NYFS logo    tagline
 Pinto Guira making guiramaking a mandalaplaying mandolin
 

SEE INSIDE
Voices Fall-Winter 2004:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the Downstate column, “Rock and Word” by Steve Zeitlin here.
JOIN the New York Folklore Society today to receive Voices.


Voices cover

support1

Volume 30
Fall-Winter
2004
Voices

Rock and Word by Steve Zeitlin

Downstate For decades, ever since college, I have begun my days sitting in an armchair first with a typewriter and then a laptop on my knees, 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. An Ecuadorian mason mentioned to her that Westchester County is a great spot for a stone mason because its wealthy residents can afford stone walls, and companies like IBM and Texaco often choose to surround their office complexes with stone structures that suggest strength, integrity, stability, and endurance. Today’s Latino stonemasons often apprentice with the crusty, older Italian, English, and Irish masons. Living in Hastings-on-Hudson in Westchester (19 miles from Grand Central Station and definitely “downstate”), perhaps I was trying to prove to Amanda that I could do something productive with my hands (not something I’m known for in the family), or that I could muster the machismo of the masons for my backyard masterpiece.

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, and 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 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 vacant lots 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 vacant lot 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 creek beds 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 heaviest objects on the planet (rocks)—had a lightness and delicacy about it as the stones touched and balanced. 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 from the whole.

Soon after I finished my motley 15-foot wall, I paid a pilgrimage to artist Andrew Goldsworthy’s inspired 2,278-foot stone wall—a grand epic poem—at the Storm King Art Center about an hour north of Hastings. The five-foot-high wall was built with the help of five master stonemasons from England and Scotland, masons who (unlike me) know how to split a rock along the grain, the way a good poet knows how 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 crafts 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 expressive culture 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. Poetry is the most participatory of the arts. 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?

 


Steve Zeitlin is the director of City Lore. An early version of this essay appeared as an afterword to his book of poems, I Hear America Singing in the Rain.


...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 heaviest objects on the planet (rocks)—had a lightness and delicacy about it as the stones touched and balanced. 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 from the whole.



This column appeared in Voices Vol. 30, Fall-Winter 2004. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.


TO PURCHASE A BACK ISSUE of Voices, visit our online book store.


TO PURCHASE A SINGLE ARTICLE from Voices, use the form below:


Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore
PURCHASE A SINGLE ARTICLE

To order a single article, please enter volume number, issue (“fall-winter” or “spring-summer”), and title of the article you wish and click on an order button below to purchase through Paypal or with your credit card. We will send you a PDF of the article via e-mail upon receipt of your order.

ITEM #603
Single Article $3.00
Volume No. & Issue
Title


Member Price  $2.00
Volume No. & Issue
Title




NEW YORK FOLKLORE SOCIETY ♦ 129 Jay Street ♦ Schenectady, NY 12305 ♦ 518.346.7008 ♦ Fax 518.346.6617 ♦ nyfs@nyfolklore.org