Rodney Jones, born half way through the twentieth century, grew up in rural Alabama in a world little changed from that of a hundred years before. It was a world he describes as “essentially feudal, agrarian, unelectrified” where “horses passed in front of our house every day” and most farming labour was still done by hand. This heritage marks Jones’s poetry deeply, and follows on from the Southern agrarian tradition established by an earlier generation of poets such as John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate. However, Jones is also a child of his own times, writing passionately about war and politics as well as the hold of the past. He attended the University of Alabama where he met the poet Everette Maddox, an early formative influence on his poetry. He graduated in English literature in 1971 and then studied at the University of North Carolina receiving an MFA in creative writing in 1973. Since then, he has made his living teaching English and creative writing at various universities, including, since 1984, Southern Illinois University. His first book of poetry, The Story They Told Us of Light (1980) established one of the key themes of his work, the power of the past and the ability of the imagination to give meaning to personal memory. This was followed in 1986 by The Unborn which won the Lavan Younger Poets Award and, in its use of a longer line and more conversational tone, bore the influence of poets such as C K Williams and Robert Frost. Jones’s other critically acclaimed collections include Transparent Gestures (1989) which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry, Apocalyptic Narrative and Other Poems (1993), Elegy for the Southern Drawl (1999) and his most recent book, Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems 1985-2005 (2006). Jones has also been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, while Elegy for the Southern Drawl was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

The recordings featured here are drawn from a range of Jones’s collections but they all share his determination to root his poems in the real. In a revealing interview given in 2006 Jones talks about how his poems make use of “images that I have either seen or that I’ve been told about. The places are places I know.” Often his poems have their origin in a sensual experience, as in ‘The Mosquito’ with its painful evocation of a nocturnal bite, or the celebration of ‘Rain on Tin’ which remembers how in a downpour “the nerves woke like secret agents under the skin.” Elsewhere it’s an image or incident from his rural past that is the trigger; his mother’s fastidious way of picking cotton in ‘On Pickiness’ for instance, or the arrival of the first television set in his community in ‘TV’.

These ‘spots of time’ are a means to meditation and reflection – while his work consistently seeks “a language that will express the past”, as one critic has noted, he also moves from the specific to the general as he considers the ramifications of these intensely registered memories. So we learn in his introduction to ‘The Mosquito’ that the poem’s images of violation and tone of dread were inspired by the war in El Salvador and the conviction that “peace will not happen in my life”. In ‘On Pickiness’ his mother’s habit of harvesting the cotton too carefully becomes an examination of the poetic craft, whether there is such a thing as being too perfect in a poem, too controlled and fluent. It’s a danger that Jones is constantly alert to, committed as he is to telling the truth, something he traces back to his strict religious upbringing. His moving poem ‘Life of Sundays’ dramatises these contradictions as he explores his nostalgia for the singular atmosphere of the ‘Lord’s Day’, with its rituals and specially designated language of sermons and prayers. While he no longer worships at church, he respects the past which “Must always be honoured unconsciously, formally…” Jones achieves the balance between truth-telling and formal mastery implied by these words in all the poems featured here. They are simultaneously carefully wrought and intimate, qualities which are brought out by Jones’s reading style. Described by one critic as “one of the best, most generous, and most brilliantly readable poets currently making poems in America”, on this evidence he is also one of the most listenable, his attractive deep Southern ‘drawl’ highly evocative of the Alabama he both celebrates and criticises.

His recording was made on 1 March 2008 in New York

Poems by Rodney Jones

The Mosquito - Rodney Jones
Life of Sundays - Rodney Jones
Sitting with Others - Rodney Jones
Rain on Tin - Rodney Jones

Books by Rodney Jones



MFA in creative writing

Lavan Younger Poets Award for 'The Unborn'

Prize website

National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry for 'Transparent Gestures'

Prize website

Fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts

Prize website

Fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation

Prize website

Featured in the Archive