Poetry Friday: 1943 and the frontier

After a week off—we had guests in town, including my two youngest nephews, which had me more than busy enough to skip Poetry Friday—we return to the poetry of 1943, 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 his invocation and a paragraph of his comments on reading poetry.  Benet has a sturdy American voice: not flashy like Fitzgerald or as punchy as Hemingway, but far more resonant than a word like “plain” can capture.  I advised you then to read his work aloud in a simple speaking voice—not like a politician giving a speech, but like a person talking calmly about something they care about.  I think that advice should hold here, because yes, we’re back to Benet and he’s just as good as I remember.

This time, it’s another epic poem, which Benet again styles after the great poets in that tradition, complete with an opening invocation to some nameless muse who can inspire his song.  The poem, Western Star, looks deeply into the idea of America as a frontier, and into the lives of the people who took what they thought of as “wilderness” and made it a country.  For all its good intentions, it is of course missing an important part of the story—Benet’s work is not as sensitive to the stories of native peoples as it ought to be, and the whole “claiming the frontier/wilderness” theme is definitely locked into a white European settler’s way of seeing and understanding the natural landscape.  Especially on Columbus Day weekend, I think it’s good to remind ourselves that we need to hear the stories of people who have not been given much of a voice in American conversations, and sometime between now and Thanksgiving I’ll be making a sincere effort to bring one or more Native American poets into the mix.  But I also don’t want to let that reality turn us away from hearing the voices of those people who crossed an ocean and spread throughout a continent: we don’t hear them much either, not as the people they were, instead sweeping them up into abstract phrases like “westward movement” and “manifest destiny”.  For many of us, these are the people we come from—farmers, trappers, people who would found a city and move on before its histories could record them, people who never really stopped moving all their days.  So I hope you can hear them in the lines below, and I encourage you to read aloud and let Benet’s voice speak a little of their strength into your Friday.  This is the invocation for Western Star, by Stephen Vincent Benet:

Not for the great, not for the marvelous,
Not for the barren husbands of the gold;
Not for the arrowmakers of the soul,
Wasted with truth, the star-regarding wise;
Not even for the few
Who would not be the hunter nor the prey,
Who stood between the eater and the meat,
The wilderness saints, the guiltless, the absolved,
Born out of Time, the seekers of the balm
Where the green grass grows from the broken heart;
But for all these, the nameless, numberless
Seed of the field, the mortal wood and earth
Hewn for the clearing, trampled for the floor,
Uprooted and cast out upon the stone
From Jamestown to Benicia.
This is their song, this is their testament,
Carved to their likeness, speaking in their tongue
And branded with the iron of their star.
I say you shall remember them. I say
When the night has fallen on your loneliness
And the deep wood beyond the ruined wall
Seems to step forward swiftly with the dusk,
You shall remember them. You shall not see
Water or wheat or axe-mark on the tree
And not remember them.
You shall not win without remembering them,
For they won every shadow of the moon,
All the vast shadows, and you shall not lose
Without a dark remembrance of their loss
For they lost all and none remembered them.

Hear the wind
Blow through the buffalo-grass
Blow over wild-grape and brier.
This was frontier, and this,
And this, your house, was frontier.
There were footprints upon the hill
And men lie buried under,
Tamers of earth and rivers.
They died at the end of labor,
Forgotten is the name.

Now, in full summer, by the Eastern shore,
Between the seamark and the roads going West,
I call two oceans to remember them.
I fill the hollow darkness with their names.

There’s a real loveliness to Benet’s writing about America because you can tell he loves the people, like Steinbeck’s treatment of the principal characters in The Grapes of Wrath, I think.  And this, his poem about the forging of the American identity, opens with his clarification that this isn’t an epic about the heroic figures normally  featured in this kind of work.  He sets aside the possibility that this could be a story of the “marvelous”, of the “wilderness saints”.  Instead, he turns his attention to the vast numbers of people who went through their lives unremarked, and he analogizes them to the land and the things growing in it—like seeds that grow and are cut down, like the forests that were laid low to clear the fields.  I like the way Benet’s love for the land and his admiration for the people who inhabited it fuse them together in this extended metaphor, and I find the lines themselves really peaceful.

I also like the confidence in his lines, the way he repeats that we “shall remember them”, that somehow his poem has already won us over, that we cannot look at our world in the same way again.  And Benet has a reason to be confident, because his phrasing is so smooth and so vivid throughout, whether he’s dropping alliteration sweetly into a line like “the balm / where the green grass grows from the broken heart”, or he’s just using words to paint pictures like something out of a 19th Century master’s gallery, such as the scene where “the night has fallen on your loneliness / and the deep wood beyond the ruined wall / seems to step forward swiftly from the dusk”.  And then the rhythms start to feel like singing, especially “this was frontier, and this, / and this, your house was frontier” which sounds so much like Shakespeare, like “put out the light and then put out the light” or “fair is foul and foul is fair”, where the words play with each other and with us as they circle around.

And then come two couplets I just can’t do without.  First, “They died at the end of labor. /  Forgotten is the name.”  All the hope and toil of centuries wrapped up in that pair of simple phrases—the agony of dying before the dream is realized, the tragedy of being lost to even memory.  Sure, the taming of the rivers and blazing of the trails are American narratives, but these are too.

And then, I know it’s an exaggeration, but can there really be a better couplet in 20th Century verse than “I call two oceans to remember them. / I fill the hollow darkness with their names.”  There’s something bordering on reverence, on holiness, in Benet’s dedication, and the image soars.  He’s pulling together allusions to as many great texts as he can—evoking Revelation with the idea of the sea “giving up its dead” back into the light, drawing on Melville too, I think, and the idea of memory and the sea in Moby Dick, and then the hollow darkness fills like the opening of Genesis with the names of those he refuses to leave aside forgotten.

Benet is not, as I said, a flashy poet.  No one is going to recite Benet as the climactic scene in a movie; no one is going to print lines from his work and post them on their dorm room wall; nothing in his work is eligible for a cross-stitch sampler.  He’s direct and even prosaic, but never simple enough to really condense him into a pair of lines (as much as I’ve just tried to do that).  But he reminds me of what I love about America, and maybe especially the West (a frontier I grew up in without realizing how much of a frontier it was until I left it), and he makes me think.  I hope he does the same for some of you.

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