Monday, November 2, 2009

A NOT-SO-GROANING BOARD AT THANKSGIVING


November and a little nip in the air signals me that Thanksgiving is approaching. I don’t know the temps in Sewanee, Tennessee right now, but I think we timed our homecoming to New Iberia, Louisiana to coincide with the onslaught of winter on The Mountain. The leaves in the woods near our cottage at Sewanee had become beautiful red, yellow, and orange hues and had fallen in our yard and surrounding woods when we locked the cottage doors, turned off the water, and drained lines in preparation for what old-timers on The Mountain predict is going to be a cold winter. We’re still green here in Louisiana!

As we’re invited to my grandson Martin’s new home for Thanksgiving, I don’t have to ponder menus and polish silver this year, but I still like to read about Thanksgiving spreads. One of the most unusual Thanksgiving dinners I’ve read about took place in the Ft. Juniper, Massachusetts home of poet Robert Francis. He wrote about it in a little book entitled TRAVELING IN AMHERST, a journal of the years 1930-50 in the poet’s life. I‘m on my fifth reading of this small volume that chronicles not only his everyday experiences in the Massachusetts countryside but his philosophy/theology of life. In this book, we see his reaction to a neighbor perched in an apple tree, his wisdom as he considers the inevitability of change, and his feelings about writing poetry. We’re also treated to some of his best poetry.

However, back to the not-so-groaning board at Thanksgiving. Because Robert Francis lived in virtual poverty in a house that he built for $1500 and subsisted on a yearly income of approximately $500 (shades of Thoreau), he grew most of his food, and this unusual Thanksgiving dinner consisted of: Baked soybeans in tomato sauce with fresh basil, creamed potatoes with fresh parsley, mashed squash, creamed onions, carrot sticks, wild grape jelly, fresh hot brown bread, Indian tapioca pudding with cream, elderflower wine, salted peanuts. He got all the ingredients from his garden, placed it on a table covered with a blue cloth and decorated it with a large orange, three golden ears of corn, and sprays of bittersweet. Francis said that he lived far below the American standard of living but wasn’t impoverished or pitiful. “I own my home; I am well nourished and adequately clothed,” he wrote. “Few writers have more propitious conditions under which to write.”

In 1986, while visiting in Amherst, Massachusetts, I noticed an announcement of a poetry reading at the Amherst Library and decided to attend the reading, expecting to hear an obscure local poet read verse that hadn’t been published. I was surprised to find television cameras set up, Richard Wilbur on the premises of the library, and Robert Francis reading from his published works at the celebration of his 85th birthday. I was also surprised to find that Francis was a friend of Robert Frost and that Frost has once said about his work: “I am swept off my feet by the goodness of your poems this time…Ten or so of them are my idea of perfection. I can refrain from strong praise no longer. You are achieving what you live for. You have not only the feeling of a true lyric, but the variety of a man with a mind.”

I’ve been a fan of Robert Francis since that time, and I always remember his not-so-groaning board on Thanksgiving Day when turkey and all the stuffings are placed on my own table that groans from the weight of what we southerners call “a gracious plenty.”

Note: For all you wannabe poets out there, Francis burned 459 rejection slips he had received for his poetry submissions, had a 16-year hiatus between publishing several books, and self-published two of his volumes of poetry. However, he received the Shelley Memorial Prize, Golden Rose of the New England Poetry Club, was Phi Beta Kappa poet at Tufts in 1955 and at Harvard in 1960. In addition he lived in Rome on a fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and returned to Italy on an Amy Lowell Travel Scholarship. In 1974 he received the Brandeis Creative Arts Award and became a Fellow of the Academy of American Poets. If you’re a poet who keeps old rejection slips, find a good place to make a bonfire and burn them. Create space for more writing and better fortune! Don’t be daunted by publishers. Read a raunchy poet like Charles Bukowski alongside Robert Francis, and you’ll probably decide, as I did, that contemporary critiquing is more a matter of taste than a matter of recognizing good talent.
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