Poems from the Porch of Flannery O'Connor

Poems from the Porch of Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O’Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia on March 25, 1925. At age 13 she and her parents, Edward O’Connor and Regina Cline O’Connor, moved to the small town of Milledgeville in central Georgia to live near Regina’s large extended family.  Her father died of lupus three years later, leaving his wife and only daughter bereft.

Flannery attended high school and college in Milledgeville, finally leaving at age 20 to attend the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. After earning her M.F.A., she enjoyed a writer’s residency at Yaddo, the famed writer’s colony in upstate New York, where she met and became friends with influential literary figures (including poet Robert Lowell) and lived for a time in New York City and rural Connecticut while working on her first novel, Wise Blood

In 1951, at age 25, as Flannery was poised at the start of a promising writing career, she was diagnosed with lupus—a disease she referred to as “the Red Wolf”— and forced to return to Milledgeville. She would live there with her mother on the family’s dairy farm, named “Andalusia,” for the rest of her life, far from her friends and the literary world she had so briefly been a part of.

On August 3, 1964, Flannery O’Connor died of the same disease that killed her father.  She was only 39. During the 13 years she lived at Andalusia, she wrote two novels, dozens of stories, many essays and reviews, and hundreds of letters to friends and strangers alike. Her reputation as one of the finest writers of the 20th century rests on the strength of these writings.

Flannery O’Connor was a Catholic raised in the Protestant South, a circumstance that allowed her to see her faith and her culture from unique vantage points. As a result of her probing vision, O’Connor wrote fiction and non-fiction that challenges received notions of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Her stories and novels are unmistakably her own, life seen through her own shrewd eye and narrated in her own unmistakable voice.

Anyone familiar with O’Connor’s writings knows that she says the darnedest things.  Her letters are full of wit and sass, her stories full of compulsively quotable lines. She had a crackling intelligence coupled with a wry sense of humor that came through even in the gravest of circumstances. Though it may sometimes seem irreverent or brash, her evident commitment to comedy is, in reality, a sign of her deep faith. As she once wrote, “Only if we are secure in our beliefs can we see the comical side of the universe.”

The following poems are acts of imagination. They are not poems that Flannery O’Connor wrote, but, rather, poems she might have written. All of the monologues but the last one are spoken in her voice. Based in words excerpted from her writings that stand as epigraphs, each poem channels her voice as she lives her life in exile at Andalusia, struggling against her illness, practicing her craft, and discovering how to reconcile her faith and her art. Though her daily existence was limited and circumscribed by her disability, she lived a rich interior life.  It is this interior life that these poems attempt to chronicle.

The seeds of this project were sown over the course of many decades. The day I read my first story by Flannery O’Connor as a freshman in college, I became a devoted fan. Since then, I have read all of her work and shared my enthusiasm for her writing with thousands of university students. In my scholarly life, I have written multiple books and articles about her. As a result of this dedication—not to say literary obsession—Flannery’s voice has been in my head for a very long time. We have been conversing, at least in my imagination, for a lifetime, creating for me a sense of intimacy, friendship, and sisterhood. Writing these poems has given me the opportunity to externalize that conversation—or, at least Flannery’s half of it—to dig more deeply into the often surprising declarations and observations she has made and to imagine new ones 

In these poems, I have endeavored to recreate Flannery’s voice faithfully—to replicate the rhythms of her speech (as gleaned from her letters), her accent (as gleaned from recordings), and the expressions she would be likely to use. At the same time that the poems try to convey the spontaneity of Flannery’s speech, they are deliberately crafted.  All 101 poems are sonnets. It may seem a mad method to couple casualness and artifice—Flannery’s homespun Southern idiom with the courtly sonnet—but it is precisely this tension which made the poems a pleasure to write and makes them (I hope) a pleasure to read.  What I discovered in writing these poems is how elastic the sonnet can be, especially if one is willing to bend the rules. The rhymes may not all be “true,” nor fall in predictable patterns, but they are there, giving each poem structure and music. The sonnet’s rhythm and rhyme, to my mind, help convey the color and flavor of Flannery’s articulations. The use of the sonnet as a container for her thoughts also pays homage to O’Connor’s meticulous craft as a writer.

The poems in this book are organized according to the liturgy of the hours in keeping with the pattern of Flannery’s life at Andalusia. Her days were a round of regularity, a ritual as deliberate and predictable as those of a consecrated monk. Each day began with Prime, or morning prayer, read from her breviary; afterwards she attended 7AM Mass with her mother, and then she would write until lunchtime, an activity that constituted for her a form of prayer. Afternoons were devoted to pursuit of her hobbies, including painting and caring for her large collection of peafowl. After dinner she would return to her room, where she would again take up her breviary and recite Compline, the last office of the day. Before sleep she read selections from St. Thomas Aquinas, her favorite theologian. Flannery’s life was also monastic in the sense that in returning to her home, she took a de facto vow of stability, swearing loyalty to the place where she would live out her days. That place was Andalusia, a small world unto itself and a vantage point from which to view the larger one beyond it. Thus, the poems in this book, spoken according to the order of the hours, might be thought of as Flannery’s prayers.

Though I am the author of these poems, I have tried to make myself as invisible as possible. I speak in my own voice only once, and not until the end of the collection. In this book, Flannery is the focus of attention rather than me—a welcome circumstance for both writer and reader. Andalusian Hours is Flannery’s story, an autobiography in verse, her own one-woman show that traces her history and plumbs the depths of some of her mystery.

I have been asked by at least one reader whether it is presumptuous of me to assume knowledge of Flannery O’Connor’s inner life and to write these deeply personal poems. My response to that query is yes, of course it is presumptuous—as any act of imagination must inevitably be. It is impossible to put oneself in the place of another human being, to imagine seeing the world through his or her eyes, and to clothe those thoughts with language without presuming—but this is what artists are called to do, and do it we must with conviction, devotion, and humility. We can never truly know another soul. But love compels us to try.

Welcome to the mind and heart, the life and art, of Flannery O’Connor.

Previous article The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing
Next article How and Why the Church Makes Saints