Sunday, November 8, 2020

Jeremiah Burch


It had been a good many months since I
had visited old Jeremiah Burch.
He lived in a cabin off by himself
down along the Spoon and had never shown
much talent for sociability.
He rode into town every month or so
on his wagon and mule and loaded up
on whatever staples he might require,
but there wasn’t much that he didn’t already
make or grow for himself.  He was one
of that first generation of old settlers
who had started out with not a lot more
than what he could carry and what he knew.
He was farmer, blacksmith, soldier, hunter,
and whatever he couldn’t do for himself
he did without.  He had been well-fitted
to the world as it was many years before,
but now that he was approaching the end
of his seventh decade, the world had assumed
an alien character in his eyes.
On the morning I happened to call on him,
a soft sunny morning in early June
in eighteen seventy-one or two,
he had just finished milking his cow and goats
and was on his way to the riverbank
with a fishing pole.  He waved me along,
stopping at a little shed by the barn
for a second pole, and then on we went,
following a path underneath the great
old cottonwoods that shaded the river
until we came to a grass-covered point
of land around which the river curled
and there we settled and baited our hooks
and cast them out on a slow backwater
to try our luck.  Jeremiah wasn’t
much for small talk, so little was said
for about an hour.  The fishing was slow,
but that suited us fine and, after a while,
a kingfisher took up position upon
a hickory snag that stretched out over
the river and, only a moment later,
arrowed into the current, vanishing
briefly, then thrashing up in a spray
of silvery drops with a struggling minnow
pinched in its beak.  He returned to his snag
and whacked the poor fish on a branch until
it ceased to wriggle, then raised his beak
and gulped it down.

                                    It was sometime later
that he pointed out the stone foundation
of a derelict grist mill that we could see
upriver a ways, on the opposite bank.
He said it was built by Sylvanus More
a decade or so before the war,
while another mill, even earlier,
had been built downstream by a man named Leek
in the 1830s.  He thought, perhaps,
it had stood above the bridge on the road
from Wyoming to Toulon, or thereabouts.
He said there had been another small mill
even further down, below the two forks,
built by a man named Dorrance, and still
another mill on that stretch of the Spoon
that was owned by Mssrs. Thomas and Cox.
He was sorry they all had failed in the end.
The economics had changed over time
with the coming of trains and the opening up
of distant markets, added to which,
the land was simply too flat, and the Spoon
was sometimes hardly more than a stream.
This was especially so in late summer
or during a drought, when the current was so
diminished as barely able to keep
the big water-wheels in motion at all. 
Jeremiah told of a certain time
when a wheel was grinding so painfully slow
that the farmers, with their wagons and mules,
had set up camp all around the mill
under orders from implacable wives
(who were fed up subsisting on turnips and leeks
or whatever else they could garner from
depleted larders), not to return
until all their sacks of grist had been ground
at last into flour. 

grew silent then and we listened as sounds
of the countryside arose all around,
from the sighing of flowing waters to
the twitter of wheeling swifts overhead
and then, in the distance, the lingering thweeeet
of a locomotive running east-southeast
along the Peoria line out of Toulon.
I thought it a pleasant sound, in its way,
like the cry of a hawk, only louder by far
and more sustained, but to Jeremiah
it was clearly an evil profanation
and an angry sadness distressed his face.
I said nothing, hoping the mood would lift,
but it was already too late for that.
The loss of the mills and the coming of trains
were, to Jeremiah, conclusive proof
that mankind had come to a fork in the road
and chosen the wrong direction, from which
there could be no return.  If he had been
a much younger man he might simply have kept
venturing westward as others had done
but, notwithstanding his age, Jeremiah
had put down his roots many years before
and I knew that he would be buried here
and nowhere else.  But being rooted
came at a cost.  He could no longer hope
to outdistance the tide of civilized life
but could only go to ground, so to speak,
and live out his days in isolation.
I was not unsympathetic to such
a view of the world, but I had no wish
to set Jeremiah off on a rant
that I had endured many times before
and for which there could be no resolution—
but there was no stopping him.  “Water and wind
and the strength of beasts are all God-given,”
he bluntly declared.  “They have been a part
of the world ever since the day of Creation,
like the sun and moon.  But steam is a force
far removed from the natural way of things,
especially so when monstrously wed
to the cast-iron bones of machinery.
It has more to do with the Devil than God,
and will prove a very Pandora’s box,
you mark my word.”  I said nothing to that.
To my way of thinking, what he professed
was beyond the pale, for who would deny
the manifest good of progress and trade—
or that God had so evidently bound
the train to our national destiny?
And yet the language of Jeremiah
possessed a disarming simplicity,
a Biblical, haunted vernacular
delivered in an oracular voice
that took me aback and forced me to look
at things I had never considered twice
but which suddenly appeared as though
I were seeing them for the very first time. 
A conversation with Jeremiah
could be disconcerting, to say the least. 
“A country of mills,”  Jeremiah said,
is a country as God had intended it,
that has learned to harness a shining stream
without defiling the work of His Hand,
a country sustained by its own hard work
and its own resources, bestowed by God.
But a railroad leaves a country beholden
to far-off places and far-away goods.
It shackles a country in iron rails
of dependency.  It roars through the night
across the prairie while spewing its bile
of cinders and flame like the Beast itself
from the gates of Hell.”  I was shaking my head
and started to speak but a single look
at his face convinced me to hold my tongue. 
He had made a fair point: the railroads did
encourage dependence, although I failed
to see how that was so bad, after all,
once you had weighed the advantages.
But, to Jeremiah, advantages were
the least important consideration. 
His chief concern was how best to maintain
resistance to every invasive force
and a steady bearing against the wind.
The fact that trains were a marvelous boon
to travel meant nothing to Jeremiah,
as the old man never went anywhere
and considered all travel a waste of time
and hard-earned money.  He hadn’t set foot
outside of Stark County since he had served
as a younger man in the Black Hawk War.
He often said that a man who travels
is a man neglectful of wife and home.
But apart from that, what disturbed him most
was the unprecedented speed and noise
and size of trains, unlike anything
the world had known in its long history.
“The Lord has given us horses,” he said,
“just as He blessed us with rivers and wind,
but we conceived locomotives ourselves
in the overweening strength of our pride,
and without the wisdom to comprehend
what it is that we have loosed on the world.”
We both relapsed into silence awhile
and considered our bobbers floating upon
the quiet water. 

                                 Black Hawk was right,”
he said at last, “when he told his people
that the white man’s ways and his iron goods
had only made them dependent and weak.”
Another long silence followed from that.
“All they wanted was to return to their home,”
he exclaimed in a tight and bitter voice.
I looked at Jeremiah in wonder,
as sympathy for Black Hawk was something
heard rarely in Illinois in those days,
and certainly not from an old frontiersman,
but then I recalled a tale he had told
of his great-grandfather dwelling for years
with the Wyandotts north of the Great Lakes—
and of how he traveled through regions where
the only other white men he met
were old French traders and Jesuit priests—
and of how his great-grandfather had been
his inseparable companion during
the years of his boyhood, and how they spent
many a season hunting together
back in Ohio.  So it was no wonder
that old Jeremiah stood well apart
from the changes overtaking the world—
and judged other men by how squarely they
might stand on the earth and support themselves
with what Nature provided and little else.
“A way of life that has lasted for ages
is a sacred legacy handed down
from our ancestors,”  his great-grandfather
had told him once.  “It is not an old shirt
that you tire of and just throw away.”
With all this in mind, I began to see
how old Jeremiah perceived the world,
and I saw, as well, how our lives had been
more self-sufficient before the trains,
when small working mills had enabled us,
despite the impediments of the land,
to manufacture the greater part
of whatever goods we might require.
On the little creek known as Cooper’s Defeat,
a Mr. Newman constructed a shop
with a water-powered lathe and produced
an array of items from split-bottom chairs
to spinning wheels.  And Trickle and Yocum
built a carding mill up on Walnut Creek
that drove a thriving trade through the ‘40s,
turning out rolls of good carded wool
for the local women who spun and wove
all their families’ clothes.  And there were other
examples of small independent mills
supplying all manner of frontier goods,
although what they made in particular,
after all this time, is hard to recall. 
Andrew Dray ran a mill on Indian Creek
and the Dunbar family ran one as well,
up on Fitch Creek north of La Fayette,
and there were still others.

                                                     But now the mills
have all fallen silent, like old Jeremiah
himself, their mighty wheels overgrown
with morning-glories whilst rotting away
below the water.  The crumbling stones
of their edifices still stand in place
as memorials to a vanished world
and as fodder for poets and preachers who
delight in perfecting their eloquence on
a picturesque ruin, summoning forth
exhortations upon the vanity of man
and the transience of all his works.



"Jeremiah Burch" from Stark County Poems (Monongahela Books, new enlarged edition, 2020).

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

"Nowhere to Nowhere," from Stark County Poems, appears on Ted Kooser's "American Life in Poetry"

Poem as it appeared in a newspaper in Portland, Indiana

 One of my Stark County Poems, "Nowhere to Nowhere," has been selected by the former US Poet Laureate, Ted Kooser (regionalist poet from Nebraska), for publication in his weekly column, "American Life in Poetry," which appears in hundreds of newspapers across the country and around the world.  It will also be archived in the Library of Congress.  The poem & Kooser's comments about it can be seen here:

A few of the newspapers where "Nowhere to Nowhere" has appeared are:

~~~Journal Star (Lincoln, Nebraska),

~~~Commercial Review (Portland, Indiana),

~~~Transcript Bulletin (Tooele, Utah),

~~~Ames Tribune (Ames, Iowa),

~~~Shawangunk Journal (Shawangunk, New York),

~~~Bell Times Courier (O'Brien County, Iowa).

~~~Story City Herald (Story City, Iowa).

~~~Lake County News (Clear Lake, California)

Some thoughts on poetry in newspapers

Mr. Kooser's accomplishment of reintroducing poetry to local newspapers across the country, and around the world, cannot be praised enough.  Before his  "American Life in Poetry" project, poetry in newspapers had almost entirely died out.  But it used to be very different.  Nearly every newspaper in the country printed poetry in nearly every issue.  

My grandfather, who had only an 8th grade education, clipped poems from newspapers all his life.  He sent them to my grandmother when they were courting in 1916-17, and he could recite many of them from memory.  Poetry was very much a part of daily life all across America.  

Mr. Kooser's quest to return poetry to newspapers may seem a quixotic one to us today, but it has had a surprising degree of success so far, with his column appearing in 72 different countries around the globe, and reaching  over four million readers.

But that is only the first step.  Now it is up to the editors of regional newspapers to take the next step: soliciting and printing worthy works of their own local poets.  It is time for ordinary people to reclaim poetry from the ivory towers, poetry that is theirs by right.  They should not settle for always being spoon-fed their poetry by professors.   

When Spoon River Anthology was published in 1915, readers did not feel they had to rely on professors or critics to tell them what the poems meant, or if they were worthy of being read.  Readers purchased the book (it was a national best-seller), took it home and read it in their own parlors and on their own porches.  They didn't consult with specialists; they made up their own minds about the poems.  They cut out the middle-men.  They thought for themselves.

I would like to mention one instance where a contemporary editor stubbornly revived the old tradition of publishing poetry in a local paper.  Jim Nowlan, the recent editor of the Stark County News in the Spoon River country of Stark County, Illinois, inherited his position from his father, who in turn had inherited it from his father, who was editor of the Stark County News in the late 19th Century.  The two elder Nowlans, following the practice of their time, consistently published poetry in their papers, and it was from these same newspapers that my grandfather clipped so many of the poems that he sent to my grandmother, and pasted in his scrapbook.  

The practice of printing poems in the News slowly died out after WWII, but several decades later when Jim Nowlan (third in the line of Nowlan editors-in-chief), oversaw the Stark County News into the 21st century, he printed several selections from my Stark County Poems.  Those few early appearances in my hometown newspaper meant more to me than all the later ones in literary reviews and journals combined.

The possibility of publishing one's poems in a local paper used to be available to poets everywhere in this country, and it should be again.  Homegrown poets should have local outlets for their poems: local papers that are read by  family, friends, neighbors, and the surrounding community.  

Poets outside the university system, who have not followed the prescribed route of graduating from a writing program---  but who may possess intrinsic talents worthy of encouragement---  cannot hope to compete with all the well-credentialed and well-connected university poets who dominate literary reviews and journals today.  Such publications may claim complete impartiality when assessing their heaps of submissions, but 99% of the time the poets they publish are just more students and professors.  Moreover, these journals and reviews have minimal ties to their communities, and no regional loyalties to speak of.  The literature they tend to foster-- products of claustrophobic workshops-- are more like root-bound houseplants, insular and internalized, than hardy native trees wrought by the elements into gnarled idiosyncratic forms. A nation's literature should grow up naturally from its soil, or its urban neighborhoods; it should slowly emerge from the local terrain like native hickory or oak.  

Literature should not be imposed upon us from the top down by specialists, by critics and professors.  Such specialists have a necessary and valued place, to be sure, but their appropriate function is to analyze and assess, not to prescribe and shape.  Nearly all of America's very greatest writers and poets prior to WWII were self-taught.  Today, by comparison, it seems, you cannot hang out your shingle as a poet without an officially approved license and union card.

Newspapers once provided a platform in this country for up-and-coming, self-taught poets.  William Cullen Bryant, Edgar Allan Poe, John Greenleaf Whittier, Walt Whitman, Phillis Wheatley, Ambrose Bierce, Emily Dickinson, E.A. Robinson, Carl Sandburg, Edgar Lee Masters, Robert Frost, Robinson Jeffers, Gwendolyn Brooks (and who knows how many other self-taught American poets), all began their poetic careers by publishing in local newspapers.

Newspapers could provide such a platform again. It's not too late.  It's simply a matter of individual editors setting aside a few column inches in their back pages where a poem could be tucked in every so often.  It would be a small but significant way for them to foster the culture of their communities and their country.

Another two poems from "Stark County Poems" appear in "Illinois Heritage"

 Another two poems from Stark County Poems have appeared in Illinois Heritage: the Magazine of the Illinois State Historical Society:  "The Aging Widow in the Third Pew" and "Populism."  The latter poem is closely based on the lives of my great-grandparents, who lost a farm in Pike County, Illinois to hog cholera, lost another farm outside of Leoti, Kansas to drought and the '93 Panic, and finally ended up back in Illinois, in Stark County, where they started over again in the mid-1890s, not far from Spoon River.  

Both poems are printed below.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ 

The Aging Widow in the Third Pew


Her faith had little to do with church
and even less with the long succession
of ministers who had come and gone
since she was a child. It had to do
with the wind from which there was no relief,
that carried the rain and gave teeth to drought
and tore the roof from the barn and haunted
her nights with wailing. It had to do
with the cooling summer breezes that turned
the pages of scripture without a touch
and caressed away the sweat of her brow.
That the seen is shaped by an unseen force
was something she never thought to doubt.
In church, when she was told in the Psalm
to lift up thine eyes, and she turned to see
through the open window a falling leaf
suspended a moment, then lifted away
on the wind, the tears welled up in her eyes
and she picked up her purse and slipped away
through the basement door and out on the grass
and lifted her face to the cloudless sky.




In the autumn of 1893,

   Alpheus Wheeler Appenheimer

and his wife Olive arrived in Stark County,

   Illinois, after having traveled

from their earlier Illinois home in Pike County

   by way of Leoti, Kansas.


They arrived in a covered wagon drawn

    by a pair of worn-out mules conveying

a girl and two boys, a kerosene lamp,

   a plow and scythe and a chest of clothes,

tinware pots, some kerosene lamps

   and a Mason jar of seeds interred


in early May and exhumed in August,

   still unsprouted— it’d been that dry.    

They almost starved on their journey back.

   In Missouri they stopped at a lonely farm

and asked at the house if they might pick a few

   ears of corn to boil for supper.

Go ahead, help yourselves, the woman barked.

   No one else even bothers to ask.

It was hog cholera that had wiped them out

   and sent them westward to make a new start,

and it was drought and the ’93 Panic

   that wiped them out for the second time


and sent them back east to begin again.

   They’d gotten their fill of living in sod—

dirt in your soup and dirt in your bed. 

   Their youngest son was born on a night

in January that covered the state

   in three feet of snow as the mercury plunged


to twenty below.  He was kept from freezing

   by his mother’s warmth and a crackling stove

that was fed from a pile of unshucked corn. 

   At three cents a bushel it made more sense

to burn it than sell it and, anyhow, 

   the buffalo chips were long since gone.


In later years, when anyone asked,

   old Alpheus never had much to tell

about losing two farms in two different states.

   In an unguarded moment he said aloud,

You can pray to God.  You can vote for Bryan.

   In the end it don’t matter a hill of beans.




"The Aging Widow in the Third Pew" and "Populism" from Stark County Poems (Monongahela Books, new enlarged edition, 2020).

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Two poems from new edition of "Stark County Poems" appear in Illinois Heritage

Two poems from the new enlarged edition of Stark County Poems have appeared in the latest issue of Illinois Heritage, which is the magazine of the Illinois State Historical Society.  The poems are "The Proverb of the Three Hotels" and "The Boy Who Climbed a Tree," both of which concern the visit of Abraham Lincoln to Toulon, Illinois in October of 1858

Both poems are based on true minor details of Lincoln's visit.

~ ~ ~ ~ 

The Proverb of the Three Hotels               

There was a time in Toulon, long ago,
when the number of wayfarers passing through
was so large it required three hotels
to accommodate them. Jeffrey Cooley,
a loyal Republican through and through,
was the owner of The Virginia House
which, on a chilly October day
in 1858, was favored
by a country lawyer named Abe Lincoln
and his entourage. Across the street,
the hotel of Democrat, B.G. Hall,
found favor with Senator Douglas and
his entourage. The remaining hotel,
Elias Stockner’s The Toulon House,
with no party loyalties either way
but a first-rate saloon in the basement,
found favor with both political camps
and prospered for many a year, long after
each of its rivals had bitten the dust.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ 

The Boy Who Climbed a Tree

When eight-year-old Thomas Shallenberger
was introduced by his old grandmother
to a big homely man on the courthouse square
in Toulon on a cold October day
in 1858, the big man
invited the boy to sit on his knee
and helped him up and, in a grave voice
(playing to his audience), asked the lad
if, come November, he could count on his vote.
“I’m a Douglas man,” retorted the boy.
Abe Lincoln guffawed and put the boy down
and said if his own supporters all knew
their own minds as well as this youngster did,
he’d be sure to win. Then, leaning way down
until he was eye to eye with the boy,
he said in a kindly whisper that he
should be a good lad and run along home.




"The Proverb of the Three Hotels" and "The Boy Who Climbed a Tree" from Stark County Poems (Monongahela Books, new enlarged edition, 2020).