Shelby Stephenson









Issues and Themes

    Shelby Stephenson is truly a unique poet.  He is both contemporary and regional, thereby limiting critical attention.  Yet he is a poet that deserves great attention.  To understand Stephenson's poetry is to understand the environment in which he grew up.  Until he was thirteen, he was raised on a farm by a dirt road in Johnston County, North Carolina.  The farm was called Paul's Hill after his father.  He recalls the school bus getting stuck on rainy days.  Around 1952, the road was paved and, as Stephenson puts it, "the world changed."  Stephenson's family was impoverished.  The house they lived in had only three rooms.  Stephenson used nails to hang up clothes because his room had no closets.  The family owned no books but the Bible and the Sears catalogue.  The farm supported hogs and a cow named Lady.  To Stephenson this place was "another world."

    Stephenson's father, a great storyteller, was an inspiration to him.  His book The Persimmon Tree Carol is in memory of his father, William Paul Stephenson.  Hank Williams Sr. was also an inspiration to him because his songs are so much like poetry.  The songs tell stories that people can relate to.  The subjects are common things that everyone understands.  Stephenson's poems reflect a similar characteristic.
    Stephenson views himself as different from other contemporary poets because he is a storyteller.  He writes about his world, which many writers do not want to remember.  He also writes about a time that needs to be remembered.  Reviewing Stephenson's poem "The Story I Can't Tell Sticks in My Throat," Gilbert Allen notes that "not to attempt to sing, not to try to tell the story, would be a worse violence -- for it would permit a world and its people to disappear" (1).  Allen also concludes "if the nineteenth-century names have been lost, their twentieth century counterparts-- the poor, both black and white-- will not be forgotten" (2).
    Even though Stephenson uses local images in his poetry, his underlying themes are common to all readers.  He tries to describe his world in such a way that it becomes a "local universal" for the reader.  He believes in the power of the imagination and recreates this universe from his mind.  When Stephenson writes he focuses on memory.  His goal is to make the local "hold the whole world."  In other words he creates themes everyone understands.  Even though he uses local images, the themes he discusses are universal.  His strives to "create a world" through his poetry which everyone experiences.  Thus everyone can read his work and enjoy the images contained therein in different ways.
    Stephenson uses the comparison of poetry and childhood.  He thinks poetry is like childhood because it is a world everyone knows.  Childhood is alive in a way that poetry is alive.  As children we want to know where we come from and who we are.  Therefore another theme Shelby uses is our search for roots.  People should not forget their childhood.  Stephenson says: "We must remember who we are as we go along and not forget."
    Stephenson often explores the theme of life's tribulations -- racism, poverty, hard times.  David Chorlton notes, in a review of Poor People, that Stephenson writes from stories of his neighbors and childhood acquaintances (1).  As the reader enjoys the "swing of language, the facts appear as if smuggled into the poem" (1).  The title, Poor People, should be taken literally.  Stephenson explores themes of racism and poverty and their effects on society.  In Stephenson's work, he uses real people.  Stephenson states: "Race is almost an unpresentable word in poetry because it comes so charged."  In Poor People, Stephenson never refers to a character's race.  Instead it is inferred by the reader.   Another characteristic that makes the tragic figures in Poor People come to life is "conversational moments" (2).  This is evident in the poem "Seth," when a person in the poem remarks about Seth's eyes.  Stephenson uses detail to build his images (2).  Evidence of this detail is seen in "Percy," when Percy is described.  Stephenson uses metaphors including "the wound in the landlord's side" and "the cutworm in the tobacco-stalk" to describe Percy.  Stephenson bluntly reveals aspects of race, poverty, and society instead of hiding them with euphemisms (2).  What makes his poetry great is "his ability to stay close to his subjects rather than observe them from a dispassionate distance" (2).  Gilbert Allen concludes that Poor People is "a documentary work, offering glimpses of human beings whom the poet has lived and worked alongside" (3).  In an article published in The Pilot, Guy Munger suggests "Stephenson's imagery and his language are never far removed from the life he learned as a farm boy in Johnston County" (4-C).  Munger also states that "he is brutally honest in looking at people and their emotions, at their lives" (4-C).  This makes apparent the idea of realism in Stephenson's poems.
    Jared Carter notes that in Carolina Shout!, Stephenson "centers his poem on the Carolina landscape itself, its folkways and rural styles of life" (545).  He also talks in a homespun style and uses domestic imagery to build pictures.  This tendency comes through in heart-felt mood evoked by the title Carolina Shout!.  Carter continues to say Stephenson is "a writer immersed in his region, one who believes that power and possibility in art proceed from that native ground" (546).  He often talks of everyday things and uses domestic imagery to illustrate this concept.  He talks about farm life including tobacco, tenants, hogs, hunting, and mules.  He also loves nature and uses it as a subject of many poems.  He makes frequent references to the Stephenson family graveyard, which has seventeen slaves of his great-great grandfather buried under tombstones of rocks.  This reflects the theme of wanting to know where we come from.  Because these tombs are unmarked, one does not know who these slaves were or where they came from.
    Stephenson is truly a remarkable poet and one of a kind.  He was skeptical about his chosen subjects at first.  Why would anyone want to read about dogs, chickens, hogs, and mules?  But Stephenson realized that if the words were spun together well, people could identify with the feelings of the local universal.  Kathryn Gurkin writes in The Pilot: "This poet is to North Carolina what Dylan Thomas was to Wales.  He is, for well or ill, in love with life" (4-B).


"October Turning"
Published in Finch's Mash (1990)
Fog lies on the cotton blooms.
Horizon opens like a mouth with moist lips.
Over the brown corn, doves sail safe until noon
from hunters' guns and the glimmer of ground coming up
Poplars pierce the wind,
rustle a crow yawing his shoulderblades
centering the windowpane.
The humpthroated fishhawk circles the farmpond
indecisively, letting go the dream under feathers
settling in a halfmoon, his eye
stranger than masks fixed in cornshuck
brooms in a world hanging onto days
a little color at a time.
October burns on cornleaves
ready for the brush and slide of pickers and wheels,
for fathers waiting for boyhoods
to forget this place aflame:
this red howl in the dog's throat,
the first morning of ice and wind;
ragged, yellowing leaves on the beans,
the pods bulging knots before winter
blows down the chimney to the hearthstone.
    This poem describes the effects of the month of October ending and winter coming.  It is written in free verse and has no rhyme scheme.  This poem is composed of images.  It opens with reference to cotton blooms and corn crops.  Then images of doves and hunting are described.  The next stanza includes poplars and a crow.  The third stanza describes a fishhawk flying above a pond.  The last stanza describes effects of October - "ice and wind" and "ragged, yellowing leaves."  The reader imagines coldness and wind, yet the scene is still soft, with the mellow colors of fall.  The last line refers to the "hearthstone," which was a stone beneath the bricks of a fireplace.  A comforting image of warmth from the coldness outside leaves the reader by the comfort of the hearth side.  The meaning of the poem suggests an impending winter and the need to be prepared.  This is evident when harvest is discussed in the last stanza.  Food needs to be harvested for the winter months.  Procrastination will leave the farmer with nothing because winter will kill the crops.  In the last stanza the reader knows this farmer is already prepared because the corn has been harvested from the field and the beans from the bushes.  Hunting season is about to begin as the reference made in the first stanza about hunters' guns indicates.  The tone suggests excitement - the hawk circling and the dogs howling.  There is an anticipation of activities brought on by winter.
    In the first stanza fog is personified.  It "lies" on the cotton blooms.  This suggests winter is near because nature feels the effects of it.  The second line contains a metaphor.  "Horizon opens like a mouth with moist lips," suggests morning breaking.  It is a cool, or "moist," morning, not like the dry heat of summer.  "Doves sail safe" means doves blend with the grayness and fog of morning.  Therefore they are safe from hunters until the fog disappears.

    The second stanza describes cold images.  "Poplars pierce the wind" suggests the wind passes through them.  Poplars are a type of tree with small leaves.  The wind also rustles the crow, so often associated with cornfields.  The third stanza describes a fishhawk, or type of hawk, circling a pond, perhaps looking for food.  "The world hanging onto days a little color at a time" suggest the changing colors of leaves on trees, typical of fall.

    In the fourth stanza October is personified as burning on cornleaves.  The effects of this month kill, or burn, off the green of plants and change them into colors.  Pickers and wheels suggest the activity of harvest, which was characteristic this time of year.  October seems anxious and anticipating the harvest.  Images of dogs howling and a morning of ice and wind create some trauma, but this is cured in the end by the suggestion of the hearthstone.  In spite of what rages outside there is warmth and security within.

"Whose Feet Pointed Straight"

"Stephenson Cemetery" "Historical Limits" "Division"





Photo by Winston Burroughs appears in Poor People (1998, Nightshade Press).

Written by Sarah Wright
Edited by Mark Canada, Ph.D.