P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
No.38 - July 2019
David Graham's POETIC LICENSE 2019 July No.38
Small Town Poetry
Hikers in New England, upstate New York and no doubt other regions are used to coming upon the remnants of vanished farmsteads, former logging camps, disused graveyards, broken down fences, abandoned roads, and other evidence of a great sea-change in our national history. For almost a century after its founding, the United States was largely an agrarian country, with most citizens living on farms or in villages and small towns. During the latter half of the 19th Century, though, industrialization and immigration rapidly moved us toward becoming the heavily urbanized population that we are today.
One poet involved in this great shift was Walt Whitman, who has been rightly called our first great poet of urban life. I’ve often thought that many passages of “Song of Myself” and other poems are the best documentary we have of what it felt like to live in Manhattan in the 1850s and 60s especially. Yet he was also a great nature poet, having grown up on a farm on Long Island, which at the time was largely farmland and small villages. In the year of his birth (1819), the island of Manhattan had a population of merely 123,000, or about the same as Round Rock, Texas or Hartford, Connecticut today. By the time Whitman died, in 1892, Manhattan had swelled to nearly a million and a half citizens. The process of urbanization was fastest in the Northeast; in fact, a majority of people there lived in cities by 1880. Somewhere between 1910 and 1920, the country as a whole attained an urban majority, and the percentage has only been increasing since then.
These statistics manifest in American poetry no less than in politics, economics, and other facets of national life. Consider the case of Robert Frost, surely our greatest poet of rural life. He was born in 1874 (It’s pleasant to imagine the 18 year old Frost reading Whitman while the older poet was still alive). By 1874 the country life Frost would claim as his theme was already endangered. During his lifetime, the farms, villages, and small towns of New England, his adopted home, were steadily drained of their citizens as more and more moved to urban areas, mostly in search of economic opportunity. By the time Frost wrote his late masterpiece, “Directive” in 1946, the process was quite advanced. Among other things, “Directive” is a poem about the attractions of nostalgia. The poem begins:
Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,
There is a house that is no more a house
Upon a farm that is no more a farm
And in a town that is no more a town.
I have heard Frost called a poet of nostalgia for supposedly simpler times, for our pastoral roots as a country, but frankly I’ve never seen it. Anyone who’s read poems like “Home Burial,” “A Servant to Servants,” “The Housekeeper,” or “The Witch of Coös” knows that there is a deep vein of the dark and tragic in Frost. And as “Directive” shows, he was very aware both of the demographic realities discussed above as well as the powerful myth of a lost rural Eden that figures so prominently in much American literature. It’s true that even today our culture often romanticizes rural America, its farms and small towns and villages. But even in 1946 Frost was having none of it. If the old times seem simple to us today, he suggests, it is “by the loss / Of detail.” In other words, we forget how unsimple it always was. Our nostalgic yearnings for some vanished paradise are grounded in sheer forgetfulness. All the grimy details of reality, over time, have been “burned, dissolved, and broken off / Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather.” The image of one of those abandoned country cemeteries does not seem accidental. Pure nostalgia is a kind of death. Death of the imagination, if nothing else.
Frost’s imaginative journey into the territory of the past (“where two village cultures faded / Into each other” and where “both of them are lost”) is typically ripe with detail yet tricky to interpret. He even warns his readers that he is “a guide . . . who only has at heart your getting lost.” That’s only one of many clues that this will not be any journey into a comfortable and homey history. The destination turns out to be a ruin: a “house that is no more a house, / But only a belilaced cellar hole, / Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.” Frost would have known many such houses in his time, places once vibrant with life, but finally emptied of all meaning but memory.
His mission in taking us there remains ambiguous. In a play on the story of the Holy Grail, his guide/speaker promises us imagined pilgrims a drink from the “brook that was the water of the house,” captured in “a broken drinking goblet like the Grail” that he stole from “the children’s playhouse.” To conclude, the speaker announces grandly that “Here are your waters and your watering place. / Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.” Experienced readers of Frost know better than to take such lofty rhetoric at face value. That the makeshift Grail is both broken and stolen from some children’s toy chest—hardly akin to the legendary Grail—should give us pause.
But what does he mean? The poem has been much analyzed, and I confess I have no easy or singular answer. But for present purposes that elusiveness is precisely the point I want to underline. Whatever else the poem is getting at, I am convinced that Frost is deliberately undercutting any sense of pure nostalgia over these lost towns and the long-gone people who once thrived there. Like anyone, he feels the pull of the past, the poignant melancholy of seeing places that will never regain their previous glories. Still, it seems a complicated sort of dance, as Frost flirts playfully with the nostalgic mood he finally rejects.
Frost well knew that the agrarian past was no more uncomplicated, no easier on its people than life in the largely urbanized country of 1946. And that the yearning that so many felt and still feel for an idealized sort of village life in pre-industrial America is only sustainable by an act of willful forgetfulness. So, far from being a comforting poet of such life, Frost is indeed an often uncomfortable poet of such life.
I have a two-fold reason for being interested in this theme. First, I’m a small town boy, born and bred. I grew up in Johnstown, New York, a mill town tucked between the Mohawk Valley and the foothills of the Adirondacks. As a boy, I could walk to the town limits in a few minutes, and explore the fields and woods that surrounded the city. We were what’s now called “free range kids” back then, roaming the town and getting into mischief without much adult supervision. Such were the times in the 1950s and early 1960s. Now I know from the Facebook pages of many boyhood pals that the lure of nostalgia can be strong for those of us now in our 60s, most of us living elsewhere these days. Yet the carefree Tom-Sawyerish childhood that many seem to remember is, I’m convinced, mostly fantasy, no doubt created by the sort of loss of detail that Frost describes. During my entire lifetime, as inexorable economic forces shuttered many of the local factories, Johnstown’s population has been slowly shrinking, its economy struggling.
Still, I love small town life. The way Frank O’Hara got nervous if there wasn’t a delicatessen or subway close by, I get itchy if I’m too far from a cow pasture. In fact, even after leaving my home town for good, I wound up spending most of the years since in various small towns in several states. And as a poet, I’ve found myself writing often about the experience, in all its cross currents, conflicting emotions, and local quirks. That it’s a complicated and apparently endangered sort of life is all to the good, at least poetically speaking.
I have a second reason for bringing all this up. By this point I hope you’re wondering how poets more recent than Whitman and Frost have dealt with all these issues. Well, you’re in luck. As it happens, my friend Tom Montag and I wondered the same thing. Like me, Tom (of Fairwater, Wisconsin, Pop. 371) has a longstanding interest in the subject. Out of this shared interest was born our anthology, Local News: Poetry About Small Towns, which by the time you’re reading this should be available from MWPH Books. And I confess that I certainly hope you might be moved to read it.
When Tom and I first discussed the idea, several years back, we looked around and were a bit surprised to find that there didn’t seem to be any current poetry anthologies on this exact theme available already. Surprised because small town life has always loomed large in American culture even as the population shifts mentioned were taking place. Think of classic works like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, or Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, or Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology. Think of contemporary works like Garrison Keillor’s stories of mythic Lake Wobegon, or Andy Griffith’s archetypal comic town of Mayberry. Think of Larry McMurtry’s small Texas towns in novels like The Last Picture Show.
But where are the current poems on small towns? Well, we discovered that there are plenty of good ones, but mostly widely scattered in books by a host of individual poets. As for anthologies, we located books collecting poems about farms, nature, ecopoetics, rural landscapes, and related subjects, but almost nothing focused on small town life per se. So we thought the time was ripe for an anthology gathering such poems in one volume. We put out a call for poems, made a few special solicitations, and spent the better part of two years combing through what we received. Turns out that current poets, whether they hail from small towns or are just passing through, have rather a lot to say on the subject. It’s a big book, but we still had to reject any number of good poems.
From the start Tom and I were in agreement: for all the reasons sketched above, we didn’t wish to present an unduly rosy view of small town life. Pure nostalgia was not what we were looking for, but rather a more realistic vision that jibed with our own long experience of life in such towns. And we wanted to offer a sampling of as many different aspects of such experience life as possible.
I can do no more here than nod toward a few of our poets and their themes. Allison Joseph’s three poems please me for their honesty and range, from her satiric look at the town of Riverdale in the Archie comics to an unsettling, utterly uncomic depiction of racial unease at the Waffle House. And in “Ode to An Unloved Town” she provides a grimly clear-eyed depiction of a town in decline:
Few tourists visit this
heartsore town, black and white turned
back into the segregated South, though this
is Illinois, state of Lincoln’s justice,
of wealth and cul-de-sacs, private homes.
Here in Cairo, the last grocery store
has closed for good, the health clinic’s
only open one day a week, as if pain
has a mid-week schedule, on time
The late Dick Allen’s “Strip Malls” details with something like Swift’s “savage indignation” the ugliness, physically and otherwise, of its subject:
Even when their parking lots are almost full
and teenagers lean about the Coke machines,
looking stupid as boiled carrots, as cool as fresh spit,
these strip malls, remember,
have, as Matthew Arnold said about the world,
“. . . neither joy, nor love, nor light,
nor certitude, nor help from pain.” They were
conceived for profit, they’ll go down for profit,
so ugly, so utilitarian, they’ll leave
only in the mind the smudge of burning rubber,
a packet of Equal and a few McDonald’s wrappers,
no torso of Apollo, no panther in a cage,
nothing about them inspired,
no one who entered them changed.
It’s not all loss and squalor, to be sure. I particularly love Marjorie Saiser’s praise of small town sensibility in “Yes, These Are My People,” set in a bagel shop. She claims it all: “My people, my town, my bread,” and concludes:
I chew. I'm home.
My men at the construction site across the street,
their yellow hardhats, their gray sweatshirts,
the arms of one signaling to the truckdriver backing in.
The truckdriver trusting only what he can see:
the semaphore arms, the come-hither gesture
of the gloved hand.
In a different mood, Saiser confesses that “I Lie About My Life” in a poem that presents in stanza one the idealized view of a small town childhood, then corrects itself: “Oh what am I saying?” So in the second and final stanza she takes it all back, complicating the description with a sense of isolation and self-doubt. She takes note of sparrows with their “unsophisticated / noise in their messy nests,” and ends with a vision of the lonely child she was: “the only child, the only human being. / Barefoot, surveying the gravel of main street.”
Brendan Galvin’s wonderfully textured “Nimblejacks” is an affectionate tribute to small town misfits of the past:
I’m talking soupbeards
and rent-laggards like Boofer,
who checked out the coinbox on every
payphone in town. I’m talking
skewfooted Dr. Highpockets, who’d share
the sandwich in his carrot bag with anyone.
In Galvin’s telling, it turns out that such folks were not just comic characters, but served an essential function. These “walk-ons from normality’s hinterland, / part of the 9 percent who never have an opinion,” were in fact
the canaries in our mineshaft,
our early warning systems, and never
disappeared into the shops all day,
but stayed on the sidewalks to hinder
the broom of the future simply by being there.
Such characters (and every small town had some) performed the necessary service, Galvin declares, of “leaning left and right to keep us level.”
C. Kubasta presents both praise and critique in the knotty, layered “On Being a Midwestern Poet.” It centers around an argument sparked by someone’s casual dismissal, their wondering “how anyone can live there, [commenting] how there’s / no culture, nothing / to write about” in a small town in flyover country. Her answer is intelligently complex, replete with Latin labels for various possible arguments (“Argumentum ad lapidem,” “Argumentum ad antiquitatem,” “Argumentum ex silentio,” et al.). Her somewhat ambivalent defense of small town life is subtle and beautifully laid out in imagery that is its own argument. This includes a self-description that surely resonates for every poet writing in a small town:
The way each town
has one of me, sitting in the local bar, like the strange
found picking the fields, brought home
for its unusual color
The local news in our book comes in many flavors, as will not surprise anyone who’s actually lived in a small town. William Reichard’s haunting “Midwest Landscape: Small Town Queers (Long Ago)” is a litany of the many ways gay and lesbian folks survived in small towns, but thankfully “long ago.” Bruce Taylor reflects on how “nobody goes to church much anymore,” while Karla Huston takes us “Rat Shooting at the Holmen Dump.” Jeff Newberry and Karen J. Weyant both describe coming of age in mill towns. Wesley McNair tells the tale of a mail-order bride from Japan widowed and stranded in the Ozarks. Ted Kooser’s “Houses at the Edge of Town” depicts in compact imagery the houses occupied by farmers too old to farm anymore, and presumably with no one to carry on the farming either—a sadly familiar circumstance described with his typically understated power.
Shaindel Beers allows us into her classroom at the reservation school, where, when she asks her students, “What would you ask the author / if he were here,”
the normally quiet but smart girl says,
I’d ask him, “Are you my father? Because
I’ve never met that bastard in my life.”
We all laugh because it’s the most honest answer
that can be given. We laugh because honesty
is uncomfortable here in this trailer where I’m
supposed to lie to these high-schoolers, tell them
if they work hard enough, they can be anything.
As I hope I’ve managed to suggest with these few teasers, my little survey cannot do justice to the range of moods and modes and topics our poets take up. In Local News you’ll find haiku and narrative and lyric and meditation and hymn; you’ll encounter satire and history and racial tension and grief and faith and dream and character study. There are suicides, murders, breakdowns, divorces, proms, strange neighbors, gossip, sporting events, happy and unhappy childhoods, first loves, and all the other significant events and elements of life anywhere. And many that are unique to small towns, of course.
I’ll conclude my preview with David Baker. I was very glad we could include the title poem from his book The Truth About Small Towns, for it is in many ways emblematic of our aims. It is a prismatic little suite in four parts, offering an unvarnished view of small town conflicts as well as blessings. One section chronicles the fight at a town council meeting over whether to allow a Wendy’s restaurant to be built on some wetlands. The local paper covers it all:
The paper's rife with spats, accusations,
pieties both ways. Wendy's promises
flowers, jobs. The citizens want this, too,
but want it five miles away where people
don't care about egrets, willows, good views.
Oh, it's going to be a long night: call
out for pizza, somebody brew some tea.
Then we'll all stand up for what we believe.
Another section describes a baseball game at the local prison (one of the few growth industries in small town America) between the inmates and a “team of boys in trouble and their dads.” It comes to a surprisingly tender conclusion. My personal favorite section, titled “Charming,” takes note of how “the remnant industry of a dying town’s itself.” That rings deeply true to me. I think of many small towns I’ve known, facing the loss of jobs and its younger citizens moving away, turning their attention to forlorn attempts to market the place as a tourist destination—with historical markers, tiny museums, antique shops, and the rest.
The section titled “The Truth About Small Towns” begins, “It never stops raining,” and, twelve lines later, concludes, “It never rains.” I’m tempted to say that’s small town U.S.A. in a nutshell.
To learn more about this book, well, you know what you need to do. And if you are moved to take a look at our anthology, Tom and I would surely love to hear from you.
©2019 David Graham
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