Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Meeting Alice Corbin Henderson (1881-1949) at Willamette University's Zena Farm

One of our favorite parts of Willamette University is Zena Farm—a five-acre, student-operated farm that is part of a larger, 305-acre property that includes a forest and a small observatory located in the Eola Hills about ten miles west of Salem proper. (Pretty awesome, right? How many other liberal arts universities do you know that can boast both a farm and a forest?) Overseen and managed by W.U.'s Sustainability Institute, the farm is a laboratory for all sorts of cool learning experiences. It sells tasty eats at the campus farm stand on Jackson Plaza during the school year. And it's also the site of the Summer Institute in Sustainable Agriculture—a residential, credit granting program that mixes hands-on learning with field trips, independent projects, and academic study in the theories and philosophies of sustainable agriculture.

We were out at the farm yesterday having lunch with students (including Shayna and Lori from last semester's Introduction to Creative Writing class) and the summer program leader Jennifer Johns, and we happened to notice the handwritten poem (pictured here) tacked to the side of the refrigerator. It's called "Kristen's Grace" and reads:

The silver rain, the shining sun
The fields where scarlet poppies run
And all the ripples of the wheat
Are in the bread that we now eat.

And when we sit at every meal
And say our grace we always feel
That we are eating rain and sun
And fields where scarlet poppies run.

For us, the poem's "scarlet poppies" immediately recalled John McCrae's famous World War I poem "In Flanders Fields," and so, intrigued by the apparent distance between World War I and what's going on at Zena, we set the office interns to work. Who was "Kristen," and was this her poem or her grace—or both? Might the poppies really link back to McCrae and World War I? And, if so, how does that affect how we read the poem today, especially in relation to the farm's mission? Well, we haven't found out who Kristen is, but the interns have discovered that while this is her grace, Kristen isn't the actual author of the poem. Indeed, it's a verse not uncommonly cited and used by sustainable foodie types—and sometimes by feminist types who see in the scarlet poppies a figure for menstruation—and it's usually titled "The Harvest" and attributed to Alice Corbin Henderson.

So who, you might be wondering, is Alice Corbin Henderson? Well, if it's the Alice Corbin Henderson we think it is, "Winter Harvest" not only links us to McCrae but also to Poetry magazine, where Henderson (1881-1949) was an editor and close associate of Harriet Monroe in the magazine's early years, co-editing with Monroe three editions (1917, 1923, 1932) of The New Poetry anthology. Henderson graduated from high school in Chicago and entered the University of Chicago, but due to her susceptibility to tuberculosis, she relocated to Sophie Newcomb College in New Orleans for the completion of undergraduate school. (Henderson's mother died of tuberculosis when Alice was three.) Upon graduation, Alice moved back to Chicago where she took classes at Chicago's Academy of Fine Arts, in the process meeting and subsequently marrying William Penhallow Henderson, an instructor at the Academy and a notable Arts and Crafts artist who, among other things, was working on Frank Lloyd Wright's Midway Gardens Project. Alice worked with Poetry and she also wrote poetry (her first book Linnet Songs was published in 1898 when she was seventeen years old).

Because of Alice's persistent health concerns, however, the Hendersons relocated to the more lung-friendly climes of New Mexico, where they settled in Santa Fe, becoming central figures in the area's art scene that included Witter Bynner, D.H. Lawrence, and eventually Georgia O'Keeffe. By 1925, at least, poets were meeting weekly at the Henderson residence to read and discuss their work, and it's quite likely that Carl Sandburg, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Ansel Adams, Willa Cather, Robert Frost, and W.H. Auden dropped by for one or more of these meetings over the years; we'd bet a considerable sum that on his cross-country travels—some on foot—Vachel Lindsay did too. (As we know, New York and Chicago weren't the only centers of modern art activity in the U.S.)

Alice continued to work for Poetry from Santa Fe, but that work—and her own poetry—became less and less the focus of her attention, as she and William became increasingly interested in Native and Chicano cultures and histories. She and William were cofounders of the New Mexico Association on Indian Affairs (1922) and the Indian Arts Fund (1925). Many native artists visited their home. William produced and acted in plays to support Indian drought relief efforts in the 1920s. Alice helped organize the Spanish Colonial Arts Society, and she became a librarian and curator for the Museum of Navajo Ceremonial Art—housed in a building designed by William. (Alice, btw, was also the editor of New Mexico: Guide to the Colorful State [1940], one of the American Guide series books sponsored by the Federal Writers' Project during the Depression.)

That's all very interesting stuff, you might be thinking to yourself, but what about those scarlet poppies in "The Harvest"? Well, we can not only make a good argument that Henderson's poppies do, indeed, directly reference the poppies that McCrae's "In Flanders Fields" made synonymous with World War I, but that this reference also makes "The Harvest" a stunning poem about our relationship to food sources and one of the most surprising poems that we've come across in a while. During World War I, Alice worked as publicity chair for the Women's Auxiliary of the State Board of Defense and, like many poets whom we don't typically view as "political" today (Sara Teasdale most immediately comes to mind), Alice wrote about the war as well. Here is her poem "A Litany in the Desert," for example, which first appeared in the April 1918 issue of the Yale Review:


     On the other side of the Sangre de Cristo mountains there is a great welter of steel and flame. I have read that it is so. I know nothing of it here.
     On the other side of the water there is terrible carnage. I have read that it is so. I know nothing of it here.
     I do not know why men fight and die. I do not know why men sweat and slave. I know nothing of it here.


     Out of the peace of your great valleys, America, out of the depth and silence of your deep canyons,
     Out of the wide stretch of yellow corn-fields, out of the stealthy sweep of your rich prairies,
     Out of the high mountain peaks, out of the intense purity of your snows,
     Invigorate us, O America.
     Out of the deep peace of your breast, out of the sure strength of your loins,
     Recreate us, O America.
     Not from the smoke and the fever and fret, not from the welter of furnaces, from the fierce melting-pots of cities;
     But from the quiet fields, from the little places, from the dark lamp-lit nights—from the plains, from the cabins, from the little house in the mountains,
     Breathe strength upon us:
     And give us the young men who will make us great.

From one perspective, it's kind of amazing to think that the same person who wrote "The Harvest" also wrote "A Litany in the Desert" and that a "modern" poet was moving back and forth between the rhyming quatrains of the former verse and the long, Whitman-like, Sandburg-like lines of the latter. But the spirit linking them—the faith in the local (what Vachel Lindsay called "the new localism"), the connection between the social and environmental, the suspicion that modern urban life separates the human being from her food source and leads to environmental and social catastrophe—comes from something of the same place, does it not?

So here's the kicker. Setting "The Harvest" in its historical context (World War I), authorial context ("A Litany in the Desert"), and philosophical/ethical framework reveals "The Harvest" to be a much more sobering poem than it initially appears, and much less optimistic than "A Litany in the Desert." In fact, it's a downright gruesome couple of quatrains, probably written after the war, about what we eat and where our food comes from. Indeed, Henderson invests the bread of the poem not just with natural phenomena ("rain and sun"), but also—as represented by the "scarlet poppies" that McCrae's verse made so famous—with the blood of modern war. This is not a poem about menstruation. Rather, it is a poem about how the bread that we eat "at every meal" contains the the war's dead, both way back then and in the present moment of the poem in which, as line four says, we "now eat." The "harvest" of the poem's title thus refers to the wheat mentioned in stanza one and to the harvest of death (see Timothy H. O'Sullivan's famous Civil War photo of that same title). If you compare this view of nature with the view of nature and its purifying forces in Whitman's "This Compost," you'll get a sense of just how shocking we find "The Harvest" to be. Indeed, when we now read "The Harvest" in the P&PC Office, we aren't finding ourselves saying grace. Rather, we find ourselves asking for some.