Jim Whitehead

From the NY Times: Mr. James T. Whitehead (1936 – 2005) was born in St. Louis and grew up in Jackson, Miss. He stood 6 feet 5 inches by the time he went to Vanderbilt University on a football scholarship. There he met William Harrison, the budding writer who became his lifelong friend and associate. Mr. Harrison remembered that as a student Mr. Whitehead had a keen intellect, a firm sense of justice on the race issue that was roiling the South at the time and a fully formed ferocity on a broad range of thought from the painting of Vermeer to the theology of St. Augustine.

Mr. Whitehead’s hope of a professional football career was dashed by an injury in college. He left Vanderbilt with a bachelor’s in philosophy and a master’s in English. He graduated from the creative writing program at the University of Iowa, then joined Mr. Harrison to found a similar program at the University of Arkansas. They were shortly joined by their friend Miller Williams, the poet. The master of fine arts program that they established became one of the nation’s most acclaimed. Its students have included Barry Hannah, Ellen Gilchrist and others who have made their mark in fiction, poetry, translation, and film.

In 1971 Mr. Whitehead, a poet and teacher, published Joiner, a coming-of-age novel about segregationist Mississippi. Joiner tells the story of Sonny Joiner, an oversize former football player and a man of excesses, intellectual and otherwise, passionate about history, theological discourse, painting, politics, quarreling, literature and sports. So was his creator.

The novelist R. V. Cassill, reviewing the book for The New York Times, wrote: “What Whitehead has achieved is to sound the full range of the Deep South’s exultation and lament. Once again, we are told that Mississippi is our Ireland, in literature and politics. His tirade makes an awesome, fearful and glorious impact on the mind and ear.”

Mr. Whitehead also published four books of poetry, Domains, Local Men, Actual Size and Near at Hand. He was known as a skilled sonneteer. He favored a conversational style that drew on his affection for the country Southerner. A sonnet he titled “A Local Man Doesn’t Like the Music” begins:

Those tunes don’t recollect one memory

I ever had. Not one could call my name.

And when the music isn’t company

It’s time to go and time to change your mind.



Mine wasn’t as extraordinary as
My grandfather’s. His came down from higher,
A classical shape, hung from the Kansas sky.
Mine stooped over the woods, a squatty cloud.
Grandfather’s, like a cornucopia
Gone haywire–sucking horribly, not spilling
Plenty (unless you grant the stories it left
A bounty)–came and beat his town down flat.

Hysterical naked women were in the streets;
Fortunes like his own were thrown across
The tragical Kansas plain, his jewelry store
A blasted treasure-trove.
Every acre
In Kansas a sullen Populist demanding
His share–a pair of broken glasses, a diamond–
The grasses grown suddenly filthy rich,
And laughing–naked women howling all night–

His town become a waste on that rigorous land.
And he told that story each year, in still weather,
Until he died: Weeds! Diamonds gone!
And the neighbor’s daughter turning around and around…

Mine came bucking over the trees and fell,
For a moment, to lift one dog, and that was all,
A helpless dog swung up in an awkward squall,
And nothing was beaten flat to raise a tale.

Sestina in Celebration of the Voice of Johnny Cash

with special thanks to Tom Royals and Tom T. Hall–
Fox Hollow, February 25, 1983

Hello, I’m a longtime fan of Johnny Cash and say
By God I love the ways he has to talk or sing
Or somewhere in between,
Whether or not the notes are struck straight on,
Whether or not the tone’s exactly play
Or from your basic cold despair.

Back home in Arkansas we’ve known some cold despair
And know exactly what despair has got to say
About the tune we’re just about to play,
And exactly when we have a mind to sing.
We don’t refuse our song. We know there’s little true straight on,
When lives are lived the most part in between.

Most of the time I’m an especial fan of the in between
That never does approve despair.
It halfway laughs and says to carry on–
But not too much. I love to hear Cash say
We all must try to sing
And try, by God, to play.

And then sometimes his songs seem cruel play,
Pretty much straight on and not your in between.
Sometimes when he begins to talk or sing
The whole damn thing is sweet despair,
And life is nothing but the pain he has to say,
And all I want is more of how he carries on.

Lord, sometimes I need to carry on,
Whether or not I’ve got the right to play,
Whether or not I’ve anything to say,
And oftentimes I hate the in between,
Raise hell and shoot the chutes to cold despair.
Morning comes with nothing there to sing.

Lord, morning comes and I cry out and try to sing.
Hungover or whatever, I mean to play
With the whole wide world that’s in between.–

Exactly. I’m a fan of Johnny Cash, ready to sing or play
What’s going on between
Despair and too much fun. That’s what I mean to say.

This Is an Elegy for Charlie Harry–
Pilot, Agent, Bounty Hunter, Friend

Lord, if Charlie comes around there,
Say, Whoah, get down, Charlie!
He’ll say, Watch out, Bubbah!
Lord, don’t take offense–maybe flee
Or take flight, however it is that you do it.–
But do not take offense at Charlie Harry.

Lord, you yourself are said to bounty hunt,
After a fashion, letting those go free
You take a fancy to, law or no law,
And also are a master of disguises
The way our Charlie was.

He, at times, for all his playfulness,
Was taken with such powers
As seemed to frighten people.
He frightened people, Lord,
No doubt about it–and you do too–
A billion times more wonderfully for sure,–
Though given a short life in the Deep South
There was little shabby about your Charlie’s courage
Or his sense of humor, Lord, you’ll love it–
Assuming you really like what you’ve created
The way Charlie did.

You say, Get down, Charlie!
He’ll say, Watch out, Bubbah!
Then all of us around here will sleep better,
Able to believe in both of you

The Narrative Hooper and L.D.O. Sestina with a Long Last Line
for Leon Stokesbury

One fall not far from Ozark, Arkansas,
A gentle sheriff saw a hairy man
Upon a berm–hairy in the extreme
This man was, but kindly from his bearded face.
He hunkered there upon the fading grass
And to the sheriff seemed entirely at peace.

It’s wonderful to see a boy at peace
So much he seems to love our Arkansas,
Even if he’s vagrant on the grass,

The sheriff thought, who was a decent man,
Although not one to wear a bearded face,
Which faces were to him at least a bit extreme.

Could be this boy’s entirely extreme,
A hooper flipped on dope and not at peace
At all with Arkansas
–he’d have to face
This hairy one near Ozark, Arkansas
To prove the Law is not the lesser man
Than one who is so fearless in the autumn grass.

And so the sheriff stopped his car, on the grass
And on the berm, in a state of mind extreme
For such a gentle and a decent man
Who lived in fact essentially at peace
With every normal man in Arkansas.
He parked, but showed some fear upon his razored face.

It was a moment all good men will face
In time, and man to man, on God’s own grass–
We all must be in Ozark, Arkansas
Or somewhere just the same and as extreme
Some time, attempting to maintain the peace,
As honest sheriff or as gentle hairy man.

And so it was with our two friends. The man
Who had the hair on said, “Sheriff, your face
Suggests I’ve done some thing to break the peace
While taking of my ease upon the grass.”
“I’m not exactly sure it’s that extreme…
Are you a hooper?” the sheriff mumbled, then clearly saw

His man was nervous– “Boy, are you on grass
Or L.D.O.!” His face was now extreme.
“Peace, Sheriff,” said the hairy man. “I’m no hooper–I’m from
Dumas, Arkansas.”

For My Father at Eighty

For years he never talked about the war
Except to name some places he had been,
Le Havre, Remagen, moving on Berlin.
I wanted him to tell some outright fear

He’d suffered in his bravery, the roar
Of German eighty-eights, the flinch of pain,
The dead, some hatred, a severe God damn.
For years he kept his peace, and he never swore.

Mother told me not to trouble him.
Maybe or not he’ll somehow find the time,
And if he does, then leave the man alone.
You’ve no idea what the man has seen.

One afternoon, when I was married, grown,
A good time in the best of company,
He joined our easy talk of history.
Miller and Ward and Gen were there. He’d seen

The armies’ soldiers, frozen, torn apart,
And, worse, a death camp, thousands naked and starved,
In five great pits, enought to break your heart.
We did our best. Only three survived.

His story was five hundred words, no more.
He told it well. He’d told his war.
My father’s a gentle Presperterian.
At eighty, thoughtful, he believes in hell.

Good Linemen Live in a Closed World

Good linemen live in a closed world–they move
Inside themselves to move themselves against
The others and their violence–they give
To interior visions whole seasons no good sense
Would approve–their insides creak and groan, crying
A thing that’s trapped along the line is shrill
And curious and wants out. Bodies playing
Laugh and dream to gain the massive will
Their trade requires. These men maintain, they attack,
They suffer repetition for years and years.
Part war and similar to art, their work
Is sometimes elegant. Inside their fears
Is the closed center of one fear, they move
Quickly against themselves with massive love.