James Still (1906-2001) was a Southern novelist, folklorist and poet. Born and raised on a cotton farm in Alabama, his higher education was gained in Tennessee, including Vanderbilt in Nashville. For most of his life he lived in a log cabin in Knott County, Kentucky.
Commentaries on the works of James Still are divided into several sections: First is our commentary on the poetry of James Still, provided by Randall Ivey of South Carolina.
The Poetry of James Still
James Still, one of Kentucky’s most celebrated authors, was actually born in Alabama in 1906 but after a year’s matriculation at Vanderbilt found his way to the Bluegrass State, following opportunities to teach and write.
Still is, like many another versatile poet, perhaps best known for a novel, River of Earth (1940), but his first book was a collection of verse, Hounds on the Mountain, published in 1937, and even a cursory glance at his oeuvre shows that Still was more prolific in the area of poetry than he was prose fiction, although he published, during his lifetime one other novel, Sporty Creek (1977), three books of stories, works for children, and three collections of Appalachian folklore. (A posthumous novel, Chinaberry, appeared in 2011.)
One can trace an evolution in Still’s poetry if one reads his early work and continues through the latter poems. Almost all his poetry is concerned with life in the Southern Appalachians, more specifically in an area of Still’s imagination, Troublesome Creek, a kind of Yoknapatawpha north of the Mississippi, one which figures prominently in his fiction as well (his first story collection, published in 1941, is called On Troublesome Creek). The poems shun the deeply personal and political, favoring instead depictions of everyday rural life. Among their titles are “Okra King,” “Banjo Bill Cornett,” “Dulcimer,” “Night in the Coal Camps,” “Horse Swapping,” and “Fox Hunt.” Still’s early style shows a denseness of detail that sometimes weighs down the rhythm of the individual poem, making for a slow but never difficult read; his later approach is more suggestive and therefore more musical. Very often the subject matter of his poetry is drawn from regional lore and sometimes from his own family history, such as in “My Aunt Carrie” and the moving “Those I Want in Heaven with A Me Should There Be Such a Place.”
Still eschewed the use of dialect in both his poetry and fiction, finding the device artificial and detracting from the language and tone of the piece.
Still, who died in 2001, remained an active poet right up to the time of his death.