Poetry Friday: Of Willa Cather, Kirby Larson, and life on the Prairie

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Poetry Friday is hosted by  Michelle Barnes @ Today’s Little Ditty

We’re in the midst of historical fiction book clubs in Room 202, with a lot of discussion about historical time frames and how authors craft compelling stories about characters navigating their own personal lives and challenges  even as wars and famines rage.  One of our book club selections is Kirby Larson’s wonderful  Hattie Big Sky, the  story of a young homesteader’s westward adventure.

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The discussions have ranged over many different topics – how unusual it was to have a young woman set off to homestead on her own (although this did occur), the bravery and fortitude it required  to leave the familiar behind forever and turn West in search of a better life, and the difficulties and loneliness the early pioneers must have endured out on the  prairies.  We spent time looking at photographs and paintings to get a sense of the vastness of the landscape and the challenges of clearing, planting, and coaxing harvests that could sustain families, and provide an existence.  My suburban New Jersey kids, used to all the comforts of life, found this very humbling and inspiring.  I shared this poem by Willa Cather, which, I think, allows us to envision life on the prairie even more clearly:

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Prairie Spring

by Willa Cather

Evening and the flat land,
Rich and sombre and always silent;
The miles of fresh-plowed soil,
Heavy and black, full of strength and harshness;
The growing wheat, the growing weeds,
The toiling horses, the tired men;
The long empty roads,
Sullen fires of sunset, fading,
The eternal, unresponsive sky.
Against all this, Youth,
Flaming like the wild roses,
Singing like the larks over the plowed fields,
Flashing like a star out of the twilight;
Youth with its insupportable sweetness,
Its fierce necessity,
Its sharp desire,
Singing and singing,
Out of the lips of silence,
Out of the earthy dusk.

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8 thoughts on “Poetry Friday: Of Willa Cather, Kirby Larson, and life on the Prairie

  1. Hattie Big Sky is a wonderful book, and Cather’s poem captures Hattie’s spirit so well. Are you familiar with Ann Turner’s Dakota Dugout? I wrote about it here: http://readingtothecore.wordpress.com/2013/04/30/solc-dakota-dugout/
    Although I used it with 4th grade, I can easily see using it with 6th grade to complement Cather’s poem.
    Thank you for reminding me of Hattie, Tara. Hattie Ever After has been waiting patiently on my shelf for too long. I think I’ll start my spring break by reading that!

  2. This all sounds so rich and lovely. I was just reading a Jane Cooper poem in her collection THE FLASHBOAT called “Vocation: A Life” based on Willa Cather’s life and work. She quotes from words about the desk of Cather’s friend and mentor, Sarah Orne Jewett: “Write ordinary life as though it were history… so as to make us dream.”

  3. I’m very fortunate to count Kirby as a friend, after I was first a pure fan! HATTIE was perfect for my daughter and me, having both made many trips through Laura Ingalls Wilder books. (Said daughter is now about to be an elementary school teacher herself.) Kirby’s books share history with warmth and strength.

    Thanks, Tara, for the Willa Cather poem, too –
    “Sullen fires of sunset, fading,
    The eternal, unresponsive sky.” – just gorgeous and haunting.

  4. Love every bit, Tara. I haven’t read Hattie with a group yet, but have read Cather in the past & a small group traveled to Red Cloud with a group. It’s about a half day’s drive. We had such a wonderful time exploring all the places Cather wrote about. Your history unit sounds wonderful, & thanks for this poem too. The prairie can be beautiful!

  5. When I was young I always wanted to be a pioneer pushing westward info the frontier. Now, of course, I realize what such a life would have entailed, especially or a woman. I love the Cather poem. I didn’t know she wrote poetry.

  6. What a striking contrast between the tired old men and the flames of youth – so filled with life, brimming with fire. Very compelling. I have yet to read Hattie’s Big Sky. Hopefully this year.

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