April 30, 2014

Max’s Musings

By Max Molleston

Everyone raise their hand, or better yet stand up. That is, if you enjoy reading or listening to a long poem, anytime. I didn’t see any arm or body motion, so I guess we like shorter poems that “get to the point, whatever it is, sooner.” I am in that camp of people most of the time, and when I compose a poem, it is shorter. Longest composition for me has been eighty lines. One was about the Christian principle of being thankful. The most recent was a poem I lifted from letters to his wife from a Union soldier who farmed in Muscatine County, Iowa. The best challenge for a longer poem is it’s story-telling ability. You would tell me the best stories, novels or other longer books are written in prose, and I would say, maybe. This all brings me around to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. This man was a supernova of his time. A real star, when we humans did not have electronics to take up our time. A good many of those folks of his time, with a superior education and a higher culture awareness, enjoyed Longfellow because his poetry spoke out to them. Some was simple and cute, but most wanted to teach, so the lessons in poetry were long. The Arrow and the Song began like this.

I shot an arrow into the air
It fell to earth, I knew not where. . .

You may complete that poem, so delightful it was put to memory by thousands of young people at the request of English teachers for many decades, as part of their education. I used the poem as a reminder of who our high school classmates are, and were, at a 60th reunion of Ames High School last fall. Here’s another Longfellow poem which is short and cute as can be, and in thousands, yeah, millions of memories.

There Was a Little Girl
There was a little girl
Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good,
She was very, very good,
But when she was bad she was horrid.

The “little girl” poem made me recall recent conduct of our four-and-a-half year old twin grand-daughters. As all girls their age, they can set up screams of joy or fun, teaming these screeches and doubling discontent for those nearby. Longfellow was born in 1807 and married in 1843. He composed one of his famous long poems, Evangeline after a suggested theme from Nathaniel Hawthorne, no literary slouch.

It was a critical success, which means that peers of his education, much higher than most folks of his time, liked it and said so in various ways to praise Longfellow and this literary effort. He gave up his job teaching at Harvard College and set out on a long, long epoch poem, The Song of Hiawatha. When I was in 5th or 6th grade in Ames, Iowa the town’s same grades rehearsed and sang a long anthem called Song of Hiawatha for our music teachers, parents and grand- parents, as we stood on stage in the big high school auditorium. My book on Longfellow was edited by Johanna Brownell and Lisa Lipkin and published in 2000 by Castle Books, Edison, New Jersey. For those who would read the poem, it is a story and continues to be strong as it unfolds before our reading eyes. All great stories do this for us. Early on the poet set a “gathering scene.”

Down the rivers, o’er the prairies,
Came the warriors of the nations,
Came the Delawares and Mohawks,
Came the Choctaws and Camanches,
Came the Shoshonies and Blackfeet,
Came the Pawnees and Omahas,
Came the Mandans and Dacotahs,
Came the Hurons and Ojibway,
All ther warriors drawn together
By the signal of the Peace-Pipe,
To the mountains of the Prairie,
To the great Red Pipe-stone Quarry.

These lines and the hundreds upon hundreds more in his story poems were worthy of the best of the cowboy and Indian films Hollywood produced and still produces over the years, with the Indian chiefs and braves portrayed by makeup-darkened white men, coupled with botched-up American English. This exciting work lasted 138 pages in the edition I am using to write the column this month. How many lines? Five-thousand plus. If you are one willing and able to take on new “old” ideas about the mysteries of eons that passed with the life and times of the native Americans, then put down that great picture book these folks published years ago at Life Magazine and pick up a book that has within it The Song of Hiawatha and get into the story. Be rewarded with what you read as its ”melody” plays out. We can be grateful Longfellow divided this lengthy tome into chapters, marked off with Roman Numerals. This may have allowed Longfellow to stop at a place and get a new wind. It will do the same thing for its newest reader, which may be you. We are in the month of May, so let’s enjoy it after our harsh winter. Please return in a month’s time and see what June will bring for this column.

Filed Under: Personal Growth