Grandpa chewed on the butt end of his cigar as I read him my poem. His eyes rolled a bit beneath the thick wire rimmed glasses and the smoke from the cigar chaffed my nose.
“It’s a good one, son,” he told me, “but it ain’t much to my liking.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Poems were good in my day,” he replied. “You heared a lot of poems back then, The folks who wrote them did not indulge in themselves the way they do now. They didn’t cry over their spilt feelings so much. Your little story is about what you lost out on. Everybody loses out on something or someone. You can’t get through your term on earth less’n you do.”
He placed his cigar on the ashtray that stood on a pedestal near his chair. It raised waves of smoke, then went out.
“They told stories back then,” he continued. “Sometimes they dressed their words up in fancy duds … least wise, they did if they went on for further schoolin’. They learn you to use big words at universities.”
“So you didn’t think it was good?” I asked. I felt disappointed. I thought it was good enough to show him. Becky had just told me she wanted to go steady with Fred. I wrote about it, telling how Fred was a homely bastard who has too many pimples. I could not understand what she saw in him and I wrote about it my poem.
“Love poems are fair to middling,” he said. “Everybody falls in love. It drives you crazy for a while … wanting this and wanting that. Get to your age and it’s passion and infatuation. It feels strong, but it ain’t a lasting thing. A good story is a lasting thing.”
“What makes a good story?” I asked.
“It ain’t so much what you say, but the way you say it,” he replied. “If you say it good, then people will understand it.”
He took a book from the table beside the ashtray. “Now here’s one I always liked,” he said. He began to read.
The Ballad of William Sycamore’ was originally published by Stephen Vincent Benét in 1922.
THE BALLAD OF WILLIAM SYCAMORE
by: Stephen Vincent Benét
My father he was a mountaineer,
His fist was a knotty hammer;
He was quick on his feet as a running deer,
And he spoke with a Yankee stammer.
My mother, she was merry and brave,
And so she came to her labor,
With a tall green fir for her doctor grave
And a stream for her comforting neighbor.
And some are wrapped in the linen fine,
And some like a godling’s scion;
But I was cradled on twigs of pine
In the skin of a mountain lion.
And some remember a white, starched lap
And a ewer with silver handles;
But I remember a coonskin cap
And the smell of bayberry candles.
The cabin logs, with the bark still rough,
And my mother who laughed at trifles,
And the tall, lank visitors, brown as snuff,
With their long, straight squirrel-rifles.
I can hear them dance, like a foggy song,
Through the deepest one of my slumbers,
The fiddle squeaking the boots along
And my father calling the numbers.
The quick feet shaking the puncheon-floor,
And the fiddle squealing and squealing,
Till the dried herbs rattled above the door
And the dust went up to the ceiling.
There are children lucky from dawn till dusk,
But never a child so lucky!
For I cut my teeth on “Money Musk”
In the Bloody Ground of Kentucky!
When I grew as tall as the Indian corn,
My father had little to lend me,
But he gave me his great, old powder-horn
And his woodsman’s skill to befriend me.
With a leather shirt to cover my back,
And a redskin nose to unravel
Each forest sign, I carried my pack
As far as a scout could travel.
Till I lost my boyhood and found my wife,
A girl like a Salem clipper!
A woman straight as a hunting-knife
With eyes as bright as the Dipper!
We cleared our camp where the buffalo feed,
Unheard-of streams were our flagons;
And I sowed my sons like the apple-seed
On the trail of the Western wagons.
They were right, tight boys, never sulky or slow,
A fruitful, a goodly muster.
The eldest died at the Alamo.
The youngest fell with Custer.
The letter that told it burned my hand.
Yet we smiled and said, “So be it!”
But I could not live when they fenced the land,
For it broke my heart to see it.
I saddled a red, unbroken colt
And rode him into the day there;
And he threw me down like a thunderbolt
And rolled on me as I lay there.
The hunter’s whistle hummed in my ear
As the city-men tried to move me,
And I died in my boots like a pioneer
With the whole wide sky above me.
Now I lie in the heart of the fat, black soil,
Like the seed of the prairie-thistle;
It has washed my bones with honey and oil
And picked them clean as a whistle.
And my youth returns, like the rains of Spring,
And my sons, like the wild-geese flying;
And I lie and hear the meadow-lark sing
And have much content in my dying.
Go play with the towns you have built of blocks,
The towns where you would have bound me!
I sleep in my earth like a tired fox,
And my buffalo have found me.
Stephen Vincent Benét
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Stephen Vincent Benét (July 22, 1898 – March 13, 1943) was an American author, poet, short story writer and novelist. He is best known for his book-length narrative poem of the American Civil War, John Brown’s Body (1928), for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1929, and for two short stories, “The Devil and Daniel Webster” and “By the Waters of Babylon”.
Benet’s fantasy short story The Devil and Daniel Webster won an O. Henry Award, and he furnished the material for a one-act opera by Douglas Moore. The story was filmed in 1941 and shown originally under the title All That Money Can Buy.
Benét was born into an Army family in Fountain Hill, Pennsylvania, near Bethlehem in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. He spent most of his boyhood in Benicia, California. At the age of about ten, Benét was sent to the Hitchcock Military Academy. A graduate of The Albany Academy in Albany, New York and Yale University, where he was a member of Wolf’s Head Society and the power behind the Yale Lit, according to Thornton Wilder. He was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1944 for “Western Star”, an unfinished narrative poem on the settling of America.
It was a line of Benet’s poetry that gave the title to Dee Brown’s famous history of the destruction of Native American tribes by the United States: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.
He also adapted the Roman myth of the rape of the Sabine Women into the story The Sobbin’ Women, which in turn was adapted into the movie musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
John Brown’s Body was staged on Broadway in 1953, in a three-person dramatic reading featuring Tyrone Power, Judith Anderson and Raymond Massey, and directed by Charles Laughton.
Benet’s brother, William Rose Benét (1886–1950), was a poet, anthologist and critic who is largely remembered for his desk reference, The Reader’s Cyclopedia (1948).
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