has just retired as Senior Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences and University Professor of English at the University of Georgia. He writes about American literature and film, especially of the American South.