When a novelist loads his prose with image-heavy figures of speech, he’s usually doing so in order to get under the surface of whatever story he’s attempting to tell, opening the story’s inner life for examination by its readers. Novelists who adorn their style with the language of metaphysical searching are often said by critics to be more poet than novelist. It’s a compliment most novelists welcome, whether it’s true or not. As it happens, the South has produced an unusual number of such novelists. Thomas Wolfe comes to mind, as does James Agee and Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner and Truman Capote. Mark Twain’s mystical descriptions of the Mississippi River in early morning are as haunting an example of poetry as exists in literature. But the published poetry of writers like Wolfe and Agee is stiff and uninspired, little more than prose lineated like poetry. Without the infrastructure of narrative to guide them, most of these writers lost their way as poets. Few of them were successful at merging the two genres, which in their execution seem to require different kinds of relationships between the writer and the language of narrative.
One writer who not only succeeded in merging the two genres, but who forged a new kind of prose vocabulary in the process, was Eudora Welty. She began her career as a writer who chose to employ her talents in the ripe vineyards of the short story. From the beginning, Welty’s stories rested on a combination of poetic physical description interspersed with dialogue written in regionally accurate language. She seemed less interested in her characters’ psyches and motivation than in their roles as exemplars of characters molded by life in a specific place. As she once commented, she saw the literature of place as meaning that Chekhov’s stories could not have taken place in Mississippi any more than her stories could have taken place in Russia.
In addition, her stories were spiced with generous helpings of comic absurdity. The characters did things like sleeping off a drunk overnight in an irrigation ditch. Others, like the narrator of her comic masterpiece, “Why I Live at the P. O.,” lose their boyfriends when a rival spreads a rumor that one of their sides is bigger than the other. While a sense of the tragic often hung over her stories, the grief it produced was expressed more in laughter than in weeping. But touches of poetry worked themselves into almost every paragraph. The speech of one of the characters in an early story is described as “sad as the soft noises in the hen house at twilight.”
As Welty perfected the style of her short stories, the ratio of the poetic to the narrative began to change, with the poetic eventually gaining the upper hand. Her narratives had always concerned themselves more with the textures of humans in time than with the narrative’s events, but now she extracted time’s motions from her work altogether and made her narratives almost independent of chronology. In her mature style, the language jumps off the page like a grasshopper. She went deeper and deeper into the landscape, bringing a painter’s eye to her prose. She noticed and named every fern and wildflower, the wobble of a wren as it dropped to rest on a dogwood branch. Her sentences were finely woven wreaths of buds and blooms that she hung on a place and its riotous characters. She went into the very heart of Mississippi soil. She gave her characters the liberty to draw their own portraits, to be themselves, principally by means of their actions, but also by the major and minor frets that drove their lives. She allowed her readers and characters the pleasure of taking part in her creative process.
Welty has acknowledged her debt to the work of Virginia Woolf, whose aphasic novels showed Welty how to submerge her sentences in a fluid medium, and to make them move through a story by invisible currents rather than by the conventional method of presenting a series of scenes that ultimately accumulate into a whole. Unlike her contemporary William Faulkner, who relied on dislocation and fragment for his effects, Welty never forsook grace and lyricism, the touches of gentility that made her a beloved figure to her audience. Taken in large doses, though, Welty’s prose, like Woolf’s, can be confusing, leaving the reader with too long a thread to follow, one that could easily slip into incoherence, forcing the reader to retrace the thread back to an uncertain beginning. The reader who stayed with Welty’s stories discovered a prose that was a kind of dense vegetation, one that simultaneously fed and choked, an earthly carpet where humans searched the grass for meaning.
Perhaps Welty’s most perfect fulfillment as a poet came in the stories she collected in the volume titled Golden Apples. Set in a fictional place in Mississippi she called Morgana, Welty created a history and geography for those stories as Faulkner had done for Yoknapatawpha. Here her characters strove, fell in and out of love, commemorated deaths, and celebrated homecomings. Unlike Faulkner, where a single event in the past could cast a blighting shadow on the present, Welty’s world was the perpetual present, a changeless space of mythic time. In “Moon Lake,” a group of children from a local church gather for a summer camp, headed for the body of water in the story’s title. Along the way they forge a path through a thick forest:
Sweet bay and cypress and sweetgum and live oak and swamp maple closing tight made the wall dense, and yet there was somewhere still for the other wall of vine; it gathered itself on the ground and stacked and tilted itself in the trees; and like a table in the tree the mistletoe hung up there black in the zenith. Buzzards floated from one side of the swamp to the other, as if choice existed for them—raggedly crossing the sky and shadowing the track, and shouldering one another on the solitary limb of a moon-white sycamore.
Nature for Welty is a dazzle of fear and attraction, an ancient miasma to get lost in, where the most prized discoveries are made in the darkest places. In the delirium of the moment, fiction’s structure becomes indistinguishable from the characters that fill it, leaving poetry as the track a reader must discover and follow. Like the best poetry, Welty’s is never obscure. It illuminates. Her world is a world of the most familiar of signs, the ones we live among every day, admiring, absorbing, committing them to our collective senses and memories, succumbing to the force that makes us see their clarity.
To hear Welty read her stories is to be taken into the warm and confident embrace of a sensibility that sees the world in words. It’s not just the words, though. The poetry comes in her voice, too, its soft Southern rhythms that still seem startled by her own gifts. She knows that the delight of her words go deep into her readers, where they live on and on as poetry, giving generous solace to the often troubled human heart.