Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving poems

Jim Wood recently introduced me to Edwin Muir, an Orkney poet, a poet of the land.  I love this poem, and here Jim explains why it's so perfect for today.

We give you what we think may be the best Thanksgiving poem ever written. Oddly enough, it’s not by an American, and it doesn’t mention pilgrims or turkeys. It’s by the great Orcadian poet Edwin Muir (1887-1959), born in rural Dearness, raised on the northern isle of Rousay, heir to Orkney’s only semi-important “clearance” (see his poem “The Little General”), lover and fearer of great Clydesdale plow horses (see “Horses” and “The Horses”), and discoverer (as far as the West is concerned) of Franz Kafka. We love “The Difficult Land” because it expresses both the pain and beauty of the traditional rural world. I have now written on the MT about both what we have lost (tragically) by abandoning traditional farming – and what we have gained (thankfully) by abandoning traditional farming. Both are true, and nothing that I know of expresses all this better than this achingly beautiful poem. The perfect Thanksgiving poem: “This is a difficult country, and our home.”

The Difficult Land

This is a difficult land. Here things miscarry
Whether we care, or do not care enough.
The grain may pine, the harlot weed grow haughty,
Sun, rain, and frost alike conspire against us:
You’d think there was malice in the very air.
And the spring floods and summer droughts: our fields
Mile after mile of soft and useless dust.
On dull delusive days presaging rain
We yoke the oxen, go out harrowing,
Walk in the middle of an ochre cloud,
Dust rising before us and falling again behind us,
Slowly and gently settling where it lay.
These days the earth itself looks sad and senseless.
And when next day the sun mounts hot and lusty
We shake our fist and kick the ground in anger.
We have strange dreams: as that, in the early morning
We stand and watch the silver drift of stars
Turn suddenly to a flock of black-birds flying.
And once in a lifetime men from over the border,
In early summer, the season of fresh campaigns,
Come trampling down the corn, and kill our cattle.
These things we know and by good luck or guidance
Either frustrate or, if we must, endure.
We are a people; race and speech support us,
Ancestral rite and custom, roof and tree,
Our songs that tell of our triumphs and disasters
(Fleeting alike), continuance of fold and hearth,
Our names and callings, work and rest and sleep,
And something that, defeated, still endures – 
These things sustain us. Yet there are times
When name, identity, and our very hands,
Senselessly labouring, grow most hateful to us, 
And we would gladly rid us of these burdens,
Enter our darkness through the doors of wheat
And the light veil of grass (leaving behind
 Name, body, country, speech, vocation, faith)
And gather into the secrecy of the earth
Furrowed by broken ploughs lost deep in time.

We have such hours, but are drawn back again
By faces of goodness, faithful masks of sorrow,
Honesty, kindness, courage, fidelity,
The love that lasts a life’s time. And the fields,
Homestead and stall and barn, springtime and autumn.
(For we can love even the wandering seasons
In their inhuman circuit.) And the dead
Who lodge in us so strangely, unremembered,
Yet in their place. For how can we reject
The long last look on the ever-dying face
Turned backward from the other side of time?
And how offend the dead and shame the living
By these despairs? And how refrain from love?
This is a difficult country, and our home.

                                          -- Edwin Muir

One of the things I now look forward to at holidays is the poems that arrive in my inbox from MT reader Ed Hessler a day or two before the event.  Among the poems he sent to a fortunate list of recipients this Thanksgiving was this one by Kenneth Rexroth.

Falling Leaves and Early Snow

In the years to come they will say,
“They fell like the leaves
In the autumn of nineteen thirty-nine.”
November has come to the forest,
To the meadows where we picked the cyclamen.
The year fades with the white frost
On the brown sedge in the hazy meadows,
Where the deer tracks were black in the morning.
Ice forms in the shadows;
Disheveled maples hang over the water;
Deep gold sunlight glistens on the shrunken stream.
Somnolent trout move through pillars of brown and gold.
The yellow maple leaves eddy above them,
The glittering leaves of the cottonwood,
The olive, velvety alder leaves,
The scarlet dogwood leaves,
Most poignant of all.

In the afternoon thin blades of cloud
Move over the mountains;
The storm clouds follow them;
Fine rain falls without wind.
The forest is filled with wet resonant silence.
When the rain pauses the clouds
Cling to the cliffs and the waterfalls.
In the evening the wind changes;
Snow falls in the sunset.
We stand in the snowy twilight
And watch the moon rise in a breach of cloud.
Between the black pines lie narrow bands of moonlight,
Glimmering with floating snow.
An owl cries in the sifting darkness.
The moon has a sheen like a glacier.

                                --Kenneth Rexroth


Anne Buchanan said...

Ed Hessler just emailed, having tried to leave a comment, which Blogger decided was not to be left. I told him I'd post it for him. Thank you, Ed.

Thank you for posting the Muir poem. It is aching and haunting and in deep communion with land, time and work that most of us will ever know. It demands some silence and reflection after reading

I want to thank Jim Wood, for sending this to you, and you, Anne, for sending it on (and I hope on and on), otherwise, I'd never have known about it.

I tried to leave a message but got bumped off. I think the issue is about a password and rather risk another try, I decided to send this to you.

The late Wisconsin hockey coach, fondly and lovingly known as Badger Bob--one of the all time greats--often slipped a phrase into conversations. "Everyday is a great day for hockey," no matter the day or month. January..March...June...September...December." I often twist that phrase to "Everyday is a great day for poetry."

The Muir poem reminds me of that.

rich lawler said...

Love the Rexroth poem. Though I was young, I had the opportunity to go to Rexroth's house in Santa Barbara, and he also visited our house in the Chicago suburbs. He and my dad were friends. Now in my adult life I'm revisiting all his great poetry and also his really insightful essays. He's a great writer, in that conversational but thoughtful sense. Thanks for sharing these poems.

Anne Buchanan said...

Oh, how nice that the poem has that kind of personal meaning. I imagine you read it hearing his voice. I will look up his essays.