by Tim Gilmore, 8/6/2022
He seemed older than age. Not many young men in their 20s, burning zealously to be poets, showed up on his doorstep. There may even have been something a little desperate in the graciousness with which he met me there in his Tudor Revival-style apartment on the Willow Branch Canal by the river.
The only poetry I’d known in my Jacksonville childhood, working class and Baptist fundamentalist, were the Psalms, the Book of Proverbs, the Song of Solomon, and only in Bible class at church. I’d surreptitiously read Keats and Whitman and written poems at the plastic factory where I’d worked down on Beaver Street and I’d found the occasional book by a Jax-based poet in the labyrinths of Chamblin’s, the largest bookstore in the South.
So I’d read Bill Slaughter’s Untold Stories and The Politics of my Heart years before I took five or six of his literature classes at the University of North Florida. It took me until my later 20s to get around to college. And I’d read O.Z. Tyler’s 1976 epic Osceola, Seminole Chief: An Unremembered Saga. When somehow I found out Tyler was still alive and living in Riverside, I might as well have discovered Walt Whitman living nearby.
I came down to the canal, sequestered in old and broken balustrades where Willow Branch Creek flows into the slow but inexorable St. Johns River, where an alligator occasionally suns itself on the occasional tidal sand shoal, and an ancient poet accepted me into his home. I might have prophesied the meeting had I lived before me, adumbrated mythologically my coming into poetry.
Orville Zelotes Tyler, Jr. wanted to resurrect the epic. Great cultures produced epic poetry. Epics fruited naturally from empire and O.Z., whom friends had just called “The Colonel,” thought America needed a new epic to make it great by reminding it that was great. Tyler wanted to be to America, to the South, even to Jacksonville what Homer was to Ancient Greece and Virgil to Ancient Rome.
America’s Bicentennial, 1976, was the logical year to publish it. It had been too long since Stephen Vincent Benét wrote John Brown’s Body. Tyler saw his Osceola as scion of Longfellow’s Hiawatha, though Tyler wrote in free verse against The Song of Hiawatha’s trochaic tetrameter. Alas, Tyler’s poetry is as unfashionable now as Longfellow’s.
“Each Seminole was taught primarily / To run. Unlike his brothers of the plains / Who used the horse for hunting and for war, / These Indians ran. They ran for miles and miles, / Quite noiselessly, with speed, arriving fresh.”
Colonel O.Z.’s brother, Palmer Tyler, illustrated the saga, and Anna Publishing of Winter Park, Florida said Tyler had commanded infantry battalions in Okinawa, the Philippines and Germany, had received multiple stars, ribbons and leaf clusters, had written other histories and volumes of poetry and taught History and Creative Writing at Florida Junior College.
Regarding Osceola’s stand against the United States and his subsequent betrayal, Sharon Todd of The Greenville News explained, “In the early 19th century, Osceola was one of the main resistors of the United States Army’s attempts to [re]move the Seminole nation. He eventually was captured under a flag of truce, when he entered an army compound to discuss a treaty, but when he died in Fort Moultrie, S.C., he was buried with full military honors.”
And that’s the irony of Osceola as the subject for a great American epic. If Osceola, the poem, is meant to be an artifact of American cultural greatness, Osceola, the man, only fell because of the dominant culture’s deception and dishonor. The fact that Osceola fought against, not for, the U.S. Army and represented people displaced by American culture only adds to the epic’s irony.
Tyler called Osceola “the number-one hero of the Second Seminole War and the number-one hero of Florida.” Tyler had asked John Mahon of the University of Florida to write the preface, since Mahon, he said, was “the number-one authority on the Second Seminole War.”
Now Tyler’s epic lies unread like that of another Jacksonville epic poet, E.M. Souvielle. E.M. was Eliza Wilbur, a 19th century scientist who lived in that improbable mansion called Marabanong across the river. Since Homer was the great epic poet of Ancient Greece and Ulysses (Odysseus) the hero of Homer’s The Odyssey, Eliza Wilbur Souvielle decided Civil War General and President Ulysses S. Grant suited the epic aggrandizement of America and wrote and published The Ulyssiad in Jacksonville.
I don’t know that Tyler, who came from old Jacksonville families and once served as president of the Jacksonville Historical Society, ever knew of The Ulyssiad. Now the heroes of both epics recede down the shadows and the muck, hidden amongst the histories of old neighborhoods.
Wherever Tyler’s 149 page Osceola touches the nuances of truth, wherever it sparks the beauty-truth of strange other-than-but-obvious history, it also falls into plodding rhythms and clumsy club-footed didactism:
“We surely should have made them citizens. / And this of course eventually we did, / Not Indian-Americans, we think. / Just plain, with all their faults, Americans.”
The false half-timbering on the Tudor Revival house where I met Old Colonel O.Z. still watches over the canal, the balustrades sinking hot night by hot night, attic lights through oak limbs, Spanish moss draping the gargantuan branches like the beards of Victorian poets, my own shadow pulling itself toward drowning in the mouth of the creek.
Two years after I visited him, the Colonel died, 94 years old, November 12, 1999. If all the old epics recede now, distant figures in the landscape, the poets did burn with the fevers of their creations. The Z. stood for Zelotes, “one burning with zeal, a zealot.” That young poet now attempts the lyricism of history and teaches writing where Zelotes taught. Florida Junior College is now Florida State College at Jacksonville and Cumberland Campus is now Kent Campus, one dead-end street from my house.
Tyler’s epic attempts good faith in bad lines. “The Indians were our first minority. / Minorities we have not handled well, / It seems. This first attempt we surely botched.” Of course, European descendants first were minorities among the indigenous peoples of this continent, not the other way around.
I prefer the last lines of Stanza XXVI of Canto VII, “Osceola Gone,” where “Now and again a gull would flap and squawk / Complaining lonesomely his zero progress / Made against the wind or wheeling gracefully,” for so too do I keep flapping and squawking and wheeling.