Essay by Patrick Bizzarro
One of the most interesting features of Tim Peeler’s Knuckle Bear is the language spoken by the three characters who enact, through thought processes revealed in the poems they speak, the drama of their social relations. Here is an example of that language and the hierarchy of power it constructs in the language of Knuckle Bear himself:
Papaw say Knuckle Bear, when you
Gonna about never do something,
And I say nothing much and
He slap me and say, Knuck, get in that truck.
Papaw socks got gold toes
Some of these days I think
Papaw the preacher
Way he tell me get in the truck… (8)
This passage, the second poem in the collection, is intended by its placement to introduce readers to the characters who interact in the plot forwarded in these linked poems. Interesting as it is to watch these characters in action, plot is not the element that sets Peeler apart from his peers.
What distinguishes Peeler is his use of language, in this volume but also in his earlier Rough Beast (2014). The language, both in its spoken and thought varieties, used by the three characters who act out their narrative in Knuckle Bear, proves itself to be a grammatically consistent code used by a designated group of social insiders. A reader wants to know who speaks this way and why they are so important that a book of poems is dedicated to stories told the way they might tell them, in dialect but also through stream of consciousness. Here’s a poem late in the volume spoken in the voice of Papaw, who is first introduced in the poem quoted above:
I cut you throat
Before you get you gun
Out of that belt I say.
He look at me
Like he thinkin
He can do it.
I cut you heads off
Feed my hawgs I say.
That lil one try to hold my eyes
Like he a TV bad guy
But I walk back to truck
Never look at em
Like they ain’t shit. (49)
From these passages, we can safely assert that Peeler has written poems in “the real language of men (sic) in vivid sensation” by adapting Wordsworth’s dictum on language to the contemporary Appalachian South, a viable adaptation because it enables us to better understand Peeler’s accomplishment in this book and helps us place Knuckle Bear in a literary context. Importantly, the difference between what seems to be Peeler’s aesthetic and the aesthetic Wordsworth is known for is that Wordsworth claims to have used “A selection” from the language of the “common man,” which he wants to employ in his Lyrical Ballads. Though Peeler must necessarily select words to string them together in a certain order in the making of a poem, as any writer might, he seems unflinching in using the language as it presents itself to him. To understand his work in contemporary terms, I want to assert my belief that the language used in Knuckle Bear brings to mind other poets of the Southern Appalachian region who have written in the Appalachian dialect, giving us the chance to read Peeler’s work for contrast and comparison with the poet I believe to be the touchstone for contemporary Southern writing, Fred Chappell.
Like Chappell and possibly because of him, Peeler uses language people actually speak as a way “to give the whole,” as Chappell says in his “Preface” to Midquest, “its specifically regional, its Appalachian, context” (x). Granted, Peeler works in a very different social milieu than Chappell does, connected as he is to characters who tell their stories of hardship and poverty, seemingly uninterested in the “intellectual labor” Chappell claims for Ole Fred and others in his interesting lineup of mountain folk. What links these poets is that their poetry portrays the context of certain socioeconomic circumstances using the language of those who actually have lived in those circumstances.
For both Chappell and Peeler, the narrative is effectively rendered linguistically; the context is in large part the text. These poets, through their close work with language, have democratized subject matter suitable for poetry by rendering “a demographic sample” (Chappell, x). What makes Peeler’s poetry unique is that his “sample” comes from a demographic typically neglected in contemporary poetry from the South. This separation places him in close proximity to the late Ai for his ability to see the social situation in the words actually spoken by people and to let those people speak for themselves.
Peeler’s language in Knuckle Bear is raw, to say the least. The book might have come with a warning printed on the front cover: “beware of dangerous words and phrases.” What makes them dangerous is that they come from people and places typically excluded from poems about the world, in general, and even from poems about Appalachian life, in particular. And their language, as far as I know, has not been included in the literary world that Larry Ledbetter, the poet-protagonist of Peeler’s Rough Beasts (2014), characterizes as “what’s safe and what’s familiar” (59): Efforts to use the language as it is actually spoken are not new to poetry; they are often not safe and seldom familiar. Peeler’s openness to this dialect and willingness to say the “meanness” of his poetry in language people actually use places him interestingly in the context of those who have preceded him. After all, Eliot says we should place a poet, in order to see his or her “significance,” “for contrast and comparison among the dead” (The Sacred Wood, 44). So, let’s consider the language of Wordsworth’s “common man,” who, if allowed to speak in a poem without purifying his language might sound a lot like Peller’s characters when they speak.
Wordsworth’s statement on poetic language in his “Preface” to the Second Edition of Lyrical Ballads seems a natural point of departure in reading Chappell but also in reading Peeler’s Knuckle Bear. In railing against “poetic diction,” Wordsworth claims to bring the language of his poetry “near to the language of men” (323). He calls it “[a] selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation” (320). Wordsworth understood that a representation of what Chappell came to call a “demographic sample” would require some effort if the goal is to represent that language without taking the risks associated with it. To make this language risk-free, Wordsworth decided the language of his poems must be “purified indeed from what appear to be its real defects” (321). Inevitably Wordsworth purified that language in order to make it “acceptable” in a line of poetry. He made the language safe and familiar, regardless of the criticism he received from his colleague Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the effort called Lyrical Ballads. And that, clearly, is a subjective judgment, but characterizes the Wordsworthian project, what he considered to be “a worthy purpose” (321).
Chappell sets up for us an interesting and inevitable contrast with Peeler which enables us to see what makes Peeler’s poetry unique. Peeler moves into a different social milieu altogether from the one Wordsworth and later Chappell envisioned in their efforts to represent the context of lifestyle through the text of that way of living. Wordsworth refers to “their rank in society” as the test of the appropriateness of the language he used; Chappell wanted to be “widely representative.” But even in his own era, Wordsworth was criticized for doing so, and in this essay Chappell’s efforts help us better understand Peeler’s accomplishment: if you want to use the real language of men, Coleridge insisted in his critique of Wordsworth, how can you do that while at the same time selecting from it?
Peeler avoids this criticism. When I think about the Peeler of Rough Beast and now of Knuckle Bear, Allen Ginsberg’s words in “Notes for Howl and Other Poems” (1951) come to mind. Ginsberg wrote, “I thought I wouldn’t write a poem, but just write what I wanted to without fear, let my imagination go, open secrecy and scribble magic lines from my real mind” (318). These words might have been uttered by Peeler as he selected and arranged poems for Knuckle Bear because the language he chose to reflect the social context within which his characters interact has not been “purified.” What Wordsworth (and maybe Chappell) would have claimed to be that language’s “real defects,” Peeler employs as its strengths, as its way of separating the folks who use such language from Chappell’s “demographic sample.”
Chappell, Fred. “Preface.” Midquest: A Poem. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1981. Ix-xi.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria, Chapter XIV. English Romantic Writers. David Perkins, Ed. NY; Harcourt, 1967. 452-455.
Ginsberg, Allen. “Notes for Howl and Other Poems.” The Poetics of the New American Poetry. Donald M. Allen and Warren Tallman, Eds. NY: Grove press, Inc., 1973. 318-321.
Peeler, Tim. Rough Beast. Hayesville, NC: FutureCycle Press, 2014.
Wordsworth, William. “’Preface’ to the Second Edition of the Lyrical Ballads (1800). English Romantic Writers. David Perkins, Ed. NY; Harcourt, 1967. 320-331.