The Farm Poets of Eastern North Carolina: Ammons, Stephenson and Applewhite

The inauguration of Shelby Stephenson as North Carolina's poet laureate in fall of 2014 is just the latest example of the powerful poetics bred on the farms of eastern North Carolina. Stephenson, from the Johnston County farming community of McGee's Crossroads, and James Applewhite, from the Wilson County town of Stantonsburg, are the two most prominent literary heirs to the renowned A. R. Ammons. All three poets have found rich material for their work in the everyday farm life they experienced growing up in rural North Carolina.

 Although Archie Ammons spent most of his distinguished poetic career teaching at Cornell University, in some ways he never left the rural North Carolina farm in Columbus County on which he was raised during the Depression. The winner of virtually every major award an American poet can receive, Ammons never forgot his early rural farm experiences when he left for college at Wake Forest on the G.I. bill shortly following World War II. The people, chores, and animals of his farm world would periodically mark, highlight and haunt his work for the rest of his life, and he returned frequently to a childhood spent “down in Carolina / in a time / & place / that seem so long ago.” When Ammons died in 2001, few in the world of poetry thought of him as a regional poet; rather, he was noted as the first major poet to bring the language of science to poetry, and as a successor to a poetic lineage that stretches back to Shelley and runs through the American romantic tradition exemplified by Emerson and Whitman and Wallace Stevens. 

Ammons’ influence on Stephenson and Applewhite is indelible. Even when their poems take on subjects outside of their farming experiences, their language and rhythms maintain that connection. In this presentation, Albright will use example from these three poets as well as selections from the Nash County poet Joan Cockrell New. Through this body of work Albright will examine how family farm life and the values it taught these writers became essential to their art. This presentation will also explore how poetry can keep a dying way of life alive and allow it to be better understood and appreciated by future generations.

Through this presentation audiences will learn the elements of a contemporary poem and the complex, yet subtle, patterns upon which these poems are often constructed. At the conclusion of the program audiences will be able to reflect on how they might find poetry in their own lives and experiences, particularly those rooted in the rural landscape of farm life. 

lectern, microphone