Cowboy Poetry vs Free Verse

Cowboy Poetry Week text from poster

In honor of National Cowboy Poetry Week (April 21-27, 2019), I am reprinting this blog, which was originally published July 30, 2012 on my website’s blog page.

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Recently [July, 2012] I presented a workshop at the combined annual meeting of the Dakota Cowboy Poets Association and the Western Writers Group, held at Slim McNaught’s house in New Underwood, South Dakota.

My workshop was With the Net Down: Do You Dare to Write Without Rhyme? Briefly, I discussed the differences between rhymed, metered poetry and free verse. Poets like myself, who don’t generally use rhyme, often hear Robert Frost’s statement that writing poetry without rhyme is like playing tennis with the net down. Many rhyming poets think that free verse just means the poetry doesn’t rhyme.

In fact, rhyme or the lack of it has nothing to do with defining free verse.

Free verse can be rhymed or unrhymed but its primary characteristic is that it has no set meter.

No set meter. That’s not the same as having no meter at all.

Here’s a fine and familiar free verse poem:

Our Father, which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy Name.
Thy Kingdom come.
Thy will be done in earth,
As it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive them that trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
The power, and the glory,
For ever and ever. Amen.

Free verse. And when one person or a congregation is repeating those words, you can hear the rhythm.

I don’t want to repeat here everything I had to say at my workshop, let alone everything there is to say, about meter. The set acoustic pattern of a line of poetry is its meter or rhythm and may be measured in syllables, accented syllables, or both. Thus meter is often defined by the number of syllables in the line.

Most of us speak in iambic: collections of one unaccented followed by one accented syllable:

I’m GO-ing TO the GROcery STORE to-DAY.

That’s iambic pentameter: five iambic (da-DUM) feet.

Because we speak in iambics, we appreciate poetry that uses them. Blank verse is usually unrhymed iambic pentameter: five pairs of iambs. William Shakespeare and John Milton both favored this form.

Cowboy Poetry - Iambic Pentameter boots with label

But other kinds of feet exist: Pyrrhic is two unaccented syllables: da-da; Spondee two accented syllables: DUM-DUM; Trochee an accented and an unaccented (DUM-da) and so forth. Free verse has meter but not usually meter as regular as the conventional rhymed iambic pentameter pattern of cowboy poetry.

My favorite articles about cowboy poetry, including information about unrhymed poetry, appear at www.CowboyPoetry.com, written by cowboy poet Rod Miller. If you write poetry, rhymed or otherwise, you ought to read these. [link posted below]

As Rod Miller says, any good free verse poem uses the kinds of literary tools and techniques that elevate all good poetry to a level above ordinary writing:

“. . . tonal quality, word choice, allusion, onomatopoeia, metaphor, layered meanings, imagery, and such like. The lack of discipline offered by the absence of meter and the opportunity to cast aside rhyme do not give a poet free rein to be less than poetic, any more than strict adherence to rhyme and meter allow a poet to use otherwise ordinary language in creating verse.”

Most of us don’t live up to the high standards set by the best writers. I’ve never heard a rhyming cowboy poet better than Wally McRae or a free verse cowboy poet better than Paul Zarzyski. And plenty of bad poetry of every type finds its way into print.

We all want the same thing: to tell our stories and have people listen to and enjoy them.

In my workshop, I challenged the assembled cowboy poets and their spouses to write about a subject without trying to rhyme. Several people produced drafts that could turn into good poems of one kind or another.

The question and answer session turned into the most fascinating discussion I’ve had on the subject of poetry in years.

During the workshop, I’d read a couple of Paul Zarzyski poems as illustrations of fine free verse poetry.

Cowboy Poetry microphone -- pexels-photo-164829Cowboy Poet Robert Dennis of Red Owl, South Dakota, asked if all free verse poetry is meant to be read aloud.

“Because,” he said, “listening to what you just read, my brain just can’t keep up. I realize those are interesting words and lines, but there’s so much happening in the poem that I lose the meaning.”

I could see instantly what he meant.

Here’s a bit of Paul Zarzyski’s poem “On my Birthday, The Serpent–” that I read during the workshop. (I’m reproducing it here without his specific permission because it appears on his website and I think he’d approve of my using it in a teaching context and Paul refuses to use email so gaining his permission by mailing a letter to ask him could take weeks.)

disturbed from his moist coiled sleep in the cool
humus beneath the horse trough
triveted an inch off the ground
by mildewed boards–glides
between my feet. It has been
startled by water
hose thrashing the roof
over its head, brass nozzle
striking side-to-side
wildly under the sudden thrust–spigot
handle yanked up full.

Though I’d practiced reading those first lines many times, I still muffed “moist coiled.” The rest of the words are so filled with imagery, tone, alliteration and layered meanings that I had to read the poem several times to try to get the full meaning into my reading. The vivid, complex language had grown more fascinating with each reading.

But could someone hearing the poem for the first time understand it? Only after I’d read it several times did I really appreciate many of the nuances.

Cowboy Poetry reading a poem -- free-use-photo-unsplash-by-Cassidy-Kelley“So can it be,” Robert persisted, “that some free verse poetry should be read on the page and not performed?”

That idea had never occurred to me but I think he’s right. Some poetry that I’d call excellent would be extremely hard to understand if you only heard it once. Only after many readings and thoughtful pondering can the reader grasp the meaning.

Should such poetry be read aloud? Probably not if the poet’s primary aim is to be understood. Audiences who listen to Zarzyski, though they may not understand the entire meaning of a poem, are thoroughly entertained by the explosive, dynamic presentation.

Poetry is far older than writing. No one can be sure precisely where the art began but it probably arose as spells spoken or chanted in early societies to promote harmony and good harvests. Ancient societies such as those in Greece and Rome made poetry part of religious rites. Later it became the way to transmit and recall the stories of a civilization’s struggles and victories. Traveling troubadours in later societies were often singing or reciting news events; rhyme and meter helped everyone remember the stories.

So the cowboy poet who recites stories of his daily life is considerably closer to the true origins of this ancient art than the academician who lards his lines with italicized words and loads on footnotes to explain all the references.

Cowboy Poetry man at mic -- pexels-photo-2114760-by-Kevin-Bidwell

When I mentioned my discussion with Robert to publisher Nancy Curtis [High Plains Press, Glendo, Wyoming], she added another element.

Some poetry that sounds terrific when read or recited aloud is not well written; the images may be cliched or the rhythm rough. Part of the magic lies in the poet’s performance. Poets who regularly entertain audiences may be more interested in making the story entertaining than in making it conform to any “rules” of poetry.

Meanwhile, some poetry that is technically excellent isn’t enjoyable to listen to or is too complex to reveal its meaning when read or recited aloud. A solitary reader might appreciate the meaning but an audience just doesn’t have time during one hearing.

Logically, then, the poetry that has the best chance of resounding in the minds of audience members is that with strong rhythm and rhyme: those familiar elements that allow the audience to become part of the story. This is one reason cowboy poetry has become so popular.

Conversely, free verse poets who plan to recite their work before audiences should consider whether or not their work can be understood when recited. Rather than simply distributing gorgeous language and long lines across the page, we free verse poets need to spend more time studying those many methods of using meter in order to create poetry rhythmic enough to satisfy the audience’s love of regularity and make memorable lines.

Robert said in a later conversation, “I do enjoy the good stuff,” just as he enjoys the best rhymed poetry. And sometimes as he works on a poem, he added, he gets “caught up in the rush to share it before it’s at its best. Kind of like showing off your new baby instead of your college graduate!”

And perhaps we need to relax and allow poetry created to be performed to be judged by a different standard than poetry created for deeper study. I am not ready to trade flamboyant cowboy performers for fellows in three-piece suits reading footnoted masterpieces of obfuscation.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2012 and 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Cowboy Poetry Week poster by Shawn Cameron for www.CowboyPoetry.com

If you are at all interested in Cowboy Poetry, the website to visit is www.CowboyPoetry.com where you will find poems, blogs, history, stories, cds to purchase, and current events all relating to western poetry, new and old, rhymed and not– including webpages about the poetry of Slim McNaught, Paul Zarzyski, Robert Dennis, Rod Miller, Wally McRae, and Linda M. Hasselstrom (and many more).

This poster from CowboyPoetry.com celebrating Cowboy Poetry Week, features art by Shawn Cameron. Find more of her western art at her website www.ShawnCameron.com

The essays by Rod Miller about Cowboy Poetry, mentioned in my blog, may be found on the CowboyPoetry.com website by clicking here.

 

Learning to Breathe

Linda tea party with doll in Texas

 

Often I take a hot bath to soak the kinks out of sore and damaged body parts and ease my mind. Finally, after a long and complicated day, I have the kind of solitude and quiet that encourages and enables writing. If I’m too tired to think, I lean back and inhale. Recently, I realized that when I’m busy, I sometimes do not breathe.

Oh I breathe enough to sustain life: little sips of air between rushing here and there. But I do not inhale so that the air flows through my nostrils and throat and lungs and feels as though it is flowing into every vein in my body, clear to my fingertips and toes. This is the kind of breathing that is necessary for the calm that allows us to think, and to accomplish serious tasks.

Most of us, I think, scrabble all day long, like chickens scratching in the dust of the henyard. A friend calls it “putting out fires.” We can deal quickly with the daily emergencies, but we don’t have time to absorb them, to consider how each action fits into the whole of our lives, and make it part of a concentrated pattern of pleasant living.

This train of thought led my mind into the past, and I could hear again my mother and my biological father screaming at each other as I huddled in fear. I was probably in my crib in a bedroom with the door shut, but I could hear every word, hear glass breaking and doors slamming.  Suddenly, even though I was chin-deep in hot scented water in a cast iron tub in my own bathroom more than a thousand miles from that place and more than seventy years from that time, I was shivering in terror.

Gradually, I calmed myself, inhaling eucalyptus to clear my sinuses, reflecting on the good and privileged life I lead now, to clear my mind.

Early the next morning, I suddenly thought: Didn’t I write a poem about that incident? I couldn’t remember the title, only the final phrase: “This poem is me learning to breathe.”

In my study, I started looking at my books, starting with the earliest ones, Roadkill and Caught By One Wing. I looked through Bitter Creek Junction and Dakota Bones, and Dirt Songs, the collection I published with Nebraska State Poet Twyla Hansen, and then Land Circle, in which I included several poems. Finally, in the expanded collection Dakota: Bones, Grass, Sky, I found the poem.

Poetry books by Linda M. Hasselstrom

I’m writing about this for several reasons. First, nothing you write is ever wasted. Somehow the writing sinks into your brain and may emerge as a poem, a story, a solution many years later. Second, no experience goes unrecorded in your mind, no matter how much time passes. And few of us perfect the ability to put these matters completely behind us and never think of them again. But if the pain of the past is accessible to your brain, so can the healing be.

Still, there’s another element that is important in this event. My mother made a number of mistakes in her life for all kinds of reasons, but she loved me and once I was part of her life— though I doubt she really wanted me— she did her best to raise me well. She was absolutely right to resist my biological father’s drinking in whatever way she could; breaking bottles in the sink wasn’t the most violent action she could have taken against him. Yet when I hear raised voices today, I have to fight hard not to enter an almost catatonic state during which I can’t talk or move or escape; I can hardly breathe. Terror freezes me. If you have children, try to remember that every single action of yours has consequences for them that you cannot foresee. Do your best to keep them away from violence that may be coming back to haunt them 70 years later.

And this thought leads me to another quote I’ve loved since I discovered it: Winston Churchill may or may not (authorities differ) have said:

Never give in– never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.

So, with that introduction, here’s the poem.

Broken Glass

She found more whiskey.
That’s how it started every time.
When he came home
she screamed and
he yelled. I was three,
crouched under the table
holding my breath
as she broke bottles
in the kitchen sink.
I could see his ankles,
shoes set wide apart facing
her hose and high heels.
Smash. One. Scream. Two.
Sour whiskey fumes choked me.
Glass shards pierced air,
shrieked against the tile floor.
Three. Pop. Four. Bash.
Holding my breath, I counted.
His drinking, her spending.
How he left me alone while he bedded
the woman upstairs and now
she’s having a baby. If I
held my breath, they’d stop.

That night mother carried me
up steps that clanged
onto a chugging train.
I held my breath and counted
lighted cars uncoiling
behind us in the dark.
Mother divorced father,
found a job, married a good man.
When she slapped me,
I held my breath and counted.
Her good man died. She
shriveled away into eternity.

For sixty-five years I’ve
held my breath and counted.
This poem is me learning to breathe.

. . .

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Linda testing the new cast iron clawfoot tub 2017

 

“Broken Glass” was originally published in the anthology True Words from Real Women  (Story Circle Network, 2013).

The poem may be found in Dakota: Bones, Grass, Sky — Collected and New Poems by Linda M. Hasselstrom (Spoon River Poetry Press, 2017).

Tiny Bouquets

April is National Poetry Month
This blog was originally published September 27, 2011 on my website.

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Tiny Boquet 1This has been a busy week; I read and commented on a 140-page manuscript, planned three retreats, made 6 pots of tomato sauce, worked on a home page message, and read six mystery books as well as the usual three meals a day, watering the garden, writing a few letters and no doubt a few chores I’ve forgotten. Sometimes it seems as though the world keeps spinning faster and faster.

When I feel that happening, I often stop and walk out to one of the gardens or on the hillside with the dogs, deliberately looking for the materials for a tiny bouquet. I select a few small blooms, thinking of nothing but their color, texture, size. I put these in one of several small vases that I place directly above the kitchen sink where I will see it often during the day.

Small boquet of peonies 2017In creating the bouquet, I create a little island of calm in the middle of hurry. And every time I look at it, I recall choosing it, and I also take a moment to enjoy its uniqueness. Each one lasts only a few days, but each provides considerable balm. Once the flowers have finished blooming, I often make a little bouquet from dried weeds and leaves, with the same effect.

In the same way, when I’m too busy to write– which seems to happen much more often than it should– I sometimes take time to deliberately create a paragraph or so of writing. Most often I do this when I wake in the morning, many times around 4 a.m. I switch on my reading light and pick up my journal from the bedside table. If I can keep the dogs from leaping up and running downstairs for their first morning outing, I have a little island of calm in which to write. Sometimes the highway Small sunflower boquetnoises are quiet; I can hear nothing but the wind through the grass, perhaps the light tinkle of a wind chime from the deck.

What I write may become part of a longer piece or it may be just a little morning reflection that remains in my journal. Either way, it helps me begin the day in peace.

Here’s a reflection I first wrote on an April morning in 2005, when I was living in Cheyenne, Wyoming and four a.m. was the quietest time on our busy street. Though I’ve worked on it a couple of times since, it has never satisfied me as an entire poem. But it makes me recall a quiet spot that gave me comfort.

Fog
makes the street
fantastical.
Red tulips lift
bowls of mist.
Gold daffodils offer
sacred liqueur to finches.

Someone says,
“The fog will burn off
by noon.”
No. The sun
sips the fog
like absinthe.

(c) Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2011

Even tiny pieces– one image, one line– can refresh your writing spirit the way a little bouquet refreshes your eye and your kitchen.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2011 / 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Persistence is Perpetual

The phrase “Nevertheless, she persisted,” has become a rallying cry for women worldwide who are, as always, trying to be taken seriously.

Senator Warren nevertheless she persisted rallying cryThe expression originated with the U.S. Senate’s vote to silence Senator Elizabeth Warren’s objections to confirmation of Senator Jeff Sessions as U.S. Attorney General.

Mitch McConnell, majority leader in the Senate, tried to stop Warren’s speech as she battled against Sessions’ confirmation. Sessions testified under oath that he had not had contact with Russian officials during the 2016 presidential campaign, but news reports this month made clear that such meetings did occur.

McConnell’s attempt to silence Warren backfired when the phrase was adopted by the feminist movement to refer to the persistence and courage women need to cultivate whenever attempts are made to ignore or silence them.

Precisely the same kind of obstinate, quiet and continuing persistence is required to be a writer, and probably especially a female writer.

As the Vernal Equinox approaches (March 21-23), I turned to the relevant chapter in my book The Wheel of the Year, “Writing Eternal as Spring: Persistence.”

Womens History Month Write PersistIn this essay, I consider the fact that good writing is mostly the result of steady work: persistence in the business of writing that involves correct grammar and spelling, as well as putting words on paper every single day.

I provide an example of my own persistence in a poem that I began in 1971 and finished in 2011. I invite you to see inspiration for your own perseverance in The Wheel of the Year, discovering what will make your writing as persistent as spring– as enduring as the work of women who have made history, and whom we honor this month and all year by our writing.

Here is the chapter from my book The Wheel of the Year: A Writer’s Workbook (in a slightly different version than what was published). Each chapter in the book ends with writing suggestions and prompts, though I haven’t included them in this lengthy blog.

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March 21-23: Vernal Equinox
Writing Eternal as Spring: Persistence

When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stone-cutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it would split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before together.
— Jacob A. Riis, journalist and social reformer (1849-1914)

If you have written even one poem, letter, blog or tweet, you may realize that writing well is hard work. Yet no matter how completely we understand that fact, even the most experienced writers sometimes hide it from ourselves and others by the way we speak about writing.

Most serious writers have probably experienced the electrical jolt of an idea popularly known as “inspiration,” when we find the image or metaphor that makes the paragraph or essay or poem sing and dance instead of mumbling and stumbling.

keyboardAn inexperienced writer may call it “magic” and may even believe that it will happen every time she sits down to write. Serious writers may not speak of inspiration at all. Instead we speak solemnly of schedules, particular writing tools or special places. We may pontificate about the books we keep beside our desks and the reading we do to understand and support our writing.

What we should explain is that the glowing idea, the electric metaphor, the magic, is the result of the steady grind, the boring part of writing. Without the slow slog of checking spelling, correcting grammar and being sure the modifiers don’t dangle, “inspiration” and fancy metaphors won’t create memorable writing.

Despite zillions of people writing comments and blogs on the internet every hour, all of them convinced their words are memorable, I stand by my belief. Today on the internet as well as on the printed page, writing that has only the spark of an idea or just the clever metaphor is not memorable enough to become part of our cultural history.

Think of the poems or speeches or expressions that stick in your mind because they have meaning for you. This exercise may require some concentration. Try not to think first of the mindless advertising jingles or musical lyrics that haunt you because you hear them repeated often.

“Four score and seven years ago . . .” my mind recites and the words reverberate as if spoken in Lincoln’s marble tomb.

“Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name” echoes among the pillars of an ancient cathedral.

Old poetry books

Like most people, I can recite scraps of several rhyming poems from memory because meter and rhyme make them stick in our minds. “My fathers sleep on the sunrise plains,” I think, recalling how many poems I memorized by Badger Clark, the poet laureate of South Dakota.

Each writer wants to create memorable lines and scenes. Ask fifty poets how to do it and you’ll get fifty answers. But most of us will eventually mention an important requirement: persistence.

The writer who seeks perfection must, to use synonyms, endure, prevail, persevere, hang in, hang on, and hold on.

Or, as Winston Churchill once said, “Never give up. Never, never give up. Never never never give up.”

Here’s an example of how extremely I define “never give up” when referring to writing.

In 1971, I was in graduate school at the University of Missouri/Columbia, having finished my MA in American Literature and begun a Ph.D. program. I worked for an English professor, teaching some of his classes and grading all his papers, as well as teaching several sections of freshman English.

ColumbiaSome of my students were marching against the Vietnam War, escalating every day, and some were vehemently for it. I was a volunteer editor for the underground antiwar newspaper, The Issue as well as editor of the U’s student literary magazine, Midlands.

Having left my husband because he was having another affair, I lived in a second-floor apartment of an elderly woman’s home across the street from a packing plant. I was living so poorly because, although I had been paying the bills of our marriage for several years I had no financial credit. As we did in those days, I’d put all the utilities for our rented house in his name, so when I left him, he had plenty of credit and I had none. He was a graduate student studying for a Ph.D., but he also sang in various bars around town, which provided him with extra money and plenty of prey for his extramarital quests.

My Persian cat, coming home from his nightly wanderings covered with lice and fleas, crawled into bed with me so that we both woke up scratching madly. The medical personnel to whom I applied for advice in ridding my yowling cat and me of the critters could not contain their mirth. My apartment had mice, a new experience for me, so I had put out poison. One night as I sat at the kitchen table sipping soup, a mouse staggered out of the cupboards, perched on the sink and stood on his hind legs, clutching his stomach. He staggered a few steps each direction, whining, then dropped to the countertop and writhed in pain, moaning and whimpering, before he finally stiffened and died. One Christmas, of the dozen couples at a department Christmas party, nine of us announced to our spouses our intention to divorce before the party ended.

Those incidents aren’t everything that happened that year, just a representative sample provided to demonstrate that, though I was writing, my mind was not entirely on sculpting the perfect poem.

Still, I was writing furiously and publishing poetry in various journals under a pen name since I did not want to identify my writing with my husband’s name. I was convinced that my poetry was no good because it was not like the poetry of Richard Wilbur and Robert Lowell, whose work I was studying as a graduate student. The professor who taught my graduate seminar in the work of Henry James had told me that I should quit school and go home and have babies because I wasn’t smart enough to understand Henry James.

One day in that year, 1971, Walter Mathis came to the door of the house where I was living; as soon as he was gone, I wrote about his visit. I knew that what I wrote was only a draft because I was sure that poems that did not resemble those of the classical American literature I was studying could not be any good.

In 1997, because I never throw away a draft, I reviewed what I had written in 1971, and made notes in the margin. Every few years I fiddled with the poem, unsatisfied with the ending.

Binder of PoemsEach time I looked at the poem, I shifted a few lines or altered a comma. Eventually I moved it from a bent file folder and copied it, along with others I thought had possibilities, into the Poems file on my computer. Later I printed it and placed it in a binder divided into drafts and finished poems. I keep the binder on my desk so I can make changes to a poem whenever I am “inspired” to do so. I’ve made significant progress in revision while waiting for a file to load or the computer to respond to some command.

The next time I looked at the poem was probably 2009, after Twyla Hansen had suggested that we publish a collection of poems together. By that time the draft was thirty-eight years old.

During that thirty-eight years, my first husband and I had moved back to the ranch in 1972 to “repair our marriage,” then divorced. I’d spent years crawling through the jungle of consequences from that marriage. I’d also married again and my beloved second husband had been dead twenty-one years. My parents, my grandmother and several close friends had died.

And I’d finally realized that one does not need to enjoy the work of Henry James in order to be an intelligent being and good writer. In fact, I now suspect enjoying the work of Henry James may actually hinder a poet’s development.

My idea of what constitutes good poetry had expanded from the tightly constructed couplets studied in graduate school. Several times I read and re-read the poem draft, astonished at how the face of Walter Matthis rose before me, listening to his voice in my ear. I deleted some lines, moved phrases, worked on punctuation.

Mostly, though, I thought about what Walter had been saying to me that day. At last, because I was finally old enough and had suffered enough painful losses in my life, I found the poem’s true ending. The finished poem was published in 2011 by The Backwaters Press in Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet with Twyla Hansen, Nebraska State Poet.

Because so much had changed in time and place since I began the poem, I had to explain Walter’s language usage to the proofreader, who wanted to eliminate slang and spell “poke salat” differently than they do in Missouri.

1971: Establishing Perpetual Care at the Locust Grove Baptist Cemetery

A knock at the front door
echoes in the landlady’s empty hall
tinkles past the crystal in the cabinet,
drums across her kitchen floor to mine.
She’s not home. Whoever it is will come
to my door next. I stretch,
drop the pen and fill the kettle.
Light the stove with a wooden match.

A stooped man in a black suit
rounds the corner, dust rising
behind his cane with every step.
Ancient sweat stains streak
the band of his straw hat
like layers in old sandstone.
He shuts the gate behind him.
Thumps the door four times
with a rugged fist.
Straightens his shoulders.

I snap the bolt open,
but stay behind the locked screen door.
“Good afternoon,” I say.

He pinches his hat with
two gnarled fingers, lifts, and says,
“Good day, Ma’am. I’m Walter Mathis
from up at Locust Grove.”
He hangs the cane on one arm,
mops his forehead with a red kerchief,
tucks it in a shirt pocket.  “Does Mrs.
Notye Murray still live here?”

He’s afraid she’s dead.
“Yes,” I say. Adding the “Sir”
is automatic, involuntary even.
“That’s her door you knocked on.”

“She’s not home, then,” he says,
nodding. Just what he thought.
He squints, leaning toward the screen.
“You her granddaughter?”

“No sir, just a tenant– I rent
this back apartment,” I say.
Because it’s cheap, I think; because
I’ve left my husband
and have no money and no credit.
“When she goes out in the afternoon,
she’s always back by dark,” I say.
“Unless it’s her whist night. But that’s Thursday.”

He leans back on his heels,
rapping the cane against the concrete step.
Eyes the packing plant fence
like he’s tempted to get the hammer
and a fistful of nails out of the tool box
I know is behind the pickup seat,
fix the blasted thing so it’ll stand up straight.
“Well,” he mutters. “Let me think.”
He yanks the hat brim down.

I unlock the screen door, step outside
to say, “She might be home earlier.
I’m not real sure where she was going
but if she went for poke salat
and lamb’s quarters,
she might be home pretty soon.”

“Cooks ‘em up with bacon, I bet,”
he says, grinning. “Bet you never had
vittles like that, beings you are a northern lady.”
He nods. Another thing he knew
without even thinking.
I nod right back at him. The cane
pounds once more on the step.
His mind’s made up. “Well.
I gotta be gettin back to Locust Grove
so you tell Notye– you tell Miz Murray for me.
We gotta get goin on this perpetual care
for the cemetery up there. Us old-timers,
we figure maybe the next generation
won’t be as interested in the folks there.
But her and me, we got close folks–
she’s got her ma and pa and husband up there
and all my folks are together in that one spot.”

I nod again. Now I remember who I am,
even if I don’t know where.
I can see the cemetery in my home town,
where once I could imagine
my husband’s tombstone with mine beside it,
infinitely announcing our devotion.

He shoves the hat to wipe
his forehead on his sleeve,
yanks the brim back down. Nods again.
“Well, I live right by the cemetery, don’t ya know.
Me an’ Howard Breedlove and Walt Kinsolving–
that’s my son-in-law– we all got together
cause folks been wanting to give me money
so there’d be some kind of continual care.
And I figgered if I just took money
even if I put it in a bank,
pretty soon some bank examiners’d
want to know what I’m doin,
and pretty soon after that
the income tax people
would come a’sniffin around.

So we formed an association. I’m president.
Yep. Howard Breedlove’s treasurer.
I come down here today to get papers
drawed up and signed. And I wanted to tell her
if she wants to send a check
to make it out right, to make it out to
The Locust Grove Baptist Cemetery Association.
I always mow the lawn, mowed it
seven times last year, charged forty dollars
an they paid me OK, but the year before
I mowed it ten times an there wasn’t
enough money in the treasury to pay me
so I just give ’em the last one.
I lived there all my life and all my folks
are buried there. I usually got
some grandchildren to help me.
About your size.”

Walter Mathis waves his cane,
redeems me as his grandchild.
I’m ready to follow him home
to Locust Grove, learn to cook
poke salat just the way he likes it.

“Here now, you tell Miz. Murray
I come by and to make the check out
Locust Grove Baptist Cemetery Association.”
He tips his hat again. “Good day to you, ma’am.”

The kettle’s boiling.
While Walter’s 1953 Ford pickup
lumbers down the street, I pour my tea,
take the cup upstairs and lean to look
out the bedroom window, to watch
until Walter Mathis turns left
on the gravel road out of town,
headed back to Locust Grove.
I sip my tea and know it’s time
I headed home
where people recognize me,
where the cemetery dust
is folks I knew.

Locust Grove Baptist Cemetery photo found online

Before the book was published, I considered changing the names of the people mentioned in the poem, but decided against it, reasoning that they are doubtless dead by now. And I hoped that any descendants who might, by some far-fetched chance, read the poem, would see that my depiction of them was not only respectful but downright loving.

Walter Mathis grave found onlineToday, writing this message, I was able use technology that wasn’t available in 1971 to search for the names Walter R. Matthis and Notye Murray. They died in 1984 and 1982, respectively. Walter is buried in Locust Grove but Mrs. Murray apparently is not. May they rest in peace.

And I realized something important: When he came to my door on that day in 1971, Walter R. Matthis was seventy years old. I was able to finish the poem because I’m finally old enough to understand Walter’s concern for that burial ground. I am sixty-eight and a volunteer member of the board that governs the Highland Park Cemetery in my home town of Hermosa. Walter would chuckle to know that.

Finally, though I have written a considerable amount about this poem’s origin, I do not wish to suggest that the reader needs to know such background information to understand a poem, nor should such knowledge influence a reader’s appreciation of the poem. The poem must stand or fall on its own merits.

So my message for this Vernal Equinox is this: in your writing, be as persistent as the coming of spring. Return to your drafts as the birds return to their preferred habitat in spring, as grass revives and sends its shoots deeper.

Put a few words down on paper every day, just as if you were scattering seeds in the fertile earth. Appreciate the darkness that covers our world half the time at this season– but rejoice in balance of light and dark and savor the renewal of the light that will bring summer. Blessed be.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

The chapter “March 21-23: Vernal Equinox; Writing Eternal as Spring: Persistence” appears (in a slightly different form) on pages 169-181 in the book–

Wheel of the Year - A Writers WorkbookThe Wheel of the Year: A Writer’s Workbook
Nonfiction, published 2015, Red Dashboard Press
Distributed by Windbreak House
300 pages, size: 6 X 9
$22.95 – paperback
ISBN 978-0-9966450-0-3

 

The poem “1971: Establishing Perpetual Care at the Locust Grove Baptist Cemetery” appears on pages 104-107 in the book–

Dirt Songs a poetry collaboration with Twyla M. Hansen

Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet
by Twyla M. Hansen and Linda M. Hasselstrom
(50 poems by each poet)
Poetry, published 2011, The Backwaters Press
147 pages; size: 6 X 9
$16.00 – paperback
ISBN 978-1-935218-24-1

Those Thanksgiving Pie-Makers

A poem of thanksgiving, gratitude, and remembrance.

by Linda M. Hasselstrom

Linda pumpkin head

Those Thanksgiving Pie-Makers

All over America today, women search
for their grandmother’s pumpkin pie recipe.
Some rush to the store for condensed milk,
or whipping cream. Or stir up powdered milk
if they are poor, or on a diet,
or live too far from town.

In a Wisconsin farm house a red-haired woman
measures salt in a dented spoon.
In California, a thin girl stirs and puffs a cigarette,
puffs and stirs. In Wyoming,
I dust clove powder over my grandmother’s
green glass bowl and reach for the nutmeg grater.
In New Mexico, a brown-eyed woman
sprinkles cayenne. In Iowa, a man beats eggs,
recalling for his children how their mother looked.

Grandma always left me to measure
dry ingredients while she walked down
to her hen house. She came back holding four
warm brown eggs in her open hands
just as I licked brown sugar off my lips,
thinking she wouldn’t notice.

So today, twenty-five years after she died,
I lap brown sugar from a spoon just
so I’ll remember how she grinned at me.
While I stir, my oven beeps. Hers
was fired with wood she chopped. To test
the heat, she’d dip her fingers
in the water bucket she’d pumped full
that morning, flick spattering drops, and nod.

All over America, families are studying
gratitude. Some women slip
a pie into the oven, and hide
the cardboard box in the garbage.
Others light pumpkin-scented candles,
thankful anyway– though my grandmother
might not think they have good reason.

I crimp the rim of each pie crust
with three fingers, just the way
she taught me; make a salad
while the fragrance surges out
the open kitchen window. Next door,
perhaps the drug dealers open their eyes,
inhale, and almost remember.

Grandmother, may this pumpkin perfume
rise up to whatever heaven you inhabit,
sanctifying all my love and memories.
Listen: countless voices chant together
an infinity of thankful hymns.

# # #

© 2006, Linda M. Hasselstrom

— First published for Empty Bowls 2006, United Church of Christ, Brookings, S.D.

Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet, with Twyla M. Hansen
published 2011, The Backwaters Press, Omaha, NE
50 poems by each author; find this poem on pages 98-99

This poem is copyrighted. Do not reprint without permission from the author.

Dirt Songs with autumn leaves

Poetry in the Schools

Poetry Out Loud: Local

Last month I donated my skills to a couple of educational events as a way of giving thanks for some of the generous help I received from teachers in this rural area.

February 25th, the Hermosa Middle School teachers invited me to speak to the sixth, seventh and eighth grade students about writing.

When I attended the Hermosa School, it was a two-story red-brick edifice. Visitors strolled up the concrete walk and steps, past the swings that clanged against their poles in the slightest breeze. I’d wave at Henry Bale, the janitor, if he stuck his head out of the office beside the basement furnace, and climb another set of stairs to the classrooms. That old building has been replaced by a modern facility. Most of my time there lately has been spent in the kitchen of the gymnasium, serving food for various charitable events.

Hermosa School 2016--3-3

This time I hefted a crate of my books and walked up to the double doors at the main entrance. I grabbed the door handle and pulled.

Locked.

At that moment, I recalled with a shock every headline about school violence I’ve read in the past few years. Of course, Hermosa cannot assume that it’s immune.

Just inside, a receptionist asked my name, then unlocked the doors and let me into a small foyer, facing a second set of locked doors. I identified myself, and she looked at a list on her desk before unlocking the second doors, then called me into the office to sign in and receive a visitor’s badge. I understand the necessity for these precautions, but find them terribly depressing. The school, however, was light and pleasant, with busy classrooms and smiling students and teachers.

Escorted to the classroom by two of the students, I arranged my books on a table and waited while the assorted students filed in. I haven’t been in a grade school classroom for years, but the faces, the slouches, the nervousness, the tentative smiles and the chatter were all familiar. I quickly identified several species of student that have inhabited every classroom I’ve ever seen: The Mouth, the Girl Who Always Raises Her Hand, the Shy One, the Hair-Flipping Gum Chewer, The Stud (yes, even in eighth grade), and others.

After introductions, I slammed into my poem “Make a Hand,” which involves sweeping gestures and a certain amount of yelling. Things quieted right down.

Hermosa School visit 2016--2-25Now that I had their attention, I explained to them that almost everything that interests them is a story— TV programs, the news, poems, gossip. I mentioned various jobs I’ve held, and showed them the books I’ve written that have been published, explaining that every book contains what I know about this neighborhood and the stories of its people. Publishing, I told them, is hard work; I submitted my first book to 26 publishers before it was accepted by the 27th.

I read them “Where the Stories Come From,” and we talked about ranch work; many of them are growing up in ranching families. After I read “Looking for Grandmother,” I asked, “Who peels potatoes at your house?” Several boys and girls raised their hands and proved they knew what they were talking about by describing their potato peelers, or knives. We discussed what the poem means, and how you can tell what my emotions about my grandmother are. I read them “Beef Eater,” and asked them what it meant. To my delight, several of them understood the joke of the poem: you are what you eat.

They asked intelligent questions, and then told me they have to write their biography for the classroom. So I gave them a formula for writing a poem that I’ve found effective: writing one line of action, one line that’s a quotation, one line of physical description, and then repeating each of these, ad infinitum, in any order, until you have built up enough details from which to write a poem, a biography, or another kind of story.

Here’s the poem I once wrote using that formula. And I told them that the poem is dedicated to my uncle, Harold Hasselstrom. They recognized his name, because their gym is named for him.

“What do you suppose he did, to have the gym named after him?” I asked.

“Died!” yelled someone.

True, but that’s not all he did; he was devoted to education because he didn’t have time for much of it in his life, and he served for many years on the school board, even though he didn’t have kids.

 

Uncle

He sips coffee
thick hands wrapped around the cup.
“This generation ain’t got no corner on violence.”
His sunburned hands, cracked and broken, clench into fists.
“You’d be surprised how many fellas
turned up in their own wells
in the Dirty Thirties.”

The drought was less severe, he says,
here where ranchers did not tear the sod with plows.
Most families had enough to eat.
His battered hands fixed fences,
drove the teams swathing hay,
paid out worn bills for the land of those who left.

Now they call him a land baron.
“Quitters,” he says. “They gave up.
But someone had to stay—
and that took guts. Men like that
had hot tempers, and did
their own law-making.”

© 1993, Linda M. Hasselstrom

 

Poetry Out Loud: Statewide

My second school project of the month was to serve as a judge for the Poetry Out Loud competition, in which students recite memorized poems.

Again I was struck by the profound changes in how these things are done in these modern times! I didn’t have to travel to another town and sit uncomfortably in a school auditorium to watch as the contestants stumbled in for their performances.

POLlogoInstead, I received by email lists of the contestants, information on judging, and directions to www.poetryoutloud.org, where I could watch a representative sample of performers.

Each contestant had submitted a video. Judges would watch each video while judging students on details of their performance such as physical presence, voice and articulation, dramatic appropriateness, and evidence of understanding of the poem. I knew who the other judges were only from their addresses on the emails we’d received, and we had no opportunity to consult one another. I chose a time to gather my materials, direct my computer to a YouTube channel dedicated to the performances, and began to listen.

Again, this was familiar territory. I participated in contests like this in grade school, I think, and certainly in high school, back in the dark ages when it was called Oral Interpretation. Memorizing the poem was relatively easy, and my parents were encouraging. Standing alone on a stage in front of judges in a darkened auditorium was hard, but I knew it was “good for me.”

Watching these videos, shot variously in classrooms, against blank walls, and other locations, I was impressed. The twelve participants included students of varying ethnicities from high schools both large and small, and some who are homeschooled. Each of them deserves praise for their hard to work to memorize the poems, and the courage to stand up and recite it. Dedicated teachers and others encouraged these young scholars, and took time to videotape the performances.

While I did both these jobs, I was thinking of teachers who encouraged me when I was an awkward adolescent— people like Elsie Enders of Hermosa, Ed Hartman of Custer, Hazel Heiman and Josephine Zamow of Rapid City— and offering them my thanks in the only way left to do so.

 

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

 

#  #  #

 

Here’s where to find my poems mentioned in this blog:

“Make a Hand” and “Where the Stories Come From”
Bitter Creek Junction (2000, High Plains Press; Glendo, Wyoming)

“Looking for Grandmother”
Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet, with Twyla M. Hansen (2011, The Backwaters Press; Omaha, Nebraska)

“Beef Eater”
Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land (1991, Fulcrum Publishing; Golden, Colorado)

“Uncle”
Dakota Bones: The Collected Poems of Linda Hasselstrom (1993, Spoon River Poetry Press; Granite Falls, Minnesota)

 

© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom

 

Cleaning the Stove

On that March day, I was in the kitchen of our old house in Cheyenne, Wyoming, starting lunch for myself and Jerry. He’d need to eat promptly when he got home so he could get back to work. I’d chopped and sautéed pieces of chicken and vegetables and added them to the soup pot. Every time I stepped to the stove to stir the soup, I tripped over Mac, our Westie, who liked to be at the center of the action.

I was having a second cup of coffee while I planned my day, and listening to the radio to find out the morning’s news. Once I got the soup mixed, I’d go back to my office and begin my day’s writing, letting it simmer and scent the house until noon.

Pouring coffee, I hear the news:
another shooting at another high school.

The Columbine shootings had already changed the way we see the world.

Isn’t it tragic, and significant, that the simple words “Columbine shootings” arouse in most readers some memory of that incident?

You might not recall details, but on April 20, 1999, two senior students entered Columbine High School in Colorado with bombs, explosive devices and weapons. They murdered 12 students and a teacher, and injured 21 others before committing suicide. Cheyenne is only two hours away from Columbine, Colorado, so many of our acquaintances with friends or relatives there were frantic for hours, worried for their safety.

Listening to the radio as I added carrots to the soup, I was too agitated to go to my work, or to sit down to listen.

Instead of sitting down to listen.
I fill a bowl with water that’s too hot.
At the stove, I wet the rag,
force myself not to flinch,
begin to wipe up grease.

The excited voices of the newscasters reminded me of being invited to a local high school to work with students on their writing not long after the Columbine shootings. Walking up the sidewalk toward the school’s main entrance. I noticed a tall, skinny boy slouching toward me. His head was bowed, his hands invisible inside the pockets of an ankle-length duster.

Half the high school boys in the town, which is home to Cheyenne Frontier Days, stalked along the streets looking like old-time gunfighters even on hot fall days. Still, as the youth turned toward the steps, one flap of the duster fell back, and I thought the edge of the coat looked extremely straight, as though a long rifle might be concealed inside it.

More than once in this Old West town
I’ve seen high school boys in dusters.
I’ve imagined how the coat swings
as he turns and fires, heard the screams,
could almost see the blood.

I gasped and hesitated, then hurried to follow him through the double doors. He walked past a gray-haired security guard who didn’t glance his way. But the man stepped forward, using his bulk to block my path, asked me my business and told me I had to check in at the office.

“Er—ah—did that kid look at all suspicious to you?” I asked.

The man glanced down the hall where the kid was just opening the door of a classroom.

“Oh, he’s OK. He’s always late. Attitude problem.”

I didn’t mention that perhaps the Columbine shooters had an attitude problem, too.

 

Stirring the soup, I inhaled its fresh homey scent as I listened to the radio blurt out the story of the Red Lake shootings. Outside the window, the dog was bouncing through the piles of snow in the back yard.

That morning’s shooting came to be known as the Red Lake massacre after the Indian Reservation in Minnesota on which it occurred. No doubt snow lay on the ground in Red Lake as well.

In Red Lake, a 16-year-old boy killed his grandfather, a tribal police officer, and the man’s girlfriend at the home they all shared. Then he took his grandfather’s police weapons and vest and drove the police vehicle to the senior high school where he had once been a student. There he shot and killed seven people including an unarmed security guard, a teacher and five students, and wounded five others. He was wounded when he exchanged gunfire with the police. He then committed suicide in an empty classroom.

Wiping the stove top beside
simmering chicken soup, I hear
more details: he’s killed ten people,
including his own grandfather,
a tribal cop.

I thought it likely that the boy’s parents had already abdicated their responsibilities in some way, and his grandfather was raising him. The facts about the shooting emerged slowly during the hour or so that I listened to the radio, imagining the scene, making mental notes.

His father killed himself
years ago.

Perhaps his grandfather was strict, and unhappy because the boy had dropped out of school.

Some commentator
mentions Prozac, already explaining
how this boy’s story
was seared with trouble,
burning into darkness.

Jerry and I no doubt discussed the news over lunch. After he went back to work, I turned the radio on again, thinking of the Indian people I’d known, the way families often expand to take in the troubled young. In some families, a whole generation was lost to alcohol, so grandparents are raising their children’s children. Often the grandparents seem younger, and the children more mature, than is typical. I pictured the grandfather as a patient man, but stern, hoping that his grandson’s life would be better than the life of the son who had killed himself. I’ve known several children of troubled families to go into social work, or police work, hoping to help others like themselves.

                                    Until today,
it might have gone another way.
Faced one day with some angry,
frightened kid, he might
have paused, remembering.
.                                    Until today.

But for this boy there would be no future. As the commentators chattered about the boy, interviewed survivors, and tried to explain the shootings, they cited alcoholism, drugs, poverty, gun laws; they talked about responsibility and blame and fear.

I had known that boy in a dozen different incarnations in schools where I’d worked. Thousands of sincere people work with students in a concerted effort to guide them into adulthood. Millions, possibly trillions, of dollars have been dumped into various schemes to prevent this kind of bloodshed. The best minds of the nation have talked, thought, written and pontificated about preventing school shootings.

In the immortal words of Chief Dan George in the movie Little Big Man, “Well, sometimes the magic works. Sometimes it doesn’t.”

Grease floats in the sink. I run
more hot water, squirt more soap.
A thousand miles away, I hold my hand
in water hotter than I can bear,
and clean
this stove.

I’m unlikely to be able to stop a particular slaughter. I hoped as I wrote the poem that it might inspire someone to keep trying to help those who are difficult to help.

Now, nearly eleven years after the Red Lake shootings, almost seventeen years after Columbine, about 70 percent of schools across the U.S. conduct drills designed to help students respond to shootings, a number that has risen from 53 percent in 2008. According to The Week, September 18, 2015, these training sessions are now almost as common as those conducted in most schools for natural disasters, which are practiced at 83 percent of schools. These distractions from a school’s normal function are part of the grim legacy of the boys I will not name, refusing them some small part of the fame they wanted.

We always hear the reports of such shootings, reported breathlessly and with on-the-spot enthusiasm from people who believe they are news. But we are unlikely to know how many people think of committing such actions and been stopped by the kindness or understanding of a teacher, a social worker, a police officer, a friend, a minister. We must not give up.

 

Cleaning the Stove

Pouring coffee, I hear the news:
another shooting at another high school.
Instead of sitting down to listen.
I fill a bowl with water that’s too hot.
At the stove, I wet the rag,
force myself not to flinch,
begin to wipe up grease.

More than once in this Old West town
I’ve seen high school boys in dusters.
I’ve imagined how the coat swings
as he turns and fires, heard the screams,
could almost see the blood.
Wiping the stove top beside
simmering chicken soup, I hear
more details: he’s killed ten people,
including his own grandfather,
a tribal cop. His father killed himself
years ago. Some commentator
mentions Prozac, already explaining
how this boy’s story
was seared with trouble,
burning into darkness.

                                    Until today,
it might have gone another way.
Faced one day with some angry,
frightened kid, he might
have paused, remembering.
.                                    Until today.

Grease floats in the sink. I run
more hot water, squirt more soap.
A thousand miles away, I hold my hand
in water hotter than I can bear,
and clean
this stove.

Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet, with Twyla M. Hansen, The Backwaters Press, 2011.

 

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

 

© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom