Jones, Rodney 1950–
Jones, Rodney 1950–
Born February 11, 1950, in Falkville, AL; son of E. Lavon (a farmer and factory worker) and Wilda (a homemaker) Jones; married Virginia Kremza, 1972 (divorced, 1979); married Gloria Nixon de Zepeda (an artist), June 21, 1981; children: Alexis, Samuel. Education: University of Alabama, B.A., 1971; University of North Carolina at Greensboro, M.F.A., 1973. Religion: "Free-thinker."
Home—Carbondale, IL. Office—Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Carbondale, IL 62901. E-mail—[email protected]
Virginia Intermont College, Bristol, writer-in-residence, 1978-84; Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, assistant professor of English, 1984—, named Distinguished Scholar. Member of advisory panel on literature, Illinois Arts Council.
Associated Writing Programs, Modern Language Association.
Associated Writing Programs Award Series selection, 1980, for The Story They Told Us of Light; Lavan Younger Poets Award, Academy of American Poets, 1986, for The Unborn; Younger Writers Award, General Electric Foundation, 1986, for poetry published in River Styx; Guggenheim fellow, 1988; Jean Stein Prize from American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1989; National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry, 1989, for Transparent Gestures; National Endowment for the Arts fellow; Kingley Tufts Poetry Award, Claremont Graduate University, 2007, for Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems, 1985-2005.
Going Ahead, Looking Back, Southbound Books (Knoxville, TN), 1977.
The Story They Told Us of Light, University of Alabama Press (Birmingham, AL), 1980.
The Unborn, Atlantic Monthly Press (Boston, MA), 1985.
Transparent Gestures, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1989.
Apocalyptic Narrative and Other Poems, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1993.
Things That Happen Once: New Poems, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1996.
Elegy for the Southern Drawl, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1999.
Kingdom of the Instant, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2002.
Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems, 1985-2005, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2006.
Contributor of poems to Parnassus, River Styx, and other magazines.
While perhaps not the best-known poet in America, Rodney Jones has distinguished himself among his contemporaries as a craftsman of the modern lyric. His poems are rooted in the rural South of his youth, where, as he once told CA, he "loved the language then, and I love it now," the language he heard as he "grew up in a rural section of Alabama that resembled much of the present third world, essentially feudal, agrarian, unelectrified." He added: "Many of our neighbors were illiterate, but books were the alternative and, even among the illiterate, there was a vital oral tradition: stories, jokes, music, memorized scripture." Jones, who tunes his ear to the dying oral culture of Alabama, draws upon it to delve into his memory and the historical past as touchstones for his poetry.
The Story They Told Us of Light, chosen by Elizabeth Bishop for the Associated Writing Programs Award series, has "the function of the imagination" as its central theme, according to Tim Summerlin in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. In addition, Jones seems always in his poems to be seeking a language that will express the past, whether it reflects the personal or the natural, giving rise, wrote Summerlin, to "that most familiar of post-Romantic themes, the power of imagination and the validity of its vision."
In The Unborn, Jones appears to be "rearranging reality, always making imaginative leaps," noted Daniel Guillory in Library Journal. The poet accomplishes this by shifting from the specific to the general, from rural Southern towns to the world at large, so that The Unborn succeeds best through rich textures generated by the warp and weft of these dichotomies. This is evidenced in the opening lines of "Alma," where Jones tells the reader: "Sometimes in late summer I come to / the husks of cicadas. In death / they are rooted in the scaly bark/ of the pine, / become their own coffins, / these hard and glossy shells / that had contained / the secrets of flight. / That's why I like it in the South. / The afterlife is with you / all the time."
Transparent Gestures is arranged in four thematic sections, including character sketches, personal and familial meditations, intellectual views of life, and occasions for grief, commented Summerlin. Jones meditates upon mathematics, science, academics, animals, and trees, each subject which brings him to conclude that "the place of poetry is darker, and the unremitting / test of love and poetry / Plies its single-minded questions: What, if anything, / will last?"
Apocalyptic Narrative and Other Poems finds Jones reveling in the rich and diverse opportunities language affords in order to discourse upon the paltry cultural details that make up his vision of an apocalypse. So it is that he writes of bomb shelters, nursing homes, shopping malls, and the poor who arrive at "Club St. Vincent de Paul" where Jones comes "as a tourist to their woe." Yet, it is Jones's "sympathy, his intelligent wholeheartedness," noted David Baker in Poetry, that is his "most remarkable gift." Whether spinning narratives about the old and infirm who sit in wheelchairs along the walls of nursing homes "like plants in pots," or about a visit to a poultry processing plant staffed by a "proletariat chorus line, winking, emoting cool / or hard-to-get, pregnant high school dropouts / Tattooed Grandmothers," Jones makes it clear that there is a paradox in that "our history, our lives, and our language are better described as a field of ruptures, dissociations, and misrepresentations than as a linear or narrative continuum," remarked Baker. Jonathan Holden, writing in American Book Review, called the title poem one of "high seriousness and ambition," and suggests that it "be considered alongside poems like ‘The Wasteland,’ ‘Sunday Morning,’ and ‘Howl.’" Barry Goldensohn in Contemporary Poets found that in Apocalyptic Narrative, "the ordering mind is passionately engaged … even in its memorable comedy. There is a serious pursuit of wisdom in this richly musical poetry."
Things That Happen Once: New Poems saw Jones returning to a four-part structure: "Last Myths of the Pioneers," "The Troubles That Women Start Are Men," "Close Relations," and "Elemental Powers." His subjects include Coca-Cola, murders, sex, car crashes, and, as Donna Seaman noted in Booklist, the time "when television arrived in his remote Alabama valley, when civilization intruded in a big way and ‘the lights spread everywhere.’"
In 1999 Jones produced the collection Elegy for the Southern Drawl, the title poem of which was called "charmingly anecdotal" by Poetry contributor F.D. Reeve. Reeve added that the poems' sheer accessibility may work against the book as a whole: "What is the import of such eminently readable poetry?" the critic asked. "Is it ‘mainstream’? Is it demotic? Who is its audience?" Indeed, Reeve pointed to one poem, "Doing Laundry," where a man who takes on a washing machine and finds new respect for women's work, as "a contemporaneously PC [politically correct] view."
Throughout the pages of 2002's Kingdom of the Instant, Jones "is constantly aware of his role as curator of the Southern gothic," according to a Publishers Weekly contributor, though "he's happier to dispense sympathy than disgust." The poet's "centrifugal vision," in the opinion of Houston Chronicle critic Robert Phillips, "embraces poems about gay-bashers, undertakers, lower-middle-class white Southern males, men who murder and get capital punishment, bootleggers, farmers, shell-shocked veterans and more." Thus do the poems describe catfish hunts and cattle auctions; then the bar is raised to explore the aftermath of human death as a mortician, who has restored the body of a young drunk-driving fatality, hears, "You've done a wonderful job / Only Ronnie's hair was brown, not red." "After several twists and lyrical turns on the subject of death and our rituals of grieving," wrote Richard Newman in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "the poems ends with the kind of lines only Rodney Jones can write: ‘He looked in death placid and composed as he had never been in life / as if he had resumed thinking / the thought he was thinking before being born.’" Newman characterized Kingdom of the Instant as "generally less accessible than previous works but certainly no less ambitious."
Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems, 1985-2005 continues Jones's focus on the working- and lower-class American South. Critics celebrated Jones's accomplishment in the volume, a compilation drawing on more than twenty years' work in composing poetry. "24 new poems (some his best yet) build on his descriptive strengths," declared a Publishers Weekly reviewer, "as they incorporate political commentary, remembering high school, [or] conceiving the end of the human species." As he did in earlier volumes, Jones serves as "champion of the farmer, the factory worker, the patron and employee of every small town restaurant and bar," wrote James Beschta, reviewing the volume for Kliatt, "presenting them all with realistic flaws and shortcomings and all with … dignity and respect." Although he chronicles these lives, the Publishers Weekly contributor explained, he does not in any way romanticize them; his poems are replete with the details of lives lived in the margins of modern America. "A master storyteller, he offers language crisp and colorful, and his interests are wide-ranging," stated Louis McKee in Library Journal. "He delights in digression, following the trails of words, suggestions, and seductions." "If poetic voices were heard on the radio," Mark Eleveld concluded in Booklist, "his would be a late-night crooning of midnight tales."
Jones continues to be praised for penning richly musical poetry crafted by his sensitivity to "form, sound, rhythm, syntactic balance and contrast," explained Summerlin. As American poetry continues to reflect upon its past, Jones is perceived as a distinctive voice, a reminder that the past is always alive and always present. In Baker's view, Jones remains "one of the best, most generous, and most brilliantly readable poets currently making poems in America."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Poets, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Contemporary Southern Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 120: American Poets since World War II, Third Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.
American Book Review, July, 1990, p. 30; September, 1995, Jonathan Holden, review of Apocalyptic Narrative and Other Poems, p. 13.
Book, July, 1999, review of Elegy for the Southern Drawl, p. 85.
Booklist, May 15, 1996, Donna Seaman, review of Things That Happen Once: New Poems, p. 1564; September 15, 2002, Donna Seaman, review of Kingdom of the Instant, p. 196; March 1, 2006, Mark Eleveld, review of Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems, 1985-2005, p. 56.
Houston Chronicle, October 27, 2002, Robert Phillips, "Two Poets Gaze into the Glass and through It," p. 24.
Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 1999, review of Elegy for the Southern Drawl, p. 670.
Kliatt, September 1, 2007, James Beschta, review of Salvation Blues, p. 32.
Library Journal, April 15, 1985, Daniel Guillory, review of The Unborn, p. 76; August, 1989, p. 136; August, 2002, Frank Allen, review of Kingdom of the Instant, p. 101; February 1, 2006, Louis McKee, review of Salvation Blues, p. 81.
Poetry, July, 1994, David Baker, review of Apocalyptic Narrative and Other Poems, p. 223; July, 2000, F.D. Reeve, review of Elegy for the Southern Drawl, p. 229.
Publishers Weekly, February 22, 1999, review of Elegy for the Southern Drawl, p. 91; August 19, 2002, review of Kingdom of the Instant, p. 82; January 23, 2006, review of Salvation Blues, p. 188.
Shenandoah, fall, 1999, review of Elegy for the Southern Drawl, p. 124.
Southern Humanities Review, summer, 2000, Jake Adam York, review of Elegy for the Southern Drawl, p. 298.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 22, 2002, Richard Newman, review of Kingdom of the Instant, p. G10.
Virginia Quarterly Review, autumn, 1999, review of Elegy for the Southern Drawl, p. 137.
Washington Post Book World, June 13, 1999, review of Elegy for the Southern Drawl, p. 8.
Southern Illinois University, Carbondale Web site,http://www.siu.edu/ (May 6, 2008), author profile.