Thursday, April 23, 2015

Poetry of the Prairie

William Cullen Bryant
It has been my habit during April Poetry Month to devote a blog to poetry.  You may visit the blog archives for past years in April to read those posts.  This year I will share poetry of the Prairie, beginning with the opening of William Cullen Bryant's long poem, "The Prairie."

These are the gardens of the Desert, these/ The unshorn fields, boundless and beautiful,/ For which the speech of England has no name--/The Prairies.  I behold them for the first,/ And my heart swells, while the dilated sight/ Takes in the encircling vastness.  Lo! they stretch,/ In airy undulations, far away,/ As if the ocean, in his gentlest swell,/ Stood still, with all his rounded billows fixed,/ And motionless forever. --Motionless?--/ No--they are all unchained again.  The clouds/ Sweep over with their shadows, and, beneath,/ The surface rolls and fluctuates to the eye;/ Dark hollows seem to glide along and chase/ The sunny ridges.  Breezes of the South!/ Who toss the golden and the flame-like flowers,/ And pass the prairie-hawk that, poised on high,/ Flaps his broad wings, yet moves not--ye have played/ Among the palms of Mexico and vines/ Of Texas, and have crisped the limpid brooks/ That from the fountains of Sonora glide/ Into the calm Pacific--have ye fanned/ A nobler or a lovelier scene than this? 

Photo by Lyn Fenwick
The style of this poem by Bryant, although rather archaic, captures the imagery of the prairie so beautifully that you may wish to read the full poem online.  It was written in 1832, as a result of his first visit to the prairies.  In a letter to his wife Bryant wrote:  "What I have thought and felt amid these boundless wastes and awful solitudes I shall reserve for the only form of expression in which it can be properly uttered."

Laurie Ricou opens her essay, Prairie Poetry And Metaphors of Plain/S Space with a quote from Stephen Scobie's McAlmon's Chinese Opera:  "Gertrude Stein says/ you have to have flown across the Mid-West/ seeing the patterns of the fields/ to understand modern painting./  What I say is/ you have to have walked that land/ a whole Dakota afternoon/ to understand modern writing."

Photo by Lyn Fenwick at Homestead Monument
Ricou's interesting essay examining the prairie influence and imagery can be read online, but I will share one more example.  I was particularly taken by Garry Raddysh's description of the wind, so familiar to all of us who live on or have visited the prairie:  "...the wind/ in agony/ as it struggles/ not to take root/ in the prairie."  I love the way he flips my normal way of thinking about the wind--as the thing that threatens to rip everything from its moorings on the ground--into something struggling against the power of the prairie.

It is the traditional power of wind that Myrae Roe depicts in her poem Udall, Kansas, May 25, 1955, about a powerful tornado.  "...homicidal winds bent on fostering hell./  Dawn covered the awful result with pale light./  Silence wandered like a ghost/ amid uprooted trees planted a hundred years ago... Reporters and cameramen hastened into the town/ to find their story.  Amid the ruins/ one of them wrote, 'The little town of Udall/ died in its sleep last night.'"    

Roe's poem was published at the poetry blog "Kansas Time + Place."  You can subscribe online to receive poems weekly by Kansas poets currently writing and publishing their poetry

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