Sunday, April 19, 2015

National Poetry Month—Sod Bustin’

McHenry County spring.

Out here in the semi-wilds of McHenry County Illinois, a late spring has established itself enough that many of the fields have been readied for planting.  Industrial farming of corn and soy beans planted fence-line to fence-line and requiring farm equipment the size of aircraft carriers is the deal here.  Acres allowed to go fallow are put in alfalfa for hay.  Oh, here and there are tree farms, pumpkin patches, and small orchards that often try to double as new and hip agri-tourism attractions.  And up by Harvard there are still the truck garden vegetable operations that brought the first Hispanic farm workers to the county decades ago.  But mostly it is big business.
Pretty much gone are the family farmsteads.  The once thriving dairy farms that made Harvard the Milk Capital of the World are mostly gone.  A few hardy souls like my friends Sue Rekenthaler and her husband Gary Gauger grow fresh vegetables for sale at local farmer’s markets and by direct subscription to loyal customers and Michael Walkup has his mini-farm at the edge of Crystal Lake specializing in organic heirloom fruits and vegetables and free range poultry, but they are swimming against an overwhelming tide.
Even in this county, which still prides itself on its agriculture,  most of the residents live in towns and sprawling subdivisions and are a couple of generations or more removed from the farm.  Essentially we are city slickers. 
Still, the rhythms of the agricultural seasons move us.  Which inspired me to gather some verse by and about farmers.

Robert Burns, the Ploughman

We’ll start with the Ploughman Poet, Robert Burns.  Born on his father’s Ayrshire farm in 1759,  his hard physical labor there and on his own farm were said to have damaged his heart and contributed to his early death at age 37 in Dumfries in 1796.  In addition to his farming he was noted for his good looks and romantic escapades that were said to have “strewn Scotland with his bastards” and for his preservation of many traditional Scottish folk songs that would have otherwise been lost.  He is revered as the Scots National Poet.  Burns often wrote about farming and its struggles.  Like much of his verse, this was also set to music.
In The Character Of A Ruined Farmer
The Sun he is sunk in the west,
All creatures returned to rest,
While here I sit, all sore beset,
With sorrow, grief, and woe:
And it’s O, fickle Fortune, O!

The prosperous man is asleep,
Nor hears how the whirlwinds sweep;
But Misery and I must watch
The surly tempest blow:
And it’s O, fickle Fortune, O!

There lies the dear partner of my breast;
Her cares for a moment at rest:
Must I see thee, my youthful pride,
Thus brought so very low!
And it’s O, fickle Fortune, O!

There lie my sweet babies in her arms;
No anxious fear their little hearts alarms;
But for their sake my heart does ache,
With many a bitter throe:
And it’s O, fickle Fortune, O!

I once was by Fortune carest:
I once could relieve the distrest:
Now life's poor support, hardly earn’d
My fate will scarce bestow:
And it’s O, fickle Fortune, O!

No comfort, no comfort I have!
How welcome to me were the grave!
But then my wife and children dear—
O, wither would they go!
And it’s O, fickle Fortune, O!

O whither, O whither shall I turn!
All friendless, forsaken, forlorn!
For, in this world, Rest or Peace
I never more shall know!
And it's O, fickle Fortune, O!

—Robert Burns

Emily Dickinson of Amherst.

Emily Dickinson herself was no farmer, although she was a devoted gardener on the large lot of her father’s Amherst home.  And the western Massachusetts town sat amid the state’s most productive farms.  She understood the rhythm of the seasons well.
The products of my farm are these
The Products of my Farm are these
Sufficient for my Own
And here and there a Benefit
Unto a Neighbor’s Bin.

With Us, ‘tis Harvest all the Year
For when the Frosts begin
We just reverse the Zodiac
And fetch the Acres in.

—Emily Dickinson

Millet's painting The Man With the Hoe inspired Edwin Markham's poem.
Edwin Markam, born in 1852 and the writer whose terse four line poem Outwitted contributed the name for this blog, was already a white-bearded California teacher and principal when he finally caught the public’s attention in 1898.  The Man With the Hoe was inspired by a painting by Jean-François Millet.  In it the hoer was not the noble independent yeoman farmer and object of agrarian democratic mythmaking.  He was the eternal peasant, serf, peon, hired man, sharecropper and a symbol of degradation and exploitation.  Markham instantly became one of the Poets of the People.

The Man With the Hoe

     [Written after Millet’s world-famous painting]

    Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans
    Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,
    The emptiness of ages in his face,
    And on his back the burden of the world.
    Who made him dead to rapture and despair,
    A thing that grieves not, and that never hopes,
    Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox?
    Who loosened and let down this brutal jaw?
    Whose was the hand that slanted back this brow?
    Whose breath blew out the light within this brain?

    Is this the Thing the Lord God made and gave
    To have dominion over sea and land;
    To trace the stars and search the heavens for power;
    To feel the passion of eternity?
    Is this the dream He dreamed who shaped the suns
    And marked their ways upon the ancient deep?
    Down all the caverns of Hell to their last gulf
    There is no shape more terrible than this—
    More tounged with censure of the world’s blind greed—
    More  filled with signs and portents for the soul—
    More packed with danger to the universe.

    What gulfs between him and the seraphim!
    Slave of the wheel of labor, what to him
    Are Plato and swing of the Pleiades?
    What the long reaches of the peaks of song,
    The rift of dawn, the reddening of the rose?
    Through this dread shape the suffering ages look;
    Time’s tragedy is in that aching stoop;
    Through this dread shape humanity betrayed,
    Plundered, profaned, and disinherited,
    Cries protest to the Judges of the World,
    A protest that is also prophecy.

    O masters, lords and rulers in all lands,
    Is this the handiwork you give to God,
    This monstrous thing distorted and soul-quenched?
    How will you ever straighten up this shape;
    Touch it again with immortality;
    Give back the upward looking and the light;
    Rebuild in it the music and the dream;
    Make right the immemorial infamies,
    Perfidious wrongs, immedicable woes?

    O masters, lords and rulers in all lands,
    How will the Future reckon with this man?
    How answer his brute question in that hour
    When whirlwinds of rebellion shake all shores?
    How will it be with kingdoms and with kings—
    With those who shaped him to the thing he is—
    When this dumb terror shall rise to judge the world,
    After the silence of the centuries?

    —Edwin Markham

Young Willa Cather.
Willa Cather, born in Virginia in 1873, moved to a high prairie wheat farm in Nebraska when she was nine years old.  All though she only stayed in the west until she graduated from college and moved back east, those experiences became the fodder for a life time of literary output, most famously her great and influential novel O! Pioneers.  But she also wrote poetry, short stories, and essays while working as a journalist, magazine editor, high school English teacher, and lecturer.  She died in 1947 revered as one of the most significant American  writers ever.

Prairie Spring

Evening and the flat land,
Rich and sombre and always silent;
The miles of fresh-plowed soil,
Heavy and black, full of strength and harshness;
The growing wheat, the growing weeds,
The toiling horses, the tired men;
The long empty roads,
Sullen fires of sunset, fading,
The eternal, unresponsive sky.
Against all this, Youth,
Flaming like the wild roses,
Singing like the larks over the plowed fields,
Flashing like a star out of the twilight;
Youth with its insupportable sweetness,
Its fierce necessity,
Its sharp desire,
Singing and singing,
Out of the lips of silence,
Out of the earthy dusk.

—Willa Cather

Ted Kooser.

Born in Iowa in 1939 and a long time Nebraskan, Ted Kooser knows a thing or three about farming and the land.  It has earned him a Pulitzer Prize and two terms as U.S. Poet Laureate.  In this poem from his  Flying At Night : Poems 1965-1985 perhaps echoes a famous poem by our original poet in this post, Bobby Burns—To a Mouse On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough.
Spring Plowing
West of Omaha the freshly plowed fields
steam in the night like lakes.
The smell of the earth floods over the roads.
The field mice are moving their nests
to the higher ground of fence rows,
the old among them crying out to the owls
to take them all. The paths in the grass
are loud with the squeak of their carts.
They keep their lanterns covered.

—Ted Kooser

No comments:

Post a Comment