The Poet's Advice


    YOU wish to be a poet, Little Man?
    More verses limping 'neath their big intent?
    Well -- one must be a poet if one can!
    But do you know the way the others went?

    Who buys of gods must pay a heavy fee.
    The world loves not its dreamers overmuch:
    And he who longs to drink at Castaly,
    Must hobble there upon a broken crutch.

    One sins by being different, it seems;
    At least so in our human commonweal.
    Who goes to market with his minted dreams,
    Must buy and bear the Cross of the Ideal.

    Lo, tall amid the forest, blackened, grim,
    The lightning-riven pine! -- God-kissed was he.
    How all the little beeches jeer at him,
    Safe in their snug arrays of greenery!

    And who shall call the little beeches mad?
    Not I, who know how big are little acts.
    Want what you have, and cherish, O my Lad,
    The downright, foursquare, geometric facts!
    But -- O, the ancient glory in your eyes!
    How bursts the dazzling wonder all around!
    Wild tempests of ineffable surprise --
    All color, dream and sound!

    You lip the awful flagons of old time,
    And mystic apples lure you to the bite!
    Blown down the dizzy winds of woven rhyme,
    Dead women come and woo you in the night!

    You tread the myrtle woods past time and place,
    Where shadows flit and ghostly echoes croon;
    And through the boughs some fatal storied face
    Breathes muted music like a Summer moon!

    I know the secret altars where you kneel.
    I know what lips fling fever in your kiss.
    That sorry little drab to whom you steal
    Is Queen Semiramis!

    The Bacchanalia of the sap now reigns!
    Priapic fires burn younder bough with blooms!
    Lo, goat-songs warbled from the vineyard fanes!
    Lo, Venus-nipples in the apple-glooms!

    Ah, who is older than the vernal surge,
    And who is wiser than the sap a-thrill?
    Forever, he who feels the lyric urge
    Shall do its will!

    Your rhymes? -- Some nimbler footed have been worse.
    What broken trumpet echoes from the van
    Where march the cohorts of Immortal Verse!
    Well -- one must be a poet if one can.

    John G. Neihardt (1881-1973)

As a young boy he was introduced to the Iliad and Odyssey and other Greek classics by the mother of a childhood friend, yet it wasn't until the age of 31 after eighteen to twenty five years John G. Neihardt published his most well known work A Cycle of the West (1948). This work is honored by many critics as among the greatest poetic achievements in the English language, and it earned Neihardt the fitting stature as “the American Homer.” Before that he and his family only rarely lived on more than a pittance, he was literary editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1926 to 1938, worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs from 1942 to 1945. Only at the age of 67 when he became Poet in Residence at the University of Missouri did he finally make a decent living. You can see that he was an accomplished lyric poet, although he forsake that form when he began his Cycle in 1912.

The Poet's Advice was published in his collection The Stranger at the Gate in 1912 and is a forward looking autobiography. He refers to Castaly in the second stanza as a way to mention to the spring and pool of Castalia on Mount Parnassus, a place sacred to Apollo and the Muses. Queen Semiramis is legendary queen of Assyria, who, with her husband Ninu are credited with having made Babylon into a great city. Bacchanalia is the festival of Bacchus a drunken revel outlawed by the Roman Senate

Once the addiction of writing struck him hard, Neihardt lived to write. He begrudged the hours spent earning a living. In 1921 The Nebraska State Legislature named him “Poet Laureate of Nebraska and the Plains.” He died of natural causes at his daughter's home in Columbia, Missouri at the age of ninety-two on November 3, 1973.


Blair, Bob:

Jessie B. Rittenhouse, ed. (1869–1948). The Little Book of Modern Verse. 1917:
Biographical Notes:

Public Domain text taken from the Poet’s Corner:

CST Approved.

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