The Poet Speaks: Pastoral Tradition and the Search for Farmer Poets

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Harp music plays as announcer Sy Freed quotes Voltaire, “Poetry is the music of the soul and above all of great and inspired souls.” So begins this episode of The Poet Speaks from 1949, featuring poets A.M. Sullivan and Shaemas O’Sheel.

Despite Host A.M. Sullivan's declaration that the program is meant to have a special emphasis on contemporary verse, the beginning portion of this episode is devoted to Mathew Arnold’s time-honored poem from 1867, “Dover Beach.” Sullivan gives a line-by-line analysis and commentary, musing that Arnold is “pondering the enigmas of mankind” in “Dover Beach.” He then proceeds to read the poem aloud. (see full text below)

Sullivan reads the last two verses over again “merely as a point of discussion.” He observes that “the final sentence has been responsible for thousands of sermons and half a dozen book titles," then shifts gears to modern poetry by introducing guest Shaemas O’Sheel. Sullivan places O’Sheel in the tradition of pastoral poets Robert Burns and Robert Frost -- specifically a farmer poet, calling him a Dutchess County farmer. It turns out, however, that O’Sheel only grows vegetables for himself and his wife to enjoy. 

By way of contrast, Sullivan describes the work and life of Jesse Stuart, “a real farmer poet from Kentucky who blossomed on the horizon with a book of 700 or 800 sonnets [The Man with a Bull-Tongue Plow, published in 1934]."  O’Sheel reads Stuart's "Sonnet #202," which features the pastoral, bucolic imagery one might expect from a farmer poet, as well as a whimsical poem with fantasy elements and more of a sense of humor than the previous.

The program’s attention then turns toward New England poet Daniel Smythe, who Sullivan heard about from Robert Frost. To illustrate the influence of Frost on Smythe's work, Sullivan reads "Four Deer On a Hilltop" and "Cows at the Pasture Bars," which emphasize the qualities of living close to the land and the details of a rustic setting.

The next poet’s work to be read on the program is James Hearst, who is said to have been influenced by the dirt farms of Iowa. O'Sheel reads several of Hearst's Dust Bowl-influenced poems, and we are transported to the “steaming barnyard” with its “cloud of raging sound."

We are then introduced to the work of Inez George Gridley, who hails from Sullivan County in the southern Catskills. O’Sheel reads Mrs. Gridley’s poems "The Stopping Place," "The Lean Year," and “Spring in the Catskills,” which he calls "honestly out of the life that she knows and the life of her people and her community."

As a point of departure from the pastoral emphasis, O’Sheel to reads James Hearst’s poem “The Movers" and announcer Sy Freed reads “Snowfall” by Marguerite Decoco, which has been published in the current issue of Spirit Magazine. When Freed completes reading the Decoco poem, he surprises host A.M. Sullivan by reading a poem of Sullivan’s, “Jet Plane,” that was also printed in the same issue of Spirit Magazine.

The program closes as it began, with some harp music followed by the Voltaire quote, “Poetry is the music of the soul and above all of great and inspired souls.”



Dover Beach

By Matthew Arnold

The sea is calm tonight, 
The tide is full, the moon lies fair 
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light 
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand, 
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay. 
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!

Only, from the long line of spray 
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land, 
Listen! you hear the grating roar 
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling, 
At their return, up the high strand, 
Begin, and cease, and then again begin, 
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring 
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago 
Heard it on the Agean, and it brought 
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow 
Of human misery; we 
Find also in the sound a thought, 
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith 
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore 
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. 
But now I only hear 
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, 
Retreating, to the breath 
Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear 
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true 
To one another! for the world, which seems 
To lie before us like a land of dreams, 
So various, so beautiful, so new, 
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, 
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; 
And we are here as on a darkling plain 
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, 
Where ignorant armies clash by night.




By A.M. Sullivan

Summer is come. The beetle’s wings
Glint in the sun, and the wild thrush sings.
The bees go roistering through the vale
And Stagger back with their heather ale.
Nature, drowsing upon the Earth,
Sighs with the generous pangs of birth.
Fruit on the tree, and fruit in the womb
Of the woman who peers from the shuttered room.
But Farmer John is worrying more
About the sow, and the ribboned boar.
And not the woman who counts the weeks
With the pallor of birth upon her cheeks.
Harvest is come. The barn is full;
The Bleating ewes have lost their wool.
The old cow broods above her cud
Where the farmer spilled her bullock’s blood.



Audio Courtesy of the NYC Archives Municipal Archives WNYC Collection. 


Note: Some poor audio quality due to original recording quality.