Poetry Friday: Stephen Vincent Benét and a poem that isn’t exactly from 1941

English: Stephen Vincent Benét, Yale College C...

This is definitely not how I pictured Stephen Vincent Benét—I imagined a much more Whitmanesque figure, given the voice he captures in his poems. A good reminder not to judge books by their cover. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the ways I find poetry for a PF post is by taking advantage of the fact that I work in a reasonably well-stocked academic library—I can do a quick catalog search for anything labeled as “poetry” with a publication date of whatever-year-I’m-currently-in.  Today that backfired on me slightly, but in a really good way, so I’m going with it.  I came home with a copy of John Brown’s Body, a book-length epic poem by American poet Stephen Vincent Benét about the Civil War.  It turns out that this isn’t a poem first published in 1941, though—he wrote it in 1927/1928 while he was living in Paris, and published it then.  And the book in my hands isn’t from 1941 either—this is an edition published in 1968 with notes by two English professors from the United States Military Academy.  The only piece of it from 1941 is a short preface Benét wrote for an edition published in that year for schoolchildren.  I’ll quote briefly from that preface later, since it’s not only the one piece of 1941-era content available to me from the book, but it’s also really thoughtful and interesting.  But the more time I spent with the poem itself, the more I realized that I wanted to share it with you regardless of its designated “year of publication”.  The poem is full of reflections on America and history that fit right into what I’m interested in, and what this blog is more or less about, or tries to be.

As I said, this is a book-length epic, so I can only share a small piece of it with you.  I’ll use the first 30 lines or so, the beginning of the “invocation”—the opening to every classical epic poem in the ancient world involved invoking one of the goddesses to speak through the poet, and Benét honors the tradition.  Here, he calls to the “American muse”, the American spirit who suffuses his whole poem.  I’ll say one last thing before the poetry starts—this is all right on the page, but I liked it a lot better when I read it aloud in a calm, clear voice.  If you’re able, I encourage you to try it—not in a dramatic “acting” voice, but just the way you would talk if you were saying something important and sincere.  I think you’ll find Benét’s work with sound is really very skilled.  Anyway, without further ado, the opening lines of the Invocation from John Brown’s Body:

American muse, whose strong and diverse heart
So many men have tried to understand
But only made it smaller with their art,
Because you are as various as your land,

As mountainous-deep, as flowered with blue rivers,
Thirsty with deserts, buried under snows,
As native as the shape of Navajo quivers,
And native, too, as the sea-voyaged rose.

Swift runner, never captured or subdued,
Seven-branched elk beside the mountain stream,
That half a hundred hunters have pursued
But never matched their bullets with the dream,

Where the great huntsmen failed, I set my sorry
And mortal snare for your immortal quarry.

You are the buffalo-ghost, the broncho-ghost
With dollar-silver in your saddle-horn,
The cowboys riding in from Painted Post,
The Indian arrow in the Indian corn,

And you are the clipped velvet of the lawns
Where Shropshire grows from Massachusetts sods,
The grey Maine rocks—and the war-painted dawns
That break above the Garden of the Gods.

The prairie-schooners crawling toward the ore
And the cheap car, parked by the station-door.

Where the skyscrapers lift their foggy plumes
Of stranded smoke out of a stony mouth
You are that high stone and its arrogant fumes,
And you are ruined gardens in the South

And bleak New England farms, so winter-white
Even their roofs look lonely, and the deep
The middle grainland where the wind of night
Is like all blind earth sighing in her sleep.

A friend, an enemy, a sacred hag
With two tied oceans in her medicine-bag.

The poem is not flashy, but Benét is running a marathon, not a sprint, and he’s pacing himself consciously, I think.  Certainly I think there’s real brilliance in the cadence he develops from almost the very first.  He opens with a meditation on the elusive America, the idea that can only be made smaller by art because it is too varied—I get the image of America as Walt Whitman, who, in his “Song of Myself” admits “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself / (I am large, I contain multitudes)“.  That notion of the America to various to describe is lovely, and he pairs it immediately with a few quick brushstrokes that outline the vast environments of the American continent.  Then, at the turn (the turn, you ask? Yes, the turn from the first eight lines—the octet—to the next six lines—the sestet—because Benét opens his invocation with a traditional English sonnet.  I pause to acknowledge the man’s attention to detail, and his skill), America because uncaptureable not because various, but because too swift—America is the elk that outruns the hunter.  So, in the sonnet’s closing couplet, how does Benét resolve this problem?  He will not chase the fleet-footed America.  He will lay a snare, and wait for it to pass.  He acknowledges the low odds of his success, the frailty of his “mortal snare” as set against the “immortal quarry” of America.  But he doesn’t let it dissuade him.

And the sounds of the poem are so fluid and appealing—if you didn’t read it aloud, you missed some of the real deftness of the lines.  In that stanza about the elk, he gives us “half a hundred hunters have pursued“—listen to all those h’s.  The hah-hah-hah of the hunter out of breath, gasping a bit as he sprints after game he will not likely catch.  Even when the sounds are less pregnant with meaning than that, they’re still almost perfect on the ear—hear the way the s’s and r’s murmur together so perfectly in “set my sorry / and mortal snare for your immortal quarry“.  He wants this poem to speak America by speaking American in a beautiful (but not delicate or frivolous) way.  I think he more or less succeeds.

He moves on to the great catalog of American sights and sounds, of which I only share 15 lines or so—line after line that strike my eye (and ear) just right.  The “dollar-silver in your saddle-horn“, the “prairie-schooners crawling toward the ore“, etc.  Then, two gems so excellent I thought it the perfect place to break off.  First, the startling loveliness (and strangely alien feeling) of his description of the Midwest: “the deep / the middle grainland where the wind of night / is like all blind earth sighing in her sleep“.  Coming as it does on the heels of a lot of short clipped phrases, the sudden stretch into a longer phrase is attention-grabbing, and I love how much ambiguity and suggestiveness he can work out of remarkably simple words (only three two-syllable words, and one of them is just a compound noun made up of two monosyllables—grain and land).  Then, the real punch he lands (for me).  “A friend, an enemy, a sacred hag / with two tied oceans in her medicine-bag.”  I can think of few better two-line descriptions of America than that—the pairing of America’s openness and welcome with the sense that America will work against you and defeat you if it can, and then the ominous but not entirely threatening figure of America as the cunning-woman, the keeper of mysteries, whose power commands the forces of nature.  It’s like some of Melville’s more poetic passages about Americans—he’d have used a phrase like “two tied oceans” to describe the people of Nantucket if he’d thought of it.  I’m struck by the power Benét can marshal up out of lines that, at first glance, seem a bit prosaic and not necessarily heart-stirring.  He knows how to snare America—it takes patience and a willingness to stay with America’s swirling and often contradictory images until they begin to weave together.

The rest of the invocation is gorgeous, and what I’ve skimmed and sampled of the whole epic so far suggests to me that Benét shouldn’t be neglected.  He’s a skilled poet, and one I’m sorry not to have spent time with earlier—certainly he captures some things about America that are worth hearing.  I hope to share another bit of his work again in a PF post—keep watching this space.  I promised at the outset to share a little of Benét’s preface to the 1941 edition for schoolchildren, and I’ll close with it here: advice for how to think about poetry and how to read it that I think is useful in almost every context, and which I hope is observed here in how I approach the musings and mutterings I put forward about poems every week.

Poetry is meant to be read, it is meant to be heard.  It is meant for everybody, not only for the scholars.  It is not a highly complicated puzzle box which you can open only with a special set of keys.  It tells the story in a way different from prose—it uses rhyme and meter and the words go to a beat.  You cannot read it precisely as you read prose, any more than you can sing the words of a song without knowing the tune.  With poetry, the tune is in the words themselves—and once you begin to hear it, it will stay with you.  Nor is it so difficult to hear.  Most of the basic rhythms of poetry are very old ones—rhythms hammered out by men who wanted to tell a story or convey an idea more intensely, more swiftly and memorably than they could in prose.  Sometimes they succeeded in this, sometimes they did not.  You will be able to judge for yourself whether an individual poem succeeds in making you see more clearly or feel more deeply—whether it enters your stock of memories and remains there.  But poetry itself is not restricted to any special class, to any special section of life.  It is open to any reader who likes the sound and swing of rhythm, the color and fire of words.

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4 comments on “Poetry Friday: Stephen Vincent Benét and a poem that isn’t exactly from 1941

  1. Nerija S. says:

    It really is easy to miss some of the symbolism that comes from how the poem sounds if I don’t actually speak the words. When I’m just reading it, my eyes tend to skim the lines, so even though I notice the alliteration in lines like “half a hundred hunters have pursued,” it doesn’t really click that it’s meant to sound like a hunter gasping as he runs after the elk.

    When I did read it aloud, I found myself actually hurrying (but in a good way, not just skimming) over “swift runner, never captured or subdued” — as if I’m the creature running through the woods.

    And I LOVE that point about the longer, gentler rhythm of the Midwest description. When I read “where the wind of night,” those w’s feel like two gusts of wind.

    It’s such a cool example of synesthesia, the way a poem’s sound can make you see and feel the imagery.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      It’s fascinating to me how much a poem changes when I hear it aloud—this invocation went from decent to really good for me after I decided to try reading it aloud. I wonder how much of this is intentional on the part of the poet (I think those “h”s are really meant to be there, but how can I be sure?) and how much is what we read into it ourselves…and I wonder how much that matters. 🙂 I like your point about the “windy” sounds of that line about the wind: I need to keep reading Benet. He seems to reward closer attention.

      • Nerija S. says:

        The sound of the “h”s certainly could’ve been intended, or it could have been subconscious inspiration — i.e. as Benet imagined the hunter racing after the elk, the words that came to him happened to match that feeling of trying to catch one’s breath.

        I remember a professor in one of my grad classes pointing out the word “reflex” in Wordsworth’s 1799 Prelude (“…to cut across the reflex of a star…”) — the scene describes young Wordsworth and his friends playing on a frozen pond at night, and the sound of “reflex” matches the sound of ice skates sliding across the pond.

  2. […] and I have to say I love this week’s piece.  Veteran readers of this blog will remember my excited discovery last year of the work of the American poet Stephen Vincent Benet, when I happened upon his book-length poem John Brown’s Body and shared both an excerpt of […]

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