Reapers

Let me continue in our celebration of National Poetry Month. Yes, but.

Though some of my international readers may not suspect this, others of you may wonder how I’m doing after another incident were someone in my metropolitan area was killed in a government incident that seems unnecessary and unjust. I’d describe my overall reaction as numbed thought, and I’ll leave it at that. It’s not that I don’t have thoughts, but in our instantaneous world, thousands have already written and there’s no scarcity of takes — if you need anyone to supply a template or echo for your own response, you can have that in abundance.

I continue because I think there’s still a shortage of what poetry and music can bring to us. Poetry, like many tweets or blog posts, can make arguments, present hot takes of their authors; but it also can work differently, it can take an attentive reader or listener and by attracting them and presenting something to pay attention to, allow its audience to form their own changes in perception.

Today’s piece, “Reapers”  by pioneering Afro-American Modernist Jean Toomer attempts that. In his 1923 book-length work Cane,  where this poem first appeared, Toomer presents such things, moments and situations that ask for that response from its readers. That’s an inefficient process. How many will read, how many will really read in that extension where we accept the task of creating a whole-hearted response to what the author presents? Some things work on one, quick, reading. We may already believe we know, we agree. A brief amen is all that is called for. Other work may just seem slight to our moods and perception, and we skip any deeper step. Today’s poem is called “Reapers,”  but I think here of the Christian parable of the sower.

“Reapers”  presents two rural scenes. In the first, harvesting or mowing is being accomplished as it had been done for millennia with the reapers being people with scythes. With intent they ready their blades, sharpening the edges with abrasive stone honing blocks. Toomer presents the scything that follows as silent music, a rhythmic swinging represented with precise meter and one pair of perfect end-rhymes followed by another pair of perfect rhymes that are in themselves near-rhymes to the first pair.

In the second scene we are taken to an era particular to Jean Toomer’s time. The mower, the reaper, is a mechanical machine drawn by horses,*  the immediate ancestor to our present engine-driven farm machinery. That machinery was likely not as silent, but instead of presenting the clank of its mechanism, Toomer auditorily zooms in on the squealing sound of a “field rat” picked up and wounded in its belly by the mechanical, systematic blades of the horse-drawn mower.

horse-drawn mower

“I see the blade, blood-stained, continue cutting…” a small version of the horse-drawn cutter in Toomer’s poem

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This poem is easy to see as a pair with another we’ve presented here, a poem by Robert Frost, “Mowing.”  Here’s a link to the text of Toomer’s “Reapers,”  and here’s a link to the text of Frost’s poem. In Frost’s poem, the reaper with the hand-swung whispering scythe scares another animal, a plausibly Edenic snake. Toomer’s rat is not so lucky. Did Frost’s reaper, working like the scythe wielders in the first half of Toomer’s poem, stop their motion and take their poet’s eye, recorder, and projector to the escaping snake? In Toomer’s further observation he asks us to see and hear the horses and more directly the machinery of the mechanical mower that has no such observation, and the horse’s driver is intent on operating them, not the work itself. They do not stop, it’s not their design, they continue, cutting, blood-stained.

I will not write a post here about systematic racism. It’s a term with some value of conciseness, and from that, the easiness of easy rejection or restatement. The term has one mooted objection for example: that it’s not even racism — which to any extent that’s true doesn’t make it better, it makes it worse. Ethnic prejudices leading to evil acts are as old as recorded history, likely as old as the first bone scythes and then metal, beaten, plowshares — but Toomer’s poem asks us to watch its successor: a colder mechanized blade of efficient expectations and ways of doing.

A player gadget to hear my performance of Toomer’s “Reapers”  in my modest acoustic guitar setting may appear below. If you don’t see a player, this highlighted hyperlink will open a tab or window to play it too.

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*My father, born around the time of Cane, late in his life wanted to make clear to me that he’d driven horse-drawn farm machinery in his youth. He did this late enough in my own life that I heard him, and thought, and think, about what he was trying to present to me in that.

Mowing, and the Meaning of Work

This Monday is American Labor Day, so here’s a poem about work from Robert Frost: “Mowing.”   Like a lot of Frost’s early poetry it’s an example of words that want to sing, and so I’ll sing them today. Also like a lot of Frost’s best poetry it seems simpler than it means. It doesn’t scare the reader or listener away with its surface, but if you really stop to ask why it says exactly what it says, a more complex and subtle work emerges. Here’s a link to the full text of the poem if you want to follow along.

The Scythers by NC Wyeth

That about scythe’s it up. NC Wyeth’s “The Scythers”

 

On first reading this poem is a description of mundane work, mowing a field with the time-honored hand tool: the scythe. How old is that tool? It goes back to the pre-historic days of agriculture, to the making of the first blades for that, and then for the battles over that. It was still in use in Frost’s youth, in the late 19th century. And in the house I grew up in, in the mid-20th century in Iowa, in the crook of a tree in the big back yard there was a scythe caught there, high above my head, stored, captured, put away until it seemed as natural as any other part of the tree.

So, the poet or his speaker counterpart is mowing with a scythe. And since that poet is Frost, we get sound imagery regarding that work. The Imagists contemporary with Frost didn’t require their images be visual, but as a practice they strongly preferred them to be. Frost, on the other hand was the audio guy, not the word painter. The scythe as it swings and cuts, punningly sighs, but Frost has it as a whisper. About this, the poet is curious: if it’s whispering, what’s the scythe (and by extension, the work the man and tool are doing) saying?


The maker of this video on Frost’s poem demonstrates the sound

 

Frost’s poet says he doesn’t know. Interestingly he speculates it might be talking about the heat of the workday, and the phrase he uses “The heat of the sun” may well be reminding him of a poem from Shakespeare we recently featured here: “Fear No More.”   Shakespeare’s poem and the connection with the scythe has with the “grim reaper” brings in an overtone of death.

And then he speculates it may be about why  it’s whispering, why it’s not speaking something out-loud and plain.

Next the poem moves on to the realness of work inherited from its physicality. It’s not a dream or imagination without consequence. And it’s not some fairy story. Gussying it up with such trappings or comparing it to mental work with no embodiment would be enervating it. The poet instead calls this work “earnest love.*” This isn’t some secret crush, even with the whispers and all, this is actually sweaty stuff.

Frost then drops one of his better-known mottos: “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.” That line is end-stopped with a period, and set off that way it’s a statement that real work on real things is superior to mere fancy. But this is Labor Day, so I performed it as if there’s a colon after “The fact is” and that its meaning carries on through the period and into the last line. The sweet dream then is the scythe whispering and the concluding matter of the hay.

What is the scythe whispering?

Because after all, there’s an unanswered question from the poems opening. What is the scythe whispering? It’s something intimate it wants to say, that good work  says, but doesn’t say. It says it is—paid or unpaid, self-employed or employed, the labor of a poet or of a farmer, done grudgingly or with joy, appreciated or overlooked—it says it is done with love. Not the magic love, not the imagined love. The earnest love.

Happy Labor Day to the readers and listeners here. Wishing you good work and earnest love.

The player gadget to hear my performance of Robert Frost’s “Mowing”  is below.

 

 

 

 

*This section of the poem, lines 10 through 12 in this unusual sonnet, is the most mysterious. I had to perform it before I could figure it out. There may be an overtone here (something that English folksong often made a practice of) of farm work being used as a metaphor for sexual lovemaking. There are snakes, flowers, and then named flowers that are “orchises” which are a genus of flowering plants and also etymologically testicles. Frost made a choice for what flowers he names, and his poet/scyther could have scared off a field mouse or chipmunk not a snake.

On the other hand, he may be just saying that like all artists his work will fail, some flowers get scythed. And the snake could be a Garden of Eden thing.

Or the flowers and snakes may be the beauty and the evil of what we do, that the Grim Reaper scythe will cut off.