KANSAS COLLECTION ARTICLES
Born in South Dakota in 1895, Roscoe Fleming became a well-known news reporter and editor, including being a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and columnist for the Denver Post. Mr. Fleming noted that most of his poems were not so much written, as accreted. The beloved poem "Kansas" grew just that way -- in fact, presented here is a version which was revised for re-publication in 1957. It is a classic description of this land and her peoples, and we are very grateful to Mr. Fleming's daughter, Mary Zirin, for her gracious permission to include it in KanColl for everyone to enjoy.
I had long thought of writing a poem about Kansas, |
That lively centenarian,
"The exact geographical center of the United States"
And, as it sometimes has seemed, the psychic center
The vortex where all our clashing cultures met.
Yes, about old Kansas that once stretched westward
right up the long slope to the horizon where the
Rockies slice off the sky.
Whose motto was, and is: "To the Stars, Through
Or, as we say it nowadays,
"To Boom, Through Bust."
I thought this project over for years.
But how do you bring the realities of the sodhouse,
Of people living apart and always alone on the limit-
less prairie, with the heat-waves writhing against
the far horizon in endless obeisance to the over-
lord unforgiving sun;
How can you bring such scenes
To the beneficiaries of the air-conditioned plexiglass
And the three-car garage?
How do you bring home to these latter the reality of
the hells of separate loneliness
In which so many Kansans lived until they cracked,
especially farm wives with none to whom to talk
all through the eternity of days, with the sun and
the prairie and the overarching sky watching,
watching, always watching through the windows?
How do you tell about this to a generation that in
five minutes can get New York on the telephone
from any Kansas farmhouse, or vice versa?
Or has but to snap on the TV to be in instantaneous
touch with the world, at least with the world as
fashioned on Madison Avenue or Wilshire Boulevard,
That world which, regardless of merit or the lack of
it, seems to be the people's choice?
How can you tell of the endless alternation of cloud-
burst and of drouth, as if God were fatigue-testing
the tough mettle of these people even to the breaking-
point and beyond?
Though even the thunderstorms brought something at
least to talk about,
So that Kansans boasted pridefully of such blue-black
bellowing sockdolagers as were never seen any-
where else on earth,
With lightning that seemed to split your shrinking soul
to its very center.
An old-timer told of sitting in his homestead shack
And hearing the dry lightning hit his just-strung fence
Traveling the barbed-wire, and exploding the posts
Sending the splinters zinging like deadly arrows.
He said he thought first: "It's my turn next"; and sec-
ond, that this was why Eastern Kansans fenced
with osage-orange hedges,
(Though it wasn't; they just didn't have anything else
to fence with.)
Such storms grew often into tornadoes
So that every shack or sodhouse had its cyclone cellar
And afterward little rain-lakes might twinkle briefly
on the bosom of the blossoming prairie, loud with
the cheerful piping of the frogs that appeared
miraculously from nowhere, as if set down there
by God's own hand,
While the prairie-larks sang His praises.
In such a time
The sod roofs bloomed as gaily, too
As slanting flower-beds,
And had to be patched and repatched against the leaks
until they grew so thick
That it wouldn't rain in the house the same day of
rain, but dripped all next day.
How the good land would produce in this good season!
But the next year, or even the late summer, might bring
a hell during which the prairie lay lifeless under
relentless blazing sun and sky, when the grass-
hopper devoured what the drouth might have left,
even as the drouth itself devoured desire and will
and ambition out of a man, leaving only his dried-
out lifeless husk.
(Entries in an Iowa diary, 1852:
"Wendell and Susy were married today, and set out for
Kansas to make their fortune."
Four months later;
"Wendell and Susy got back from Kansas today. They
say that it is a territory which will never be con-
quered by the white man.")
To a woman who told how her father laid tarpaper
over the sheathing, then covered all with sod
against the wind,
An old-timer courteously replied:
"Lady, your folks must have been late, and rich.
We went to the draw and cut willows by the bundle,
And spread them side by side across the poles we had
Then laid our sod on them, grass side down.
Folks who were particular, or who had money enough
Tacked muslin to the underside for a ceiling,
For others, the willows had to do."
Kansans once survived by endless slavery to the horse
Or rather, horse and man survived alike by endless
slavery to the plow,
One hitched to it at one end, and the other at the other,
The only difference being that the one pushed and
the other pulled, as it were.
But how are you going to tell about that to a genera-
tion that sits on a cushioned tractor-seat under a
parasol against the sun; and, to alleviate the
monotony, tunes in dance-music from Long Island;
Then turns on the floodlight to bed the tractor down
in the machine-shop and to check the REA-pow-
ered electric pump,
Dreaming the while of the movie later, with Marilyn
And never sees a horse, save when the TV carries The
Derby or the Preakness?
Why, did you see that Ward's
Doesn't even carry work-harness any more in its gen-
Then there was the reiterated flashing of the corn-
knife in the sun
And the tickle of sweat always in the eyes as you stag-
gered to the shock with your rustling recurrent
And the maddening itch of the tassels sifting down
Inevitably in a place you couldn't reach to scratch,
Or, if you could, there was another and unreachable
itch the next minute.
How do you tell about that, though, to a generation
that sits on a marching machine which chomps
into silage two rows of corn at a time, its steel
jaws chewing with the strength of forty horses?
Then there was the hay-wagon receiving the bundles
of wheat tossed up by sweating, ever-moving
human arms that were still, as from history's dawn,
the most essential part of the machinery of harvest,
The bundles had to be tossed again to the platform
to be stuffed by other human arms into the wide
roaring mouth of the red threshing-machine,
Powered by the old steam traction-engine attached to
the thresher by the ever-moving, over-and-under
But how can those imagine this, who sit on the cush-
ioned quarter-deck of a combine that moves as
majestically as a ship through the waving golden
sea and devours an acre of wheat every few min-
utes, flowing the grain in a pale-golden stream into
the pacing trucks, and scattering the blond straw
to the hot winds again?
Once Kansans ate pie-melon pies at their church soci-
ables, because apples would not grow in the sum-
mer's heat and dust, and the Arctic cold of winter;
yet the people were too poor to buy apples from
But how do you tell about that, to a generation which
has only to pop a frozen bakery pie from the cold-
box into the oven, and withdraw it half an hour
later with the hot juices bubbling out of the brown
(Not as good as a pie-melon pie, say the old-timers; but
how are their descendants to know?)
That lady there, shopping in the air-conditioned five-
and-ten for pastel rolls that won't clash with the
colors in her bathroom,
Do you think she'd be interested in hearing how the
Sears-Sawbuck catalogue served her great-grand-
mother's family for light reading all winter, until
the next one came,
And then performed its last, humblest, but necessary
Giving up its substance leaf by leaf,
Hanging to a string in the backhouse?
("The second year on the homestead
Our entire crop consisted of 33 bushels of wheat,
and one baby.")
And how did they cook without wood, and keep warm
throughout the blizzards?
Well, there were millions of buffalo-chips and cow-
chips all over the prairie;
Sun-dried, it seemed they lasted forever.
It was part of prairie boyhood, and of prairie girlhood,
To gather these into piles, handy for Pa to come along
with the farm-wagon and the big scoop.
I heard a lady from Kansas say once,
Ignoring her city-bred granddaughter's slightly queasy
"I have never since eaten a cake as good as those my
With a cow-chip fire, in the old cast-iron range on
("My mother and I stood all night under the ridge-log,
the one dry spot in the house.
I remember that finally the cow-chips stacked by the
stove began to float one by one toward the door,
like a flotilla of black turtles.")
And once there was a Kansas of prairie villages,
Each grown gaunt and shabby before its time like the
prairie wives; each shrinking against its lofty grain-
elevator like a huddle of chicks against the mother,
shrinking from the endless inimical silence and the space.
The roads were bottomless mud or choking dust by
The train that grew once daily out of the prairie
and was swallowed up receding remotely into it,
was the only link with the world beyond, if indeed
there was a world beyond, which to the village
people did not seem likely,
Their only contact with that world the weekly Star
picked up at the village postoffice before R.F.D.
Now all these villages, those that are left, have grown
their own shade in which the air-conditioned
houses hide from the sun,
So that you might as well live in New England, save
perhaps in the deep summer,
And the people can hop into their convertibles after
the heat of the day, and within the hour be among
the multitudinous neon signs, flashing dizzily on
Advertising beer, genuine Chicago steaks, Marilyn
Monroe, and all the other evidences and embellish-
ments of a high civilization.
(. . . I remember playing hide-and-seek in the tall
grass, then the frightening smell of smoke on the
Mother came running and herded us into the cyclone-
cellar, as frantic as the hen brooding her chicks at
sight of the hawk;
Then the scared team lunging against the bit, as
Father plowed a firebreak around and around the
cabin . . .")
And how do you tell this generation of the gaunt-
cheeked brush-arbor preacher, his eyes blazing with
sure foreknowledge of the wrath to come for these
sinful before him; with his authentic inside infor-
mation of the hatred his God bore for the sin and
for the sinner alike,
With his electric and communicated half-horror, half-
fascination for the hell that will blaze alway,
crackling the flesh of sinners for all eternity?
Yet from out there beyond the rim of the arbor, in
Came stifled giggles and whisperings punctuating his
most passionate periods, his thundering denuncia-
tions of the flesh and the Devil, his appeals to flee
from the wrath of a jealous God and seek salva-
tion ere it became forever too late;
So that cynics said there were more souls made around
camp meetings than were ever saved there--
But how to you make all that convincing
Now that Kansas preachers run as plump, placid and
social-minded as preachers anywhere?
("None of us had much, and some had nothing
But what we had, we shared. No door was ever locked. We banded together against loneliness, we few lost in
that vast land.
Oh, what good times we had!")
And how can you convince this generation, whose
children ride in neat swift punctual buses to mil-
lion-dollar consolidated schools.
Of the reality of the shabby little schoolhouses, some
with sod roofs, that once stood so far out there
alone on the wide prairie,
(Shabby, but they meant more sacrifice by the peo-
ple than all the million-dollar beauties of today)
Choking hot in spring and in fall, closed for planting
and for harvest so that the children might help
out at home,
Freezing cold in winter for those left outside the
narrow circle around the little stove whose pot-
belly glowed cherry-red,
And even those inside the circle toasted on one side,
froze on the other;
With the desks carved and re-carved by the jack-
knives from Sears or Monkey Ward,
In the hands of succeeding generations of farm boys
seeking in vain to avoid the boredom of learning.
Where the young schoolmarm, prepared for her high
and holy task by a high-school diploma and three
months at Normal
Struggled with the relentless dust, stirring it around
each morning in a sort of futile fury,
And struggled day-long with the relentless innocent
bumptious ignorance of seven grades of prairie
Waiting at last only to get married, even to a widower
with four of his own,
(And there were always plenty of those about, look-
ing for fresh strong young wives);
Willing to undertake the struggle to bring up four
children and those not her own, though her own
always came along,
Just to get away from the everlasting demands of forty?
("Though a woman can starve for lack of a flower,
even though bread be plenty;
And a woman can starve for lack of a word, even
though there be love.")
And how do you tell of the old Kansas character, with
its long molding between the opposed hammer
and anvil of hard reality and of ruth,
Divided against itself from birth, and sometimes, it
seemed, even before,
Which could always be induced to contribute willingly
to foreign missions even from its own scant store,
so induced by the unbearable thought of the heath-
en sitting in darkness and despair, and doomed if
only through ignorance, to Hell,
Far from the bright reality of the Kansas faith?
How do you convince these moderns that they are
Kansans only because their great-grandfathers were
too contrary to quit, and much too stubborn to
Or, in some instances, unable to go back whence they
A man once told how, back in Indiana when he was
thinking of homesteading it on the far frontier,
He talked to a fellow who'd tried it, but was now
back for good,
Tucking his feet under his mammy's table three times
And waiting to succeed to the farm.
"Kansas, eh?" the fellow said. "All you really need
to take along to Kansas
Is a lookin' glass and a rockin'-chair. Then you can set
and rock, and watch yourself starve to death."
The man added thoughtfully: "Pretty good advice, too;
maybe the best I ever got."
But I took notice that he was still in Kansas,
And not exactly starving to death, either.
("Our home was dug so deeply into the side of a bank
That most of our roof was the top of the bank.
When dirt began to sift down on the floor in the house,
my mother would say to me:
'Clarence, go out and chase the cows off the roof.'")
That Kansas character fought a small but bloody civil
war of its own, long before the big one,
Led by the burning-eyed old John Brown, a prophet
straight from the Old Testament;
But now it rests in triumph, seeing almost nowhere in
the state where a man's race or religion really
Save perhaps in getting into the more expensive sub-
divisions, and the better hotels and clubs; and
maybe into some of the higher-class movies, motels
Or in its remote southern villages, where no one ever
It seemed that Kansans had to be larger and stronger
than life, even to survive in that old Kansas,
Let alone to subdue it.
So that they put on pride like an overcoat that is
donned to hide the patches beneath.
As when the haughty princess asked Dorothy in Oz:
"Are you of royal blood, by any chance?"
Dorothy tilted her small snub nose just one tilt higher
than the princess',
Her sonsy face glowing with honest pride,
And answered in her forthright prairie twang:
"Better than that, Ma'am! I come from Kansas!"
And so the state grew characters, as well as character:
John Brown, Jim Lane, John J. Ingalls who once called
Kansas the navel of the nation;
Sockless Jerry Simpson, Edmund G. Ross, Carry Na-
tion, Victor Murdock, Arthur Capper, Charley
Mary Elizabeth Lease, she who adjured Kansans to
raise more hell and less corn;
And William Allen White, Bill White of Emporia,
Who began by demanding that Kansas raise more
corn and less hell, but ended by raising more and
hotter hell than anybody.
Kansas has, however, lost so many of her sons and
There used to be a saying in California and Colorado
That the smartest people come from Kansas--fast.
One such said: "I came from Illinois with my seed-
corn in a pouch
And seedcorn was precious in those days;
I chopped holes with an axe in the dry sod, planted
my corn, and waited for rain.
Come fall, and it hadn't rained yet,
So I dug up my seedcorn, not a kernel sprouted,
And put it back in the pouch
And headed back to Illinois."
("I had ridden to town to take my eighth-grade exam-
The Northern Lights cast a silent shimmering curtain
Through which the stars shown down;
There was no sound save the clop-clop of my horse's
hooves upon the road.
We took comfort in each other's company
For we might have been the only living things upon
Save that far away shone a warm yellow star, the light
of home . . .")
But how do you tell today of those old-time Kansans
So flint-jawed against wrong as they saw it, and so
strong for the right, again as they saw it;
So willing to sacrifice the heathen's body to save his
In the true old Puritanic tradition
And often even willing to sacrifice their own?
What do you tell of them?
Or even relate convincingly how they once went Popul-
ist almost to the last man and woman.
Finally goaded beyond endurance by the Four Horse-
men of old Kansas: Drouth, Grasshoppers, Rail-
roads and Bankers?
(Let us ignore, as general aberrations shared by others
than Kansans, the way they smeared with yellow
paint the homes of people with Germanic names
in World War I; and the Klan madness of the
For on the modern Kansan's neck the fiery Populist
glow has subsided long since to the well-barbered
rosy pink of prosperity.
And he basks in the supreme belief that all is right
with Kansas and the world
As long as the right party controls Congress and the
Legislature in Topeka,
And as long as the dust bowl can always be recon-
quered again, and again and again,
By simply using a little more caution the next time
the rains come and you can plow it up,
Even if it does seem each time that the desert has
gnawed a little farther into Kansas' living flank
Like a coyote working on a trapped heifer.
For, friend, are you for progress around here, or ain't
And as long as there's a big payroll at Wichita
Turning out bombers to convert the modern heathen
to the American way, the Kansas way,
If they finally show they won't be converted by any
How are you going to do all this?
I think the most impossible part would be
To explain convincingly the way the eyes of old
gaffers from Kansas light up when they meet
each other, and invariably begin:
"Those were the good days--remember . . . ?"
Of the silent immense night so full of stars;
Of the dawn-lit prairie where the sunflowers stand
on tiptoe looking toward the East, their golden
heads worshipfully bowed for the rising of their
Of sloshing dusty and burning feet in the cool stock-
tank to the creaking rhythm of the windmill
above, as its vanes slat and careen in the hot
Of that bright fish, the big one, dashing out at last
from the deep water under the cutbank like a bit
of sun glinting through the clear stream, to take
Of the sudden commotion above and behind the
muslin ceiling, and the astonished bullsnake fall-
ing thump! onto the dinner table amid the clatter-
ing dishes . . .
And so on and on,
While their non-Kansan descendants or relatives yawn,
and glance significantly by vainly at the clock
Getting on for midnight.
For we all of us as we grow older, become emigrants
or exiles from the past as from another country,
now islanded in time and forever receding,
And today's children are as impatient of hearing about
lost and long-gone days and ways
As America's children tire of hearing the homesick
old-country tales told by their grandparents who
came from another land.
So for all these reasons here given, which seem to
me much more than sufficient,
I have finally given up my project of writing a poem
Old Kansas, that once stretched to that farthest blue
rim where the Rockies saw off the sky.