December 08, 2004

Introduction to the poetry of hay.

Reid. Forbidden fruit. 1889.We might expect the changing themes of hay in poetry to parallel those of hay in art. To test this assumption, I browsed through several thousand poems in the Literature Online database (LION) looking closely at those mentioning “hay” or related words. From these I selected a few dozen in which hay-making was either the central topic or a core metaphor and listed them in a section of our website, blandly titled “Hay literature,” adding more over the past year as I found them in other sources. I might have left this list to wither unnoticed, had a couple of provocative comments—one questioning the sanity of someone who would read that many poems on hay, the other informing me that Heaney’s “Fother” was a “metaphore”—not nudged me to put more substantial literary flesh on the dull skeletal titles.

Ritch. Shadow on bale. 2004.Now readers of this site no longer have to track down the texts in scattered print collections. I have transcribed or downloaded over 100 poems, from books, journals, magazines, and the internet. Then, in the hay in art database I’ve found images that echo or complement the ideas in the poems. Foolishly, a month ago, I tried to pack the whole collection into a single segment of the site. When I had reached about 90 poems with about 200 pictures, the system protested by disappearing all but the earliest ten or so. Taking this disappearance as a broad hint, I simplified and reconstructed the collection into about a dozen roughly chronological sections, either anthologies of several poets from the same period or shorter collections of the one or two poets whose contribution to the hay literature seemed to be most crucial.

Here is an outline of this organization, annotated with brief comments on the principal themes and connections.

Book of hours. c1250. 1. Hay poems from Lydgate to Hood . This group of nine poems includes one from the early fifteenth century, one each from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and three each from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The earliest by Lydgate echoes biblical metaphor, including several in the Psalms (e.g., “As for man, his days are as grass..” (Ps 103, line 15) and the more famous lines in Isaiah 40 (“All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field:/ The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the LORD bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass./ The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever.” Our section on Bosch places this motif in folklore and painting, and, four centuries after Lydgate, Hood gives it an ironic, worldly twist. Between Lydgate and Hood are the familiar celebrations of haymaking as one of the archetypal activities of high summer (compare the visual themes of Bruegel and Rubens), prescriptions for good practice, and detailed descriptions of work and play in the hay, which appear in such parallel period paintings as the Dixton Manor panorama, dignified Stubbs tableaux, and cheerful romps of Rowlandson.

Dupre. Second crop. 19th c.2. John Clare . Clare deserves his own section for his contribution to the Romantic movement of at least five poems on haymaking. All reflect his rural Northamptonshire childhood and all were written in the 1820s and 1830s. Sunnily optimistic, they sing of love and life in the English countryside and give no hint that the poet would spend the last decades of his life in an insane asylum.

Hodgson. Farmer's dream. 19th c.3. William Barnes . Barnes is notable for his attempt to capture the dialect of Dorset in verse, half-a-century before Hardy’s more famous literary evocation of the same region. Well-educated, as local teacher and curate, Barnes wrote with charming affection of the worklife and folkways of his rural neighbors. The line which concludes his poem on “Nunchen [lunch] Time” (the welcome hayfield rest period, subject of so many nineteenth century painters)--“I do like theäse wold teäles. Let's hear”--perfectly epitomizes his enthusiasm and attentiveness to oral traditions.

Ritch. Haystack and capped cocks. 1987.4. Hay poets born in the early nineteenth century . This section reflects the widely diverse sensibility of a period of rapid cultural and social change. Beginning with the lilting Burns-like ballad of Robert Nicoll, our anthology is dominated by a sense of nostalgic loss in the face of industrial change (English, Greenwell, Morris, Casey, Field), but also includes: a playful, brief tribute to the romantic “Hayrick” (Robert Herrick); Emily Dickinson’s typically ambiguous envy of the mortal grass (returning to the Biblical trope mentioned above); Andrew Lang’s onomatopoeic “Scythe Song;” William Carleton’s sentimental tribute to “The boy in the mow” representing rural obscurity and disappointment; and George Barlow’s late romantic lines on love and death, the sweet hay and “the scentless sea.”

Cutler. Beached gundalow. 19th cent.5. John Frederic Herbin . Nova Scotian Herbin was a contemporary of two more famous artists (the painter Heade and the photographer Emerson) who spent much of their careers capturing the life and landscape of other marshes. Herbin romanticized the Acadian way of life, in which the gathering of salt hay was an intrinsic part, and his description of the work now seems melodramatic, but the lines that end the “Sea Harvest” sonnet (Soon high and dark above the marsh and tides,/ Stand the great hay-towers; as they loom and lean,/ Like turrets grim to mark the solitude) are a fine literary equivalent to Heade’s “Great Swamp” which I have put beside them.


Unloading hay. c1895.6. Hay poets born in the late nineteenth century . An anthology clustered by birth-dates throws together such unlikely neighbors as: Stevenson’s bouncy childhood rhythms next to Wilde’s vivid impressionism; the naturalist nostalgia of Edward Thomas against the minimalism of William Carlos Williams and the earthiness of D. H. Lawrence; MacLeish’s wistful view of regional wisdom, Millay’s succinct domestic joke, and the tragic irony of Robert Graves. Among these luminaries are more obscure poets: the Australian Robert Richardson’s “Haycart in the City” though undistinguished is an excuse to show off the glowing George Bellow’s hay-cart in New York; Bliss Carman’s old fashioned New England lyric; Katharine Tynan’s bleak Irish ballad; Eva Gore-Booth’s little poem, like Dickinson’s, echoing the old Psalmist moral on mortality; and Andrew Young’s riddle-like verse on the haystack’s transient architecture. The illustrations are equally wide-ranging, including: Bruegel’s famous seasonal pair which Williams conflates into a single medieval memory; Dürer’s “Great Grass” next to Lawrence’s retort to Whitman; and finally, acknowledging the appalling timelessness and timeliness of the arts of war, the legendary Australian photographer Tim Page’s image of a dead Vietnamese insurgent half-buried in the soft hay to which “Queer Time” trench-war trauma drives Robert Graves.

Minick. Pierce brothers. c1972.7. Robert Frost . Frost lived so long into the twentieth century that his placement here among the late Victorians may seem odd. But his deceptively accessible, dark New England morality poems are a useful bridge from nineteenth century rustic nostalgia to modernist irony. I have included four Frost poems, each of which reveals a close familiarity with traditional haying, each written in colloquial English, and each with a strong tragicomic undertow. The marginal illustrations intentionally reflect these complex paradoxes: two of Kathleen McLaughlin’s brilliantly descriptive photographs of contemporary (though timeless) Romanian haymaking; a Winslow Homer allegory; and a children’s book illustration by Joseph Smith. The latter vividly depicts the traditional horse-drawn mower and a child’s excitement, but in the Jessie Haas story Mowing which Smith’s picture accompanies, Gramp lifts the cutter bar to save a killdeer’s nest, an outcome antithetical to Frost’s ruthless “champing over.”

Nash. Equivalents for the megaliths. 1934.8. Poets born between 1900 and 1940 . This motley crew of twentieth century poets begins with Patrick Kavanagh whose “Shancoduff,” freshly observed but wintry in its mood, treats hay in passing, a relief package for cold calves. Like his countryman, Seamus Heaney, who, with Ted Hughes, deserves their own separate section, Kavanagh records moments of transient hope in an impoverished landscape. Elsewhere, in “The Great Hunger,” he wrote of “time stretched for the mowing of the hay”(Complete Poems, (1987), p. 87), and other “hay that had wings-/ the February fodder that hung itself on the black branches/ of the hill-top hedge.” (p. 98). In the heat of Rexroth’s Veneto, hay has the smell of sensuality, but the third of his poems here is austere and damp enough to merit a Connemaran illustration. Scovell’s half-cut meadow is made vivid by an extended marine metaphor, windrows seen as waves. Next to it, I put a nineteenth century William Turner watercolor, for its sea-like horizontality, but, for more dynamic hay-as-curling-surf, I also recommend Benton’s Wyoming Hay or Hind’s Harvesting Hay , used to illustrate a Robert Francis poem in another section. Since William Stafford’s second poem explicitly points to Grant Wood’s American Gothic couple, I used another Wood painting to accompany his “Hay-Cutters,” justified by the line “leaving the land its long windrows.” The two MacNeice selections have little in common but their hay references. The first, describing a dream similar to Graves’ in an earlier war, is both surreal and sensual; the Terzic painting echoes the former quality more than the latter. The second is the first verse of a longer poem, lyrically describing a traditional haymaking scene; for its companion I selected a photograph of hay-field, densely populated by men and women and children, from the year before MacNeice’s birth. Everson’s timeless “indulgent lovers” are set next to Altdorfer’s equally indulgent couple from four-and-a-half centuries earlier. The first of two poems by Jean Garrigue evoking an old barn and the hay that fills it has as its partner a classically austere photograph by Charles Sheeler, the “barn’s boards” rhythms echoing the meter of the verse and the “striped rows” of the source hayfield. The other Garrigue work is an urgent lyric, inviting a lover, not to work in the hay, but to share a “shaggy house” with “butter-yellow walls.” If the quiet courtship depicted in the recent painting by the Russian artist Svechnikov lacks Garrigue’s urgency, its central golden stack, directly behind the lovers, is equally romantic in the evening light. Muriel Rukeyser’s painterly “Haying Before Storm” is well illustrated by Kathleen McLaughlin’s magnificent photograph of a Romanian youth, heroically forking hay from cock to wagon, against a sky that feels “bruise-color” even in black and white. The air-born hay’s a blur, bridging the texture of the still rick and the stormy sky. Maxine Kumin has a pair of poems, one a long descriptive reminiscence, the other sharply elegiac. The precise observation of the first is as tough as the life it captures, notably in the Day three consonant-spitting description of the “old baler old baler cobbled from/ other parts, repaired last winter,/ cussed at in the shed in finger-/ splitting cold when rusted bolts/ resisted naval jelly, Coca-Cola, and/ had to be drilled out in gritty bits…” But the image I put to it pairs with the gentle interlude that follows, a memory of companionable cows and dogs, that mitigate the hardships of the Vermont dairy farm. “February is an elegy to the poet’s mother, solemn lines paired with the bale monument constructed in an Oakland gallery to commemorate those who died before their time. Hayden Carruth’s two hay poems mirror but reverse the shape of Kumin’s. The first is a short sneer at tourists like me who look over the fence at hayfields. So next to it is one of my shadowy self-portraits outlined next to a fine fresh bale. The other longer piece, contrasting the satisfying struggle of the “desk-worker” loading bales with the brutal sacrifice of harvesters in other cultures, is illustrated by a group of heroic Hutterites by Laura Wilson. The melancholy “Lament” by James Arlington Wright seems at first read to record a literal death. Repeated readings confirm the ancient equivalence of hay and death, but suggest that the lost brother may simply be a man “broken” by the hard labor of the farm. Kinnell’s “Farm Picture” is an equally bleak vignette, hay and farmer spoiled by the rigors of time. Menihan’s depression era painting “Barns” is equally unsentimental in its decay. The last two poems in this section by Gunn and Snyder juxtapose the dank bitterness of an English winter with the dusty heat of a California ranch. The contrast in climates is reflected in the Thomas photograph of the old barn in the rain and the bright Phil Paradise painting of a San Luis Obispo haying scene, but both poems are as pessimistic in mood as most the works that precede them in this section.

Pendleton. Winter feed. 21st cent.9. Hughes and Heaney . Two modern poets, close friends rooted in the tough western margins of the British Isles, are represented here by five poems. Only two, Hughes’ "Hay" and “Last Load,” have haymaking at their cores, and another, Heaney’s “Storm on the Island” mentions hay only as something with which the “wizened earth has never troubled us.” The sequence derives its unity from the sense of elemental struggle, in which hay is the hard-won prize, that keeps the winter animals, including humans, alive and comforted. The poems are particularly rewarding to those of us who have shared similar experiences is his vivid personal evocation of the sounds and smells and shapes and textures of traditional rural life, recalled from Hughes’ Devonshire moorland and Heaney’s Mossbawn childhood. The brilliant photograph that stands by Hughes “Feeding Out” is, geographically, a perfect companion, since Eric Ravilious worked in the same county in the same bleak season. What makes Heaney a great poet is the fresh lyricism of language and the multiplicity of meaning. A spade is not just a spade, peat is not just peat, and hay is not just fodder for animal nutrition but fodder for deep thought. “Fodder,” like all good hay poems, can be read repeatedly. It helps to have pulled loose hay from the “tight vise” of a packed stack, or to recognize the rick’s domestic architecture and “weathered eaves” or to connect winter hay with the sweetness of summer swathes. The “loaves and fishes” reference sanctifies the life-giving fother as miraculous or even sacramental. It jars a bit to read of hay being wastefully used to “bed the stall” (but straw may have been less available when and where Seamus was a lad). Then the word “bed” prompts us to re-read the whole piece as sexual trope, or as yearning loneliness. None of the other images in my collection expressed the latter mood as well as the Umbrian peasant scratching hay from the base of a carved rick.

Smith. Solitary man of the field. 1990.10. The Late Twentieth Century . The term “late” which loosely categorizes the hay poems in this section is somewhat self-referential. All the poets here, even those already “late” themselves, are younger than I. The oldest, Tom Montag, having sent me a recent email, is one our newest “haymates.” His “Making Hay” is also an engaging mixture of the ancient (precise technical detail, worthy of eighteenth century Georgic poets) and modern (ragged typography and rhythm, worthy of William Carlos Williams). Gary Smith’s field of monumental yet modern bales complements his mood, but could equally have been paired with Agee’s “Dark Hay,” a piece evoking Heaney in its conflation of alphabets and architecture. And many of the other poems here echo themes we have already noted. Ramke and Powell equate hay and sexuality, and Cantrell pungently connects the sharp smell of silage and the shock of sex. Kinsella’s catalog of modern artists (Escher, Koons, Christo) and pop culture (Alan Bates and Julie Christie) literally cuts to a hay-made injury, like Kinsley and Jim Thomas recalling the understated rural tragedies of Frost. Hodges and Hansen, like Kinsella, reference the visual arts (and simplify my task of illustration). Kyle’s bitterly shrinking bales of winter fodder, evoke Hughes and Heaney. O’Driscoll compiled a whole series of hay’s familiar tropes (winter “withdrawals” from summer “riches”… “domes/ swept dreamily home”… “love-nest” and “escape hatch”). And “Rounding It Out,” Pack’s serene sonnetelle, conveys order in rhyme as traditional as the marsh hay sonnets of Herbin. Two poets fitting no clear pre-modern context are Chip Stringer who strings together powerful but private metaphors that have the logic of a dream, and the playful Paul Muldoon who makes of hay a mystical metaphor, an acrostic plot of alphabetic puns, and an excuse for moral self-deprecation. The right column illustrations are as varied as the texts. Among those which seem to work best are Kathleen McLaughlin’s Romanian stackers next to Kinsley, Weston’s phallic silos by Cantrell’s “Silage,” and the aerial abstractions of Patrick Bennett and Bill Garnett, paired respectively with Chris Agee and Edwina Powell.

The section continues to grow into the twentyfirst century, thanks to the submissions of old and new poet pals. I am grateful to my dear friend, the pacific Muslim Michael Wolfe, for offering as a late entry his moving poem on Mostar. Its single "hayricks" line is married with tragic perfection to Gyori Antoine's photograph of a Kosovo coffin by a haystack. Tucked in before Michael's is a gently surreal piece by Maureen Choi, created initially as a UCSC writing exercise when she drew the word 'hay' from a cut up Maximus poem by Charles Olsen and then published in the campus literary journal Red Wheelbarrow. Finally there is a pantoum, generously written for this site by another new friend, a former editor of Red Wheelbarrow, Amber West. Amber once wrote a powerfully touching elegy to her late college roommate, Sarah Mercer, daughter of Carole Mercer, Eagle Point, Oregon rancher who frequently corresponds to this site. And so the circle grows.

Hayin time postcard. 1910.11. Popular magazines . Poems in popular magazines have their own category here, even though the older ones are virtually indistinguishable in themes and style from their counterparts in books and literary periodicals. The first one in particular is typical of the hay genre on both sides of the Atlantic during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But bouncy rhymes and trite figures of speech persist in the magazines well into the decades when modernism had dismissed them from more serious contexts. Of particular interest are Waterloo’s hay-in-the-city quatrains, which echo several of the ideas in the Australian Richardson’s poem from roughly the same period. Since a couple of the turn-of-the-century pieces (by Cocke and Allen) resemble greeting card verse, pairing them with their contemporary popular postcards seems appropriate. The last poem included here, Coatsworth’s haunting and lyrical “Salt Hay,” recalls the New Brunswick marsh poems of Herbin from half-a-century earlier. Indeed many of these popular works are delightful in their unselfconscious, old-fashioned nostalgia, a trait, after all, underlying hundreds of the visual and literary occupants of this site.

Posted by Alan Ritch at 10:23 AM