For forty years or more my literary colleagues-- writers, critics, editors-- have referred to me as, in effect, a "farmer-poet." I've resented this term because almost always it has insinuated a certain degree of latent condescension, but this is a personal matter and doesn't need to be written about. What I'd like to do here is simply set the record straight-- briefly,l I hope humbly, and perhaps usefully. If accuracy and honesty are necessary to the arts, as I've always tried to insist, then this is a matter of some importance. Moreover showing how far artistic life now has drifted away from country life may be generally desirable. I think it is.
I am not a farmer. I never have been. In the scale of country life farmers are the elite, the landholders, the employers. Their social, political, and even aesthetic attitudes go a long way toward establishing the tone of rural existence, just as their economic and practical activities establish its material base. A few farmers are women, a few are men, but most are couples. They are mutually and equally engaged in the thousands-- literally thousands-- of tasks and skills required to run a farm through its seasonal changes: barnwork, fieldwork, yardwork, housework; garden work, orchard work, woods work, cooking, harvesting, and preserving; tending the hens and ducks; supervising the help-- the list is variable and endless. The couples work together because they have to: otherwise the work would never be done. They are people of substance, as we say. Workers, yes, but also proprietors. And of necessity they are also people of intelligence and experience. They are responsible. They are, or at least they once were, determinative in the national consciousness.
Granted, most agricultural communities have a center, a downtown, which may be presided over by the banker and his wife, a few shopkeepers and teachers, a Catholic priest and a Protestant minister, perhaps a doctor and a lawyer, maybe even a librarian. These are the town-dwellers, few in number but often noisy, sometimes snooty. They give themselves airs. But they depend on the farmers, and in a proper community this is understood.
The rest of the country people, the nonfarmers who live outside the town, are the scroungers. They hunt and fish and wrest their livings from the soil as best they can. They have gardens. They work for farmers, often as part-time help. They work on the road gangs, and in the old days they worked on the railroads and canals. They cut pulp in the woods; they raise a pig or two; they mow the banker's lawn; they work in the gravel pits and quarries; they whittle wooden Indian maidens for tourists and duck decoys for hunters and collectors; they make quilts and baskets; they eat fiddleheads, lambs' quarters, and milkweed in season. In the spring they work in sugarhouses, and in the fall in cider mills. They shovel snow, sand, gravel, stones, and (sith.)
They are full of country lore and rural speech. They know that when the yellow jackets make their nests up high, the snow will be momentous in the coming winter. They know that a green Christmas means a full graveyard at Easter. They know that the night of the full moon is always clear and cold.
In the South these people are called poor white trash, but in the North we have no equivalent, which is perhaps our good fortune. At any rate these are the people among whom I have lived and worked. In northern Vermont my holding was eleven acres, mostly nonarable, and a five-room, jerry-built house: no barn, no smithy, no toolshed. I had a small garage, a woodshed, a henhouse, and a shack where I did my writing. In rural upstate New York, where I live now, I own about twenty acres and another five-room house. These are not farms, not anywhere near. Farms are all around, of course, big ones and small, prosperous and impoverished, some working and some abandoned. But trailers, double-wides, and hovels are all around too. The extent of the rural slum ought to be obvious to anyone who takes a drive off the interstate. That's where I live.
Some farmers have liked me and appreciated the help I could give him in their work. Others disliked me and thought I was incompetent. In neither case did the facts that I had a college degree and wrote poetry in my spare time have much to do with the way I was received. A little, but not much. Mostly I was looked upon as a country jack, a guy who could do rough carpentry, help with the haying, milk cows and spread manure, clean a carburetor and repair a broken electrical fixture. I could sweat a copper joint. I sold eggs to my neighbors and hauled wood in my old 4x4 pickup. Sometimes I and my truck were hired to make deliveries to outlying farms in winter.
Thousands and thousands like me are living in the remote hills throughout northern North America. Many of us are inbred, brain-damaged, and schizophrenic, but any of us are healthy too. All of us are socially déclassé, to say the least.
The point here is that we are unknown. As the population of the United States has concentrated more and more in the cities, as the common entertainments have catered more and more to urban tastes, as politics has clung more and more to big business and the corporate capitalists, country people in general have been pushed out of the picture. But farmers, the landowners, still have a voice, though a small one; and they are still recognized. The rural underclass, on the other hand, has disappeared. For the vast preponderance of the American populace it simply doesn't exist.
Thoreau was a country bum. So was Robert Frost. So in her origin was even so elegant a person as Louise Bogan, and it shows in her work. People who came from the underclass or chose to assimilate themselves to it have been among the most perceptive in our history. And the reason is simple: the rural underclass is the closest to the land. Living right there in the muck and misery of it. They know more about nature than the naturalists because they know it in their lives, moment to moment. They know it accurately. And if, once in a blue moon, one of them writes about it, that writing will be as fundamental as Genesis.
Necessity in much of my life has forced me to live among these people. I have been a rural communist with a small c. At the limit of my life I hope I'll be forgiven if I insist, briefly, on my identity. That is to say, right now.
I Wish I Could Shimmy
People say nowadays that I am agoraphobic because I'm unwilling to fly to Ireland or San Francisco. Actually it's true; this is what a number of people have told me. But they don't know what they're talking about: they don't have an inkling.
Agoraphobia is when a stranger enters the house and you go to the attic and lie down with your face pressed into the darkest corner, under the slanting slats of the roof. It's the scream lurking in your gorge, so ready to burst that the least noise above a cat's purr makes you sit in the back of the closet, when the March wind lashes the treetops at night you crawl behind the sofa. Agoraphobia is when every night at 2:00 A.M. for five years-- that's 1,825 nights-- you go out loaded with Thorazine to walk in the street beneath the dark, blank windows of the houses on either side, and you never get more than a hundred yards from your door. Agoraphobia is when you cannot say hello to your oldest friend on the phone. It is when you can converse only with your cat. It is when writing a line of poetry on paper is like squeezing hardened glue from a tube. It is when related phobias become determinative: you cannot climb to the second rung of a step-ladder without vertigo, you cannot walk into a room whose ceiling is six inches lower than the ceiling of your own room without cowering and trembling. It is when you shake like a sycamore leaf in the breeze whenever you are left alone in the house. It is when you smoke six packs of cigarettes a day. It is when you order them by the gross from the mail-order house and pay for them with borrowed money.
Agoraphobia is when night after night in loathing, in dreams or awake, you (screw) yourself. Agoraphobia is when you breathe and eat the dust of oblivion.
Ten years later, recovering, you take 2,000 milligrams of Thorazine and step out of your brother's car at the curb. You walk across the sidewalk and enter the drugstore; you stand at the soda counter; you order a Coke; you drink it. Then you run for the car again. Coca-Cola is the most awful medicine in the world.
A few unfortunates will understand these words and will add to them their own horrifications. The rest of the world, the vast populace-- the millions and billions, I guess-- will find them only nonsense, the sheerest and most dismissible. Yet these words are, in fact, representative of the materiality of a large part of their author's life, a part that has deeply though covertly biased the rest.
I wish I could shimmy like my sister Kate.
She shakes it like jelly on a plate.
My mama wanted to know last night
Why all the boys treat Kate so nice.
Everybody in our neighborhood
Knows she can shake it and that's understood.
I may be late but I'll be up to date
When I can shake it, shake it, shake it like Kate,
When I can shimmy like my sister Kate.