The Ode Familiar

Louisville, Kentucky.  Some time back Caleb Stegall nominated Iris DeMent’s “Our Town” for the Front Porch Theme Song, and an ensuing piece of Bill Kauffman’s elicited a nice long list of good music of place.  Readers who missed that discussion of localism in song might want to visit it here.

I thought we could do the same for poetry, and so below I offer a poem of place, in the hope that it will spark suggestions for an anthology’s worth of localism in meter—or a start, at least.  I could have opened with Wendell Berry’s “The Sycamore,” but demonstrating a regional broadmindedness I am usually careful to suppress, I have chosen a New England poet instead, and though she will be familiar to you this poem of hers will not, I think.

She takes all the sting out of the word “provincial.”  Your own candidates are welcome.

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The Robin’s my criterion of tune

Because I grow where robins do–

But were I Cuckoo born

I’d swear by him,

The ode familiar rules the morn.

The Buttercup’s my whim for bloom

Because we’re orchard-sprung–

But were I Britain-born

I’d daisies spurn–

None but the Nut October fits,

Because through dropping it

The seasons flit, I’m taught.

Without the snow’s tableau

Winter were lie to me–

Because I see New Englandly.

The Queen discerns like me–

Provincially.

–Emily Dickinson

11 comments on this post.
  1. Bill Kauffman:

    Great idea, Kate. As an epigraph, I propose this hopeful prophecy from the mad poet Charles Fenno Hoffman’s “Primeval Woods”:

    Ere long, thine every stream shall find a tongue
    Land of the many waters!

    Sharing not your Kentucky reticence, and mindful of this site’s name, I’ll suggest these lines from Wendell Berry’s “To a Siberian Woodsman”:

    And I am here in Kentucky in the place I have made myself
    in the world. I sit on my porch above the river that flows muddy
    and slow along the feet of the trees. I hear the voices of the wren
    and the yellow-throated warbler whose songs pass near the windows
    and over the roof. In my house my daughter learns the womanhood
    of her mother. My son is at play, pretending to be
    the man he believes I am. I am the outbreathing of this ground.
    My words are its words as the wren’s song is its song.

    And in the home, sweet home category, I nominate my homeboy William Hosmer, bard of Avon (New York, that is):

    Ambition from the scenes of youth
    May others lure away
    To chase the phantom of renown
    Throughout their little day;
    I would not, for a palace proud
    And slave of pliant knee,
    Forsake a cabin in thy vale,
    My own dark Genesee.

  2. Nick Borchert:

    Wordsworth’s “Michael”, of which, one half-stanza:

    And grossly that man errs, who should suppose
    That the green valleys, and the streams and rocks,
    Were things indifferent to the Shepherd’s thoughts.
    Fields, where with cheerful spirits he had breathed
    The common air; hills, which with vigorous step
    He had so often climbed; which had impressed
    So many incidents upon his mind
    Of hardship, skill or courage, joy or fear;
    Which, like a book, preserved the memory
    Of the dumb animals, whom he had saved,
    Had fed or sheltered, linking to such acts
    The certainty of honourable gain;
    Those fields, those hills—what could they less? had laid
    Strong hold on his affections, were to him
    A pleasurable feeling of blind love,
    The pleasure which there is in life itself.

    Also, as a reminder that love ought not be blind, and that a place is best lampooned by those who most fervently desire its redemption, Blake’s “London”:

    I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
    Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,
    And mark in every face I meet
    Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

    In every cry of every Man,
    In every Infant’s cry of fear,
    In every voice, in every ban,
    The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.

    How the Chimney-sweeper’s cry
    Every black’ning Church appalls;
    And the hapless Soldier’s sigh
    Runs in blood down Palace walls.

    But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
    How the youthful Harlot’s curse
    Blasts the new born Infant’s tear,
    And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.

  3. Mark Christian:

    I’m at least 400 years removed from my Gaelic ancestry, but this poem speaks profoundly to the question at hand:

    I WILL arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
    And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
    Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
    And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

    And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
    Dropping from the veils of the mourning to where the cricket sings;
    There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
    And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

    I will arise and go now, for always night and day
    I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
    While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
    I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

    - Wm. Butler Yeats

  4. Thomas McCullough:

    Mr. Christian, if you don’t know, you should know that the singing group Cherish the Ladies does an, I think, wonderful musical rendition of that Yeats poem. I cannot remember the album.

  5. Kevin L.:

    Though not in reference to any one place, I have always loved this poem by Alexander Pope:

    Happy the man, whose wish and care
    A few paternal acres bound,
    Content to breathe his native air
    In his own ground.

    Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
    Whose flocks supply him with attire;
    Whose trees in summer yield shade,
    In winter, fire.

    Blest, who can unconcern’dly find
    Hours, days, and years, slide soft away
    In health of body, peace of mind,
    Quiet by day.

    Sound sleep by night; study and ease
    Together mixed; sweet recreation,
    And innocence, which most does please
    With meditation.

    Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
    Thus unlamented let me die;
    Steal from the world, and not a stone
    Tell where I lie.

  6. Mark Christian:

    I’ll look for it – thank you!

  7. Joshua Lore:

    Perhaps not an utmost favorite, this poem by Wordsworth possesses a beauty in its simplicity and contented reverence for the near and familiar, a perfect musing for the Porch:

    Nuns fret not at their Convent’s narrow room;
    And Hermits are contented with their Cells;
    And Students with their pensive Citadels:
    Maids at the Wheel, the Weaver at his Loom,
    Sit blithe and happy; Bees that soar for bloom,
    High as the highest Peak of Furness Fells,
    Will murmer by the hour in Foxglove bells:
    In truth, the prison, unto which we doom
    Ourselves, no prison is: and hence to me,
    In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
    Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground:
    Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
    Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
    Should find short solace there, as I have found.

  8. Rob G:

    John Clare’s ‘The Flitting’ is too long to reproduce in full, but it starts thus:

    I’ve left my own old home of homes,
    Green fields and every pleasant place;
    The summer like a stranger comes,
    I pause and hardly know her face.
    I miss the hazel’s happy green,
    The blue bell’s quiet hanging blooms,
    Where envy’s sneer was never seen,
    Where staring malice never comes.

    The last four stanzas:

    Een here my simple feelings nurse
    A love for every simple weed,
    And een this little shepherd’s purse
    Grieves me to cut it up; indeed
    I feel at times a love and joy
    For every weed and every thing,
    A feeling kindred from a boy,
    A feeling brought with every Spring.

    And why? this shepherd’s purse that grows
    In this strange spot, in days gone bye
    Grew in the little garden rows
    Of my old home now left; and I
    Feel what I never felt before,
    This weed an ancient neighbour here,
    And though I own the spot no more
    Its every trifle makes it dear.

    The ivy at the parlour end,
    The woodbine at the garden gate,
    Are all and each affection’s friend
    That render parting desolate.
    But times will change and friends must part
    And nature still can make amends;
    Their memory lingers round the heart
    Like life whose essence is its friends.

    Time looks on pomp with vengeful mood
    Or killing apathy’s disdain;
    So where old marble cities stood
    Poor persecuted weeds remain.
    She feels a love for little things
    That very few can feel beside,
    And still the grass eternal springs
    Where castles stood and grandeur died.

  9. Kaylyn C.:

    I love how this gem from Mary Oliver captures both the difficulty and importance of keeping place.

    “The Black Walnut Tree”
    by Mary Oliver from Twelve Moons (Little, Brown & Co.).

    My mother and I debate:
    we could sell
    the black walnut tree
    to the lumberman,
    and pay off the mortgage.
    Likely some storm anyway
    will churn down its dark boughs,
    smashing the house. We talk
    slowly, two women trying
    in a difficult time to be wise.
    Roots in the cellar drains,
    I say, and she replies
    that the leaves are getting heavier
    every year, and the fruit
    harder to gather away.
    But something brighter than money
    moves in our blood-an edge
    sharp and quick as a trowel
    that wants us to dig and sow.
    So we talk, but we don’t do
    anything. That night I dream
    of my fathers out of Bohemia
    filling the blue fields
    of fresh and generous Ohio
    with leaves and vines and orchards.
    What my mother and I both know
    is that we’d crawl with shame
    in the emptiness we’d made
    in our own and our fathers’ backyard.
    So the black walnut tree
    swings through another year
    of sun and leaping winds,
    of leaves and bounding fruit,
    and, month after month, the whip-
    crack of the mortgage.

  10. Rrhurl:

    Sussex (by Rudyard Kipling)

    GOD gave all men all earth to love,
    But since our hearts are small,
    Ordained for each one spot should prove
    Belovèd over all;
    That, as He watched Creation’s birth,
    So we, in godlike mood,
    May of our love create our earth
    And see that it is good.
    So one shall Baltic pines content,
    As one some Surrey glade,
    Or one the palm-grove’s droned lament
    Before Levuka’s Trade.
    Each to his choice, and I rejoice
    The lot has fallen to me
    In a fair ground—in a fair ground—
    Yea, Sussex by the sea!

  11. Chris Campbell:

    Thanks all for the great thoughts, I too am a Scot/Gaelic

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