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Hearing a Voice

As is often true with reading, I hear a voice I’m clearly meant to listen to well after that voice has sounded; I am, as they say, late to the party. That surely was true for me with Henry Thoreau, whose then tangled sentences and habit of calling into question almost everything rolled my eyes as a teenager…just before they shut down in favor of the cinema that plays on the inside of our eyelids. That he would become a signal voice to me would have surprised my teachers, who often had to call me from the other-lands of reverie and classroom-sleep. I remembered that when I taught and had to use the gentle goad of my voice to recall my cine-dreamers.

These years later, I am a picky reader, in part because I am a slow one. If I am to spend time in the architecture of someone’s writing, I need to admire even the hallways, and I have particular need of the sudden light from a well-placed window. I pick up books, stroll some sentences and put them down; I even enjoy the mild irony that I too write little rooms that I hope readers will visit.

A while ago, as practice that I hoped would disentangle me from the internet as the yard wakened during my coffee, I began reading a poem or poems as I also tracked the bird-scurry by the feeder. Poets and birds often move similarly, and their words seemed to set up my own later in the morning.

Just so, right now. As the sun scrolls down the first-snowy pines, I read Kate Barnes’ “Other Nations,” a poem written first for another favored poet, Maxine Kumin. And, as has happened now for a number of days in a row, I disappear into its pages and lines. Barnes is a narrative poet – no sky of abstraction at which you gaze trying to name the shapes of clouds – who, late in this poem, takes you along for a buggy ride. Yes, it is, at times, horse-drawn poetry. But it moves at the pace of real perception – mine, anyways – and, when each ride is done, I am often elsewhere. Alive to the light, alive to the day, I’ve slipped the tether of the clicked world. I am alive to words and a voice that carries across time.

“Other Nations” is also about talking to animals, and, as my dogs over time would tell you, my canid diction may be limited, but I use it whenever a dog is near. And, like the good dog I sometimes am, I hear like voices across time.

Reader’s-note: I ration myself to a poem per morning; I will be well into winter before I look up from last page.

Bio-note: Kate Barnes was Maine’s first poet laureate, serving from 1996 to 1999. The volume I’m reading is called Kneeling Orion, published by David R. Godine, and, graced also by Mary Czarina’s woodcuts, it is a handsome book.


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Let Him Step to the Music He Hears

Music at Thoreau’s Cove

“What is there in music that it should so stir our deeps? We are all ordinarily in a state of desperation; such is our life; ofttimes it drives us to suicide. … But let us hear a strain of music, we are at once advertised of a life which no man had told us of, which no preacher preaches. … The field of my life becomes a boundless plain, glorious to tread, with no death nor disappointment at the end of it. All meanness and trivialness disappear. I become adequate to any deed.” ~ Henry Thoreau in his Journal, January 15, 1857

By Corinne H. Smith

Earlier this year, I was interviewed for my hometown newspaper by reporter Tom Knapp. My book Henry David Thoreau for Kids had just been published, and Tom wrote a nice story about it and about me. Tom and I went to the same high school and have been acquaintances for the last ten years; yet this was the first time the subject of Henry Thoreau had come up in conversation. I was surprised but quite pleased to hear that Tom had connections to Thoreau and to Walden Pond himself. The interviewer became the interviewee, as I asked him questions in return. Here is his story.

Tom Knapp is a lifelong resident of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He works as a news reporter for the daily newspaper here. He also plays the fiddle and bodhran in a local Irish band. He first came to Thoreau and Emerson through his older brother Bill, who is a big fan and who read all of Thoreau’s journals. Bill passed some of that admiration on to his younger brother. Tom says, “I was greatly impressed by their forward-thinking views on our places in society, and our ability to step outside the norm as defined by other people’s expectations. I also very much appreciated their views on nature, and our responsibility to preserve the natural world. I like to think my exposure to Emerson and Thoreau at an early age inspired much of my personal philosophy. I remember as a kid typing out some of their quotes to hang on my wall. Indeed, right now I am trying to take Thoreau’s admonition to ‘Simplify, simplify’ to heart, as I try to rid myself of clutter!”

Although Tom has always been based in southeastern Pennsylvania, he occasionally travels across the Northeast and into New England, making what he calls “unplanned trips north,” letting spontaneity lead him and dictate where he should stop. “It was a whim that led me to turn off that first time when I saw a sign for Lexington and Concord,” he says. “Although I enjoyed exploring the towns, I was quickly drawn out to Walden Pond to see what was there. In those days I always traveled with my fiddle, and I never liked to leave it in my car. So when I headed out to walk down to the pond, I strapped it over my shoulder. I didn’t plan to play it; I was just carrying it as I walked. But after hiking around the pond to the site of Thoreau’s cabin, I was inspired by the mood of the woods. I only planned to play for a few minutes, but pretty soon I had a small audience of fellow hikers, so I kept playing.”

Tom had no idea that the natural acoustics of the water and the rims of the glacial kettle-hole would lead his Celtic tunes around to the sandy public beach. When he eventually walked back with his fiddle case slung over his shoulder, he was greeted by applause from the sunbathers and swimmers. They had heard his entire performance.

The distance; still, the music carries.

The fiddler…at distance; still, the music carries.


The experience must have invigorated the fiddler, because he has returned to Walden Pond several times since. “Usually I sit on a log somewhere close to Thoreau’s cove and play for a while,” he says. Once he was in the right place at the right time to become part of a treasure hunt involving a young couple. A man had planned to leave a series of clues for his girlfriend to follow. She would eventually be led to the Thoreau house site, where she would find an engagement ring waiting for her. The clue-planters asked Tom to stick around to provide impromptu music for what was sure to be a happy moment. Surprise!

Tom still owns a copy of Walden. One of his favorite quotes from the book is a popular one: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away.” He also likes the advice Thoreau once gave to friend H.G.O. Blake in a letter dated March 27, 1848: “Aim above morality. Be not simply good — be good for something.”

Tom agrees that Thoreau’s writings hold relevance for us today. He says, “Our lives are filled with gadgets and a network of communication systems that keep us connected to each other at all times of day or night. I think Thoreau reminds us that sometimes we need to be alone, to find the still places, and to enjoy the quiet, the solitude.”

And when we do, we may even hear the faint strains of a single Celtic fiddle, wafting across the Walden waters, offering to us that “which no preacher preaches.”

You can hear a sample of Tom’s fiddling at:

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Proposal – A Day without Light (but one)

In this season of disturbed day and night, I’ve found necessary reading, stories whose thin lines keep reaching toward the world I want to live in, the one I do, even as the news and those who make it try to wipe that world away. The stories are the poems of Kate Barnes, and I have come to them through recommendation from the Gulf of Maine, our local bookstore, itself a kind of kin to the fish that keep swimming upstream to spawn. “Try this,” the owner, a poet himself, said one day, and handed over Crossing the Field. I looked at its handsome woodcut cover, weighed its thinness, and thought, I might even finish this.

For some weeks it sat where most new books do – on my desk in a stratigraphy of enthusiasms. One recent morning, as I sought my coffee-reading to prepare my mind for the day’s words, I saw its blue cover peeking out of the pile, and I unearthed it, carried it to table. I noted, as I always do, its birthdate – 1992 – and turned to page one:

Coming Back

Coming back to my own countryside, I find
the farm again. It is night. Under this wallpaper
of willow leaves and birds, I know there is
an old one with loops of small roses…

No pyrotechnics; rather, a quiet insistence on what return allows, how knowing is layered, and that we live there too, below its surface. Barnes, the daughter of poet Elizabeth Coatsworth and writer Henry Beston, isn’t after easy narratives in her poems; she is 60 when they are published and worn by life’s abrasions, not the least of which is her father, who, fittingly, it seems, renamed himself Beston, by the stone, when made fun of for being “a mick.” But reading her poems is akin to coming on a clearest stream in woods you thought you knew, and then, looking up and seeing with washed vision.

All of this is prelude to a proposal: recent poems I’ve read have been lit – in this corner or that – by fireflies. Yes, they are out of season, but winking light, easily construed as hope, is not. So here, in a spirit of rising light that Kate Barnes and Henry Thoreau might approve, is my proposal:

On January 20th, 2017, when we pass into a new government that I see aligned with darkness, let’s turn off all the lights but one in all of our houses and workspaces. A Day without Light (but one) would recognize and protest a president who seems without spirit and compassion, and it would leave burning resolve and hope to see and then work through this period to a different day. It would be quiet, real, and yes, if enough of us did it, effective.

I don’t know Barnes as well as I know Thoreau, but I think each, both, would nod, yes, and go about that day as a single light.

Added note: I don’t do this, but I’d like to see if this seed-idea can grow, so please share widely if you too would like to see that. Each one of us can be that single light too.

"There is more day to dawn." Thoreau, Walden

“There is more day to dawn.” Thoreau, Walden

“There is more day to dawn.” Thoreau, Walden


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