Keeping Watch: The Practice of Poetry

By Yocom, Margaret R. | Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore, Spring-Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Keeping Watch: The Practice of Poetry


Yocom, Margaret R., Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore


The purpose of poetry is to remind us how difficult it is to remain just one person, for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors, and invisible guests come in and out at will.

--Czeslaw Milosz, "Ars Poetica?"

[E]ntrance into the liminal is fundamental to the life of writing.... In the work of such a person, what lies beyond the conventional, simplified, and "authorised" versions of a culture's narratives can find voice.

--Jane Hirshfield, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (Hirshfield 1997, 205)

"Ask yourself a question," friend and poet Jennifer Atkinson advised me this spring when we were talking about ways of inviting poems to come. "A question for which you have no answer." I nodded, thinking of my fieldwork in Maine. I have plenty of questions like that. Could my poetry writing help me explore what is just out of sight, and beyond understanding?

I've been writing poems since the third or fourth grade. I covered a dress box from The New York Store--then a big department store in my Pottstown, Pennsylvania, hometown--with silver and white wrapping paper and pasted pictures on it that I'd cut out of greeting cards: a smiling tawny cat and more. Plays, poems, and stories--everything went in that box. I gave poems as gifts to my relatives: Aunt Gladys got "I Am a Sailor," about my imaginary trip to the Arctic. And my entry to the fifth-grade "Why My Pops is Tops" poetry contest won my father a pair of dark magenta silk pajamas with robin's egg blue piping that he still wears. But I'd never shown my poetry to anyone who also wrote poetry. To poets.

That changed around 2003, when I began to wonder if this were my last decade of university teaching and, if so, what would I like to learn from my colleagues before I leave. Poetry, came the answer. I joined our faculty women's poetry writing group, and I signed up for Jennifer's "Forms of Poetry" class. I asked folklorist Amy Skillman to join me in founding the Folklore and Creative Writing Section of the American Folklore Society, and I organize panels that bring folklorists and creative writers together at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conferences. It has been an excavation of the heart, like calling back some treasured friend who was set aside and almost lost.

My poetry has quite naturally turned to the natural world and the people of my major folklore fieldwork area--the western mountain and lake region of Maine--where I have been writing about the Richards, a family of loggers and homemakers, woodcarvers, storytellers, and knitters, as well as about others in the community: hunters, river drivers, schoolteachers, and more. The challenges of doing fieldwork in logging country, in a town of twelve hundred souls about 40 miles from hospitals and other services, also claims its space in my writing, both of poetry and ethnography.

When I first started my long-term project in 1985, I took poetry with me to read in the evenings. I loved the stories I was collecting from Rangeley people; I was deeply drawn to work in the timberwoods, to carvings that poured from jackknives and chain saws, and to women's knitting. But poetry helped me recall those parts of myself that I felt slipping away--the me who loved literary conversations, honored feminist ideals, and held to Quaker practices. So, no matter how tired I was, I opened Adrienne Rich's A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far, Christopher Howell's Though Silence: The Ling Wei Texts, and other favorites.

Now I see that poetry has been with me throughout my fieldwork time in Maine. Early in our friendship, Rodney and Lucille Richard introduced me to their friend Gaylon "Jeep" Wilcox, a poet of verses that celebrate Rangeley and more (see Yocom and Wilcox 2000). And, when the Logging Museum--founded by the Richards--established a Loggers Hall of Fame, we gave each honoree a framed copy of Oregon logger Buzz Martin's song "Where There Walks a Logger, There Walks a Man. …

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