Guest poem sent in by Flavia Iacobaeus : I thought perhaps that this text/poem might be interesting. It wasn't intended as a poem, but as a voice-over for a newsreel, but I've always read it as one. It's long, but worth it.
(Poem #1424) The River
From as far West as Idaho, Down from the glacier peaks of the Rockies, From as far East as New York, Down from the turnkey ridges of the Alleghenies, Down from Minnesota, twenty-five hundred miles, The Mississippi River runs to the Gulf. Carrying every drop of water that flows down two thirds the continent, Carrying every brook and rill, rivulet and creek Carrying all the rivers that run down two thirds the continent, The Mississippi runs to the Gulf of Mexico. Down the Yellowstone, the Milk, the White and Cheyenne; The Cannonball, the Musselshell, the James and the Sioux: Down the Judith, the Grand, the Osage and the Platte, The Skunk, the Salt, the Black and Minnesota; Down the Rock, the Illinois and the Kankakee, The Allegheny, the Monogahela. Kanawha, and Muskingum; Down the Miami, the Wabash, the Licking, and the Green, The Cumberland, the Kentucky, and the Tennessee; Down the Ouchita, the Wichita, the Red, and Yazoo ... Down the Missouri three thousand miles from the Rockies; Down the Ohio a thousand miles from the Alleghenies; Down the Arkansas fifteen hundred miles from the Great Divide; Down the the Red, a thousand miles from Texas; Down the great Valley, twenty-five hundred miles from Minnesota, Carrying every rivulet and brook, creek and rill, Carrying all the rivers that run down two-thirds the continent ... The Missisippi runs to the Gulf. New Orleans to Baton Rouge, Baton Rouge to Natchez, Natchez to Vicksburg, Vicksburg to Memphis, Memphis to Cairo ... We built a dike a thousand miles long. Men and mules, mules and mud; Mules and mud a thousand miles up the Missisippi. A century before we bought the great Western River, the Spanish and the French built dikes to keep the Missisippi out of New Orleans at flood stage. In forty years we continued the levee the entire length of the great alluvial Delta, That mud plain that extends from the Gulf of Mexico clear to the mouth of the Ohio. The ancient valley built up for centuries by the old river spilling her floods across the bottom of the continent ... A mud delta of forty thousand square miles. Men and mules, mules and mud ... New Orleans to Baton Rouge, Natchez to Vicksburg, Memphis to Cairo ... A thousand miles up the river. And we made cotton king. We rolled a million bales down the river for Liverpool and Leeds&. 1860: we rolled four million bales down the river, Rolled them off Alabama, Rolled them off Mississippi, Rolled them off Louisiana, Rolled them down the river! We fought a war. We fought a war and kept the west bank of the river free of slavery forever. But we left the old South impoverished and stricken. Doubly stricken, because, beyond the tragedy of war, already the frenzied cotton cultivation of a quarter of a century had taked toll of the land. We mined the soil for cotton until it would yield no more, and then moved west. We fought a war, but there was a double tragedy ... the tragedy of land twice impoverished. Black spruce and Norway pine, Douglas fir and Red cedar, Scarlet oak and Shagbark hickory, Hemlock and aspen ... There was lumber in the North. The war impoverished the old South, the railroads killed the steamboats, But there was lumber in the North. Heads up! Lumber on the upper river. Heads up! Lumber enough to cover all Europé. Down from Minnesota and Wisconsin, Down to St. Paul; Down to St. Louis and St. Joe ... Lumber for the new continent of the West. Lumber for the new mills. There was lumber in the North and coal in the hills. Iron and coal down the Monogahela. Iron and coal down the Allegheny. Iron and coal down the Ohio. Down to Pittsburgh, Down to Wheeling, Iron and coal for the steel mills; for the railroads driving West and South, for the new cities of the Great Valley ... We built new machinery and cleared new land in the West. Ten million bales down to the Gulf ... Cotton for the spools of England and France. Fifteen million bales down to the Gulf ... Cotton for the spools of Italy and Germany. We built a hundred cities and a thousand towns: St. Paul and Minneapolis, Davenport and Keokuk, Moline and Quincy, Cincinnati and St. Louis, Omaha and Kansas City . . . Across to the rockies and down from Minnesota, Twenty-five hundred miles to New Orleans, We built a new continent. Black spruce and Norway pine, Douglas fir and Red cedar, Scarlet oak and Shagbark hickory, We built a hundred cities and a thousand towns ... But at what a cost! We cut the top off the Alleghenies and sent it down the river; We cut the top off Minnesota and sent it down the river; We cut the top off Wisconsin and sent it down the river. We left the mountains and the hills slashed and burned, And moved on. The water comes downhill, spring and fall; Down from the cut-over mountains, Down from the plowed-off slopes Down every brook and rill, rivulet and creek, Carrying every drop of water that flows down two-thirds the continent, 1903 and 1907, 1913 and 1922, 1927, 1936, 1937! Down from Pennsylvania and Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia, Missouri and Illinois, Down from North Carolina and Tennessee ... Down the Judith, the Grand, the Osage, and the Platte The Rock, the Salt, the Black, and the Minnesota, Down the Monogahela, the Allegheny, Kanawha and Muskingum Down the White, the Wolfe, and the Cache, Down the Kaw and Kaskaskia, the red and the Yazoo, Down the Cumberland, the Kentucky, and the Tennessee ... Down to the Mississippi. New Orleans to Baton Rouge ... Baton Rouge to Natchez ... Natchez to Vicksburg ... Vicksburg to Memphis ... Memphis to Cairo ... A thousand miles down the levee the long vigil starts. Thirty-eight feet at Baton Rouge River rising. Helena: river rising. Memphis: river rising. Cairo: river rising. A thousand miles to go, A thousand miles of levee to hold ... Coastguard patrol needed at Paducah! Coastguard patrol needed at Paducah! 200 boats - wanted at Hickman! 200 boats wanted at Hickman! Levee patrol: men to Blytheville! Levee patrol: men to Blytheville! 2000 men wanted at Cairo! 2000 men wanted at Cairo! A hundred thousand men to fight the old river. We sent armies down the river to help the engineers fight a battle on a two thousand mile front: The Army and the Navy, The Coast Guard and the Marine Corps, The CCC and the WPA, The Red Cross and the Health Service. They fought night and day to hold the old river off the valley. Food and water needed at Louisville: 500 dead, 5000 ill; Food and water needed at Cincinnati; Food and water and shelter and clothing needed for 750,000 flood victims; Food and medicine needed at Lawrenceburg; 35,000 homeless in Evansville; Food and medicine needed in Aurora, Food and medicine and shelter and clothing for 750,000 down in the valley. Last time we held the levees, But the old river claimed her valley. She backed into Tennessee and Arkansas And Missouri and Illinois. She left stock drowned, houses torn loose, Farms ruined. 1903 and 1907, 1913 and 1922, 1927, 1936, 1937! We built a hundred cities and a thousand towns ... But at what a cost! Spring and fall the water comes down, and for years the old river has taken a toll from the Valley more terrible than ever she does in flood times. Year in, year out, the water comes down From a thousand hillsides, washing the top off the Valley. For fifty years we dug for cotton and moved West when the land gave out. For fifty years we plowed for corn, and moved on when the land gave out. Corn and wheat; wheat and cotton ... we planted and plowed with no thought for the future ... And four hundred million tons of topsoil, And four hundred million tons of our most valuable natural resources have been washed into the Gulf of Mexico every year. And poor land makes poor people. Poor people make poor land. For a quarter of a century we have been forcing more and more farmers into tenancy. Today forty percent of all the farmers in the great Valley are tenants. Ten percent are share croppers, Down on their knees in the valley, A share of the crop their only security. No home, no land of their own, Aimless, footloose, and impoverished, Unable to eat even from the land because their cash crop is their only livelihood. Credit at the store is their only reserve. And a generation is growing up with no new land in the West ... No new continent to build. A generation whose people knew King's Mountain, and Shiloh; A generation whose people knew Fremont and Custer; But a generation facing a life of dirt an poverty, Disease and drudgery; Growing up without proper food, medical care, or schooling, "Ill-clad, ill-housed, and ill-fed" ... And in the greatest river valley in the world. Epilogue: *There is no such thing as an ideal river in Nature, but the Missisippi is out of joint.* *Dust blowing in the West ... floods raging in the East ...* *We have seen these problems growing to horrible extremes.* *When we first found the Great Valley it was forty percent forested.* *Today for every hundred acres of forests we found we have ten left.* *Today five percent of the entire valley is ruined forever for agricultural use!* *Twenty-five percent of the topsoil has been shoved by the old river into the Gulf of Mexico.* *Today two out of five farmers in the valley are tenant farmers - ten percent of them sharecroppers living in a state of squalor unknown to the poorest peasant in Europé* *And we are forcing thirty thousand more into tenancy and cropping every year.* *Flood control of the Missisippi means control in the great Delta that must carry all the water brought down from two-thirds the continent* *And control of the Delta means control of the little rivers, the great arms running down from the uplands. And the old river can be controlled.* *We had the power to take the valley apart; we have the power to put it together again.* In 1933 we started, down on the Tennessee River, when our Congress created the Tennessee Valley Authority, commissioned to develop navigation, flood control, agriculture, and industry in the valley; a valley that carries more rainfall than any other in the country; the valley through which the Tennessee used to roar down to Paducah in flood times with more water than any other tributary of the Ohio. First came the dams. Up on the Clinch, at the head of the river, we built Norris Dam, a great barrier to hold water in flood times and to release water down the river for navigation in low water season. Next came the Wheeler, first in a series of great barriers that will transform the old Tennessee into a link of fresh water pools locked and dammed, regulated and controlled, down six hundred fifty miles to Paducah. But you cannot plan for water unless you plan for land: for the cut- over mountains ... the eroded hills ... the gullied fields that pour their waters unchecked down to the river. The CCC, working with the forest service and agricultural experts, have started to put the worn fields and hillsides back together; black walnut and pine for the wornout fields, and the gullied hillsides; black walnut and pine for new forest preserves, roots for the cut-over and burned-out hillsides; roots to hold water in the ground. Soil conservation men have worked out crop systems with the farmers of the Valley ... crops to conserve and enrich the topsoil. Today a million acres of land in the Tennessee Valley are being tilled scientifically. But you cannot plan for water and land unless you plan for people. Down in the Valley, the Farm Security Administration has built a model agricultural community. Living in homes they themselves built, paying for them on long term rates the homesteaders will have a chance to share in the wealth of the Valley. More important, the Farm Security Administration has spent thousands of dollars to farmers in the Valley, farmers who were caught by years of depression and in need of only a stake to be self-sufficient. But where there is water there is power. Where there's water for flood control and water for navigation, there's water for power ... Power for the farmers of the Valley. Power for the villages and cities and factories of the Valley. West Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Missisippi, Georgia and Alabama. Power to give a new Tennessee Valley to a new generation. Power enough to make the river work! We got the blacks to plant the cotton and they gouged the top off the valley. We got the Swedes to cut the forests, and they sent them down the river. Then we moved our saws and our plows and started all over again; And we left a hollow-eyed generation to peck at the wornout valley; And left the Swedes to shiver in their naked North country. 1903, 1907, 1913, 1922, 1927, 1936, 1937 ... For you can't wall out and dam two-thirds the water in the country. We built dams but the dams filled in. We built a thousand mile dike but it didn't hold; So we built it higher. We played with a continent for fifty years. *Flood control? Of the Missisippi?* Control from Denver to Helena; From Itasca to Paducah; From Pittsburgh to Cairo ... Control of the wheat, the corn and the cotton land; Control enough to put back a thousand forests; Control enough to put the river together again before it is too late ... Before it has picked up the heart of a continent and shoved it into the Gulf of Mexico.
Notes: The text/poem belongs to a 1937 motion picture by the Farm Security Administration of the Department of Agriculture. It's written/directed by documentary filmer Pare Lorentz. I have loved this text since I first read it, and it has taught me a lot about the differences between Europe (where I live) and America (it really is a *continent* and not a, a gathering of nations with a common past). It also enlighted the history of the States in a way different enough to startle me into really looking at it. However much I've poked around, though, I can't find a clear answer to what I most want to know; this was published in 1937. What has happened to the Missisippi valley since then? Flavia () [Martin adds] Given my stance on 'prose with interesting line breaks' masquerading as poetry, I thought I'd explain my decision to run today's piece. As Flavia says, that this is not, superficially, a 'poem, but neither is it prose - as a documentary voiceover, it belongs to a different genre altogether, one that comes close to drama, but does not coincide with it. And while not written as a poem, today's text was definitely written with poetic intent, and, indeed, adheres to many of the conventions of poetry - the richly connotative language, the dense imagery, the use of verbal effects like repetition for emphasis that go far beyond the limits of their usage in prose, and even pointmaking wordplay like "And poor land makes poor people./ Poor people make poor land." Furthermore, I think voiceovers share a very important element with poetry - the strong role of time as an integral element. Today's script is paced as finely, and as effectively as any poem I've read - the rhythms of speech, of image and of story are all woven into a tapestry upon which the narrative is embroidered with precise control. Maybe not a "poem", but definitely poetry. martin [Links] Some more facts, a extract from the poem as well as a related article named "Saving the Good Earth: The Mississippi Valley Committee and Its Plan" can be found at: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~MA01/Davis/survey/home.html Nicely formatted html copy of the script: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~1930s/FILM/lorentz/riverscript1.html Biography: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~1930s/FILM/lorentz/bio.html