“Plow it and Find Out”: Midwestern American Poetry

[The following article is an updated version of an article I wrote a little over a decade ago. It was published in South Dakota Review.]

Before I studied Zen I saw mountains as mountains,
waters as waters. When I learned something of Zen,
the mountains were no longer mountains, the waters
no longer waters. But now that I understand Zen,
I am at peace with myself, seeing mountains again as
mountains, waters as waters.

A windmill, a junk heap, and a Rotarian in their
American setting have more meaning to me than
Notre Dame, the Parthenon, or the heroes of the
ages. I understand them. I get them emotionally.
–Thomas Hart Benton

In the spring of 2000, when I teaching at SDSU, I was on a panel with five other Midwestern poets. The panel moderator opened with this question: “Are we different from other poets who live in other areas of the country?” By the time it was my turn to talk, there was already a consensus: that we are not unique, that we are all, most importantly, human beings who write out of our humanness, and where we live physically is not all that important. I had to mostly agree, but also disagree somewhat. I said that, even though all poets are first of all human beings who write about human joys and sorrows, there are, nevertheless, some things that at least have traditionally set Midwestern poets apart from poets in other regions of the U.S.

So here I’ll offer some ideas as to why I believe Midwestern American poetry—while it is not in very basic ways different from any poetry elsewhere in the country or the world—nevertheless has some characteristics that tend to set it apart. Just as Darwin’s Finches’ beaks differed according to the particular habitat they evolved in, poets too differ somewhat according to the particular place they inhabit—especially the place they were born and raised in.

In the 19th century, the New Englander Henry David Thoreau was one of the first American writers to reject the popular notion that European ways and models were superior to anything that could happen on American soil. In his classic, Walden, he wrote about valuing one’s own place, and what he said still has universal application:

Men esteem truth remote, in the outskirts of the system, behind
the farthest star, before Adam and after the last man . . . But all
these times and places and occasions are now and here . . . And
we are enabled to apprehend at all what is sublime and noble only
by the perpetual instilling and drenching of the reality which
surrounds us.

Walt Whitman, near the end of the 19th century, stated in a poem a manifesto of the new generation of writers:

Come, Muse, migrate from Greece and Ionia,
Cross out please those immensely overpaid bills,
That matter of Troy and Achilles’ wrath, and Aeneas’,
Odysseus’ wanderings,
Placard “removed” and “To Let” on the rocks of your
snowy Parnassus, . . .
For know a better, fresher, busier sphere, a wide untried
domain awaits, demands you.

The poet William Stafford, born in Kansas in the early years of the 20th century, said something similar to what Thoreau and Whitman had said:

All events and experiences are local, somewhere . . .
Hence, it is good to welcome any region you live in or
come to or think of, for that is where life happens to be,
right where you are.

“That is where life happens to be, right where you are.” It took Midwestern poets and artists a little longer than their counterparts in the eastern cities to grasp the admonishments of those three writers (only one of whom was Midwestern). When they did eventually grasp them, they realized that they had hold of a wonderful paradox: The universal can be found only in the local. Or to put it another way: There is as much value in the near at hand as we will ever find.
By the middle of the 20th century, the Illinois poet Dave Etter could say confidently in a poem: “America is a big Christmas pie./ The Midwest is berries/, the rest is just crust.” But this is not to say that the poet or artist can’t have ambivalent feelings about the region or home place he or she is from. The point is that no country or region of a country can hope to produce accomplished artists unless there is an acceptance of that country’s and region’s uniqueness as places to live and die in—and mostly importantly for artists, to create art in.
And yet the word “regional,” especially when it’s attached to Midwestern literature and art, seems to have a negative connotation for many people. “Regional” tends to suggest that hard-working people in the heartland, or bread basket of America—mainly because they are so far removed from the big, so-called sophisticated cities on the two coasts—have little or no time for the refinements of the arts, or witty conversations in tea rooms, let alone for actually making art.

It’s noteworthy that Carl Sandburg’s popular poem, “Chicago,” printed by the editor Harriet Monroe in her influential magazine, Poetry, in 1914—no doubt an important event in the history of Midwestern poetry—is about a Midwestern city, not a small town in Nebraska or Iowa. In those early years of the 20th century, such Midwesterners as novelists Theodore Dreiser and Floyd Dell, the architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, and poets Vachel Lindsay and Edgar Lee Masters, believed that Chicago was not only a great city; but since the Midwest was America’s heartland, it was in this region that the cultural life of the nation ought to have its center. Most heartland poets would be proud to say that “Chicago” is not only a great Midwestern American poem, but a great American poem. Other poems by Sandburg, who described and celebrated the prairie landscape and small towns as well as Chicago—along with Masters and Lindsay—helped to dispel the prejudice against regionalism, and even led to what an edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica, published in the 1970s, called “a Midwest renaissance” in American poetry. Today, American newscasters of national news programs generally speak in the dialect of “middle America”; in other words, they are admonished to be terse and straight-forward and to avoid abstractions and polysyllabic words.
For an example of this kind of “heartland talk” as it’s found in our poetry, here are the first four lines of Sandburg’s poem called “Limited”:

I am riding on a limited express, one of the crack
trains of the nation.
Hurtling across the prairie into blue haze and dark air
go fifteen all-steel coaches holding a thousand people . . .

Notice a number of things about these lines. First: they’re not rimed, nor are they in a traditional meter—this is of course after the example of Whitman, who, according to Ezra Pound, “broke the new wood” by writing free verse even though virtually all of Whitman’s predecessors had written in meter, and he himself wrote metrical poems early in his career. Second: the phrasing and cadences of the poem are made out of the speech of ordinary Americans (in Sandburg’s case, ordinary Midwesterners), whether rural or urban. And third: the poem is down to earth and altogether physical—it speaks of real, actual things, without abstractions or poeticisms of any kind. “Limited” comes right out of the center of America, out of the working class-populist-independent-democratic way of life that Sandburg believed fervently in and celebrated all his life in his poems and other writings.
Now skip across three decades to the opening stanza of William Stafford’s poem, “One Home,” about his hometown in Kansas:

Mine was a Midwest home–you can keep your world.
Main black hats rode the thoughts that made our code.
We sang hymns in the house; the roof was near God.

Here is the ending line of the poem:

Wherever we looked the land would hold us up.

“One Home” has the same tone as Sandburg’s “Limited,” the same sense of—
not so much swagger as—confidence in the validity of local things, and in particular, the land itself. A large part of heartland poetry’s charm and power, I believe, comes from its basis in an agrarian way of life. Robert Frost, a part-time farmer himself, once visited the farm of Iowa poet/farmer, James Hearst. When Hearst asked Frost what he thought of Midwestern poems he had read, the famous New England poet replied: “The words have calluses on them.” That is what I mean when I say that Midwestern poetry is physical. To hear that the words we Midwestern poets use have “calluses on them” makes us glad, since it refers to our strong work ethic; we earn our wages and we earn our good poems by hard work. In other words, our poetry comes out of a way of life that traditionally required hard, physical labor: cultivating, planting, and harvesting, for example.
Hard-working, yes. And we also have a strong tradition of independence, of the kind of self-reliance that Emerson and Thoreau talked about in the 19th century. Take, for instance, the poem by poet/farmer James Hearst, called “Truth,” that begins:

How the devil do I know
if there are rocks in your field,
plow it and find out.

In this poem the speaker, a farmer, reminds his neighbor, another farmer, who has evidently asked him if he (the neighbor) has glaciated rocks in his field, just as so many other farmers have in theirs. The speaker tells him that the only way he can find out is to “plow it and find out.” Then at the end of the poem he says:

. . . the connection with a thing
is the only truth that I know of,
so plow it.

And so the truth, according to the farmer who speaks the words, comes to us through our connection with things, whether we live on a farm or anywhere. Why ask others when you can find out for yourself, by plowing with your own hands? The poem says: The truth comes from where you live, from your connection with the things around you.

And yet, even if there is a powerful sense of self-reliance in heartland life that is reflected in our poetry, there is also a powerful counterforce of cooperation. After all, there are times when farmers must pitch in and help each other out. This is another tension in poetry of the heartland: that between self-reliance and a genuine empathy for others. As in the countryside of China, although not nearly as pronounced, social harmony in the Midwest has long been associated with cooperation.
* * *

As I implied earlier, heartland poets and other writers don’t just celebrate their region and home places in their writings. This literature can be quite complex and sophisticated. For instance, there’s a strong vein of self-criticism running through it. Masters’ Spoon River Anthology is an example, as is Sherwood Anderson’s Wines burg, Ohio. These books depict what Thoreau called a quiet desperation—in this case, of the inhabitants of small-town, middle America. The poems and stories in these books and many others depict an attitude of meanness, pettiness, and narrow-mindedness of small-town living, not to mention a distrust of intellectuals. One could say that, traditionally, there has been a tension in heartland literature between optimism, individualism, and grass-roots democracy on the one hand, and a disliking of anything abstract, impractical, intellectual, or urban, on the other hand.

The anti-urban cynicism among heartland poets has become especially poignant in the past few decades as privately-owned farms and small towns have diminished. A way of life that once was close to the soil, and in which, as Stafford says in his poem, “the land would hold us up,” is not nearly as prominent anymore. As more and more people move away from farms and small towns to live and work in larger metropolitan areas, and rural schools give way to larger, consolidated schools to save money for tax payers, small Midwestern towns lose their identity. Family-owned bakeries, service stations, and other businesses continue to close or be bought out or superseded by large corporations. There has also been an increasing homogenization all over America from coast to coast. There are fewer and fewer towns or places off the beaten track, and more and more McDonald’s, KFC’s, and Pizza Huts.
Over the past several decades there has emerged a new acknowledgement of the plight of indigenous people, the first Americans. Consider, for example, John Calvin Remark’s poem, “Pedigree Museum,” in which the speaker says that “Somewhere in all this mess” of museum artifacts is “Sitting Bull/preserved/in all his feathers, beads/tantalum shells,/elk skin suit . . . . The poem ends this way:

If I find him, I’ll know
buried even farther down
minus his scalp
minus his bad arm
Little Crow is still trying
to tell us to go home.

The “us” of the last line refers to white Europeans who overwhelmed the Native Americans over the past couple of hundred years, settling on the land that they had occupied for thousands of years. A number of Native American poets who have lived or are now living in the Midwest whose work has been published and appreciated widely include Jim Barnes, Adrian Louis, Louise Eldritch, Ray Young Bear, Roberta Hill Whitman, and Elizabeth Cook-Lynn.
Besides such themes and concerns as the tension between the rural and urban, and the plight of indigenous people, there are other characteristics and themes noticeable in a lot of heartland poetry.

One theme is the sense of spaciousness, of open sky, expressed often in the familiar cliché: as far as the eye can see. In spite of the encroachment of the metropolis, we still have plenty of room in the Midwest, and our population is comparatively sparse. My hometown of Sioux City, in the northwestern corner of Iowa, is 52 square miles–plenty of room for its 85,000 people. The feeling of having all that space around you, of open land and sky, is sometimes accompanied by the theme of loneliness and isolation. Poet, editor, and translator Lucien Stryk has noticed similarities between many rurally-oriented poets and poems by Chinese poets of the T’ang Dynasty, Tu Fu and Li Po, “who, after brief, infrequent encounters in their mountain retreats, drunk with wine and the poignancy of nearing departure, celebrated friendship and the art that sustained them.”
As a man born and raised in the upper Midwest, the first time I visited China (teaching for a semester in an exchange program between SDSU and one in Kunming, in southeast China) I was traumatized and smothered by the crowds, the noise, and the traffic. One day, only a few weeks before I was to leave China and fly home, a line from a poem by William Stafford suddenly occurred to me: “wealth is nothing but lack of people.” I had never understood the line fully until it occurred to me in Kunming, China. In subsequent stays in China, my wife and I have no doubt walked by more people in one day than exist in the entire state of South Dakota, with its over 77,000 square miles and about three-quarters of a million people.

We say we have elbow room here in the Midwest. Ted Kooser, a Nebraska poet, said in an early poem that “one doctor in a Piper Cub can wake up the whole of North Dakota.” (Not so true these days, of course, with the recent discovery of oil in that booming state.) A high school student in a school I visited about a decade ago wrote that her town, Wakonda, South Dakota, was the kind of town where “you can dial the wrong number and still end up talking for an hour”–because everybody knows everybody else in small towns in the state.
Another theme that one finds consistently in heartland poetry is a nostalgia for the past; there are hundreds of abandoned barns and farmhouses in heartland poetry. Here’s an example: a poem called “North Dakota Gothic,” by Mark Vinz:

The farm was abandoned
nearly three months ago.
Someone has stolen the mailbox,
the roofless house still reeks of smoke.

Beside the road,
a field of sunflowers
leans against the frost
like some vast forgotten army,
heads down and waiting.

Across a bare elm branch
the wind brings news of early snow.

This poem looks back to a life that was directly connected to the land. It’s easy to forget that for nine-tenths of our species’ tens of thousands of years on the earth our ancestors lived in small, hunter-gatherer groups on a savanna landscape similar, in certain ways, to the Midwestern tall grass prairie. It has only been a mere 10, 000 years ago that we began to give up our nomadic life for one in which we would till the land. Even in China today, a country of more than a billion people, most make their living as farmers. We forget that the printing press was invented only about 500 years ago, and the Information Age began not much over a generation ago. Could it be that the heartland poets’ fascination with wide-open fields, abandoned barns, and other farm buildings has to do, partly, with the fact that these rural artifacts are juxtaposed against a background of raw nature, of ancestral landscapes which we have–only as recently as 10,000 years ago–vacated? Perhaps this yearning for the earlier lifestyle is a legacy of our hunter-gatherer past. But again, this theme is diminishing in the early years of the new century, with the rise of more and more four-lane highways and cities in the heartland, and the concomitant disappearance of the rural way of life in the U.S.

* * *
Let me end as I began–with an attempt to answer once again the question posed at the writers’ conference about a decade ago. “Are we [Midwestern poets] different from other poets who live in other areas of the country?” My answer is a qualified yes and no.
And on the one hand, in the most important ways, we Midwestern poets are no different from other poets in our own country or in any country. We write out of our humanness; how could we do otherwise? We describe and celebrate what it’s like to be a human being on the earth in our own time, and in our own place, whether it be a little town like Blue Earth, Minnesota, or a city like Minneapolis or Chicago.
On the one hand, we are different and unique to the extent that our culture and history are different and unique; for instance, in our poems we tend to reflect more on our agrarian roots than do poets in other regions of the country; and these agrarian roots bias us towards a paradoxical tension between independence and cooperation, a strong sense of a physical life in a physical landscape, and a language that tends to be straight-forward, plain, terse, and conservative.

Featured image by Carl Wycoff, under the creative commons license on Flickr.

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