Rodney Jones (1950- ) is an award-winning poet, author, and educator. His work draws on the disappearing oral tradition and personal memories from his childhood in rural Alabama. His work prominently features the lives of working and lower-class peoples of the South. Memory is also a strong theme in his poetry. He sets many poems in the present but draws the reader’s attention to the subject’s past experiences and emotions.
Rodney Jones Jones was born in Falkville, Morgan County, on February 11, 1950 to Lavon and Wilda Owens Jones. The rural community in which he lived did not have electricity until the mid-1950s. His father was a farmer who later worked in a plant that manufactured metal tubes, so Jones had experience with both agrarian and industrial cultures during his childhood. Growing up in rural Alabama, Jones encountered a distinct version of southern culture. Although many of his neighbors were illiterate, they participated in a rich oral tradition that included storytelling, music, jokes, and memorized scripture. Jones’s poetry draws heavily on and captures much of the richness of this oral tradition.
During his childhood, Jones’s parents encouraged his many interests, which included hopes of becoming a professional athlete, a United States senator, and a novelist like Charles Dickens. He began writing poetry in high school. After graduation, he attended the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where he began publishing poems in literary magazines. In 1971, Jones graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English literature and, a year later, sold three poems to The Atlantic Monthly. Also in 1972, he married Virginia Krema. He attended the University of North Carolina at Greensboro for his graduate studies and earned an MFA in creative writing in 1973.
After finishing graduate school, Jones worked for a year as a copywriter for Frost & Frost Inc. in Gadsden, Etowah County. He became the poet in residence for the Poetry-in-the-Schools Program, a National Endowment for the Arts program that gave students the opportunity to interact with and learn from a professional artist. In this position, Jones taught poetry in the public schools of Tennessee, Alabama, and Virginia from 1974 to 1976. He moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1977 and served as the poet in residence for the city’s schools for one year. That same year, he published his first collection of poems, Going Ahead, Looking Back.
In 1978, Jones became the writer in residence for Virginia Intermont College in Bristol, Virginia, a position he held for six years. He and Virginia Krema divorced in 1979. The following year, he published his second collection of poems, The Story They Told Us of Light, which was selected by former U.S. Poet Laureate Elizabeth Bishop for the Associated Writing Programs Award series. Many of the poems in the collection feature rural Alabama as both setting and metaphor. Throughout this book, personal memory and an attempt to articulate the past are also persistent themes.
In 1981, Jones married Gloria Nixon de Zepeda, and three years later the couple moved to Illinois, where Jones joined the English faculty at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. The same year, he was awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1985, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a prestigious grant that allows scholars to devote uninterrupted time to their work. He also published his third poetry collection, The Unborn, that year. In 1986, Jones received the Peter I. B. Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets for The Unborn and the General Electric Foundation Award for Younger Writers.
Jones’ fourth collection, Transparent Gestures, won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1989. He was also awarded the Jean Stein Prize by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. His 1999 book, Elegy for a Southern Drawl, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In 2001, the Fellowship of Southern Writers granted him the Hanes Award for Poetry. He received the Harper Lee Award for Alabama’s Distinguished Writer in 2003. In 2006, he published his ninth book, Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems, 1985-2002, in which he compiled his favorite poems from previous works and added several original poems. This collection was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize. He has since published an additional collection of new poems and an experimental work that combines both narrative fiction and verse, Village Prodigies (2017). In addition to 10 poetry collections, Jones has contributed poems to Parnassus, River Styx, and other magazines.
Jones’s poetry is noted by critics for both its thoughtfulness and its accessibility. His poems are often structured as loose narratives or sketches that contain underlying themes that transcend the surface narrative. He relies heavily on imagery and often uses childhood memories and anecdotes about his family as the background for his poems. The power of the past is a powerful theme throughout Jones’s work, and his poems preserve the vernacular speech of his childhood and draw on the oral traditions that once dominated rural southern culture. For example, his poem “First Coca-Cola” describes his rural community’s suspicion of the beverage. In it, Jones records the shopkeeper’s belief that the drink was sinful and his own youthful wondering if the fizzy beverage was alive. These images and narratives are descriptive and tell a story, but are primarily a means of meditating on current realities.
Jones taught creative writing courses in the English Department at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale until his retirement in 2012.
Works by Rodney Jones
Going Ahead, Looking Back (1977)
The Story They Told Us of Light (1980)
The Unborn (1985)
Transparent Gestures (1989)
Apocalyptic Narrative and Other Poems (1993)
Things that Happen Once: New Poems (1996)
Elegy for the Southern Drawl (1999)
Kingdom of the Instant (2002)
Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems, 1985-2002 (2006)
Imaginary Logic (2011)
Village Prodigies (2017)
Summerlin, Tim. “Rodney Jones.” In American Poets Since World War II: Third Series, edited by R. S. Gwynn. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992.