Toadstools – Brief Poems by Fred Chappell

Fred Chappell (born May 28, 1936 on a farm near Canton, North Carolina) is a poet, novelist and critic. He taught at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, where he was an English professor, for over 40 years. While working there he helped establish the MFA in writing program and received the O. Max Gardner Award for teaching. He was the Poet Laureate of North Carolina from 1997 to 2004. Retired from teaching, but still continuing to write, he now lives with his wife, Susan, in North Carolina.

Fred Chappell is a versatile southern man of letters who has written more nearly thirty books in a variety of genres, including at least 15 books of poetry, eight novels, and several volumes of short stories and criticism. According to The Los Angeles Times, “Not since James Agee and Robert Penn Warren has a southern writer displayed such masterful versatility.”  He has won numerous poetry awards including the Roanoke-Chowan Poetry Cup which he won three times beginning in 1971, the Bollingen Prize, which he shared with John Ashbery in 1985, the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry in 1996, and the T. S. Eliot Prize. 

The Académie Française awarded his 1968 novel, Dagon, the Prix de Meilleur des Lettres Etrangers. Although initially celebrated for his prose, Chappell’s poetry has gained a steady reputation and a loyal readership. Of his move from prose to poetry, he had this to say: Now for the first time I could begin to think directly about the most important intellectual and artistic endeavor in the world: the composition of poetry.” His most ambitious work is Midquest (1981),a four-volume poetic autobiography,” as the poet himself described it. He has also published numerous collections of poetry since Midquest, including Spring Garden: New and Selected Poems (1995), Family Gathering (2000), Backsass (2004), and Shadowbox (2009). C (1993) marked a change of approach, containing 100 poems that are briefer, more humorous and more accessible than his previous poems. Although the C of the title refers to the Roman numeral 100, it is also the first letter of his surname and, as he once noted, also represents the imperative mode of the verb “to see.” Fred Chappell continues to write poetry which he calls “the noblest secular endeavour that the human mind undertakes.”

 

C

In an earlier post, Salt – Brief Poems by J. V. Cunningham,  I describe how, in the 1970’s,  I first encountered A Century of Epigrams.  It was only recently I came across the poetry of Fred Chappell and his slim volume C which also contains a century of epigrams. I managed to source a copy of the book from an English retailer, Bookbarn International. I was not disappointed. Michael McFee contrasts the epigrams of Cunningham and Chappell: “Cunningham’s epigrams may be more classically classical than Chappell’s, more intensely chiseled, but they also seem less human somehow, less accessible and fun to read.” Here I disagree. While Cunningham’s epigrams may be more classical, they are no less human, no less accessible and no less “fun to read.” Their “wit” may be more traditional, but they are humorous in a different manner. And while they may lack the self-deprecatory tone of Chappell’s epigrams, they have a deeper sense of rhyme, rhythm and classical proportions. McFee is right to invoke the spirit of Ogden Nash (see my post Squibs – Brief Poems by Ogden Nash) and to call Chappell a “subversive formalist” with a sense of mischievousness. And while I prefer Cunningham’s rigour and Nash’s fluidity, I do enjoy the loose, unbuttoned, satiric and demotic style Fred Chappell has mastered. I hope you do too.

TRANSLATIONS

As Michael McFee noted of C, “Of the hundred epigrams included, twenty-eight of them – over a quarter of the total poems – are translations or versions of epigrams written by other poets at other times.” When it comes to translating classical (and modern) epigrams, I prefer the work of Chappell to Cunningham. The range is broader and the style looser and more suited to the poets chosen. I have provided a brief sample below to give a flavour of the Fred Chappell art of translation. Chappell, himself, is modest when it comes to his abilities with the classical poets: “I’m from a generation that was cheated of a classical education. If you want to learn those languages, you have to start young, at six or seven. I’ve had Latin halfway and like to refresh myself from time to time. I’ve never had much Greek. The Greek translations I’ve done have been partially faked.”  Whatever about their accuracy, their humour, their brevity and their contemporary references ensure that they will continue to attract readers to a poet who has modelled his epigrammatic style on the influence of a Latin model. Martial (whose work is dealt with in another post,  Bedside Lamps – Brief Poems by Martial) is invoked in the initial Proem and remains a ghostly presence in this intriguing collection.

Brief Poems by Fred Chappell

EPIGRAMS

CHIPMUNK

Don’t blink, or
I’m gone,
Slow thinker.

***

EPITAPH: THE POET

I never truckled.
I never pandered.
I was born
To be remaindered.

***

EPITAPH: THE PLAYBOY

It was wine and women
That did me in.
If I get a chance
They’ll do it again.

***

UPON A CONFESSIONAL POET

You’ve shown us all in stark undress
The sins you needed to confess.
If my peccadilloes were so small
I never would undress at all.

***

TOADSTOOL

He’s the oddest fellow
Ever was made,
Lifting his white umbrella
To ward off shade.

***

SEX MANUAL

We’ve followed instructions to the letter,
Pausing at diagram 82.
“Aren’t we there yet?” one of us queries.
But in this position I can’t tell who.

***

COMING HOME

Even the sunlight is a smell you remembered.

(This poem is also included on the Monostich post)

***

LITERARY CRITIC

Blossom’s footnotes never shirk
The task of touting his own work.

***

LITERARY CRITIC

Peter Puffer piped a pack of poets into
Undeservedly prominent public view:
Then, just to prove the power of his pen,
Provokingly piped them pouting out again.

***

OVERHEARD IN THE TEAROOM

“Marianne, my dear,
I’ll say this for Ruth:
Though she never tells the truth
Her lies are quite sincere.”

***

GRACE BEFORE MEAT

Bless our corn pones, Lord. But let us dream
They might be black currant muffins with strawberry jam and clotted double Devon cream.

***

UPON AN AMOROUS OLD COUPLE

This coltish April weather
Has caused them to aspire
To rub dry sticks together
In hopes that they’ll catch fire.

***

THE EPIGRAMMATIST

Mankind perishes. The world goes dark.
He racks his brains for a tart remark.

***

From C, by Fred Chappell, copyright 1993 by Fred Chappell, published by Louisiana State University Press.

 

 

TRANSLATIONS

EPITAPH: JUSTICE

The poet Hipponax lies here.
In justice, this is only fair.
His lines were never dark or deep.
Now he enjoys (like his readers) sleep.

from the Greek of Theocritus

***

AGRICULTURE

You’ve planted seven wealthy husbands
While the bodies were still warm.
You own, Chloë, what I’d call
A profit making farm.

from the Latin of Martial

(Further translations of the Latin poet are available on the Martial post)

***

FOR THE TOMB OF THE LITTLE DOG ZABOT

Your house was small, your body but a puplet;
A shoebox was your grave, your epitaph this couplet.

from the Italian of Petrarch

***

MORNING LIGHT

Immensity
Illumes me.

from the Italian of Giusseppe Ungaretti

***

THE SWALLOWS

in nifty capitals of black satin
they’re typing out the aubade
daybreak just dictated

from the Italian of “Farfa”

***

From C, by Fred Chappell, copyright 1993 by Fred Chappell, published by Louisiana State University Press.

 

 

LINKS

The Poetry Foundation page for Fred Chappell.

“The Epigrammatical Fred Chappell” by Michael McFee; an article in the Southern Literary Journal.

C is published by the LSU Press.

C is available to buy on the amazon.co.uk  site.

C is available to buy on the amazon.com site.

An interview with Fred Chappell by Okla Elliott.

An interview with Fred Chappell by William Walsh