Lyrical Postcards in Willa Cather’s My Antonia

Aug 12, 2016

Denise Low, second Poet Laureate of Kansas, finds lyrical passages in Cather's My Antonia

The essence of poetry is song, or lyrical feeling. How well Willa Cather understood the lyrical beauty of the Great Plains. She delights readers of My Antonia with poetic passages, like Jim Burden’s first look at Nebraska: “There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.”

Wow. Cather takes us back to a primal place before human societies. Cather continues, “The world was left behind,…we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man’s jurisdiction.” Natural theology, what Cather describes, is divine purpose revealed through observation of nature, and poetry is the closest way language can express the greater mysteries.

The Kansas poet William Stafford understood the spiritual dimension of this landscape. He writes about a camping trip as a young man along the Cimarron River: “No person was anywhere, nothing, just space, the solid earth. . . . That encounter with the size and serenity of the earth and its neighbors in the sky has never left me.” This informs his poem, “A Gift for Kit,” which he wrote on a family trip with his children back to his childhood home. Notice all the sounds and singing in the poem in the Radio Readers Book Discussion Guide.  You'll find much to remind you of  Cather’s prose. 

Stafford influenced me greatly, as you can see in this poem of mine, where natural processes of the wind, frost, sun, and history create our surroundings:

Quivera Way

Golden eagles skim floodplains, the flattest trace through

Flint Hills, Sand Hills, the Cimarron Breaks. Old oceans

ripple under a plumb line released to slack.

Coronado followed his guide called Turk among

monotonous cuestas in a sandy dry bay.

Below ground, dragonfly swamps choke with coal.

The Spaniard’s bones lie buried in Mexico City but here

glistening water flicks through chert-edged ridges to pool

in buffalo wallows. Small in fields are Black Angus herds.

Deer graze alongside. Corroded spurs spin into black dirt.

Rhythm of wind, seasons, sun positions, rock strata—these are what we still experience in the grasslands. Cather captures the lyrical quality throughout her novel, her word-postcards that sing.