Poetry and Politics in ‘Catherland’

Willa Cather, 1912

Poetry and Politics in ‘Catherland’

by Darrell Sutton

Although the middle States of America are not a hidden province, they are less familiar to people whose travels to the USA are restricted, more often than not, to sightseer visits to coastal cities. What follows offers a peephole into a rural world, districts in the vicinity of Red Cloud, in which the celebrated writer Willa Cather (1873-1947) spent some time during her youth.

Miss Cather is well known for her writings about frontier life. The 1913 novel O Pioneers is hailed a classic. Her story was made into a movie of the same name in 1992, starring Jessica Lange. It was only the first of her trilogy of books on the Great Plains. The Song of the Lark (1915) and My Ántonia (1918) soon followed. Her poems receive less attention today than they should because fewer literary critics in the academy understand the rural sites of which she wrote.

Of other genres of writing, like poetry, Cather engaged in it only sporadically. She did not need to compose verse: she had secured her fame on other literary grounds. But her poem Prairie Spring is deserving of notice. Not many poems capture in non-rhythmic verse the crop growing atmosphere of rural American in general, or South-central Nebraska and North-Central Kansas in particular. It educes, as few other poems can, responses that crave a rustic milieu for their expression. Here is a sampling:

Evening and the flat land,
Rich and somber and always silent;
The miles of fresh-plowed soil,
Heavy and black, full of strength and harshness;
The growing wheat, the growing weeds,
The toiling horses, the tired men;
The long empty roads,
Sullen fires of sunset, fading,
The eternal, unresponsive sky.
Against all this, Youth,
Flaming like the wild roses,
Singing like the larks over the plowed fields,
Flashing like a star out of the twilight;
Youth with its insupportable sweetness,
Its fierce necessity,
Its sharp desire,
Singing and singing,
Out of the lips of silence,
Out of the earthy dusk.

The images she describes are of an agricultural world that farmers know is affected by an unpredictable economy. Drawing sharp distinctions is no easy task when one is composing verse. Cather’s choices of words – ‘toiling horses’ and ‘tired men’ – represent similarities, one describing effort, the other, feeling. In her worlds, ‘evening’ and ‘dusk’ control the poem’s mood from beginning to end. The contrast shown between ‘the tired men’ and ‘youth’ is deliberate. The nineteen lines exhibit a free verse system. The first four lines have a conjunctive accent with the repeated employment of “and”; but the adjectival depictions of life in Mid-America are distinct and vivid. Significant use of participles is made: growing, toiling, flaming etc.; but where are the adverbs? A beautiful record is transmitted. It is a diary of mature thoughts filled with remembrances from her youth. The poem chronicles activities only a few people will ever experience. The text, however, could serve as basis for teaching a seminar or giving a lecture on ‘Right and Wrong ways to compose poetry’.

Good and Bad Poetry

A good poem should contain ideas which, upon a first reading, are overt and not too complicated to discern. To some poets, anything and everything makes sense, as in lines like:

A house,
with shingled roof
and a door opening to
the outside…  I exited. Then,
A mocking bird fell from the tree and trembled.

Poetry should say something if it is to be useful and worthy of re-reading. But prose texts, if arranged lyrically, can enrich the mind too. For example, a southern Parson by the name of Benjamin M. Palmer (1818-1902), once described in this way the birth of one of his children in a letter:

The morning was opening its eye in the first gray streak upon the horizon, when a faint cry issued from the upper chamber in one of our southern cities.

Aloud it sounds like an un-rhythmical sonnet. If it was re-arranged in verse it would be better than many poems. Dawn is personified, suddenly a noise emerged from the mouth of a small infant. The divergent images stir up readers’ thoughts. A certain mentality is necessary to produce sentences whose fluent lines mesmerize even when what is said is an embellishment of the facts as they stand. As a rule, people today do not compose letters so poetically; hardly any of them could do it with Palmer’s efficiency. In truth, prose texts do not require flowing language to communicate thought. Straightforward ideas work in poetry too. See the below stanzas with their slight sound similarities:

FAR AWAY ON A HILL
By chance I passed a high hill
whose peak was crowned with light.
By chance I climbed that hillside,
scaling its steep incline,
to see what belonged to nature
and of it what now was mine.
At once upon the hilltop
Its mysteries lay bare:
a barren knoll
of lifeless trees;
musty smells
warmed the air.
Indeed if nature frowns so
at this height,
through phony
scenes seen from afar,
tis best to troll valley-beds
than stroll in groves of
rotting knars.

As they stand, the lines demonstrate that simple words can be affective. The words impinge on the mind gradually. And they all lead us back to the original question of ‘what is a good poem?’ If one must give due regard to the manner of interpreting poetry and reading a poem, it consists of numerous details: namely, a slow and careful reading, performed in manifold ways, of one and the same poem. A scan that involves deeper reflection should entice readers to think harder: the search for literary allusions and other geographical motifs will begin to obtrude themselves in literary discussions. After several readings understanding it may entail analytical researches into its stylistics and metrical arrangements. I will not attempt all the above; however, I will offer a distinct analysis; but not before a lengthy digression.

North-Central Kansas and South-Central Nebraska are full of valleys and knolls. The following poem does not betray that geographical fact. The great plains possess a charm of their own. Rolling hills and vast vistas capture the attention of travelers who are brave enough to forgo the multi-lane transnational highway 80 for some of the two-lane roads in rural districts. And if gravel streets and low-maintenance access roads do not induce fear in mature drivers, then a drive in the country surrounded by 11 feet tall corn well may do it: but go slowly because intersections are hard to see as you approach them. Danger lies in wait.

A terrible tragedy occurred in later summer 2012 on a country road. Here are a few lines entitled ‘MARLA’ to commemorate someone involved in it:

She drove the children slowly,
But quickly died,
And hay was scattered all along the road.
Fields of corn did mourn;
her flaming garb was torn, and
those still alive can tell this storied ode
of fine children she once slowly drove.
Thousands stood up to
bid them goodbye.

The language is clear. The poem encapsulates the sense of agony and pain that remains at a spot along a dirt road where fields of sweet corn still send forth their aroma into the evening air at harvest time. The verses also give hints to the character of someone who no longer works in transportation. That misfortune happened in the lowlands on a rural county road, but sometimes in the highlands smiles are taken away too, just as I had adverted to in Far Away on a Hill.

There is a patch of earth that provides glimpses of several hillocks whose crests are topped off with colorful radiances on a sunny day. Muses may sit atop these enchanted hills, inspiring newcomers to delight in their existence. So many towns in the Heartland are built along rivers. There is no lack of streams of inspiration. The village of Red Cloud, built beside the Republican Valley River, attracts literary types of all kinds. The continuing quest to find the place-names used in Willa Cather’s writings, and the sources of her stimulation, energizes the local promotional activities of The Willa Cather Foundation and draws literary buffs to this little village throughout the year. Novels are fine. Stories need to be told, but fictive pieces rarely require verification of fact.

‘Tell the story, but tell it well’ is one rural adage. Can it not be told well in poetry also? From ancient times human remembrances have been preserved in verse. Remote cultures of all ages nourished themselves by their conservations of memories. Through inscribed recollections, ancient texts led to revisions in modern thinking. Views on foreign societies of the past were forever altered. Literary monuments have been bequeathed to all “civilized” peoples, desiring to be read by literate persons conversant in the writer’s tongue. Individual transformation begins the moment the text is read. Robert Frost (1874-1963) made an earnest attempt to reshape mankind’s perspective on New England. In the main, he told his stories well. See, for instance, his lengthy poem The Mountain, told in part prose and part lyrical form. Supplied are a few of the poem’s first lines and some from near the poem’s end;

The mountain held the town as in a shadow
I saw so much before I slept there once:
I noticed that I missed stars in the west,
Where its black body cut into the sky.
Near me it seemed: I felt it like a wall
Behind which I was sheltered from a wind.
And yet between the town and it I found,
When I walked forth at dawn to see new things,
Were fields, a river, and beyond, more fields…

“He never got up high enough to see.
That’s why I don’t advise your trying this side.
He tried this side. I’ve always meant to go
And look myself, but you know how it is:
It doesn’t seem so much to climb a mountain
You’ve worked around the foot of all your life.
What would I do? Go in my overalls,
With a big stick, the same as when the cows
Haven’t come down to the bars at milking time?
Or with a shotgun for a stray black bear?
’Twouldn’t seem real to climb for climbing it.”

“I shouldn’t climb it if I didn’t want to—
Not for the sake of climbing. What’s its name?”

“We call it Hor: I don’t know if that’s right.”

As stated in lines 8-9, the dawn of every new day brought to it something old and new. Frost’s life was fraught with hardship. His burdensome circumstances, indeed, are not so visible in this poem in which, later, he makes a farmer say ‘But all the fun’s in how you say a thing.’  Obviously Frost was capable of amusement, and that poem provides a wide-ranging journey filled with mirth and intrigue. Little of his work, though, is sterile of feeling:

Oh Love’s embrace, so tight, so warm,
Whose bosom charms the coldest hearts;
But those that melt in its embrace are
Souls restored in all their parts.

Poets often depict love in that way. Love, seemingly, is attractive: she holds out her arms, beckoning one and all to come, to enter the arms of one whose love makes well. Mean-spirited persons are not disallowed access: they are welcomed. And the tenderness exhibited toward these cruel and merciless persons is not without effect. Fortunately the wounded and broken-hearted eventually are healed too by Love’s embrace.

Storm clouds over Highway 97 near Valentine, Nebraska

Natural World of Webster County

Context is needed now as we undertake an exposition of Far away on a Hill. In former times the Pawnee Indians hunted these grounds. In the 1870s, settlers named the newly settled village Red Cloud after the famed Great Sioux leader, of the same name, who lived from 1822-1909. He became famous during the December 21 1866 Battle of the Hundred-in-the-Hands. Hardly any citizen here today knows of Red Cloud’s exploits. Indians long ago were removed to reservations; homesteaders took their place. Many stories of a similar kind could be told of adjacent towns through which drivers daily steer themselves. First-Nations people were displaced; but they left behind beautiful lands. Highway 181 that goes South-bound out of Red Cloud into North-Central Kansas toward Plainville KS, offers some brilliant views. People who are non-native to the area likely could not find them. So ‘By chance I passed…’ becomes a significant phrase at the start of the poem. In fact it is misleading, since no one ventures ‘by chance’ into these areas.

Urban residents, beware. The weather patterns here often frighten coastal residents. Climate conditions are inconsistent. The only consistency is in the fact that the weather changes suddenly. There are tornadoes in Springtime and Summer; impenetrably thick fog in the Fall; unfriendly blizzards in Winter; blistering 113 degree days in July and August, and 70mph winds during planting season and at harvest time: not to mention the hailstorms that turn up, bringing with them golf ball and baseball size objects that fall from the sky. No wonder a lot of older homes in these environs still have outside cellars like the ones that can be seen in the 1996 film ‘Twister’.

Images of Black Widow and Brown Recluse spiders appear annually in small-town weeklies whenever residents chance upon the little eight-legged creatures. People who are brave enough to take good fortune by the arm and be led through these parts need to know of these things and of other conditions faced by 19thcentury pioneers who forged new pathways of existence in these parts. Westward Ho!, signals the direction of thousands who waved good-bye to the east coast, settled in treeless plains or made their way beyond the Platt Valley to places where taller hills are visible during the day.

Stories about the region are not all bad. The force of the sun brightens the big sky; you have never seen stars so bright on a dark night until you view them in the heavens of Middle America. During the day, Hummingbirds visit backyards in search of sugar water; cardinals, finches, orioles and swallows vie for position at birdfeeders. Beaver and mink are in the riverbeds; coyotes and foxes hunt small game at night; raccoons, possums and armadillos scavenge about. Black (and ivory) squirrels leap from branch to branch; badgers muscle their way through fields and onto the driveways occasionally; but there are deer aplenty and bobcats too whose cries resemble the bellows of an anguished woman; and let’s not forget about dirt-loving weasels.

Cougar sightings are infrequent. Certainly a trapper’s vocation is not in serious trouble. Such is a part of life here. Working with ones hands is a four century old settler tradition in the USA. These rustic scenes harbor grand gardens with little girls picking bugs off potato plants, with young boys working the rows as they detassel corn. Although it is much less confined to New England states as it once was in past centuries, working outdoors still gets farmers out of bed early to do chores that will not be done by sluggards.

Who will slop the hogs each day, coop the chickens or check cattle every other hour after midnight during calving season? Canning jars come out during Autumn season in order to preserve foods the old fashioned way (organically, the way it has always been done out here). Plus these spirited women often drive the grain-cart for their husbands at harvest time, and then haul it all to the grain elevator for storing. The Cattlemen’s Ball attracts thousands of dancers who enjoy the formalities of a large-scale social event; rodeos, guns and religion remain popular too. Life here is arduous; but traditional. The Good Life must be lived intentionally. As for local diplomacy, rural residents’ political views are overpoweringly conservative.

As Americans prepare to head to the voting booths this fall millions of them are daily bombarded with statistics from various polls taken across the country, supposedly reflective of vast swaths of America’s diverse population groups. On closer inspection what one quickly learns is that “diverse population groups” are represented primarily by those who are inhabitants of large urban cities. How long has it been since you have seen, reflected on television, national polls resulting from polling in small towns in North or South Dakota, from the villages of Kansas or Nebraska or Oklahoma or even the southern states? Long gone are the days in which presidential candidates rode the railway through the Great Plains in order to speak to all persons across an individual state. The intimacy once connected to this approach now seems dated in lieu of the inventions of 21stcentury technology.

At present, media personnel and others have demonstrated that what matters most is perception: and America’s small rural towns (pop. 10,000 and below) are perceived to be non-diverse (i.e., too Caucasian) and unexceptional in the democratic process, a perception belied by a visit to a nearby cemetery. Reading the names on the headstones, each name tells a tale. More than 25 nationalities are represented.

Some of the deceased were from Great Britain, Netherlands, France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Sweden, Czech regions, Norway, Switzerland etc. In fact, mall towns were and remain diverse, their descendants’ labors still provide America with cultural enrichments which are not so easily diffused in urban settings where people tend to live anonymously among their countless neighbors, and they personally were related to a number of persons who died in the Civil War to secure them the liberties and prospects of life they now enjoy.

Occasionally one may still hear bits and pieces of these dialects spoken in homes or local markets. Everywhere one can see notable resemblances to their European ancestors, work ethic and all. These overlooked citizens definitely are some of the most misunderstood persons in the earth. Despite the neglect, there is, however, one consolation for all one’s hard work: pretty visions of prairie lands.

Exposition

These hallowed grounds can inspire the dullest minds: thus my longer and shorter poems. Upon the first reading of Far Away on a Hill it seems to give credence to the proverbial belief that ‘everything that glitters isn’t gold’. For sure, visibility at a distance may deceive; but so may the phrase ‘rift valleys’. Should a single elevated sight be encompassed by so many depressed layers of land? Without the word ‘Great’ preceding the label, Rift Valley, it is unlikely to designate the long valley descending from Lebanon to Mozambique. Yet it may allude to a scene in east Africa or even to the Grand Canyon in the USA. It betrays little more. That arrangement of the verses is intentional. Only one individual is noted in my poem, the hill climber of lines 5-8. The climber is a representative figure in the person of “I”. An indomitable spirit drives him or her: giving up is never an option.

When the background is known, each line alludes to the hearty folk who arrived here in covered wagons and then pioneered life a century and half ago in this treeless land. Tedious, tiresome and weary were those who dwelled in sod houses; but they climbed difficult mountains and overcame rough terrain, eking out a worthwhile living. ‘That hillside’ was a specific issue that served as a hindrance to each of them.

The effort required to scale ‘its steep incline’ indicates hard work, sweat, and the vim and vigor necessary to live off the land that gave nothing back to its owner without a fight. They had hoped to see dreams come true. Fantasy gave way to reality in most cases. People fainted from the hardship. Infants died, and their little human frames were buried (sown) in a dry earth that a century later now yields alfalfa and wheat by the thousandth bushel.

After the first eight lines of the poem my thoughts departed the Heartlands and became entirely fictive. There is one philosophical point of interest. Nature is presented as a benign entity. Naturally inquisitive, I composed the verses to make ‘nature’ the owner of the sky-capped hill that reflected rays of light attractively. So alluring it was, so enchanting from a distance, surely something within the glimmers of this numinous power could be mine for profit.

Is [Mother] nature the owner or producer of anything? Some believe it creates; others see no need to defer to an unintelligent description of any kind; but writers often dress nature in feminine garb, depicting it as ‘her’. The climber knew that mystic possessions on the hill required reflection. All that existed from afar were false impressions anyway. To whom did this patch of earth belong, and to whom can one allocate its only resource? If the sun is a force of nature and nature is custodian of the sun, then nature is quite limited. Her countenanced gaze upon this hilltop was ruinous in effect. The climber never wants to see its peak ever again. It was a constant reminder of toil without benefit.

Of interest in my mind was the notion that a possible treasure existed in the uplands. Really they were badlands on high ground.

So much background would be necessary to understand what I was doing in the first 8 lines. Without it a reader could only focus on the naked text which is unshorn of definite geographical markers.An alternate interpretation would be plainer: e.g., the passer-by seems to be on a fortuitous journey. At the right time, at the right spot in time and with the right circumstances of weather, a vision unfolds before the eye from a depressed area of the earth. The poet’s thought is clear: stand-out features are visible from afar; but up close they may not be so outstanding. The climber was not destined to scale the hill. It only happened that a decision was made to do so inadvertently. We can argue that many things in life are achieved in that way: a challenge presents itself, and with little forethought, one unexpectedly faces the test head-on. Even if the experiment proves foolhardy in the end, much can be learned through the intensive effort itself.

Lines 9-14 show that there were no spoils for the victor. A challenge accepted, a challenge completed, but at the end of it, unfulfillment.  ‘a barren knoll’ can offer no useful thing to the exhausted discoverer. Sustenance aside, it was a depressing scene, one accompanied by an unseemly aroma. No animals or fowl of the air were to be found. Insects were few. The valley quickly became more desirable. Heat alone may be unbearable, but warm air amid foul odors is worse still.

It was a letdown to discover that nature prevented life from blossoming. Weather scientists could not aid this physical location. Nature’s unfavorable smile (or frown) produced massive deception. It was not a mirage. The place was real, and the ‘groves of rotting knars’ were hidden by alluring beams of light. Not appealing to native residents, even less appealing to visitors to the region, the climber had no idea that the mysteries above were not worth knowing. The struggle to attain to such heights was not met with equal success and joy. The poem conveys so much artistically. To read a poem rightly one should read it with the mind’s eye wide open, taking in as much as possible.

Little more needs to be done here other than to give readers and rural partisans the opportunity to peruse the first few lines of Oliver Goldsmith’s (1728-1774) rustic poem, The Deserted Village.

Sweet Auburn! loveliest village of the plain,
Where health and plenty cheered the labouring swain,
Where smiling spring its earliest visits paid,
And parting summer’s lingering blooms delayed:
Dear lovely bowers of innocence and ease,
Seats of my youth, where every sport could please,
How often have I loitered o’er your green,
Where humble happiness endeared each scene;
How often have I paused on every charm,
The sheltered cot, the cultivated farm, …

Red Cloud Girls

Darrell Sutton lives and writes in Red Cloud, Nebraska (USA) where he is the Overseer of multiple rural congregations

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