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Russell Atkins

As an undergraduate, I majored in history and archaeology. I suppose part of the attraction to these degrees was an enthusiasm for the undiscovered and all things old. In Russell Atkins: On the Life & Work of an American Master, part of Pleiades Press’s Unsung Masters Series, I was introduced to a new poet and was reminded of that thrill of finding something undiscovered and underappreciated—an artifact or an idea that time had passed by. In this amazing assemblage of poetry and essays, Editors Kevin Prufer and Michael Dumanis work to acquaint readers with an American poet whose life and work are largely unrecognized.

As an undergraduate, I majored in history and archaeology. I suppose part of the attraction to these degrees was an enthusiasm for the undiscovered and all things old. In Russell Atkins: On the Life & Work of an American Master, part of Pleiades Press’s Unsung Masters Series, I was introduced to a new poet and was reminded of that thrill of finding something undiscovered and underappreciated—an artifact or an idea that time had passed by. In this amazing assemblage of poetry and essays, Editors Kevin Prufer and Michael Dumanis work to acquaint readers with an American poet whose life and work are largely unrecognized.

Russell Atkins: On the Life & Work of an American Master is a carefully curated collection of Atkins’s previously published and mostly out-of-print poems. However, Prufer and Dumanis do more than simply create an anthology of Atkins’s work. They carefully situate his life, his writing, and his music within a historical context—letting readers appreciate the incredible literati milieu, including figures such as Marianne Moore and Langston Hughes, that surrounded and intersected with Atkins’s work. The editors also include a good deal of biographical material, autobiographical reflections contributed by Atkins himself, and essays of a more academic bent. (Moore gives Atkins some tongue-in-cheek writing advice: “This [Atkins’s piece “Elegy on a Hurt Bird”] shows what you can do. The motion and mood are secure—eloquent. Only the words detract.”)

In the introduction, Prufer and Dumanis describe their own meetings with Atkins over the previous year. Atkins invites them to sort through boxes of his materials: poems, concertos, and letters—cardboard archives that held the tangible artifacts of his life’s work. Prufer and Dumanis sprinkle snippets of conversations with the poet throughout their book, and also include photographs of Atkins’s poetry and concertos. These gestures toward the full sensory experience of Atkins’s work (listening, seeing, understanding) invite the reader to be folded into the oral and archival history.

Many essayists argue that Atkins has been historically overlooked as he was fundamentally uninterested in writing to then-contemporary social issues of the 1950s-1970s. His work does not fill the overt social role that is easy to categorize as belonging to other contemporary African American poets like Langston Hughes. Atkins demonstrates an interest in experimental poetic structure and weaving together music and poetry for a broadly humanistic experience. Indeed, Atkins sees his piece “The Abortionist” as a poetic drama to be set to music, as it was originally published in 1954 by Free Lance, itself dedicated to poetry and prose. The book presents a reproduced copy of the sheet music that Atkins wrote to accompany the piece.

Atkins’s poem “Night and a Distant Church” is a fantastic example of the compositional components that he plays with. Originally published in 1950, reprinted in 1968 as part of Heretofore, and later reworked in 1976 for Here in The, “Night and a Distant Church” maintains naturalistic elements like the wind and motion (as argued by Evie Shockley) and a tonal ringing of the bells (speaking to Atkins’s commitment to necessity of the multi-sensory modes of poetry), as well as the experimental structure that shows the shape of the back and forth of the bell ringing.

Forward abrupt    up
then mmm mm
wind mmm m
   mmm      m
upon
the mm mmm
wind mmm m
    mmm
into the mm wind
rain now and again
the mm wind
bells
   bells

However, we see Atkins’s then-contemporaries appreciating the significant creative space that Atkins did (and still does) occupy, as evidenced by Langston Hughes’s writing advice to Atkins:

If I were you, I wouldn’t worry about being a social poet. My feeling about poetry is that each poet should write as he chooses and not try and be something that he is not. Only if you think and feel socially should you try to write in that way.

Those interested in the vibrant world of mid-century experimental poetry and music would do well to examine Russell Atkins: On the Life & Work of an American Master. Prufer and Dumanis have compiled a masterful collection that showcases Russell Atkins’s poetry, prose, and music—and their inclusion of autobiographical material and the analytic/historical essays provides a vibrant contextual backdrop for the reader. We finish the book appreciating the life and work of a spectacular American poet.

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