Thursday, July 19, 2018

Poems of the Soil

Some of the titles Isaac Werner owned
Several days ago my husband forwarded an article he had discovered online saying that about 28 million people had read poetry in 2017.  The survey was a joint project of the NEA and the Census Bureau, and the number of people reading poetry represented 11.7% of the US adult population.  If you are unsure whether to see that as a poetic glass half full or a poetic glass half empty, compared to the last survey it is an impressive surge.  In 2012 only 6.7 % of the population acknowledged reading poetry.  The increased number of readers in 2017 is even more significant in that the 2012 survey had revealed a steady decline in those reading poetry since 1992.

However, in Isaac Werner's time I am almost certain the percentage of Americans reading poetry was much higher.  It was not uncommon for Isaac to read Shakespeare with friends, and his library contained multiple volumes of Shakespeare, including one 12-volume set.  Among other poetry books, he owned Milton's Poetical Works, Byron's Poetical, and Reflections of Byron.  In short, poetry was not confined to academics and the wealthy in Isaac's time.  

Nature and farming were favored subjects of poets like Burns and Wordsworth, and that tradition has not disappeared.  Irish poet Seamus Heaney, widely recognized as one of the major poets of the 20th century, taught at Harvard University (1985-2006) prior to his death in 2013, and he had a strong connection with the soil.  His poem Digging reflects on watching his father dig potatoes and his grandfather cutting turf, describing:  "The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft / Against the inside knee was levered firmly.  /  He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep  /  To scatter new potatoes that we picked,  /  Loving their cool hardness in our hands.  /  By God, the old man could handle a spade.  /  Just like his old man."  He ended his poem with a comparison to himself:    "But I've no spade to follow men like them.  /  Between my finger and my thumb  /  the squat pen rests.  /  I'll dig with it."

Perhaps the best-known living American poet of the soil is Wendell Berry, who lives on a farm in Port Royal, Kentucky near his birthplace, where he has farmed for over 40 years.  His poem, June Wind, shows his capacity for observing the things most of us take for granted, barely noticing their beauty.  "Light and wind are running  /  over the headed grass  /  as though the hill had  /  melted and now flowed."

W.D. Ehrhart's poem, The Farmer, describes a man who admits "I have sown my seed on soil  /  guaranteed by poverty to fail."  Yet, his poem ends:  "A farmer of dreams  /  knows how to pretend.  A farmer of dreams  /  knows what it means to be patient.  /  Each day I go into the fields."

On a writer's blog that I occasionally follow, poet Brittany R. Collins shared the story of being approached by a member of the audience after one of her poetry readings.  He told her, "There are things in this world that only children, animals, and poets understand."  I love that idea.  Perhaps poetry really is a way to see the world differently, whether we are poets or among those people who enjoy reading and hearing poetry.

I don't know how many of you who follow my blog enjoy poetry.  I hope that at least some of you are among the 11.7% or so of us who read poetry.  Maybe some of you even write poetry.  I am a sporadic poet--taking pen in hand if something inspires me but lacking the discipline to write poetry with any regularity.  I will close with a poem inspired by Isaac Werner.

As many of you know, Isaac was a bachelor, but his journal made it apparent that he hoped to find an intelligent wife with whom to spend his life.  His neighbors teased him about finding a wife, and the nickname in the first line of the poem comes from that teasing.  The rooster was also the political symbol for the People's Party.

Populist Victorious Rooster
Memorial to a Prairie Bachelor

'Rooster of the Sandhills',
imagining his someday wife,
whose mind collects ideas
as painstakingly as seeking hen's eggs
hidden in the prairie grass.

A woman to sit with in the winter's hush,
each with a book,
ideas passing like the seeds of cottonwoods
that drift and settle in a fertile place.

Alone no more.
Companion 'neath his wing.
Supporting and protecting, he and she,
when times are good and front page roosters crow.

(c) Lyn Fenwick


The Blog Fodder said...

I read poetry. I'm more into rhymesters as Robert W Service described himself, I guess, than poets. Stories in verse. Tennyson, Browning, Noyse, Bliss Carmen, E Pauline Johnson, Wilfred Campbell. Irvine Layton and Leonard Cohen not so much.
If I want good poetry about the farm and ranch, cowboy poetry is what I look to. It will never make polite drawing rooms but it "speaks to the souls of them that knows".

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

Our friend Larry McWhorter just might please you. He built our pipe and cable fence in Texas, and I think it took him so long because he spent a good part of each day writing poems in his head. He built a darn good fence and he was a darn good cowboy poet. Google "The Red Cow."