Welcome to The Midwest Quarterly's second all-poetry volume, part of a full year of issues celebrating MQ's tradition of publishing the best contemporary poetry. Each issue brings together a variety of poems related (however closely or loosely) to a pair of contrasting themes: in this case, rural and urban. These themes are particularly appropriate for The Midwest Quarterly, which has long been a forum for poetry that engages with the natural world by depicting the landscapes with which human beings interact physically, emotionally, and intellectually. MQ itself, housed at Pittsburg State University in southeast Kansas, exists in the borderland between rural and urban culture. Echoing the name of Pennsylvania's more famous municipality, Pittsburg is a small city surrounded by rural landscapes, home to a historic downtown that doesn't look much different than it did in 1950, but flanked on either end by swaths of the fast food restaurants and national retail stores that are ubiquitous throughout the United States. Drive five minutes out of town, though, and one finds farmland extending hundreds of miles in most any direction, punctuated here and there by the small towns that seem to epitomize the homey, gritty personality of the Midwest. At the same time, though, we're only a couple of hours from several major cities, including Kansas City and Tulsa.
Historically, southeast Kansas is coal-mining territory, a rural landscape that in bygone decades helped fuel the industry of America's urban centers. Today, only remnants of that legacy exist. Water-filled strip-mining pits are now part of local parklands and wildlife areas, while Big Brutus, a 160-foot tall electric coal shovel weighing in at 11 million pounds, towers over the fields that surround it: too large to move elsewhere once it was decommissioned in the mid-1970s, it simply stayed in place as a regional landmark and open-air museum piece. Early in the 20th century, Pittsburg was also home to a major brickmaking industry, and it's said that the clay fields surrounding the town contributed over 50,000,000 paving bricks to the Kansas City stockyards; other Nesch Company bricks still form the roadbeds of certain streets in Pittsburg and elsewhere in Kansas, Missouri, and beyond. What could better represent the union of rural and urban than city streets paved with clay dug from Kansas fields, or big-city factories powered by coal dredged from rural layers of soil and stone?
The distinction between rural and urban settings is embedded in the history of poetry. The genre known as pastoral poetry has existed at least since the time of Hesiod (c. 750-650 BCE), whose Works and Days functioned partly as a poetic farmers almanac and partly as an instruction manual for agricultural practices. The first true pastoral poet is usually considered to be Theocritus, author of The Idylls in the third century BCE, who in turn was followed by Virgil, whose Ecologues (published in 38 BCE) and Georgies similarly depicted appealing rustic landscapes and celebrated the working lives of rural people:
O come and live with me in the countryside,
Among the humble farms. Together we
Will hunt the deer, and tend the little goats,
Compelling them along with willow wands.
Together singing we will mimic Pan,
Who was the first who taught how reeds could be
Bound together with wax to make a pipe.
Pan takes care of the shepherd and the sheep.
(Virgil, Ecologue II,
trans. David Ferry)
Pastoral poetry brought together rural landscapes, rustic labor, the pleasantness of nature, and the musicality of verse as embodied, in Virgil's lines, by the god Pan. Pastoral comes from a Latin term that refers to the life and work of shepherds, and importantly, pastoral is not pure nature poetry; that is, it doesn't depict wild nature absent of human activity. A human presence is essential to the genre, whether through physical labor in a natural landscape or, in more recent versions of pastoral, through an intellectual or emotional response to a rural setting. …