Emergent Verse | ‘High Lonesome’
- Published: March 21, 2022
By Ed Davis
Retired Antioch professor, poet and translator Harold Wright used to contribute articles to the News, concluding with a tanka, a strict Japanese poetic form. Harold’s featured poem below cleverly combines some elements of the form with the Appalachian Ohio roots of the author’s childhood. “Whiskey and Blood” comes from his unpublished chapbook, “Humming To Old Country Music Tunes.”
Ken Burns’ documentary “Country Music” made Harold remember his own radio days of youth.
“I remember listening to these tunes,” he told me in an email, “on both the radio and in my head … [and] they have remained in my head for 70 or 80 years and here are the poems that were influenced by them.”
With intriguing titles such as “Like a Knife Blade,” the poems seized me instantly — provocative and dramatic, like the best songs of Haggard, Cash and Nelson. You don’t have to know or much care about country music to enjoy the charms of Harold’s poems, well-conveyed through imagery, repetition and very simple words. Each of the eight submitted, artfully arranged into 15 compact lines, uses a song title or a line from an old country song for its own title. Here’s “Whiskey and Blood,” the first lines of which quote the opening lyrics of the song “Wreck on the Highway,” written by Dorsey Dixon and recorded by Roy Acuff in 1938:
Whiskey and Blood
“…whiskey and blood”
were all mixed together
but I didn’t hear
nobody pray, dear brother”
No, nobody prayed.
as I whittled wooden knives
in the old garage
while listening real hard
to radio songs
after I was home from school.
i also tried to sing
and even pluck a few chords
on grandma’s old guitar
but my ear was just as dead
as bodies on that highway
Harold’s opening line immerses the reader in another world. And it’s the poem’s boy narrator and not the song’s singer whose follow-up refrain — “No, nobody prayed” — sets the desolate tone. It is the lens through which the reader receives the hauntingly precise details. The boy’s world seems a lonely, solitary place, the implied future not much better.
In the old garage, he whittles “wooden knives.” Whittling is often benignly associated with country people, but “knives” suggests this boy might need weapons someday to survive. And sure enough, another poem, “Like a Knife Blade,” details the narrator’s being stabbed by “a knife blade sharpened on a grinding wheel in a greasy garage,” clearly linking the two poems.
The boy of “Whiskey” is connected to the outside world by the radio, to which he listens real hard. He even tries emulating his radio heroes by singing along, accompanying himself on “grandma’s old guitar.” He may be outside school but he’s getting an education about the school of hard knocks beyond the holler.
He believes he’s no good at singing, and the poem concludes with the stunning metaphor that his ear, and presumably his voice, is “as dead as bodies on that highway.” It’s a powerfully sorrowful last line. Far from escape or solace, the radio only mirrors his alienated state. That Harold captures all of this in such a small package is quite an accomplishment. No banjos are flailed, no guitars strummed, no fiddles bowed; I hear the wail of bluegrass “high lonesome” in Harold’s words alone.
In form, “Whiskey and Blood,” either consciously or unconsciously, resembles the tanka form Harold once translated in his column, with lines containing either five or seven syllables alternating through a mere five lines. Most of Harold’s 15 lines contain only seven syllables. I love the mash-up of Japanese influence in an Appalachian poem inspired by a country song!
Also, a word about punctuation, which, often unnoticed, can still strongly impact a poem’s reader.
When I first read the fifth line, I appreciated the repetition in the boy’s voice, but what if that period were changed to a comma? “No, nobody prayed, as I whittled wooden knives” strengthens the connection, I feel, between the sadness of the song and the boy’s own life.
So what’s the difference between song lyrics and poetry? Certainly, song lyrics can be very poetic, and poems can approach songs with their many musical devices — repetition, like a refrain, is only one of many. But to be a poem, words must, I believe, stand alone — no sonorous fiddle or booming bass to provide aural atmosphere, create mood and meaning.
And if a poem really works, musical accompaniment would likely distract. As much as I love music, I believe Harold’s simple, concrete words give me an experience just as powerful, though very different, as would listening to the song that inspired his poem.
Send me your poems today at firstname.lastname@example.org!