Decades ago, Brevard College English professor Kenneth Chamlee, then an undergraduate at Mars Hill College, headed west. For him — a Greenville, S.C. native with a self-described “nightmarishly bland” childhood — this was unchartered territory. For six weeks, he explored the steep red cliffs of Zion, hiked where Shoshones once thrived in the Tetons, and felt small under canopies of sequoias.
To grapple with the sheer beauty of it all, he turned to poetry. Chamlee’s imagery and “dense language” garnered the attention of fellow writers, including Tommy Hays, author of the novels What I Came To Tell You and The Pleasure Was Mine.
Hays is now the executive director of the Great Smokies Writing Program (GSWP), a community writing workshop series headed by UNC-Asheville. When Hays wanted to extend the reach of the program into other communities, he thought of Chamlee, having heard “nothing but praise” about his classes in Brevard, where he has taught for 38 years.
Now, for GSWP’s Spring 2016 semester, Chamlee makes poetry happen in intimate classes at Trinity Presbyterian on Blythe Street in Hendersonville. Each Monday afternoon from 2 to 4:30pm, his five students pore over rhyme and meter, counting syllables on their fingers and scribbling variations of “ABAB” in the margins of notebooks. For now, the group crafts couplets and tercets, working their way up to such daunting forms as the villanelle, a 19-line structure with a strict, repetitive rhyme scheme consisting of five tercets followed by a quatrain.
This is all part of Language 372, aka “Taking Measure: Writing Modern Poems in Traditional Forms,” a two-credit-hour class designed to dispel the myth that structured verse is obsolete or irrelevant.
According to Chamlee, form serves content, and in modern hands with modern sensibilities, Dante’s terza rima or Giacomo Da Lentini’s sonnet should never feel archaic. Still, contemporary poets have long since “moved past rigorous tradition” and “strict metrical cadence,” relying heavily on slant rhyme and hybrid forms.
Chamlee, a Frost and Shakespeare fanatic, is hardly a purist himself. Many of his poems, published in The Asheville Poetry Review and The Cumberland Review, among other literary journals, are experimental in structure and subject matter. Some are lyric poems, others are narrative.
Back in class, though, nine-year GSWP student and retired administrative judge Anne Green must stick with tradition. Carrying a soft spot for the classics — Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and the like — she says she wants to better “learn the rules before breaking them.” That means on Mondays she composes quatrains and tercets expressing her frustration with the current political climate.
Seats away, retreat leader Karen Luke Jackson goes for the unnerving villanelle, describing the symbiosis between longleaf pines and the threatened quail in Southern Georgia. The Peach State native talks about how the game bird represents her childhood and heritage — an ever-vanishing reminder of what once was.
“Ten years ago, my grandson told me that quail are going extinct,” says Jackson. “It shocked me, because growing up, they ran right across roads. It seemed as though there was an abundance.”
Beyond environmental themes, Jackson also uses poetry to explore familial relationships between her mother, grandmother, and herself. Her poem “A Triptych on the First Anniversary of My Mother’s Death” received the 2012 Ron Rash Award in Poetry, later working its way into the Broad River Review. The poem’s three-part structure paired well with the content, only affirming Chamlee’s counsel: form must have bearing on what is being expressed.
“Writers should construct free verse by choice, not default,” he stresses, perhaps coining the new adage for Language 372.
For more information about the Great Smokies Writers Program in Hendersonville, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.