The Folklore Muse: Poetry, Fiction, and Other Reflections by Folklorists

The Folklore Muse: Poetry, Fiction, and Other Reflections by Folklorists

by Frank de Caro

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ISBN-13: 9780874217278
Publisher: Utah State University Press
Publication date: 10/15/2008
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 244
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Frank de Caro’s other books include An Anthology of American Folktales and Legends and (with Rosan Augusta Jordan) Re-Situating Folklore: Folk Contexts and Twentieth Century Literature and Art.

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The Folklore Muse

Poetry, Fiction, and Other Reflections by Folklorists

Utah State University Press

Copyright © 2008 Utah State University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87421-726-1

Chapter One

Steve Zeitlin

Rock and Word

Digo da pedra, "E uma pedra." Of the stone I say, "It's a stone." -Alberto Caeiro (Fernando Pessoa)

My days begin-as they have for decades-drinking a cup of coffee and writing poetry. I consider it a form of centering, looking into a different kind of mirror-not to comb my hair, but to remind myself of who I am.

Yet, when I turned fifty, I felt the need for a new avocation. I decided to forgo poems and spend mornings building a stone wall with my two hands in the backyard. In fact, I was hoping to impress my wife, folklorist Amanda Dargan, who had recently completed a project on the stonemasons of Westchester County. Westchester is a great spot for a stonemason, an Ecuadorian mason told her, because its wealthy residents can afford stone walls, and local companies like IBM and Texaco oft en choose to surround their office complexes with stone structures that suggest strength, integrity, stability, and endurance. Building a stone wall was my way of trying to prove to Amanda that perhaps I had precisely those qualities and I could do something productive with my hands (not something I'm known for in the family), or that I could lift something heavier than a laptop.

Besides, I reasoned, poems are just a few coded chicken scratches on papyrus, or dots on an electronic screen. A stone has weight and mass: it exists as an object in the real world. My poems kept me at my computer, but finding stones for the wall necessitated a journey.

The journey led me on a pilgrimage back to my boyhood. With the years, we forget how a rock rests in our hands, how a boulder feels beneath our feet. Searching for stones took me into crooked streams and woods in Hastings-Steve Zeitlin, Master of Creek Beds-and down to the rock beaches in north Yonkers that run along the train tracks. It took me back to a childhood spent foraging in vacant lots.

And it brought me back to poetry. I soon discovered that stones, like words, are everywhere. The trick to building a stone wall is to find rocks that fit into one another perfectly and form a structure that won't collapse from its own weight. A poem is a dry stone wall, bearing only a passing resemblance to a wet wall, whose concrete is like the music that holds a song together. My dry wall, like a poem, relies solely on rocks: words and their placement.

A rock-strewn creekbed triggers childhood sensations: the way the bottoms of your feet take on the shape of the uneven stones, and the way your body assumes the form of the boulders as you clamber over them. Writing a poem has some of that same joy, the words taking your own shape as you wander through creekbeds of syllables, with your own life rolling over them. I discover the thrill of unearthing the right rock for a particular spot on the wall, just as I would sometimes come upon the perfect word or line for a poem. I marveled at the way a stone wall-made of one of the planet's heaviest objects (rocks)-has a lightness and delicacy about it as the stones touch and balance. The best poems-made of the lightest things on the planet (words)-demonstrate a sturdiness, coupled together so perfectly that a single one cannot be removed without destroying the whole.

Soon after I finished my motley 15-foot wall, I learned that artist Andrew Goldsworthy had built a 2,278-foot stone wall at the Storm King Art Center in upstate New York, a sculpture garden that celebrates the relationship of art to nature. Having built a wall myself, I paid a pilgrimage. I discovered a grand epic poem rolling across the countryside, at one point bending down into a river and appearing to rise out of it on the other side. Goldworthy's stone masterpiece wraps around every tree it passes so that it appears to alternately wall them in and openly embrace them. The five-foot-high wall was built with the help of five master stonemasons from England and Scotland, masons who (unlike me) knew how to split a rock along the grain, the way a good poet knows where to break the lines.

As folklorists become less bound by hard and fast notions of "tradition" in our work, we discover that folk culture includes not only craft s such as stonemasonry but poetry itself, even when it's not handed down across generations, even when it originates with the individual-particularly if it's part of the cultural expression of this nation's subcultures, such as cowboys, loggers, cops, nurses, or fishermen. Poetry plays a central role in all the cultures I've studied or been a part of. Folk poetry is among the most participatory of the arts. (As folklorists are aware, the reason it's so hard to find great poetry is that so much of it is embedded in the cadences and imagery of ordinary conversations-and it is rare for poems to rise to that level.) Our legacy of language leaves the possibility of artful communication open to all of us.

Ursula Le Guin writes of discovering a twelfth-century church in Wales with the words "Tolfin was here" scraped in runes on the stone. The words, she suggests, carry this message: "Life is short, the material was intractable, someone was here." My poems often seem to me like those seemingly immutable chicken scratches on the stone prison wall that say, "I was here." But my wall is an exercise not in writing on but composing with stone. From nature's wondrous shapes, I labor to create a functional work of art in my backyard. Life is short, the material intractable, but still, undaunted, I continue to build walls of rocks and words on the unyielding landscape. How else to get blood from a stone?

Daniel Peretti


Stories, like Heraclitus's river, are never the same twice. Audience members-be they listeners or readers-bring to the text their own context. Not only that, each audience member brings a different mental context to the same text each time they experience it. In other words, variation occurs not only in the text but in people-even the same person at different times. Textual variation has been relatively easy to document. Changes in people's mental context, however, are slippery, fleeting, and intangible. Sometimes they find expression in texts, but more oft en, these changes are only observable in reactions and receptions.

I came across an opportunity to describe this sort of change, drawing upon my own life. It began when I received a book in the mail. The book was Shatterday by Harlan Ellison, a birthday gift from an old friend. I had read the book years ago, when another friend gave it to me as a Christmas present, so I merely placed the new copy, a beautiful first edition, on a bookshelf. Glancing a moment at it, I noticed the features of the books on the shelf. The variously sized spines rose and fell like rolling hills. Each shelf in the case portrayed a different landscape with its own topography. After this brief pause, I decided that receiving the book presented me with a good reason to revisit it. I read its introduction once more, but something was different. Something about it hit me, emotionally and powerfully.

Ellison is known for the essays he writes as introductions to his short story collections. They tie the books together, pointing out themes, demonstrating the geneses of the stories, why he writes them, and anything else relevant. This particular introduction revolved around a story about a night Ellison was a guest on a radio talk show.

Ellison, prompted by the show's host, revealed that a story of his was actually about the feelings he'd experienced when his mother was ill and under constant care. He'd written a story to read to an audience one night, and in the middle of reading "a section where the lead character is having the argument with his alter ego about his mother, I realized for the first time that I wanted my mother to die." He explained himself: "I didn't mean that I wanted her to die, just to be gone.... she'd been extremely ill off-and-on for years ... she was like a shadow ... and I wanted to be free of that constant realization that she was out there .... I just had to admit that I wanted her gone." He's not done: "And it was terrible, just terrible. I thought I was scum unfit to walk with decent human beings."

Though the conversation moved on, before long a woman called in to say, "Thank you. Thank you for telling that about your mother. My mother was dying of cancer and I had the same thoughts and I hated myself for it. I thought I was the only person in the world who ever thought such an awful thing, and I couldn't bear it." Ellison tells his readers that this is the job of writers, to say the things that most people keep hidden, to tell people that they are not alone in their lives. Other people have these horrible feelings. He calls them, and the introduction, "Mortal Dreads."

This was what had hit me. This made it hard for me to speak.

But I'd read it before. I knew what was coming. The question is, why? Why did it affect me so strongly this time? Why so little at first? What had happened to me?

I had been teaching an introductory folklore class for undergraduates at Indiana University and reached the point in the semester when I attempt to demonstrate exactly why the study of folklore is important. I do this every semester, and not once have I done so to my satisfaction.

It's similar to what happens when somebody asks me why I want to be a writer, why I would bother when nobody reads anymore. I know the answer, but I just can't put it into words. The thing is, I should be able to. I'm not new to writing or to folklore. And isn't my job as a writer and educator to put things into words?

At the time I received Shatterday, I had just passed that important point in my folklore class, and I had come to the decision that I could no longer put off writing for a living. I had done so earlier because I felt like I needed to learn a lot more. I continued to write, but graduate school was my priority. When the book arrived, I was at a point where writing professionally was once more an option. This meant that I actually had to sit down every day and write. If I wanted this to be part of my career, my effort had to become sincere.

All of this churned and bubbled in my head as I read "Mortal Dreads." Other things had changed in me as well. I had become a folklorist, which meant I had been exposed to an entire discipline's worth of new ideas.

It's not difficult to see parallels between folklore and Ellison's job description. In a 1928 essay in the Journal of the Royal African Society called "Some Aspects of West African Folk-Lore," R. S. Rattray writes that folklore is an opportunity for people to express "things about which everyone knew, but concerning which one might not ordinarily speak in public." This is similar enough to the writer making public mortal dreads, but I had not read Rattray's article the first time I read "Mortal Dreads."

Nor had I read Henry Glassie's Art and Life in Bangladesh. I had not learned of his encounter with a potter named Garunga who had chosen to give up his life's work. Glassie, returning to this man's shop after an absence, found it collapsed. I'll allow Glassie to describe the encounter: "Garunga met me there, in the scene of his life's work, in the dusty beginning of an archaeological site. He told me that pottery was labor too hard for the current generation. The shop was done. I gave him the photographs I had taken of him, and we embraced. He had now, he said, only one reason to live, and that was to see this book. The one who writes about the living has extra reasons to keep going, late at night, when the body complains."

The first time I read "Mortal Dreads" I had not read Keith Basso's "Stalking with Stories" in Wisdom Sits in Places. In it he describes how, for the Cibecue Apache, stories and landscape combine to help them live properly. He tells us that these things can change people for the better and stresses the importance of both narrative and geography. It's not just the stories, but the ever-present reminder of their meanings found in the landscape where they're set that steers people aright. The Apaches themselves have developed the hunting metaphor: Stories can be shot at people like arrows. They stalk like hunters. It takes the Apache to formulate these ideas, and it takes a folklorist (who may or may not be Apache) to bring them to the rest of the world.

Being a folklorist means writing a lot. It means letting people tell their own stories and finding meaning in those stories-as Glassie writes, learning together.

Harlan Ellison is my favorite writer. To read his stories is to delve into parts of myself that I do not necessarily like. He writes of mortal dreads, making public the secret fears we all share; he brings this into the open, states it unequivocally. He confronts his readers with "the ugliness of simply being human." So I wondered: what ugliness do his stories force me to face? What mortal dread do I share with the rest of humanity?

Posed this way, the question is easy to answer. I look to the story I have read the most oft en, Ellison's "On the Downhill Side." I am struck by the language, the way it refuses to descend into cliché. But it takes more than that to make me read a story over and over. It takes a connection with the characters, and a realization that I might be a lot like them; or rather, I might have been, had the story not hit me right between the eyes.

At one point in the story, the narrator, Paul, describes to his companion the worst thing that ever happened to him. His ex-wife Bernice had been committed to psychiatric care and one night, years later, her mother called. She told him of the hospital and how poorly Bernice was doing. "And then she did an awful thing to me. She said the last time she'd been to see Bernice, my ex-wife had turned around and put her finger to her lips and said, 'Shh, we have to be very quiet. Paul is working.' And I swear, a snake uncoiled in my stomach. It was the most terrible thing I'd ever heard."

I tend to get obsessed with my work. I lose track of the outside world and very much want to be undisturbed while I do this. I was one of those kids whom people describe as living in their own little world. As I got older, reclusiveness evolved into reticence, which was little better. I began to wonder why I was behaving this way, and in studying folklore, I found part of an answer. Linda Dégh, in her book Legend and Belief, discusses ostension, the idea that people act out legends. People respond to the possibility that the stories might be true and, in some cases, they make them true. She gives examples: tampering with Halloween candy, poisoning Tylenol, school shootings, and copycat crimes.

The result of this is oft en quite terrifying, but other legends, less sinister but no less insidious, can induce ostensive behavior. There is a legend of sorts (perhaps folk idea is a better term) about writers and scholars existing in ivory towers, isolated from the world around them. They are left alone in their genius, to produce great works. To some minds, this is attractive. But aside from consigning oneself to hermitic isolation or a monastic lifestyle, it is quite difficult. It leads to conflict. It could potentially lead to a phone call such as the one Paul received. In other words, it hurts people. Existing mentally in my own little world, I was in some way enacting the legend of the academy. However, while people who cared about me and wanted me to care about them physically surrounded me, I was setting myself up for disaster. And like Paul in the story, the fact that I wasn't doing it on purpose didn't make it any better.

Ellison's story flew like an arrow into me, telling me not to live that way, to value the people around me as much as I value my words and work. He constantly reminds his readers that they live in a world that requires their attention. Ellison, as a writer and as a person, has continually attempted to demonstrate that writers don't have to live shut up in the ivory tower. He's known for his passionate speeches and activism, for writing stories in storefront windows, and for generally pointing out that we cannot avoid the rest of the world. To do so is madness.


Excerpted from The Folklore Muse Copyright © 2008 by Utah State University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Contents Acknowledgments The Folklorist's Endeavor: An Introduction Being or Becoming a Folklorist Steve Zeitlin, "Rock and Word" Daniel Peretti, "Shelfscapes" Libby Tucker, "Travels" Edward Hirsch, "Work Song" Jeannie Banks Thomas, "Instructions for Installing Blinds," "Woman, 41 (Motif GYN041)" Steve Zeitlin, "Barbara," "Julia," "Amanda in the Mornings". . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 46 Joanne B. Mulcahy, "'Affectionados': What My Mother Taught Me about Language". . . . . . . . . . . . . . 48 Mary Magoulick, "Women and Water in Senegal". . . . . . . 60 Elaine J. Lawless, "In Search of Our Mothers . . . and Our Selves". . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 75 Fieldwork, Folk Communities, Informants . . . . . . . . . . . 106 Frank de Caro, "Oral History". . . . . . . . . . . . . . 110 Cynthia Levee, "White Bluffs and Miss Lena". . . . . . . 112 Steve Zeitlin, "Margaret," "Cat" . . . . . . . . . . . . 114 Jens Lund, "Karl and Janie". . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 116 Ted Olson, "Historical Sign" . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 125 Margaret Yocom, "Opening Camp," "Where the Living Keep Watch," "Echo, at Lakeside," "In Jewelweed". . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 127 William Bernard McCarthy, "Second Growth". . . . . . . . 130 Jeff Todd Titon, "Percy" . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 132 Teresa Bergen, from Bigfoot Stole My Husband . . . . . . 154 Performance. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 168 Matt Clark, "Legends, Rumors, Lore, and Revelations (Some Incomplete) Involving Leaton Troutwine, a Local Eccentric/Celebrity/Hero (and Gordon's Owner)". . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 173 Steve Zeitlin, "The Storytelling Wake" . . . . . . . . . 208 Leslie Prosterman, "Rant," "Ceci," "Painting Louise Glück". . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 209 John Burrison, from Kamp: A Memory Novel . . . . . . . . 214 Jeannie Banks Thomas, "Shins around the Fireside (Jig)". . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 223 William Bernard McCarthy, "Maybelle and Sara on the Porch" . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 224 The Powers of Narrative . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 225 Frank de Caro, "Ballad Girls". . . . . . . . . . . . . . 228 Kirin Narayan, "Stella Stories". . . . . . . . . . . . . 230 Steve Zeitlin, "Once Upon a Time," "Tickling the Corpse," "Mirror" . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 248 Legend and Myth . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 250 Mary Magoulick, "A Cosmology of Women" . . . . . . . . . 253 Carrie Hertz, "Absent Gods". . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 255 Paul Jordan-Smith, "Glaukos," "Shadow" . . . . . . . . . 258 Danusha Goska, "The Ramayana . . . as if Sita Mattered" . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 259 Material Traditions, Material Things. . . . . . . . . . . . . 295 Holly Everett, "One of My Mothers" . . . . . . . . . . . 298 Steve Zeitlin, "The Quilters". . . . . . . . . . . . . . 307 Laurel Horton, "Grandma Effie and the Heirloom". . . . . 308 Jo Radner, "My Great-Great Half-Uncle Horace's Bone-Handled Jackknife" . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 309 Margaret Yocom, "The Cane" . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 311 Children, Lore, and Language . . . . . . . . . . 312 Susan Stewart, "my mother's garden," "arrowhead," "shadowplay," "tag," "red rover". . . . . . . . . . 314 Steve Zeitlin, "The Lulu Bird Nestles in the Daddy O Tree," "Folksay," "The Tenderness of Swine" . . . . 318 Neil Grobman, from Lost in Redskirt Forest . . . . . . . 320 Ritual and Custom . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 344 William Bernard McCarthy, "The Birthday Horse" . . . . . 348 Rosan Augusta Jordan, "In Praise of Bodies," "Hands and Hearts in the Days of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico" . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 350 Ted Olson, "Christmas Tree". . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 352 Steve Zeitlin, "Madhulika" . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 353 Margaret Yocom, "Eating Alone" . . . . . . . . . . . . . 354 Norma E. Cantú, from Cabañuelas: A Love Story . . . . . . . 355 Worldview and Belief. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 368 Jeannie Banks Thomas, "Salem, Massachusetts, Playground at Gallows Hill" . . . . . . . . . . . . 370 Teresa Bergen, "Haints". . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 371 Notes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 422 Contributors. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 409

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