The Ode Familiar

by Katherine Dalton on November 19, 2010 · 11 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Region & Place,Writers & Poets

reading a poem

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.


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–


–Emily Dickinson

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Bill Kauffman November 19, 2010 at 3:24 pm

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.

avatar Nick Borchert November 21, 2010 at 10:49 am

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.

avatar Mark Christian November 22, 2010 at 6:14 am

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

avatar Thomas McCullough November 22, 2010 at 8:06 am

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.

avatar Kevin L. November 22, 2010 at 2:00 pm

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.

avatar Mark Christian November 23, 2010 at 3:23 am

I’ll look for it – thank you!

avatar Joshua Lore November 24, 2010 at 11:14 pm

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.

avatar Rob G November 25, 2010 at 7:05 am

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.

avatar Kaylyn C. November 29, 2010 at 4:40 pm

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.

avatar Rrhurl December 16, 2010 at 10:53 pm

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!

avatar Chris Campbell August 24, 2011 at 6:49 pm

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

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