I received a copy of Man With a Bull-Tongue Plow by Jesse Stuart a few years back from the Jesse Stuart Foundation (http://www.jsfbooks.com/). Originally published in 1934, the book brought attention to the young writer, who would go on to write many novels, short stories, poems, and other works. In 2011, the book was reprinted by the Jesse Stuart Foundation in an attractive hardback edition.
Once or twice I started the book, and many times I shuffled it from one shelf or stack to another, but always kept it close by.
This summer, I am reading it in earnest. This book is a collection of 700 sonnets that Stuart wrote when he was a young man. His ability to turn a rhyme was incredible. Stuart was a farmer in eastern Kentucky, who imbibed the native beauty of the land, the invigoration of the cycles of plowing, planting, tending, and harvesting, and the music of the hills. He was something of a transplanted Robert Burns.
Stuart’s teacher and mentor Donald Davidson of Vanderbilt University called Stuart, “the first real poet…ever to come out of the southern mountains.” When Stuart submitted these 703 sonnets to a publisher, he received a contract and a letter saying, “This is a great book of poems. It is like a big river with tributaries of life entering in. It is like a symphony of wind.”
At first, I thought that this collection would be a number of random poems. But there is a story line to the collection of poems. They give a picture of rural, agrarian life. Yes, it is romantic, idealistic, and heart-warming. But Stuart also notes the hardships, the fears, and the failures of farm life. He describes himself and the energy of youth, but he writes a part of a community, a participant in a way of life, a sharer of the struggles and dangers, as well as joys of life.
In some of the recent poems I have read, he described the different people who lived and died in his community. Their hopes, fears, dreams, and struggles are powerfully captured in these sonnets.
Just a sample: Here is the first sonnet:
I am a farmer singing at the plow
And as I take my time to plow along
A steep Kentucky hill, I sing my song—
A one-horse farmer singing at the plow!
I do not sing the songs you love to hear;
My basket songs are woven from the words
Of corn and crickets, trees and men and birds,
I sing the strains I know and love to sing.
And I can sing my lays like singing corn,
And flute them like a fluting gray corn-bird;
And I can pipe them like a hunter’s horn–
All of my life these are the songs I’ve heard.
And these crude strains no critic can call art,
Yours very respectively, Jesse Stuart.
In that opening poem, I sense the impulse of both independence (as fitting a Scot) and connection. These are the songs he has heard. This is what fellow Kentuckian and Bluegrass music creator Bill Monroe called “ancient tones.” This is a man growing food, not shopping for it, but actually connected to the process. It is a poem about hearing: crickets, men working, birds, and the corn itself.
There is a connection to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, especially as Stuart identifies himself and disclaims that his work is art. (And that is without Whitman’s weirdness and perversity.) There is a connection to Robert Frost, who so aptly sensed the connection between the land and the human inhabitants. Then there is a connection to the Agrarians, the Fugitive Poets, who moved toward the modern, but kept looking back at what was left behind.