The lyrics and life of Alabama poet, John Finlay.

Thanks to his article in the Alabama Literary Review, Jeffrey Goodman brought a new Alabama author to my attention. The author is John Finlay, whose brief-by-modern-standards life begins in Ozark, Alabama, where he was born. His father had a farm in Enterprise, a small town incorporated in the 1890’s as a cotton town. Lumber interests soon followed as part of the long story of how Alabama’s state tree, the longleaf pine, lost its home in our landscapes.

Finlay’s father, Tom, was considered “land-rich”- they owned three to four hundred acre tracts. His mother, Jean Sorrell, came from an established family in Birmingham. But economic good fortune did not protect John from life’s tragedies; his family tree, while deeply rooted, was pock-marked with suicides, drug addictions, insanity, and violent death. For example, his mother’s father, Martin Sorrell, was a prominent attorney who clerked for Hugo Black but ended his days at Bryce Hospital, where he “died of insanity” leaving behind a wife and three little ones in Ozark.

As a boy, he loved to read Shakespeare, and he sometimes recited passages from the plays while caring for his family’s dairy cows. What John did not love, however, was the actual chores and farming life itself. He preferred to spend his weekends at his grandmother’s home in Ozark, where classics spilled from the bookshelves and erudition marked the conversations on topics ranging from politics to theism to the latest trends in modern literature.

It’s no surprise that John decided against the farming life when he enrolled in the University of Alabama in 1959. After spending his allowance on books for his library, John cozied up to Professor Hudson Strode, and the childless Teresa Strode practically adopted John as their son. Hudson went to the lengths of securing a $1,000 scholarship for John from a wealthy banker friend and John repaid him with the flattery and outright charm which Hudson valued so highly. Later, John would also repay Hudson with considerable research for his three-volume biography of Jefferson Davis.

John’s writing was also influenced by August Mason, a poet and English professor whom Goodman reckons as “one of the last of the Vanderbilt Agarians”. Specifically, Mason’s emphasis on the art of verse, as distinguished from the art of poetry, must be dimly heard in the background. Finlay’s poems are usually written in measured verse with a focus on intense, place-based perceptions of the world. One of his most notable poems,”Audubon at Oakley,” celebrates the naturalism and detail captured by artist and naturalist John James Audubon.

John’s relationship with the Nashville Agrarians was to be a life-long one. He nurtured friendships with Andrew Lytle and Allen Tate, and his ability to fit the mold of a “southern gentleman” stereotype served him well in local literary circles.

After finishing his degree, John Finlay secured a teaching position at the University of Montevallo in the fall of 1966. Goodman identifies this as the point at which “Finlay revealed for the first time his eccentric lifestyle”. To many Southerners, John’s homosexuality was not obvious- the literary circles were filled with flaneurisms and bowties. John knew that his sexuality went best left unextolled under these circumstances. Those who knew him well, however, knew he was gay. And those who knew him briefly knew he was something fantastic- “a small mountain of cigarette butts piled up on the floor of his VW bug as he drove some 40,000 miles without changing the oil.”

As a political liberal, John treaded gingerly around the politics of his day, choosing to leave behind only one poem that might be considered overtly political. This poem was about the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC, and it reflects John’s anti-war position. In his view, war was what happened when passion and frenzy superseded reason and self-discipline.

Early in his writing career, John provided a list of a list of “Notes for the Perfect Poem”, some of which he later revisited. These “notes” reveal his literary kinship with Edgar Bowers and Yvor Winters, one of his most transcendant mentors.

  1. It must be about the truth. It must give truth.
  2. It must be literal, very literal.
  3. It must be symbolic, very symbolic, but symbolic only in terms of its literal “base” or “narrative”, not in terms not growing out of this literal whatever you may call it.
  4. It must be literal, very literal.
  5. It must be clean and lean and have the supple, yet firm movement, of pure muscle.
  6. It must be of the physical world, have winter mornings, summer nights, creeks, smokes, smells, the reflection of a star in a bucket of water, etc. in it so that the reader will say, “Oh yes, this is just the way it really is.”
  7. Yet it must also be abstract.
  8. It must come from a man who is mature and has mastered himself so that he is calm in the good knowledge he has of our mystery, our language and history.
  9. It must be rooted in a particular place.
  10. It must be whole in its beautifully compelling demand that the reader engage his wholeness, both his intel- lect and his emotion.
  11. It must be moral and cause the reader to make one of the three following statements: “I should and want to lead that kind of life.” “I should not and do not want to lead that kind of life.” “I should and want to have the patience to resign myself to these unavoidable facts about life.”
  12. It must have both the intensity of engagement and the detachment of judgement.
  13. It must be fully realized in language.
  14. It must be plain.

After spending some time on the island of Corfu, John lived in Paris and worked as a janitor. His Paris notebooks provide insight into his absorption of the classicist milieu. Then John returned to Tuscaloosa to work at Bryce Sanitarium, the place where his grandfather died. His Bryce notebooks reveals the danse macabre of John’s fascination and repulsion with the treatment and life of the “insane”- illuminated in his poem, “The Locked Wards”.

It took John Finlay ten years to finish his PHD thesis. From 1970 to 1980, he cavorted, worked, wrote, explored, and finally completed the thesis which technically allowed him to rest on his laurels. At some point during this decade, John’s multiple visits to the backrooms of New Orleans’ lively gay bars and baths left him with an HIV infection. The tragedy in this part of John’s life lies not only in his infection, but also in his passionate conversion to Roman Catholicism. His poem, “To A Victim of AIDS”, almost suggests that the man in the New Orleans bars deserved the “divine punishment” meted out by a God made angry by homosexuality. For John Finlay, his final religious conversion brought more self-loathing than peace and mercy. That breaks my heart.

John passed away from AIDS in 1991. His final resting place lies in Enterprise, Alabama in a graveyard I am still struggling to find. A John P. Finlay (1887-1935) and a John D. Finlay (1911-1952) are buried in the Enterprise City Cemetery.

More on John Finlay’s life and poems can be uncovered in the following:

“In The Beginning: A Note from the Poetry Editor” by David Middleton
“On Rembrandt’s Portrait of An Old Man Reading the Scriptures”, a poem by John Finlay
A segue to all the John Finlays whose names ended up on a POW list
Encyclopedia of Alabama entry on John Finlay
A Garland for John Finlay by David Middleton
Mind and Blood: The Collected Poems of John Finlay by John Finlay and David Middleton
Entry in Southern Writers: A New Biographical Dictionary

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