Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

The Art of Attention

A new essay collection from the University of Tennessee honors Jeff Daniel Marion, beloved Appalachian poet and teacher

Jeff Daniel Marion: Poet on the Holston celebrates the life and work of beloved Appalachian poet Jeff Daniel Marion. Edited by Jesse Graves, Thomas Alan Holmes, and Ernest Lee, the anthology contains seventeen essays—including an autobiographical essay by Marion himself—an interview with the poet, and a detailed timeline of his life. Marion has published nine collections of poetry and numerous other writings, and his voice—in both spirit and direct quotation—is threaded throughout this collection of essays by Southern writers, teachers, and Marion’s former students.

Born in Rogersville, Tennessee, Jeff Daniel Marion taught creative writing at Carson-Newman College from 1969 until his retirement in 2002, and he is the recipient of an almost uncountable number of awards. A random sampling: in 2011, while serving as the University of Tennessee Libraries’ Jack E. Reese Writer in Residence, he received the James Still Award for Writing about the Appalachian South from the Fellowship of Southern Writers; in 2005, Carson-Newman presented Marion with the Outstanding Educational Service to Appalachia Award; and in 2003, Ebbing & Flowing: New and Selected Poems and Prose, 1976-2001 was named the Appalachian Book of the Year by the Appalachian Writers Association.

The heartfelt essays in this anthology tend to view present-day culture through eyes opened by Marion’s poetry and generosity as a teacher. In his introduction, Ernest Lee quotes the preface to Ebbing & Flowing, in which Marion reflects on his own family heritage: “Indeed, my work grows out of necessity, the need to create, to say and shape my life, the need to work at a craft that can give lasting body to the love I feel for my world fast fading and too soon gone.”

Susan O’Dell Underwood offers an affecting examination of Marion’s impact as a teacher. Using as her lens Marion’s poem “Boundaries,” Underwood describes him as a clear guardian of poetry grounded in place: “His life of teaching was about passing on to his students the great power of staying still in a place, of acknowledging the humblest surroundings. His writing life … is about traveling the same terrain over and over, seeing the ordinary and known in new, extraordinary ways.”

In “Measures of Grace,” John Lang notes that the lack of overt “God-talk” in Marion’s writing may at first seem at odds with his frequent characterization as “a poet with religious concerns.” But in examining the sense of wonder permeating Marion’s poems, Lang concludes that “attentiveness pervades Marion’s poetry, with its lovingly inscribed portraits of the natural world” and argues that Marion’s watchfulness is nothing less than “prayerful.”

Don Johnson writes, “No poet has been more firmly rooted in the soil of East Tennessee than Jeff Daniel Marion. For no one has the term ‘regional poet’ in its most literal interpretation been more appropriate. Rarely does Marion venture west of Clinch Mountain, south of Newport, Tennessee, or north of Southwestern Virginia.” Indeed, Randall Wilhelm describes Marion’s most consistent theme as the search for home.

In introducing an interview with Marion, co-editor Jesse Graves calls Marion one of his closest friends and mentors. During the twenty years they’ve known one another, writes Graves, they have “grown into friends who talk about what it means to be a son, a husband, and a father; what it means to be a recorder of stories and lives, especially ones that might not get told or seen or understood if we ourselves fail to get them right in their telling.” In the end, he notes, “It seems that so many of our talks have become about how to love. And what home means. How to be part of a place, and how to show it to the rest of the world, if the world cares to look. These conversations themselves have become acts of love.”

The same can be said about this anthology of remembrances and gratitude for Jeff Daniel Marion’s art of attention.

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