Brooks Haxton, Robert Penn Warren, and Poetry

Robert Penn Warren's book Democracy and Poetry was born out of his preparation for his 1974 Jefferson Lecture of the same name. It is an academic, intellectual work, and the foreword alone offers much to consider, such as "We cannot discuss democracy or poetry as existing outside of history, as a matter of timeless, unconditioned options. They, like all things that we esteem or abhor, represent developments in time" (xiv). In tracking the progress of democratic equality, Warren associates the growing acceptance of different selves with the growing accessibility of poetry:
...the concept of self, with the associated values and issues, was central to poetry, and that the concept, in the turn of time, though in an imperfect, stumbling, and ragged way, was to become more and more widely available to men. In the turn of time, every man might become a king, or at least a hero. (xv)
I will be reading these essays this week and thinking more on this issue of poetry and democracy, self and accessibility throughout the month, but I wanted to share this starting point today.

I also wanted to share the first taste of Southern Poetry from Brooks Haxton, who will be honored with the Hanes Award for Poetry in a few weeks. I introduced myself to Haxton's work through Ellen Bryant Voigt and Heather McHugh's collection Hammer and Blaze. Haxton's contribution to this anthology are a series of poems rooted in the Psalms, though not overtly religious in content or theme. At turnrow, you can find eight of the poems in this series, some of which are also anthologized in Hammer and Blaze. My favorites of the ones I read were "Sackcloth" (you can read it at the turnrow link) and "God's World, 1927," which takes as its subject the Great Flood of the Mississippi River in April 1927. It is a powerful piece, and I love the interplay of the history, the words, and the language of the psalmist. The other that spoke to me is called "Scrolls," a brief poem I will share here:


So will I compass thine altar, O Lord:
that I may publish with the voice of
thanksgiving. - Psalm 26

Thine altar is to me this bathtub
where my four-year-old twin
girls tip back their heads.
They close their eyes.
I read their faces from above,
in trust and fear, in holiness,
heads tipped until the waterline
has touched their hairlines, cautious.
Look: their hair flows underwater
like the scrolls unfurled in heaven.

I love the gentle intimacy here, the repetition, the overlap. In fact, these few small tastes of Haxton's work have convinced me both of the correctness of the award and of my desire to read more. Won't you look up Brooks Haxton and revel in a few stanzas this April? I think Robert Penn Warren would approve.


  1. I really like the poem you shared here, particularly since I've been fascinated with the look of hair underwater since I was a little girl in the bathtub! Thanks for sharing this, and the essay collection you're reading has piqued my interest.

  2. I like it too, Serena. In fact, I liked most of the selections I read in this brief introduction to Haxton's work. It made me want to read more, which is never a bad thing!