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.

“The City of the West” seen through Western eyes

Yes, it’s time again for another rumination on Chicago—“rumination”, a word suggestive of digestive processes, of breaking down what you’ve taken in so that it can work on you, for good or ill.  A good word, I think, for Chicago and me.  We grow into each other, these days.

The title of this post arises from some thoughts earlier today: I saw references to Chicago as “the City of the West”, sometimes “the Great City of the West”, which were written back in the late 1800s.  I expect that perhaps as much as half the nation still sees Chicago as “Western” in some way—certainly as West of them, West of the places the country was first born.  But of course to me it is the East, the old place my family left behind more than a century ago.  I took a bus tour of my neighborhood with the other new faculty members from my university this week, and the Englishman sitting next to me was startled by something our tour guide said.  He turned to me—“Wait.  All this was built up in the 1910s and 1920s?  A hundred years ago this was farmland?  That’s incredible!”  The newness of the place astounded him, as I suppose it would any person who grew up in a 200 year old house in a village organized around a church that’s stood for 6 or 7 centuries.  But to me, of course, the notion of row upon row of brick houses, all of them 100 years old, is astonishingly old.  I live a few blocks from an El station that’s been there for 104 years.  Hear that, Seattle?  Mass transit in a neighborhood miles away from downtown for a century now.  Crazy.

What I do with this, I don’t yet know.  I feel young in this city of youth—the adolescent city Sandburg described in last Friday’s poem has grown up a bit, I think, in 100 years, but it’s still a 20-something with a chip on its shoulder.  Who am I, then?  Where do I come into this story?  I guess in a way this is one of the classic American motifs—the young man headed back East some distance from where he grew up and discovering how well he fits, if he will be accepted, if he will accept what he finds.  This is the plot of half of Henry James, isn’t it?  And it’s Jay Gatsby’s arc, and Nick’s too.  Arrowsmith’s, I suppose, to name a Pulitzer winner, and the protagonist from One of Ours whose name, I am ashamed to admit, eludes me.  I wonder if fiction is helpful to me in making this journey, or if it’s merely a layer I’ll need to peel back—something that tricks me into substituting stories I’ve heard for my own authentic experience.  Does living what you’ve read about make the living less vivid?

I’m not telling you enough about my time in Chicago, and that’s why most of you are here.  There’s a lot to tell, but no way to make it a really compelling narrative without writing an epic; I’ll try to give a little info where I can.  In the last 8-9 days, I’ve discovered a world of art on my doorstep—I’ve never lived in a city with paintings like the Art Institute’s, and I’m going to spend some time there (I get in free as a faculty member of an Illinois institution).  I am curious to see how that will affect me.  To see Monet not once in a great while, but rather anytime I like.  To see Monet not as a visitor to some foreign city where “Monet” lives, or as a visitor making a quick tour through Seattle in an exhibition, but rather as an inhabitant of my time and place, more or less.  Monet, of course, being a stand-in for dozens of the world’s great artists.  We spent hours at the AIC last Saturday, and will definitely be going back, if only because I have never in my life said “that painting is so moving, I want to see it again in a couple of weeks and see how it strikes me”, and I wonder what it will be like if I try that.  Am I an art person, after all?

The food in Chicago is varied and wonderful — in the last few days I’ve had fantastic food from 5 or 6 different cultures, including amazingly authentic Polish pierogi, and the best cinnamon roll I’ve ever had (who knew that they needed cardamom?  Thanks, Sweden!).  It’s easy to just rave about the dining options in my city, but I’m hoping to draw something out of all these little restaurants in the long run.  All these nationalities expressing something with food—is it who they really are?  Is the presence of all this cuisine in Chicago some kind of culinary embassy system, a way of touching lands I may never see and learning to understand their people?  Or am I fooling myself if I think that way, ignoring the fact that all of this food is simply a commodity exchanged for my money, and I’m not being sold “authentic culture”, I’m being sold whatever they can package for an American audience?  I’ve always lived in a city full of immigrants—Seattle and Vancouver are pretty cosmopolitan, and heck, even the suburbs I’ve lived in have shown real ethnic diversity—but I don’t think I’ve thought enough about what that means.  The fact that I’ll be working with the most diverse student population I’ve ever encountered is, I think, getting into my head a bit.  I want to be good at reaching out to, and identifying with, people whose experiences are really very different from mine.  I think I have been good at that in the past.  We’ll see how well it works here, where I am a fish, not out of water, but adjusting at the very least to a new part of the lake, if not another watershed entirely.

That tour of my neighborhood I mentioned gave me a lot to think about—I allegedly live in my neighborhood’s “pocket of poverty”.  To be fair, the tour guide had no idea he was gesturing at my apartment building when he was saying these things.  But still, it raises some really good questions for me: what is poverty, really, especially in America today?  If I lived in a poor place, how would I know it?  If my neighbors are poor, does that obligate me to them any more than if they lived across town?  What do I need to do to be a good citizen of my block, and not just my city as a whole?  The neighborhood’s full of ethnicities and immigrant stories, as I said earlier.  We are home to the school in Chicago with the most spoken languages in its student body (70 different languages, I think?).  We are also home to the best public school in the state.  They are not the same school.  Is that inevitable, or a choice we made?  I live a few blocks from the only memorial in the whole of the United States to the Cambodian genocide victims—the people who died in the Killing Fields.  I know nothing at all about the Killing Fields, other than the name Pol Pot and a sense of deep sorrow in the few Cambodians I spoke to at the memorial.  What should I know, and how much time should I invest in learning it?  How can one person get full enough of the world to feel satisfied that they know enough?  This, as I recall, was Socrates’ problem.  And all of this arises merely from me paying slightly better attention to my immediate surroundings for an afternoon.  I hope to get past the questions to some answers, sooner or later.

“Pulitzers”, you say, “James, have you forgotten that this blog is about literature?  About reading novels, one of which you’ve been mired in for months?” I know, I know.  That’s going to ramp up next week: I have found a copy of Laughing Boy from the 1950s in my library.  I’ll not only be able to finish it, but I can reflect on a new preface La Farge wrote for the 1950s edition that reveals a bit of what he thought he was doing in writing about Native Americans, and what he later regretted.  And then I hope to move forward.  There’s some good American writing waiting for me, and perhaps it will help me get a better handle on this city of mine, which some call the most American of cities.  Frankly, I’m not sure yet—not sure how to sort my way through the hype of “Chicago” to figure out what Chicago actually is.  It’s a town that makes evangelists of its residents, perhaps most of all the people who move here from other parts of the country.  I’m going to have to hold back certain impulses that direction just to be able to see it with any accuracy.

So, in short, Chicago continues to work on me (as evidence in the emotions tangled above), I’m continuing to find things to appreciate about my new city (with the exception of those who drive and ride on its roads—never have I feared more for my own safety and the safety of others in a North American city), I’m expecting some lit-blogging this week as I shake off the rust and get back in the saddle (so to speak), and my propensity for making parenthetical remarks continues nearly unabated (though you must like at least some of these asides, or else you could hardly stand to visit the blog at all!).  I don’t know if these weekly Chicago reports are really of interest to many folks, so we’ll see how many I continue to produce.  But for now they seem to be a good way for me to journal, at least, and that in itself is a worthwhile thing to do.  Have a good weekend, and peace and safety to those of you in the path of Irene.

Poetry Friday: 1921 (part 4)

In this, what I sincerely hope and expect is the last installment of the 1921 version of Poetry Friday, I draw from one of Russia’s greatest poets, Anna Akhmatova, who published her collection entitled Podorozhnik (which is translated Plantain, as I understand it) in Russian in 1921, very shortly after the Russian Revolution had successfully completed its struggle with the “White Russians” for the country.  Incidentally, I really would encourage folks to comment, even with very simple reactions to the poem—I know the standing reason why there are few comments on my other posts is (very reasonably) because you haven’t read the book.  But that’s why I’m trying this PF tradition, since on Poetry Friday, we can all read the piece and comment on it.  The following poem goes by at least two different names, as far as I can tell, but in this translation by Judith Hemschemeyer, she entitles it “Winter 1919”:

Has this century been worse
Than the ages that went before?
Perhaps in this, that in a daze of grief and anguish
It touched, but could not cure, the vilest sore.
In the west the earthly sun is still shining,
And the roofs of the cities gleam in its rays,
But here the white one already chalks crosses on the houses
And summons the crows, and the crows come flying…