Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

How I’ve composed poetry that dances (in the barn) April 4, 2013

Entering my home county of Redwood along Minnesota State Highway 68 southeast of Morgan.

Entering my home county of Redwood along Minnesota State Highway 68 southeast of Morgan. Rural Redwood County is the setting for most of my poetry.

POETRY. That single word encompasses language, music, art, emotion and more. It’s a word to be celebrated in April, designated as National Poetry Month by the Academy of American Poets.

I’ve written poetry for about four decades, but not with particular passion or regularity until recent years. Something has evolved within me as a writer, directing me from the narrow path of journalistic style writing to the creativity of penning poetry.

Perhaps a parcel of my new-found enthusiasm can be traced to my publishing success. Seventeen, soon to be 18, of my poems have been published in places ranging from literary journals to anthologies to billboards to a devotional and more. I figure if editors have accepted my poetry for publication, I must be doing something right. And when they reject my poetry, as has happened often enough, they were correct in those decisions.

An abandoned farmhouse along Minnesota State Highway 19 east of Vesta on the southwestern Minnesota prairie.

An abandoned farmhouse, like this one along Minnesota State Highway 19 east of Vesta on the southwestern Minnesota prairie, inspired my poem, “Abandoned Farmhouse,” published in Poetic Strokes, A Regional Anthology of Poetry from Southeastern Minnesota, Volume 3.

Most of my poems are rooted in childhood memories from the southwestern Minnesota prairie. I write about topics like barns, walking beans, an abandoned farmhouse, canned garden produce, taking lunch to the men in the field and such.

My poetry rates as visually strong and down-to-earth. There’s no guessing what I am writing about in any of my poems.

Barns, like this one along Minnesota Highway 60 west of Waterville, have woven into my poetry.

Barns, like this one along Minnesota Highway 60 west of Waterville, have woven into my poetry.

Here, for example, is my poem which published in Volume One of Lake Region Review, a high-quality west central Minnesota-based literary magazine of regional writing. To get accepted into this journal in 2011 and then again in 2012 significantly boosted my confidence as a poet given the level of competition and the credentials of other writers selected for publication.

This Barn Remembers

The old barn leans, weather-weary,
shoved by sweeping prairie winds,
her doors sagging with the weight of age,
windows clouded by the dust of time.

Once she throbbed with life
in the heartbeats of 30 Holsteins,
in the footsteps of my farmer father,
in the clench of his strong hands
upon scoop shovel and pitchfork.

This barn spoke to us,
the farmer and the farmer’s children,
in the soothing whir of milking machines
pulsating life-blood, rhythmic, constant, sure.

Inside her bowels we pitched putrid piles of manure
while listening to the silken voices of Charlie Boone
booming his Point of Law on ‘CCO
and Paul Harvey wishing us a “good day,”
distant radio signals transmitting from the Cities and faraway Chicago.

This barn remembers
the grating trudge of our buckle overshoes upon manure-slicked cement,
yellow chore-gloved hands gripping pails of frothy milk,
taut back muscles straining to hoist a wheelbarrow
brimming with ground corn and pungent silage.

This barn remembers, too,
streams of hot cow pee splattering into her gutters,
rough-and-tumble farm cats clumped in a corner
their tongues flicking at warm milk poured into an old hubcap,
and hefty Holsteins settling onto beds of prickly straw.

A rural scene along U.S. Highway 14 near Nicollet.

A rural scene along U.S. Highway 14 near Nicollet.

Let’s examine “This Barn Remembers” to see how I created this poem. Always, always, when penning a poem like this, I shut out the present world and close myself into the past.

I rely on all five senses, not just the obvious sight and sound, to engage the reader:

  • sight—sagging doors, clouded windows, manure-slicked cement
  • sound—soothing whir of milking machines, grating trudge of buckle overshoes, silken voices of Charlie Boone
  • taste—tongues flicking warm milk
  • touch—in the clench of his strong hands, gripping pails of frothy milk, settling onto beds of prickly straw
  • smell—putrid piles of manure, pungent silage

Strong and precise verbs define action: shoved, throbbed, booming, gripping, brimming, splattering, flicking

Literary tools like alliteration—pitched putrid piles of manure—and personification—the barn taking on the qualities of a woman—strengthen my poem.

The words and verses possess a certain musical rhythm. This concept isn’t easy to explain. But, as a poet, I know when my composition dances.

I also realize when I’ve failed, when a poem needs work and/or deserves rejection.

That all said, the best advice I can offer any poet is this:

  • Write what you know.
  • Write from the heart.
  • Write in your voice.
  • Write with fearlessness and honesty. (Note especially this line: “…streams of hot cow pee splattering into her gutters…”)
I grew up on a dairy and crop farm, so I know cows well enough to write about them in my poetry.

I grew up on a dairy and crop farm, so I know cows well enough to write about them in my poetry.

You can bet I smelled that hot cow pee, watched the urine gushing from Holsteins into the gutter, pictured a younger version of myself dodging the deluges, when I penned “This Barn Remembers.” Writing doesn’t get much more honest than cow pee.

IF YOU’RE A POET, a lover of poetry and/or an editor, tell me what works for you in composing/reading/considering poetry.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

30 Responses to “How I’ve composed poetry that dances (in the barn)”

  1. Beth Ann Says:

    I love this one, Audrey. It is so vivid and I can see everything so clearly that you are writing about. Great job!! And I love cows. LOVE them!

  2. Ah, Audrey – how lovely and good. I love your post title, by the way! It in itself is poetic. And I love your “lesson” here in writing poetry – you could teach a seminar! Seriously. I consider myself a poetic prose writer. Actually poetry I don’t attempt too often and when I do it’s not necessarily anything that is worth anyone else reading, but it’s fun to dabble from time to time!

  3. Clyde of Mankato Says:

    Thank you, too again. Nice poem, nice flow and pace. It evokes many memories for me as well as you. The tactiles do it, as you say. I milked cows at the U of M in college. We got to meet Boone and Erickson and Maynard Speece. They used to occasionally talk to the “guys in the dairy barn on the St. Paul campus” which was us. I’m going to put up a barn chapter on my novel blog today or tomorrow.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Always happy to bring back memories for readers. How interesting that Boone, Erickson and Speece visited the guys in the dairy barn. I look forward to reading your barn chapter.

      • Clyde of Mankato Says:

        No we met at the fair each year, and then once we brought a cow to the CCO TV studio and they were there for dairy week. If you worked on the farm campus, you worked at the fair.

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        A cow in the TV studio? Now that I would like to see.

      • Clyde of Mankato Says:

        And smell.

  4. Laura Hansen Says:

    Nice job, on the poem and the blog essay. Great examples for teaching poetry.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Thank you, Laura. That means a lot to me coming from a fellow poet/writer of your talent.

  5. Love, love, love your post – you certainly have a way with words that draws the reader in:) Have a Great Day!

  6. Jackie Says:

    It’s interesting that one of the phases that struck me most was, “The barn remember”, I Love the thought of “The Barn” remembering… I wonder if it had the sound of your foot steps in it’s memory? I love this poem Audrey, and my favorite photo that you took is the one of the solitude farm house on the prairie…. always have loved that one!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I would like to think the barn remembers me, and my dad and my siblings. I really need to revisit and photograph that barn when I’m “back home.”

  7. Clyde of Mankato Says:

    Audrey, a barn memory is up:
    http://beneathaquiltedsky.wordpress.com/

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Thank you for sharing this link, Clyde. Just read it and left a comment. Readers, be sure to scoot on over to Beneath a Quilted Sky.

  8. ryanware Says:

    Great pics and poetry, Audrey.

  9. DeLores Says:

    You have brought me back to my childhood when I always went with my Dad to the barn when he milked the cows. It was exactly as you described’ You are fantastic!


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