The other week I read "Weekly Update: The Road to Happiness, The Museum of Americana, and a Shout Out" over on Myself the only Kangaroo Among the Beauty, which is blog written by my friend and poet Sandy Longhorn, who I went to high school with (Wahawks, Class of '89!, and all that stuff).
She persuaded me to purchase The Road to Happiness because she's an excellent poet, and it sounded like Williams' poetry might be similar to hers. Her description of the book sucked me in:
This is a book that tells the truth about the speaker's life growing up a country boy near Mena, AR, always on the edge of poverty and never far from the reach of religion. These are poems so firmly rooted in place that there is no question about their authenticity. We follow the speaker as he reaches adulthood, marries as is expected, and buries his father, all the while questioning his life and yearning for something more, something bigger.
In particular, "poems so firmly rooted in place" struck a chord with me.
As I know I've related before, I've always enjoyed reading poetry, but I get tired of poetry that obfuscates for the sake of pretension. As much as I like T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland," his and others' poetry turned the poesy game into an academic scavenger hunt, verse only for the enlightened, where if you want to try to figure out what the hell's going on or what the persona is trying to say in a poem, you're going to have to prepare yourself by packing a divining rod, a fifth of Maker's Mark, an Encyclopedia of World Religions, an Orphan Annie decoder ring, a first-aid kit, and some marijuana brownies.
I mean, really, why do some poets have to make their verse so damn hard to figure out? Why can't plain language be put in the best words in the best order with the right kind of flourishes?
But I'm digressing. The point of Stay Positive posts is that I'm supposed to say something positive. So here goes.
The positive I have to say is that The Road to Happiness is wonderful collection of poems. I got the book today. I read the first poem and was hooked.
I read the book straight through. I think the only book of poetry I've ever done that with was Hayden Carruth's Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey. Or maybe also Things That Happened Once by Rodney Jones.
Here are some snippets of verse that worth sharing:
from "Mena, AR"
the minister and his fat, sweaty hands,
the men filled with the Spirit, shaking
in the aisles, the women washed in the blood,
gibbering from the pews...
from "The Road to Happiness"
who don't mind stained shirts
or rings in the toilet bowl,
who went out one night for diapers
and never came home.
from "Letter to Ash from Fayetteville"
June Cleaver is the most despicable
character in the history of television.
I could punch that bitch in the face. This has gone on
from "Pentecostal Girls"
they hold out their cups, so you sneak them
out of Jesus camp, float downriver to the dam,
the black water a roll of witch bones,
a glyphic fortune written in unfamiliar stars.
I look forward to taking more time with poems on the second read.
This book should be on stands in checkout counters. And no, I'm not saying that to somehow demean the book because we all know the crap you find at checkout counters, but I say that because this a collection that people should be exposed to because they can relate to it in contrast to the verse of the willfully obtuse.
At one time in our history, in the 19th century, people put pictures of poets on the walls of their living rooms, of folks like Longfellow, Whittier, and Bryant (my favorite).
I doubt Johnathon Williams will have his portrait on any family's walls, but the collection reminds me of when poetry connected intimately to people's lives and perspectives.