Fire in the Pasture: Twenty-first Century Mormon Poets. Edited by Tyler Chadwick. El Cerrito CA: PeculiarPages, 15 October 2011. 546 pp. $17.99, trade paperback. ISBN-10: 0981769667; ISBN-13: 978-0981769660
First things first: a necessary disclaimer—Fire in the Pasture: Twenty-first Century Mormon Poets includes five of my poems, pieces that I am proud of and that I am pleased to have available to a wide audience.Having made that admission, I intend to continue writing about the anthology for three reasons: (1) my meager contributions constitute less than 1% of the total—five pages out of nearly 550; (2) Collings Notes is my personal site, which means I can post whatever interests me—and the possibilities and directions of contemporary poetry by LDS writers interests me enormously; and (3) regardless of numbers 1 and 2 above, this collection is such a treasure-house of riches that it deserves all of the attention it can garner—and as many readers as possible.
Tyler Chadwick’s highly perceptive “Preface” gives a brief overview of LDS poetry during the past half century, beginning with Richard H. Cracroft and Neal E. Lambert and their seminal collection, A Believing People: Literature of the Latter-day Saints (1974), followed by Eugene England and Dennis Clark and Harvest: Contemporary Mormon Poems (1989). In some senses, these two volumes helped to define a “Mormon poetics” for the twentieth-century, and Harvest remained the standard collection for over two decades.Fire continues that work, with a slight but significant departure from its predecessor. Rather than being a compilation of “Contemporary Mormon Poems,” with the implication that each of the poems contained therein will somehow reveal its inherent “Mormon-ness” to a discerning reader, Fire shifts attention to “Twenty-first Century Mormon Poets”—the difference being that this collection concentrates on the poetry (and thereby the poetics) of poets who are Mormons.
Since the term “Mormon” is itself capable of multiple meanings—defined by doctrinal adherence, cultural behaviors, or familial ties, among others—the key term, I think, remains poets. And in Fire, readers will find—to borrow Dryden’s assessment of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales—poets that reveal to us “God’s plenty.” Literally something for everyone.
I tend toward formalism in my own writing. I appreciate the effect of clear-cut structure merged seamlessly with form, resulting in something with a strength that exceeds the sum of the two parts. And in Fire, I find that. A sonnet that doesn’t reveal its meticulous adherence to tradition until the final couplet—the text reads as smoothly and as convincingly as might the finest prose…but beneath it lies a complex tissue of sound patterning, rhythm, rhyme (both end and internal) and compression, all serving the ends of a powerful message. Or a villanelle that is equally deft in both structure and meaning. A sestina that uses repetition so masterfully that the final word in each line—and their recurrence in the envoi—seems both inevitable and surprising. Quintets. Quatrains. Tercets. Decasyllabic lines (not to be confused with blank verse, which also occurs). Elegies, pastoral and otherwise. An eclogue.Since Fire emphasizes twenty-first century publications, many of the poems are free verse in all of its variety. Long-line verse. Breath unit. Nonce structures that keep the free verse both free and verse; there are no samples of prose chopped helter-skelter into oddly shaped lines that dribble down the margin of the page.
Everywhere in Fire readers will find evidence of artistry, of control and discipline, of structure wedded to content…of poetry.
What they will not discover, however, is Mormon verse. That is, doctrine scantly or overtly dressed up in the costumes of rhyme and rhythm. Some poems are firmly embedded within easily recognizable LDS beliefs, but none of them are overwhelmed by those beliefs. Many of the pieces solidly and powerfully affirm and re-affirm the core concepts of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints without becoming exercises in sentimentality or cliché. And many of them reflect the intriguing recognition that, even without explicit LDS references to matters of faith and practice, they could only have been written by someone with an LDS background. As Susan Elizabeth Howe states in her Foreword, “To perceive of life as having an eternal purpose and of choices as having eternal consequences leads Mormon poets to serious engagement with their subjects,” whether those subjects entail experiences recalled and re-invented, contexts imagined or actual.
Fire in the Pasture is not a volume to be read in a day, or a week, or perhaps in a month or longer. Page after page reveals fruits to be tasted, savored, lingered over, and transmuted into ideas and images that may change lives. Each reader will discover favorites that speak directly to the individual’s mind and heart—and for that reason I have hesitated to point to particular titles that pleased me, since what I look for in poetry may not be consonant with what others seek. Instead, at one point or another, with one poem or another, the anthology is likely to feed any hunger, resonate with any need.