Poem: The Workman and His Tools

Raymond Ball and Ralph Ball
He Knew the Worth of Tools

He was a man who knew the worth of tools.
How having just the right one for the job
Was worth a lot, but clearly not as much
As knowing what to do with ones you had,
And what to do with tools he surely knew.

When just a boy on a Missouri farm,
He started hanging round the blacksmith shop
Whenever he could catch a ride to town.
Old Henry Ford’s new-fangled auto car
Had sparked a need for handy fix-it men.
He joined the revolution, then and there,
Brought by the horseless carriage on the land,
And learned mechanics on a Model T.
He mastered use of wrenches and of pliers,
Learned lessons he would use for decades hence.

To make it through the Great Depression’s dearth
He took whatever labor he could find.
He hoed bean rows and stripped bluegrass by hand,
With just the simplest tools to do the job.
His daily wage back then was just a buck,
But any honest work beat none at all.
To earn his daily bread he tilled the soil
Just like his male ancestors all before.

But he saw tools of farming changing too,
With tractors putting horses out of work.
He gambled on a combine harvester
That reaped and threshed and winnowed all at once.
Then hiring out his cutting-edge machine,
He saved enough to buy his own small farm,
And one by one he added to his tools.

In time he sold the farm and moved to town
To try his hand in the commercial world.
Still very much a Ford man in his heart,
He bought a dealership of farm machines—
The boldest speculation of his life.
But business wasn’t really his strong suit,
And when it failed, he carried on with tools.

He built a practice fixing implements —
Hay balers, corn pickers, tractors — all repaired
Right where they’d broken down out in the field.
And farmers round about began to say,
“If Ray can’t make her run she can’t be fixed.”

When he was well past sixty years of age
He got a crazy notion in his head—
He’d always dreamed of having his own shop—
So he measured out the plan in the back yard.
And there he built the thing all by himself
With salvaged lumber gotten almost free.
Of course, it looked just like a barn.
Because, well, that’s only thing that he’d built before.
But he knew well enough the tools required.
Beneath his hammer, nails sunk into boards
With just two strokes, or maybe three.
His singing handsaw made the sawdust fly.
His level, plane and plumb line kept all true.
Out of a worthless demolition pile
He fashioned form where there was none before.
His barn still stands though many years have passed.
With paint and care could stand for many more.
It needs someone with tools to care again.

And when his wife of more than fifty years
Grew absent minded and began to fail,
He looked in vain for tools to fix her with.
Installed a cook-stove, gas-line, shut-off valve
When she began to start forgetting things,
Like if she’d turned the burners on or off.
Nowhere on all his cluttered workshop shelves
Was there a tool to fix her slipping mind.
The final years he’d visit every day
Ensuring that she ate her rest home meal.
The only tool of any use a spoon.
In time, the spoon was of no use as well.

My work today requires different tools.
I toil in neither soil nor wood nor stone.
Instead of grease my hands are stained with ink.
I polish common syllables to rhyme.
I calibrate my words to find a song,
Fine tuning—like a carburetor—lines,
To make them run not either rich nor lean,
To purr and roar without the gassy fumes,
Obscuring sense and choking with the smoke.

My father’s tools lie idle on the bench.
The workman will not use them anymore.
With all the craftsmanship I can bestow,
I carry on instead with tools I know.

(2019)


I’ve been reading a lot of Robert Frost this year. He was a modern master of blank verse and all of that exposure is bound to have some influence on me. I can only hope some of the music rubs off on me.

Back in May, I took a stab at blank verse and it seemed to work out okay. So here is another in the same vein.

The workman in this poem is my father. I am living proof that mechanical aptitude is not hereditary.

Poem for Autumn

October's blaze adorns the lawn

Autumn Lament

September’s sun has come and gone
++++And now the fall is here.
October’s blaze adorns the lawn,
++++The swan song of the year.

The bonfires of my autumns past
++++Burn cool as I recall
The hayride loves that failed to last
++++Beyond the end of fall.

Out on the gridiron battlefield,
++++Where so much toil was paid,
Where cheers and chants once loudly pealed,
++++Now flags and glory fade.

Our friends and kinsmen now are few.
++++Our lovers are all gone.
All those we thought would see us through
++++Cannot be counted on.

When we were young we loved the fall.
++++We loved the leaves aglow.
Knew always we’d have one more fall.
++++Those days, what did we know?


(2018)

NOTES: Something about autumn makes me want to return to the poems of British poet A.E. Housman.

Housman once said in a lecture that the special function of poetry was “to transfuse emotion–not to transmit thought but to set up in the reader’s sense a vibration corresponding to what was felt by the writer.”

There is something in so many of his poems that vibrates on the same wavelength with the sense of loss I feel when fall arrives. So when the nights began to cool and the leaves began to turn, I picked up my old copy of A Shropshire Lad and relished Housman’s lean, direct, and delicious verse once again.

One of the forms he used was a type of ballad that alternates lines of 8 syllables with lines of 6 syllables.  It’s the form Housman used in one of my favorites, Number XXXVI in Shropshire, a poem that opens:

White in the moon the long road lies,
The moon stands blank above;
White in the moon the long road lies,
That leads me from my love.

It’s a seemingly simple form, but ideal for conveying emotion in a concise, concentrated way. It’s tricky because the lines are so short. There is no room for filler or fluff. I had tried my hand at it before, but neglected it recently.

So, with my emotion fortified by Housman’s verse, and my memory refreshed regarding a potent poetic form, I sat down this week to try my hand at “transfusing emotion.”

Let me know if you picked up the vibration.

Love Sonnet

Sunset over the Olympic Mountains
“The changing light and seasons have their ways …”

Familiar Ways

I choose to walk the old familiar ways,
To wend ways where I’ve put my foot before,
To gaze anew on views seen other days,
Which, though familiar, never seem to bore.

The changing light and seasons have their ways
Of making old things new: The light-laced hoar,
The first-flush, green-glow, bursting-forth spring days,
The growing tinge of gold we can’t ignore.

Each day, my dear, I choose afresh our trail,
The one we blazed so many years ago,
Eschewing other routes that might avail,
And hewing to the well-worn way we know.
Forsaking novelty need be no jail
With your face bathed in sunset’s golden glow.


Poet John Ciardi relates this story about Robert Frost, who at a lecture was asked by  a woman in the audience: “Mr. Frost, surely when you write one of your beautiful poems, you are not thinking of technical tricks!”

Frost looked at the woman a while and replied, “I revel in them!”

Ciardi says Frost was like a horse trader who “would pick up an idea and whittle at it until he either wound up with a little whittled shape or a pile of shavings on the floor.”

I felt a little like a horse trader as I was writing this poem.  It started with a simple, little idea.  I can’t remember ever “whittling” more on a poem before.  At first, this one seemed like it just never wanted to happen. I just kept whittling and whittling until something very different began to emerge from where I started.

After what seemed like an eternity, I began to see the tricks of the trade — namely rhythm, diction, image and form — coming together to embody the simple little idea.

This one did not plop, fully formed, into my lap.  It was written, re-written, and re-written again.  I wrote in on my phone.  I copied it out by hand in a notebook.  I typed it in Microsoft Word on my laptop.  I read it aloud and even recorded a reading of it to hear how it sounded.

I found myself being keenly aware of assonance, alliteration and internal rhyme like never before.

I found myself unconsciously using the same sounds and rhymes over and over again as if I was consciously reinforcing the central idea.  Then, I found myself breaking the pattern with lavish, flamboyant word choices in the middle of the poem to demonstrate the message.

I found myself coming around to embracing a metaphor in the final part of the poem.  It was an idea that emerged only after the first part of the poem was written.

It may be a pile of shavings.  Or it might be a little whittled shape.

You can be the judge.