father was William Paul Stephenson
youngest of four children
in 1966 married Linda Letchworth Wilson
has two children
grew up on farm named "Paul's Hill" near Benson, North Carolina (Johnston
Southern Pines, North Carolina
in 1996 he moved back to the family farm with his wife
worked his way through college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel
Hill by cleaning tables in the dining hall
while in college worked as a janitor and disc jockey at WMPM radio station
in Smithfield, North Carolina
after graduation worked for WTVD-TV in Durham, North Carolina
worked for American Telephone and Telegraph for a year and a half
chairman of English Department at Campbell College in Buies Creek, North
presently teaches literature and creative writing at the University of
North Carolina at Pembroke
also the editor of Pembroke Magazine
graduated from Cleveland High School in 1956, being named most outstanding
undergraduate degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
graduate degree from the University of Pittsburgh
in 1968 admitted to the doctorate program in English at the University
of Wisconsin at Madison
received Ph.D. in May 1974 with dissertation on law in the novels of William
1938: born on June 14 near Benson, N.C.
lived in three-room shanty on a 62-acre farm named "Paul's Hill" after
1951: the family built a ranch house on the property
as a child, Stephenson played the guitar and wrote poetry
1956: graduates from Cleveland High School
following fall attends University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
1960: graduates from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
works at WTVD-TV in Durham, North Carolina
begins studying at the U.N.C. Law School but quits after two and a half
works for American Telephone & Telegraph
1965: enters graduate school in English at the University of Pittsburgh
1966: marries Linda Letchworth Wilson
1968: admitted to doctorate program in English at the University of Wisconsin
1972: begins publishing poetry
1974: receives Ph.D. in May
1974: becomes chairman of English Department at Campbell College in Buies
1978: leaves for position at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke
1979: publishes first book, Middle Creek Poems, which was the co-winner
of the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Memorial Award
1985: publishes Carolina Shout!
1990: publishes Finch's Mash
1990: publishes The Persimmon Tree Carol
1993: publishes Plankhouse
1997: he and his wife Linda composed a CD called Hank Williams Tribute
1998: publishes Poor People
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
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"
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"
Published 1998 in Poor People by Nightshade Press
In stanza 3, line 3 history is personified. Whom does "history" represent?
Explain the relevance of race dominance in recording history during
Discuss the relevance of the title to how slaves were treated inhumanely.
Published 1998 in Poor People by Nightshade Press
Do you think there is any significance that Greatgreatgandpap George was
buried with his slaves? What does this indicate?
Why do you think the images of greatgandson Paul are included in this poem?
What significance do they hold to the poem's meaning?
Explain the importance of the slave's graves being unmarked with "nothing
but creekrocks at their heads."
Published 1998 in Poor People by Nightshades Press
What is the significance of the title "Historical Limits"?
Do you think the images of poor people affect the poem? Describe
Explain the significance of the images describing big bees and little bees
and big men and little men.
What does the simile of "history moves as in the tone surrounding a dinner
bell far from a shanty" mean? What does it contribute to the poem
as a whole?
Published 1998 in Poor People by Nightshade Press
How do you think the persona viewed the tenants? Did he think of
them as equals or of lesser standing?
Explain the significance that the tenants lived in the father's boyhood
The "screen" represents a barrier as the title, "Division," indicates.
How do you think the family viewed this division? Were they really
divided from the tenants and just following societal norms?
Allen, Gilbert. Southern Humanities Review, forthcoming.
Carter, Jared. "Poetry Chapbooks: Back to the Basics."
The Georgia Review (Summer 1986): 545-547.
Chorlton, David. "County Blues." Chiron Review, forthcoming,
St. John, Kansas.
Gurkin, Kathryn B. "Stephenson Called NC's Dylan Thomas." The
Pilot 28 January 1991: 4-B.
Munger, Guy. "The Literary Lantern." The Pilot 19 November
Stephenson, Shelby. Finch's Mash. Laurinburg:
St. Andrews Press, 1990.
Stephenson, Shelby. Poor People. Troy: Nightshade
Stephenson, Shelby. Personal interview. 21 September 1998.
Photo by Winston Burroughs appears in Poor People (1998, Nightshade
Written by Sarah Wright
Edited by Mark