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Walking Down Furrows, Talking Down Lines: The Polemics and Poetics of Wilmer Mills.

Evoking Sherwood Anderson's assertion that "Only the few know the sweetness of the twisted apples," Donald Justice argues that Wilmer Mills belongs among the ranks of the few. Other literary heavyweights, such as Richard Wilbur and Rachel Hadas, have also hailed Mills as a poet of emotional and stylistic depth. However, Mills's position as an up-and-comer on the literary scene is not the result of the novelty of his work. If Mills's poetry follows Ezra Pound's charge to "Make It New," it does so by making it very old.

Mills is a living, breathing anachronism, steadfastly defying the modes of categorization typically associated with the contemporary, academic poet. His list of past occupations--carpenter, bread baker, teacher, farmer, furniture maker, basket weaver, rafting guide, and poet--reads like the resume of some kind of bucolic Renaissance man, and his reactionary views on agriculture, religion, and poetry, which he espouses with the self-confident hyperbole of H.L. Mencken, make him seem like a wayfarer from a bygone era. If Mills has one tenuous foot in the 21" century, it is only out of the necessities of material and temporal reality; his other foot is firmly planted in a world, real or imagined, that predates industrialization. (1)

Interestingly, Mills's worldview is derived from South America as much as the American South. Mills spent a large portion of his childhood, from age two to age ten, in Brazil, where his parents were agricultural missionaries for the Presbyterian Church. The experience in Brazil proved formative and ended up shaping many facets of Mills's philosophical outlook. Mills says that the remote area of Brazil where he and his family lived in the early 1970s was a wholly pre-modern, agricultural society, and that growing up in a culture with no electricity and very few machines irrevocably altered his conception of time, investing in him a pace of life that is fundamentally at odds with much of the contemporary, developed world. Although the family left Brazil and returned to the U.S. in 1980, Mills seems to have largely failed to transition from life in the Third World to life in the First, and even today he maintains an interest in living a "static-less existence" that is not always "humming with the frequency of 110 voltage."


When the Mills family moved from Brazil back to their home in southern Louisiana, Mills's father rededicated himself to agriculture, an occupation in which his forbears had engaged since they were granted their land by the King of Spain in the late 1700s. Historically, the plains region of southern Louisiana has been devoted to the production of beef because of its vast, flat grasslands. In recent decades, though, the Mills family has shifted their agricultural output to include a large-scale grass seed production company. In fact, this shift, which involves all the trappings of modern industrialized agriculture, began after World War II when Mills's grandfather bought the first mechanized combine in southern Louisiana.

The speakers of the poems in Mills's first collection Light for the Orphans (2002) consistently exhibit a sense of guilt, presumably based on Mills's own, over the fact that they abandoned farming. However, Mills seems to despise the highly mechanized and industrialized brand of agriculture practiced by his father as well as the majority of farmers still involved in commercial agriculture. Although he long ago accepted the impossibility of practicing traditional agriculture, Mills imagines that farming with mules and draft horses is superior to farming with tractors, claiming that there is a certain mysterious cadence that accompanies working a field with another living creature. This cadence is disrupted by the introduction of machines into this natural and, for Mills, sacred space. A self-proclaimed Luddite, Mills argues that as we become overly dependent on technology, we forfeit much of our elemental, instinctual understanding of and communion with the natural world. Therefore, machines often act as superfluous barriers between humans and the world, and, as a result, our ability to navigate the world is diminished.

Perhaps the most evocative image in Light for the Orphans occurs in the poem "Rain":
    My father's father called this morning,
   Asking me to help him plow new garden rows,
   Turn under summer's weeds and saplings
   Grown too thick for work by hand with hoes.
   His mule died years ago, but he still saves
   The plow, so we connect a single-tree
   Behind the tractor, and I pull him slowly
   Through the garden, turning on command, "Gee
   Haw," all afternoon until he waves
   For me to stop and pull up old tomato staves.
   Before we finish the sky turns cloudy. 

When asked about his grandfather, Mills notes, "He still preferred to do his garden that way, because he had better control of the blade and the rows. So he'd be walking along behind the tractor, without any traces of the tractor, except for metaphysical ones--traces of the old and the new." This scenario is doubly heartbreaking, first because Mills's grandfather has brought the Leo Marxian machine into the garden and second because his grandfather has instilled in him the desire to pursue traditional farming, a pursuit that will be inevitably and incessantly thwarted.

In addition to his time spent in farming communities of Brazil and Louisiana, Mills's interest in agriculture was also catalyzed by the work of the Southern Agrarians. Mills's first exposure to the Agrarians occurred when, as an adolescent, his mother took him to see Robert Penn Warren read, and later, while a student at Sewanee, he studied and lived with Andrew Lytle. Both Warren and Lytle were among the original twelve progenitors of agrarianism, and both contributed chapters for the Agrarian manifesto I'll Take My Stand (1930), in which they promote "a Southern way of life [i.e. agrarianism] against what may be called the American or prevailing way [i.e. industrialization]."

Unlike with some southern writers, one rarely gets the feeling that Mills's advocacy of agrarianism or his employment of stereotypically southern material are the result of a deep-seated desire to sell his work to a backward-glancing regional audience or to a national audience whose craving for authentic local color seems to have dwindled little since Reconstruction. Although Mills could certainly be accused of being an armchair Agrarian, his dedication to the platform is genuine. Moreover, Mills is aware of the dangers of being labeled an Agrarian. Despite the Southern Agrarians' support of racial segregation, codification of class hierarchies, and tendency to romanticize the Old South, Mills asserts that he embraces the identification and that he has little patience with those who fail to see the positives of the movement because of its historical baggage. He asserts, "The idea of the 'Agrarian' is not something that I think should be limited to the time period when the 'Southern Agrarians' were writing. They were defending a sensibility, a way of life that they perceived to be threatened by industry--a rural agricultural way of life that was threatened by the industrial world."

In recent years, the words "Agrarian" and "agrarianism" have experienced an upsurge in popularity, as they have been appropriated and redefined by contemporary scholars, food writers, and farmers. For instance, The Essential Agrarian Reader: The Future of Culture, Community, and the Land (2003) features writers, such as Wendell Berry, Barbara Kingsolver, and Norman Wirzba, who present agrarianism as a practical worldview that seeks to accomplish positive stewardship of the earth's resources. The emphasis on organic and natural crops, slow foods, farmers' markets, CPAs, localism, sustainable agriculture, and the rights of animals and workers in this collection has its roots in an agrarian philosophy that has developed throughout the twentieth century, retaining many of the positive life-sustaining traditions of earlier manifestations of agrarianism, all the while shedding many of its problematic social and political platforms.

Mills consistently cites two examples of people in the present who are living the Agrarian dream: the Amish, who have maintained a sustainable model of agriculture and scorned technological advancements, and Wendell Berry, for whom Mills voted as a write-in candidate during the 2004 presidential election, because Berry embodies the principles he "wanted for the country and the world." Yet, Mills seems to have more in common with contemporary organic hipsters and hippies than he does with the Southern Agrarians of the early 1930s. Surprisingly, Mills is comfortable with this comparison, claiming that while he does not condone the "New Agey" ideologies often associated with the contemporary sustainable movement, he does advocate the sense of environmental awareness present in the movement. Mills admits that the man-over-nature hierarchy in Genesis has been used historically to sustain an anthropocentric perspective of the planet, but he also notes that the Bible can be employed to teach positive environmental stewardship:
    Many people accuse Christians, and rightly so in some cases, of
   the planet in the name of dominion. There are a lot of Christians
   though, who are trying to reverse that trend in the sense of
   and dominion in a different sense. We are in charge, like it or not,
   the gardeners, and I agree with those impulses. 

Although the epistemological foundations of Mills and the "New Agey" proponents may differ, ultimately their platforms are very similar. For instance, Mills's assertion that "The chemicals and pesticides are killing us. We need organic food" would probably be equally accepted at a Bob Jones Bible Conference or at the checkout counter of a Whole Foods. The yoking of these two disparate demographics reflects the fact that sustainable agriculture, in its local and organic manifestations, tends to attract people on the far right and far left, religious fundamentalists and ultraliberals. Although Mills sides with the former in spiritual matters, he appreciates the latter for the fact that they have come into "contact with dirt" and, as a result, are "attuned to the natural world and to agriculture as something essential to being human."

Like the Southern Agrarians who morphed into the New Critics, Mills's investment in agriculture and his interest in antiquated farming techniques have lead him to a preoccupation with technique and process in other areas of his life, most notably his poetry. Mills has been particularly influenced by Robert Frost, as a result of which he is an avid believer in structured, formal poetry. For example, many of his poems utilize strict iambic meter, rhyme schemes, or stanzaic forms. This interest in form was catalyzed by a history of agricultural experiences and agricultural metaphors. Mills notes that the word for one of the earliest forms of Greek writing, boustrophedon, simply means "bull turning," and in some of the original poems recorded by the Greeks, the lines read from left to right, and right to left. Therefore, the lines of the poems mimicked the plowing of a field. Additionally, the word "verse" is derivative of the Latin word versus, which refers to the point at which a farmer turns the plow to start another row. Mills laments the alteration of language and metaphor as we lose touch with agriculture.

Mills's insistence that the poet must submit to the structures of certain poetic modes may seem anathema to some poets' desires for freedom and self-expression. According to Mills, some contemporary poets are self-indulgent in the degree to which their poems only tell their own stories and explore their own inner lives. However, for Mills, form becomes a means of escaping many of the pitfalls inherent in free verse. Mills claims that he uses meter as a Frostian good-neighbor-producing barrier between autobiographical poems and poems that tell someone else's story. The device allows him to divorce the two, ensuring that his poetic sketches of the people, real or imagined, that he cares for so deeply do not get narcissistically conflated with his own identity or his own way of looking at the world. While admitting that there is a time and place to break the rules of poetics, Mills strives to break them in meaningful, well-informed ways.

This extensive use of form puts Mills in line with many of the poets of the "New Formalist" movement, such as Richard Wilbur, Donald Justice, and Anthony Hecht. Mills notes, though, that there is really nothing new about "New Formalism," and that instead he would like to be identified as an "Old Formalist." Additionally, Mills could be called a pastoral poet, a label that comes to mind not only because he writes so passionately about the corruption of natural and agricultural spaces but also because one of the strongest poems in Light for the Orphans, "A Dirge for Leaving," features an epigraph from the elegiac pastoralist Thomas Gray. Mills says, "I embrace the idea of myself as an Agrarian, but if someone doesn't like the connotations of that, then I'll take 'pastoral.' I'll take bucolic or Georgic. It's a long tradition that goes back a long time to Virgil and beyond. It is often the poet who recognizes the importance of the natural world, how one tends it through agriculture and horticulture and husbandry. There is a connection between the life of walking down furrows and talking down lines."

Despite the fact that Mills's agrarian subject matter and his advocacy of poetic traditions are influenced by pastoral and formalist modes, his vision of reality seems more closely related to William Blake than to Thomas Gray or Robert Frost. Mill's world is one inhabited by warring powers and principalities, which in his thinking are not mere symbols or metaphors. In the world Mills inhabits, the sky is alive with the clashing of demons' swords and the crepitation of angels' wings. As a result of this worldview, Mills's poetry, at its best, is invested with a prophetic intensity, enabling the poet-auger to interrogate and disrupt the status quo. However, at times, his poetry can border on the didactic and even the reactionary. For good or ill, Mills's perspective is so orthodox that it has swung back around and become unorthodox, something new out of things very old.

To read a transcript of the interview that occassioned this essay and additional poems by Wilmer Mills visit our website at:

(1) Unless otherwise noted, all information for this essay comes from an interview I conducted with Mills via telephone on February 24, 2011.
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Author:Vernon, Zackary
Publication:The Carolina Quarterly
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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