Carol Boggess   •  October 25, 2003

The Poetry of James Still’s Days and Ways

Most readers know James Still as a prose writer, as author of the classic novel, River of Earth. People who had the chance to meet him will remember Mr. Still as a personality. He possessed an unmistakable presence and could charm any audience with his urbane mountain persona, his quiet Southern accent, and his extended yarns or quick wit. We lost the opportunity to know the man in person when he died on April 28, 2001 at age 94, but his writing endures.

A remarkable story teller, James Still could make us laugh, cry, cheer, or simply stop awe-struck. He is remembered for his personal appearances, his tales and short stories, his children’s books and notebooks, his radio spots on NPR, and for River of Earth. Yet he has not been widely recognized for the work that unified his writing and permeated his career — his poetry. Though poet laureate of Kentucky, 1995–1996, he is only now becoming fully appreciated as a poet. In part, this recent recognition results from his last book, which was published several months after his death by University Press of Kentucky. From the Mountain From the Valley: New and Collected Poems was edited by Ted Olson and introduced by Still himself in his autobiographical essay, “A Man Singing.” If you do not already know James Still, treat yourself to that volume and consider this article your special invitation to meet a man who lived a long, intriguing life and who wrote poems that will live long after him.

It is not surprising that Still’s last publication was a collection of poems. Olson notes in the preface that poetry was “his longest-lasting literary interest” (1). Still was a poet first and began his writing career in 1931 at age 25 when “A Burned Tree Speaks” appeared in Boys Life. Six years later, Viking published his first book, a small volume of poems entitled Hounds on the Mountain. If poetry was his first choice, why did he switch to prose? The question is complicated, but one likely answer is simple: narratives sold while poetry did not. Though he did not release another book of poetry until The Wolfpen Poems in 1986, he continued writing verse for magazines and journals and for himself.

That poetry is a key to Still’s writing is obvious to those who read his stories with care. His powerful prose derives force and depth, rhythm and clarity from its close kinship with poetry. Still acknowledged this debt when he said in an interview, “The writing of poetry trained me to write prose.” Every sentence in a narrative should act like a line of poetry and advance the story while carrying significance beyond what it says. (Heritage, interview). James Still does not waste words; his stories are known for their understatement, compression, and depth of meaning. His keen ear reinforces his ability to render a thought, feeling, or situation through just the right words. In an Afterword to one of the story collections, Wendell Berry observes that Still’s use of language is successful not because it is picturesque or realistic but because he is able to give his prose “the economy, liveliness, and density of poetry” (124).

Poetry pervades Still’s prose, but it also pervades his life and so reveals some of its secrets. The simple four-line verse that closes From the Mountain From the Valley announces a clear connection between his living and his writing of both story and poem.

Those, those were my days
My thoughts and my ways.
How did I stand the times.
Read my tales, spin my rhymes.


To discover more about his days and ways, his life and times, let us explore a few of his poems.

Though Still lived in or around Hindman, Kentucky for 70 years, he was born and raised in Chambers County, Alabama where he experienced what he referred to as a “Southern boyhood.” In spite of being the sixth child among ten, James was never lost in the middle. When young he was special because he was the first boy after five girls and was followed by four more boys. As time passed, his status as eldest son grew in the eyes of his sisters because he never married and so always needed their “mothering” touch.

Throughout his life, the individuals of his large family remained in his heart and his poems. One illustration is the humorous narrative poem, “My Aunt Carrie,” that is based on a true incident. It tells of a relative tearing through the house complaining that her father had lost his mind and paid $3,000 for a piece of abandoned property. The poem concludes when the old man sold it three weeks later for $9,000, and no more was heard — “Not a word” (146). The tone is affectionate and humorous, not bitter or judgmental.

Still’s best-known poem of his later years, “Those I Want in Heaven with Me Should There Be Such a Place,” also displays fond memories and a genuine appreciation for real people through well-chosen images. This poem enjoys much of its popularity because Still was 84 when he wrote it, and during the last decade of his life, he frequently recited it from memory with characteristic understated emotion. It speaks a powerful personal tribute to his early life and family. Note the simple but highly charged details of the first 16 lines:

First, I want my dog Jack,
Granted that Mama and Papa are there,
And my nine brothers and sisters,
And “Aunt” Fanny who diapered me, comforted me, shielded me,
Aunt Enore who was too good for this world,
And the grandpa who used to bite my ears,
And the other one who couldn’t remember my name —
There were so many of us:
And Uncle Edd — “Eddie Boozer” they called him —
Who had devils dancing in his eyes,
And Uncle Luther who laughed so loud in the churchyard
He had to apologize to the congregation,
And Uncle Joe who saved the first dollar he ever earned,
And the last one, and all those in between:
And Aunt Carrie who kept me informed:
“Too bad you’re not good-looking like your daddy”;


The list goes on to paint a poignant picture of family and childhood.

Less detailed but more profound than “Those I Want in Heaven” is the simple poem “On the Passing of My Brother Alfred.”

After this death it will
be easier
To pass beyond, to go
where he went,
Out of this light into
a greater light.


This became a kind of elegy for his brother and for a whole generation as James Still outlived all of his siblings and most of his contemporaries. Yet they did not pass from his poetry. He could evoke their spirit at will.

Though his family stayed in his memory, his life was distinctively different from theirs. They were reasonably educated for the time and circumstances, yet members of his immediate family did not go to college, nor did they stray from their roots in eastern Alabama. When he graduated from high school, Still left his hometown, never to return except for brief visits. As a child he had been intrigued by the only three books that his family owned; one in particular, an eclectic volume called The Cyclopedia of Universal Knowledge, initiated his reading habit. Throughout his life, reading and travel combined to fulfill his need for knowledge and adventure. Young James left Alabama in 1924 to attend college at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee. Always short of money, he worked at various jobs to keep himself in school. The young man’s favorite was as night janitor for the college library because when he finished sweeping the floor and emptying the trash, he could close the doors and have an endless supply of books all to himself. Throughout his life, Still was a lover of books, and in his last years read an average of five hours a day. His passion for learning is revealed in lines from “Madly to Learn”:

To fathom, to discern,
To master the Gobi, the ruins at Petri,
Climb K-2 and Nanga Parbat,
Swim the Straight of Malacca,
Be Ahab aboard the Peaquod,
Milton in his agony,
Shakespeare treading the boards;
To unravel, to grasp, to speak
Freud’s Theory of Seduction,


For Still, curiosity was like “an itch that needs scratching” (23). Of the different ways he found to get satisfaction, one was graduate school. Upon finishing at Lincoln Memorial in 1929, Still, with the help of a patron, attended Vanderbilt University where he earned a masters degree in English at the same time the “Fugitives” were writing their agrarian essays for the noted collection I’ll Take My Stand. Still claims no specific influence from their philosophy, but his own life was later to become a living example of agrarianism in a way that the Vanderbilt thinkers only imagined. But not to get ahead of the story — when Still graduated in 1930, the Depression had consumed the nation. Unable to find any kind of job, the young man returned to college and earned a second bachelors degree, this one from the University of Illinois in the practical field of Library Science.

Even with three degrees, Still entered a world of limited prospects and could not find a job until his college friend Don West convinced him to go to a remote area of Eastern Kentucky to help run a summer camp. Still made the move to Hindman in 1931 thinking that he would be there only a few months. He stayed the rest of his life, and to the extent that a person can, he became one with the nature and culture of his surroundings.

Though Still lived in Knott County for 70 years and his signature poem “Heritage” claims he was a prisoner of the hills he loved, he was never trapped in one place. He worked as a librarian at the Hindman Settlement School from 1932 until 1939; then he moved nine miles from town into a two-story log house on Wolfpen Creek where he became a self-sufficient farmer, an amateur botanist, and a dedicated writer. His peaceful, solitary life was interrupted in 1942 when he was drafted into the Army. The final lines of “On Being Drafted” describe the moment his life was disturbed by an invasion from the night sky:

But who on an evening at a quarter past seven
Stared from dusk and weight of heaven?
Mars hung bright in the Wolfpen sky
And glared and met me eye to eye.
Mars looked in and routed me out.


Still served in North Africa and the Middle East until his discharge in 1945. The experience changed his life and career just as the war changed the nation and world. He returned to his log house disoriented and lethargic. Gradually he resumed his daily life, but his writing pace did not return to its 1940 level for decades. He supported himself by working at the Hindman Settlement School and then by teaching for ten years at Morehead State University. As a result of his eclectic reading, his war adventures, and his natural curiosity, Still developed a passion for foreign travel that he eventually satisfied by making six trips to Europe and 14 visits to Central America where he studied ancient Mayan civilization. In the poem “Yesterday in Belize,” he blends the specifics of that place with the universal images of laughter and sun. Here is the first stanza:

Yesterday in Belize
A dog barked, a rooster crowed,
Laughter rocked across the tidal river,
And the sun rang its chimes
Through clarion air.


The gift of relating the specifics of a particular place with the universals of all life is essential to poetic perception. Still enjoyed and used that gift. He was a man of the world who consciously chose to center his life and work in a remote corner of Appalachia. Perhaps the strong bond between poet and place is a reason why Still has become something of a legend in Kentucky. Many of his poems are concerned with the nature and landscape of his place; they bring alive the people and culture there and tell of his own life experiences. But James Still never sees place as a limitation; rather, for him place links humans to the world around them and provides a context for living, images for poetry, metaphors for meaning, and a concrete way to make sense of a world in flux.

A number of Still’s poems draw from the natural setting to comment on the wilds of the surroundings and the interrelationship of the poet with the natural environment. One example, “Leap, Minnows, Leap,” invites the reader to sympathize with the small creatures dying as a result of the damming of the river. One pool

Is knuckle deep with dying, a shrinking yard
Of glittering bellies. A thousand eyes look, look,
A thousand gills strain, strain the water-air.
There is plenty of water above the dam, locked and deep —
Plenty, plenty, and held. It is not here.
It is not where the minnows spring with lidless fear.
They die as men die. Leap, minnows, leap.


Not all of Still’s nature poems paint such a vivid picture. Consider, for example, a stanza from the inscrutable poem “River of Earth,” which presents the story of the landscape over the centuries as a text to be studied. The speaker realizes that while it is possible to absorb knowledge and wisdom from surroundings, he feels inadequate to the task.

But there are those who learn what is told here
By convolutions of earth, by time, by winds,
The water’s wearings and minute shapings of man.
They have struck pages with the large print of knowledge,
The thing laid open, the hills translated.


Though defying comprehension and resisting control, nature in Still’s life and in his poetry is a given, an essential presence and life force.

For Still, physical nature is never distant from human nature. He was an keen observer of people and he portrayed those around him with compassion, humor and accuracy. One sad picture occurs in “Unemployed Coal Miner.” The simple poem of a stretched-out question looks like a thin man standing motionless:

to put


Another portrait poem is more humorous than sad as it poses a metaphysical question to a notorious local outlaw. “Are You Up There, Bad Jack?” — a folk poem with a bite — concludes with these lines:

In your time, Bad Jack,
You rammacked, you cut, you shot;
When you stirred, life was barely tolerable;
You slew six, you slew hope,
You slew scores of tomorrows.
Are you up There Bad Jack?
If you are, if He took you in,
I think I’ll choose the Other Place.


The people of Knott County that James Still paints in his stories and poems may not display the widest diversity of race or culture; they may not possess the sophistication or luxuries that excess money can buy; they may not be successful at resisting exploitation or adapting to change. Yet they are genuine, fascinating, colorful and permanently attached to the place they know as home. James Dickey, in a review of The Wolfpen Poems, concludes that the volume establishes Still as the “most remarkable poet that the mountain culture has produced” because throughout the poems is a sense that the everyday things one does to survive take place “in a kind of timelessness.” It is generally agreed that Still was a remarkable mountain poet, but people who know James Still the man and have read his last collection with care know that his poetic horizons were not limited to the hills of Appalachia. He is creating poetry out of his rich life and his particular place, a poetry that speaks to us all.

The man was an enigma. Fairly solitary during much of his 94 years, he rarely revealed his private life to strangers or admirers. Even the stories he told of himself and the experiences he disclosed in his autobiographical sketches present only the parts he wanted to share. One way, perhaps the best way, to know him is to read his works. For a final taste of the poet and the man as revealed through his poetry, note this entire lyric he wrote in 1938 when he was 32 years old. It provides an appropriate close because it combines the nature of the surroundings, the man experiencing the whole of his life within his surroundings, and the creative process that bonds the two:

I Shall Go Singing
Until the leaf of my face withers,
Until my veins are blue as flying geese,
And the mossed shingles of my voice clatter
In winter wind, I shall be young and have my say.
I shall have my say and sing my songs,
I shall give words to rain and tongues to stones,
And the child in me shall speak his turn,
And the old, old man rattle his bones.
Until my blood purples like castor bean stalks,
I shall go singing, my words like hawks.


James Still continued to sing for more than sixty years after the appearance of this poem. In his songs, he was both young child and old man. He gave voice to nature and authenticity to people. From this sampling, it should be evident that Still was a poet anytime and all the time. His poetry informed and infused his speech, his work, and his life. Though the man is gone now, the writer lives. His folk wisdom and humor, his intriguing life, his gracious yet self-centered personality — all this and more will not pass out of the memories of people who knew him, but his gift to us lives on through his writing. If you want to know more about the man, begin with his autobiographical piece “A Man Singing to Himself.” If you want to learn more about this writer and the Kentucky hills that held him; if you want to understand better the connection between all people and their place, enter his stories and poems. To experience James Still’s days and ways, to be reminded how he endured the times, read his tales and enjoy his rhymes.

Works Cited

Berry, Wendell. “A Master Language” Afterword. Pattern of a Man and Other Stories, by James Still. [Frankfort, KY]: Gnomon, 2001. 123–30.

Dickey, James. Rev. of The Wolfpen Poems, by James Still. Los Angeles Times Book Review. quoted on back cover of The Wolfpen Poems. Berea, KY: Berea C P, 1986.

Still, James. From the Mountain From the Valley: New and Collected Poems. Ed. Ted Olson. Lexington, KY: U P of Kentucky, 2001.

—. Heritage. Interviewed by Judith Jennings. Audiocassette. June Appal Recordings. Appalshop, 1992.