A Common Ground: the Minnesota pastoral poem

CST student Marcy Prince writes about the midwestern poetic tradition and how it ties into global concepts of rural poetry. Like communities themselves, rural poetry from different parts of the world have their own backgrounds and idiosyncrasies, but there is also a common ground to be found among them.

I am, and would like to continue to be, a poet living in western Minnesota. As a young poet, I knew from the start that I had to find friends who are also poets, and read poetry by people who live (or lived) around me. So, for the last year or so, I tried to read as much Minnesotan poetry as my schedule allowed: Athena Kildegaard, Lauren Carlson, Jim Moore, Bill Holm, Robert Bly, and essays by Paul Gruchow. These writers frequently use images of rural life, or at least images more likely to occur to someone living in a rural setting, that make the poetry both beautiful and interesting. This aspect of rural Minnesotan poetry stuck in my mind, and continues to inspire me.

When I visited Ireland and studied poetry there, I was frequently struck by the similarities between the Irish rural poetry and its Minnesotan counterpart.

Rural poetry and the tradition of the Pastoral

Let’s start with a little background on rural poetry: how it came to be, how it differs from urban poetry, and if Minnesotan and Irish approach and use rural poetry differently. One way to understand the history of separating the rural from the urban is through poetry –- pastoral poetry dates back as far as 750 BCE with Hesiod, and Virgil’s Ecologues and Georgics. These poems by Virgil describe agrarian landscapes, and rural lifestyles. For example:

So in old age, you happy man, your fields
Will still be yours, and ample for your need!
Though, with bare stones o’erspread, the pastures all
Be choked with rushy mire, your ewes with young
By no strange fodder will be tried, nor hurt
Through taint contagious of a neighbouring flock.
Happy old man, who ‘mid familiar streams
And hallowed springs, will court the cooling shade!

The pastoral setting and tradition was altered drastically by the 20th century by the industrial revolution, when poetry began to focus more often on the urban experience. With this, came a tension between urban and rural that manifests in the poetry written in and about those locations. Anderson put it plainly saying, “the poems in this ‘rural and urban’ issue explore not only physical locales, but also the emotional and intellectual terrain that the human mind imposes upon the geographical settings we occupy”. This makes writing rural poetry (or really writing about specific places) an act of understanding a way of life, and a more encompassing culture instead of just knowing about farmers, walking long distances, and living with less. This summary of rural poetry is one I agree with and one that I kept in mind while researching rural poetry specific to Minnesota and Ireland.

The Midwestern Poetry Renaissance

In the 1960s, the Midwest experienced what is referred to in an article from the Midwestern Quarterly as “the Midwestern Poetry Renaissance.” This was a decade where writing boomed in the Midwest, to the extent that it was even noted by prominent poets such as Allen Ginsburg. The Quarterly explained the regional idiosyncrasies of Midwestern poetry with the assertion that the Midwestern Poetry Renaissance, and specifically poet Ted Kooser, aimed to create a movement that was “fueled by fusion, not by fission.” The movement aimed to produce regional poetry that was “rural without being nostalgic, that was tuned into nature without falling into sentimentality, and that exhibited a tension between the intellectual and the elemental life that patronized neither”. This goal is filled with tension and contradictions with which Midwestern poets still wrestle.

“Writing rural poetry, as described by Anderson, is grounded not only in a place, but a community and a mindset”

Neither Irish nor Minnesotan rural poets want to fall into the romantic pastorals of older English poetry, but they do want to describe rural life, and, as poets often do, they desire to confront questions of politics and the human condition through their poetry, using those images. This is the similarity between Ireland and Minnesota’s rural poetry. Writing rural poetry, as described by Anderson, is grounded not only in a place, but a community and a mindset.

Brendan Kennelly and Robert Bly

An example of an Irish poet and a Minnesotan poet confronting a similar question through different images occurs with Brendan Kennelly’s “The Thatcher,” and Robert Bly’s “After Drinking All Night With A Friend, We Go Out In A Boat At Dawn To See Who Can Write The Best Poem.” Both poems address, the purpose of life, but this time through experiences instead of occupation. Kennelly asserts that a life of hard work and resilience is a worthwhile one through is poem “The Thatcher.”

He whittled scallops for a hardy thatch
His palm and fingers hard as the bog oak
You’d see him of an evening, crouched
Under a tree, testing a branch. If it broke,
He grunted in contempt and flung it away,
But if it stood the stretch, his sunken blue
Eyes briefly smiled. Then with his long knife he
Chipped, slashed, pointed. The pile of scallops grew.

Bly’s very different answer to what make life worthwhile, also produces a very different image in his poem addressing the same question. Bly’s poem is much dreamier and asserts that friends and simple pleasures are the things that make life worthwhile.

These pines, these fall oaks, these rocks,
This water dark and touched by wind—
I am like you, you dark boat,
Drifting over water fed by cool springs.
Beneath the waters, since I was a boy,
I have dreamt of strange and dark treasures,
Not of gold, or strange stones, but the true
Gift, beneath the pale lakes of Minnesota.

The image of the lake and floating in a boat are ones familiar to most Minnesotans, even dreaming of treasure at the bottom of a lake. Bly suggests what that “true gift” is in the final stanza. something inspired by “a few friendships, a few dawns, a few glimpses of grass,/ A few oars weathered by the snow and heat” that make the speaker and the speaker’s companion no longer care if they “drift or go straight”. With these lines in the closing stanza, Bly suggests that it is simple pleasures that make a life worthwhile. This is indicated by the fact that the speaker no longer cares about the direction of the boat, because he has the things that are important to him –he has a good life.

Seamus Heaney and Bill Holm

I was struck by the rural imagery in Seamus Heaney’s famous poem, “Digging.” These rural images ground Heaney’s poem – images of hard work, manual labor, and family. The speaker then connects these concrete, rural images to something more difficult, writing,

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them

Here, Heaney’s speaker, as a writer, worries that he may not have a noticeable impact, since he does not engage in the same kind of labor in which his father and grandfather engaged – since he has “no spade to follow men like them”.

Bill Holm asks a similar question of purpose and impact – he also wants to know if he is doing something worthwhile, but does not use images of peat diggers to do so. Holm uses the Boxelder bug, a pest found all over Minnesota and the Midwest. Holm’s poem, “Poets and Scientists Find Boxelder Bugs Useful For Both Metaphor and Experiment,” follows a patter of description followed by posing a question. In his poem, Holm describes crushing a Boxelder bug, and how “a tiny liquid drop/ the color of honey comes/ out on your thumb.” Holm makes it personal to the reader (and possibly poets and scientists specifically, as suggested by the title), addressing him or her directly. He writes:

You on the other hand, have done
what your life prepared you for:
kill something useless and innocent,
and try to find some beauty in it

Holm, as a poet, must share the anxiety the speaker is asserting, but this anxiety is different than Heaney’s. Holm seems to worry that instead of simply not contributing enough to the world, that he is actually doing damage and not making up for it. The poem is a kind of warning to others who may be doing the same. This is clear in the second person address, and the final two lines, which say that something innocent is killed and then the killer must find the beauty to make up for it. Though not explicitly asked, it does seem to wonder if that is sufficient justification of the death.

Rural Poetry: Place, Community, and Mindset

These poems provided insight and better language to understand rural poetry. Rural poetry confronts tensions between rural and urban, the frequent over-romanticizing of rural life, and the desire to capture the beauty of rural places. In addition, rural settings are not only landscapes, but also lifestyles and cultures that poets tap into when writing. The rural setting and culture then became a tool for these poets to use to ground discussions of more difficult questions about the human condition. All of this shows up as commonalities between rural Irish and Minnesotan poets. It is also the source of their difference.

The rural culture and landscape of Ireland is different than that of Minnesota, which is evident in the different images selected by the poets, and possibly contributes to the different answers to the same questions about life. These communities do not answer in the same way or with the same images. So in a sense we are both striving towards the same goal, maybe with a better chance of success, because we pursue it through our own lens and knowledge, which we can then share with each other, and the world, through poetry.

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