Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Knee-Deep in June

My heart and mind veer toward the unfashionable and unpopular just as surely as the needle of the compass swings northward. One of my unfashionable and unpopular enthusiasms is for the poetry of James Whitcomb Riley.

Although popular in his own day, he had his fierce critics even then, chief among them Ambrose Bierce, who called dialect writers such as Riley
the pignoramous crew of malinguists, cacophonologists and apostrophographers who think they get close to nature by depicting the sterile lives and limited emotions of the gowks and sodhoppers that speak only to tangle their own tongues, and move only to fall over their own feet.
Of a stanza from Riley's poem "His Pa's Romance," Bierce wrote that "it affects the sensibilities like the ripple of a rill of buttermilk falling into a pig-trough." Again,
In the dirt of his "dialect" there is no grain of gold. His pathos is bathos, his sentiment sediment, his "homely philosophy" brute platitudes—beasts of the field of thought. He preaches with an impediment in his preach. His humor does not amuse. His characters are stupid and forbidding to the last supportable degree; he has just enough of creative power to find them ignoble and leave them offensive. His diction is without felicity, his vocabulary is not English, his—in short, Mr. Riley writes through his nose.
On the other hand, a naturalist of the stature of Donald Culross Peattie found much to admire in the poetry of James Whitcomb Riley. Peattie wrote:
There was in the past generation only one arch-poet of American Nature—James Whitcomb Riley. His fame as a versifier has helped to rob him of the title he ought to have, the poet of midwest Nature.
Here is a sample of Riley's verse, his Knee-Deep in June. The sixth stanza especially appeals to me in this month of June, when I'm cooped up in an office all day long.

Tell you what I like the best—
'Long about knee-deep in June,
'Bout the time strawberries melts
On the vine,—some afternoon
Like to jes' git out and rest,
And not work at nothin' else!


Orchard's where I'd ruther be—
Needn't fence it in fer me!—
Jes' the whole sky overhead,
And the whole airth underneath—
Sort o' so's a man kin breathe
Like he ort, and kind o' has
Elbow-room to keerlessly
Sprawl out len'thways on the grass
Where the shadders thick and soft
As the kivvers on the bed
Mother fixes in the loft
Allus, when they's company!


Jes' a-sort o' lazin' there—
S'lazy, 'at you peek and peer
Through the wavin' leaves above,
Like a feller 'ats in love
And don't know it, ner don't keer!
Ever'thing you hear and see
Got some sort o' interest—
Maybe find a bluebird's nest
Tucked up there conveenently
Fer the boy 'at's ap' to be
Up some other apple tree!
Watch the swallers skootin' past
Bout as peert as you could ast;
Er the Bob-white raise and whiz
Where some other's whistle is.


Ketch a shadder down below,
And look up to find the crow—
Er a hawk,—away up there,
'Pearantly froze in the air!—
Hear the old hen squawk, and squat
Over ever' chick she's got,
Suddent-like!—and she knows where
That-air hawk is, well as you!—
You jes' bet yer life she do!—
Eyes a-glitterin' like glass,
Waitin' till he makes a pass!


Pee-wees' singin', to express
My opinion, 's second-class,
Yit you'll hear 'em more er less;
Sapsucks gittin' down to biz,
Weedin' out the lonesomeness;
Mr. Bluejay, full o' sass,
In them baseball clothes o' his,
Sportin' round the orchard jes'
Like he owned the premises!
Sun out in the fields kin sizz,
But flat on yer back, I guess,
In the shade's where glory is!
That's jes' what I'd like to do
Stiddy fer a year er two!


Plague! ef they ain't somepin' in
Work 'at kind o' goes ag'in'
My convictions!—'long about
Here in June especially!—
Under some old apple tree,
Jes' a-restin' through and through,
I could git along without
Nothin' else at all to do
Only jes' a-wishin' you
Wuz a-gittin' there like me,
And June wuz eternity!


Lay out there and try to see
Jes' how lazy you kin be!—
Tumble round and souse yer head
In the clover-bloom, er pull
Yer straw hat acrost yer eyes
And peek through it at the skies,
Thinkin' of old chums 'at's dead,
Maybe, smilin' back at you
In betwixt the beautiful
Clouds o' gold and white and blue!-
Month a man kin railly love—
June, you know, I'm talkin' of!


March ain't never nothin' new!—
Aprile's altogether too
Brash fer me! and May—I jes'
'Bominate its promises,—
Little hints o' sunshine and
Green around the timber-land—
A few blossoms, and a few
Chip-birds, and a sprout er two,—
Drap asleep, and it turns in
'Fore daylight and snows ag'in!—
But when June comes—Clear my th'oat
With wild honey!—Rench my hair
In the dew! and hold my coat!
Whoop out loud! and th'ow my hat!—
June wants me, and I'm to spare!
Spread them shadders anywhere,
I'll git down and waller there,
And obleeged to you at that!

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