I’ve been experiencing mad, sometimes discomfiting, bouts of nostalgia recently. I’m not sure why, but I keep harking back to the pre-1981 days when I was growing up in Iowa, and I wonder about the continuing effect of those days upon me now, when the shapes and rhythms of my life are so different. So welcome to the first multi-media edition of Monday’s Verse, featuring a poem by James Hearst, a song by the Jayhawks (chosen because the Jayhawks are the best country-rick band, and because this is pretty much the only song in my iTunes library with an Iowa referent), and a couple photographs by a small-change poetry editorializer.
James Hearst (1900-1983) was a near-exact contemporary of my maternal grandfather, dying just two years after James Matthew Coleman, also an Iowa former, died near the barn pictured here. He was born just west of the bustling urban center of Cedar Falls (pop. 35,000), where I was raised. He attended Iowa State Teachers College, as it was then called, and later taught at it when it was known as the University of Northern Iowa, where my dad taught education classes for about 10 years.
Hearst had registered for the army during WWI but never served. On Memorial Day 1919, having returned to his family’s farm, he was swimming with his friends in the Cedar River. He dove off the dock into the river, not realizing that, over the winter, it had become dangerously shallow. He hit the bottom with his head, fractured his spine, and was left substantially paralyzed for the rest of his life. That moment in his life, he said, was “my nineteenth year where footsteps end.” In the long process of recovering, he came up with ingenious work-around ways by which he could contribute to the operation of the farm, but, as his disability worsened, he increasingly turned to writing about plants, animals, and people through the eyes of a Midwestern farmer.
He was widely published and admired during his lifetime. Of his own writing, he said, “You can’t force the poem to say what you want it to say. If you’ve got something to say so bad, you can write an editorial. But let the poem go its own way. Otherwise, you are manhandling it, and it is going to be misshapen when you get through with it.” To me this echoes the claim of his friend Robert Frost, that like a piece of ice across a hot stove, the poem must glide on its own melting. That seems true here: the poem does not stray far from its first sentence, even returning to it shortly and conclusively. Beautiful use of detail in the middle to hold the poem together and illustrate its theme. And a lovely, hearty exhortation for those of us seeking the truth, as well. This IS the language of the friendly-yet-circumspect Iowan. I love it, and I love what little of its legacy is left in me. -ed.
How the devil do I know
if there are rocks in your field,
plow it and find out.
If the plow strikes something
harder than earth, the point
shatters at a sudden blow
and the tractor jerks sidewise
and dumps you off the seat–
because the spring hitch
isn’t set to trip quickly enough
and it never is–probably
you hit a rock. That means
the glacier emptied his pocket
in your field as well as mine,
but the connection with a thing
is the only truth that I know of,
so plow it.