Long time Iris Press poet and novelist, George Scarbrough, died quietly in his sleep in Knoxville, Tennessee, on the morning of December 2, 2008. George had celebrated his 93rd birthday about six weeks earlier on October 20. He was mentally sharp until the end of his long life, but had been declining physically for the past few years. George was a unique and important voice in twentieth century American poetry, and he was known and admired by many of the best-known poets of the last 60 years. A poet’ s poet, he was never widely read by the general public, but he was highly regarded by most of the major American poets and critics of the last half of the twentieth century. His work has been a major contribution to the understanding of the culture of his native East Tennessee homeland and beyond. His importance in the history of southern literature cannot be overstated.
The first thing poets notice about Scarbrough when they encounter his work for the first time is that he doesn’t sound like anyone else— at all. There is a unity to George’s writings. If I pick up a passage of his work that I am not familiar with, I can almost immediately identify it as Scarbrough. But there is also variability in his voice. George Scarbrough’s work has a very broad range of form and style and has shown some evolution during his long writing career. While no two of his poems look alike, his voice is unique not only in its diction and music, but in the precision with which his language attacks his message. And what a message it is! Ten years ago he wrote in the “Author’s Preface to the Second Edition” of Tellico Blue1:
The world as we had known it disappeared. Yet, essentially, the southeast corner of Tennessee remained the same. The earth remained dearer to some of us because of its remoteness. During the war years, those of us who for one reason or another never left the county because of the love of it and of family grew even closer to the old landscapes, which fortunately no battles had scarred and no factory smokestacks disfigured. Polk County remained off the beaten path, becoming more isolated as the interstate highways by-passed it on their way south. I was one of the few who never packed up their roots and left home.
And no other poet captures in such a precise and vivid way the flavor and texture of rural east Tennessee. As Rodney Jones wrote in his introduction to the second edition (1999) of Tellico Blue2:
Scarbrough is that rare twentieth-century American country poet who never left home, nor took to writing regional pablum. He has instead , for the better part of this century, engaged in a resplendently lyrical dialog with his homeland and ancestry. . . . In Southern country poetry, Scarbrough’s early work is a lonely representative of the generation between the Fugitive Poets and James Dicky. At its best, it deserves comparison with Hardy, Robinson, and Frost more than with Ransom and Tate. It is of such precise focus that it does not seem to represent any place so large as a region. Its emphasis is on the natural order more than the aesthetic landscape, and community relations more than regional politics. . . . Scarbrough’s exile is within the language that his countrymen reject, in a place that he calls Eastanalle, in body, and most notably, in his exacting and musically compelling intellect.
Though George Scarbrough lived a long and productive life, his writing, from the earliest published poems until his final works, is permeated with reflections on mortality. He never wavered on his core beliefs: a rejection of the formal religious dogma that saturated the culture of his home ground, a strong affinity with nature and its natural beauty, and a deep feeling of the sanctity of all life and the tragedy of its loss. Scarbrough felt that all life was sacred, not only human life but also the lives of animals, which were an integral part of the rural culture into which he was born. One of his earliest published poems, Calf’s Death3, caused a bit of a controversy because it was alleged that he was attacking the meat packing industry by implying that animals had souls. In a discussion I had with George Scarbrough in 19994 he said, “I don’t believe in a Christian God. I don’t believe in any power in the universe that has any consideration for humanity, say, any more than it has for a frog, a tree, a blade of grass, whatever. . . I am an animist. I believe that everything has a soul. If a man has a soul, a rock has the same electricity or whatever it is.”
Examples of very moving references to mortality and loss are easy to find in all of George Scarbrough’s works. In Tellico Blue there is a little poem of rhymed quatrains entitled “After One Year” about the death of “Reuben.” The first stanza is:
Reuben is dead and the thought of him is lying
Tight at the heart, and I am quite alone
Under the wind where the yellow hay is drying
Stem to the sun and leaf to the sun-warmed stone.
“Reuben” is featured in a number of poems in Tellico Blue5 and in poems from other collections, and I once asked George who Reuben was. George said, “Reuben was a name that I borrowed from one of my cousins, Charles Reuben Scarbrough, but the ‘Reuben’ in that poem was an idealized form of someone with a different name, someone who I knew and who died. There is nothing sadder than the death of a youth. . . ‘Reuben’ became a kind of symbol of all the young friends I had lost up to that point. ” There are many references to the death of animals and acquaintances scattered throughout Scarbrough’s work, but the death he revisits most frequently is that of his father, W. O. Scarbrough, who died in 1950.
George Scarbrough and his father were very different in temperament, education, and outlook, and their life long love/hate relationship featured persistent conflict tempered with almost involuntary feelings of respect and admiration beneath the surface. The negative feelings are well represented in George Scarbrough’s writings throughout his career, but the positive expressions of admiration and understanding did not appear significantly until after the elder Scarbrough’s death. They were not apparent in Tellico Blue, which was first published in 1949, but with the appearance of The Course is Upward 6 in 1951, the year after W. O. Scarbrough’s death, they emerge in full force. Perhaps the best example is the lovely sonnet about his father’s death, “Death is a Creek, Backward Flowing” (click here to read). The ambivalence comes through very forcibly in this poem, and as with most of George’s work, the use of sound and metaphor are masterful. Other examples of references to his father’s death appear in all of Scarbrough’s later collections. One example from Invitation to Kim7 is “Day’s End” the first two stanzas of which are:
Above the sedge-spiked graves
the red-shouldered hawk
A gray rabbit creeps under
my father’s bushy name
and becomes a part
of the still stone.
An important poem about the death of George Scarbrough’s father is “Impasse,” which was first published in Spirit in 1972 and was subsequently collected in New and Selected Poems,8 in 1977. This is a longer poem with 12 sections of varying lengths, with a number of metaphorical references scattered throughout that tend to integrate the poem structurally and emotionally. One of these is his father’s longing to see “grass” one more time, which metaphorically symbolizes an emotional tie to the rural landscape which was all his father knew. The first section (two short stanzas) is:
My father died
talking of grass
in a room too small
to heave a bed in,
A window too high
to let the yard in,
but perfect for
The exit of souls.
And the final stanza:
I begin the word “Father”
in the familiar chant
here is this small room
with one high window
where the last conversation
was of the green
nature of grass
and the gold kinship
of the sun,
And only the intransitive
present will set down
the intransigent past.
The syllables rise
to the high window:
my ears crowd with loving
as I sound him out
And my stomach crawls
like a bucketful of live
crabs shaking hands.
George Scarbrough’s philosophy about mortality is perhaps most clearly summed up in the chant poem “Though I Do Not Believe” (click here to read) that appears near the end of Invitation to Kim. He firmly rejects the fundamentalist religious dogma that saturates his rural East Tennessee native ground, while at the same time acknowledging the metaphorical and cultural importance of religious myth. For him human relationships and nature are the ultimate human values, and he considers humanity in general and himself in particular to be a part of nature; therefore, both carry great value. And as a corollary he feels no higher or lower than other creatures—the individual self is special but in no way more special than the rest of nature, and he is honored to be numbered among “. . . these other / Sleek lovely ones / Whose mire I cannot / Reasonably exceed.” George Scarbrough’s outlook, as expressed in his large body of work, is clear-eyed and unflinching— he feels that being a part of the magnificent unending saga is good enough.
We will miss George Scarbrough, but fortunately, we will still have him with us. He has left a rich legacy of language, and to use Jim Wayne Miller’s phrase— a rich “vein of words”— that readers will continue to mine for many years to come. Iris Press has been working for some time on two new collections of poems and that work will continue. These will be published posthumously starting this year. I predict that this work will attract new readers and will increase in importance for many years to come.
We have lost George Scarbrough, but his gift of poetry is strong and enduring.
1. Tellico Blue, 2nd edition, Iris Press, Oak Ridge, 1999, p xi, Authors Preface to the Second Edition.
2. Tellico Blue, 2nd edition, Iris Press, Oak Ridge, 1999, p vii, Introduction by Rodney Jones.
3. First published in May of 1942, in Harpers magazine, (184:667). Later this poem was collected in
Scarbrough’s first collection of poems, Tellico Blue, E. P. Dutton, New York, 1949.
4. Robert B. Cumming, 2000, “A Conversation With George Scarbrough,” Asheville Poetry Review,
5. Tellico Blue was first published in 1949 by E. P Dutton, New York.
6. The Course is Upward by George Scarbrough, 1951, E. P Dutton, New York.
7. Invitation to Kim, 1989, Iris Press, Atlanta, Georgia
8. New and Selected Poems by George Scarbrough, 1977, Iris Press, Binghamton, NY