Paul Bunyan

Paul Bunyan re-tells the legend of the giant lumberjack for the twenty-first century. Drawing on logger folklore, James Stevens’ stories and the Davy Crockett almanacs, Larry Beckett’s poem is a modern epic in ‘long-winded’ blank verse. It is a celebration of the everyday poetry of colloquial North American English, loose and rough, bragging and unbelievable. Like its eponymous hero, the poem has no purpose but plenty of pioneer spirit, drifting westward like the loggers from Maine to Oregon. He’s a ‘man mountain, all hustle, all muscle and bull bones, / An easy winner, full of swagger, a walking earthquake, / A skyscraper, looking over the tallest American tree, / A smart apple, a wonder inventor, the sun’s historian, / A cock-a-doodle hero, a hobo, loud, shrewd, brawling, / Rowdy, brash as the earth, stomping, big-hearted, raw.’

Includes free CD of a complete live performance by Larry Beckett of Paul Bunyan

Cover image: Manda Beckett
Author photo: Laura Fletcher

Sample Poem

I

Out of the wild North woods, in the thick of the timber
And through the twirling of the winter of the blue snow,
Within an inch of sunup, with the dream shift ending,
A man mountain, all hustle, all muscle and bull bones,
An easy winner, full of swagger, a walking earthquake,
A skyscraper, looking over the tallest American tree,
A smart apple, a wonder inventor, the sun’s historian,
A cock-a-doodle hero, a hobo, loud, shrewd, brawling,
Rowdy, brash as the earth, stomping, big-hearted, raw,
Paul Bunyan lumbered and belly-laughed back at the stars.
He was rigged out in a slouch hat, a red work shirt
Under his faithful mackinaw with its hickory buttons,
Suspenders and high-water stag pants, which were tucked
Into his brass-hooked and buckskin-laced black boots,
And this foot-loose blue ox was sashaying at his side:
Babe, who was combed with a garden rake, who measured
Exactly forty-two ax handles and a plug of Star tobacco
Between the eyes, who was crazy for parsnips, who ate
And just bellowed for joy, his bray rocking the country,
And who romped off the deer path, skylarking, and leaving
The thousand and one hoof prints which are now Maine lakes.
Out of the scud covering up the dusty morning stars,
The baby-blue snowflakes of the first blue snowfall
Were scurrying down sky-blue, all over, like butterflies,
In flurries, blue as Monday, blue as the moon, as heaven,
Decorating the pines, blue as a ribbon, blue as bluegrass,
As blue songs and blue laws, and glittering on the boughs
Like jays and berries: it was icing up the evergreens,
Sticking to itself, and stacking up in balls and drifts
Like fury, and the seconds were as tight as the icicles;
It was quiet like it’s quiet before the sour beginning
Of the redbreast’s la-de-dah, and in that minute there
All of a sudden Paul Bunyan itched for big-time work.
He uprooted a tree, combed the frost out of his beard,
Rolling fifty-two notions around his burning head
Till it all flashed on him, and he invented logging!
He whistled and walked over to the local iron range,
Fixed up a blade, fit on a white pine for a handle,
And jogged back with his ax: he carved himself a gabriel
Out of a cedar, lifted up the horn and let out a honk
Whinnying from the Rockies all around to the Rockies
Like day breaking; and when the wide yellow sun rose,
Old Paul braced and, taking a colossal breath, he roared,
‘Roll out or roll up, boys; there’s daylight in the swamp!’
All this ruckus was to bounce lumberjacks everywhere
Out of bed, and between the horn and the ballyhoo
His boys woke up. While the man power was on the way,
He sized up the eastern timber, and scribbled a claim:
He spit into his broad palms and circled his ax back,
Leaned like a natural into his swing, and every whack
He grunted like he was happy, chopping into this tree
So thick a man might sprint round it in a day, so tall
It’d take a week to see its top up in the clouds;
When the big stick was whittled on down to a whistle,
It crackled, it swished, it got the shivers in its limbs,
And when it snapped, it tilted, timber splintered, twigs
All tore off, and it rip-roared down in green confusion.
Babe tagged behind Paul, chawing off the little branches
And hauling out the logs; and to level out the country,
Bunyan strung up the stumps in chains, to an iron spool,
And hitched it to Babe, who jerked them free and lugged
The breaking plow, which had a huge furrow, and filled in
The hollows, and they cleared hundreds of acres, easy.
Old Paul scrawled the plans for the shanties on the air
And plunked the logs crisscross for walls, jacking roof poles
And trueing them, checking out his plans, slapping up shingles
In dovetailing and overlapping style against the rain
In fog so heavy he nailed six feet of shingles on it,
And for his big finish to this bang-up job, he squatted
On the roofs and welded the timber as tight as anything.
Now all the burly, joking, gallivanting lumberjacks
Showed up and rolled in, sailing, thumbing, and hiking,
Foreigners out of the old countries, and talking funny,
Like Limeys, Micks, Frogs, Canucks, and Scandihoovians,
And Yankee Doodle boys hailing from the four corners
Of the United States, Fly-up-the-creeks from Florida,
Evergreen men from Washington, Pine tree men from Maine,
California Golden Bears, with Corn Crackers, Knickerbockers,
Granite Boys, Green Mountain Boys, Old Liners, Old Colonials,
Buckeyes, Muskrats, Panhandlers, Mudcats, Yellowhammers,
Hardheads, Sandhillers, Tarheels, from down East and Dixie,
An all-star team, and the ruggedest crew ever crowed:
Wrestlers, wreckers, boozers, barnstormers, roustabouts,
Breadwinners, ramblers, fiddlers, roughnecks, runaways,
Penpushers, windjammers, daredevils, and crackhunters,
And no galoot in the whole gang under eight feet tall,
Come in with a caterwaul to join Paul Bunyan’s camp
On the river and kick off the original lumber drive.
The camp sprawled from the Smiling River to Honey Creek
Sunning and curling around the Big Rock Candy Mountain,
Where the strawberry bushes, where the raspberry trees
All ran wild on the slopes with berries as big as plums
By the plash and swizzle of the rock-and-rye springs,
Under the gillygaloo, which brooded up on the steep
Of Pyramid Forty, with its stand of one million pines,
And laid square eggs which wouldn’t roll down the hill
And when collected and hard-boiled were good for dice,
And way over behind beyond, the whangdoodle whistled.
Down in the bottom lands below Honey Creek, in soil
As smooth as butter, old Paul’s dairy farm spread out
Like paradise, where the wheat was growing in fields
So thick the geography just creaked under the weight,
The corn so quick a crack logger couldn’t hit it twice
In the same for heaven’s sake spot, and where sting bees
The size of doves went whizzing into the tall dandelions,
Where the red clover cows gave milk that didn’t sour
And the devil grass cows gave straight cough medicine,
Where the green vegetables were rooted so god-awful deep
It took an inventor to pick them, and where a redneck
One day chanced to see sparrowgrass sprout up so hard
It went roots and all into the air, and lived on nothing
But the climate, and he saw vines dragging punkins along,
And when he got tangled up, he went for his jackknife
And found a big cowcumber that had ripened in his pocket.
When Pea Soup Shorty clattered the triangle for breakfast,
The boys stampeded for the cookshack and grabbed up forks
At a pine table so long a story started up at one end
Was so tall at the other end they had to hire a flunky
To shovel it out the door. Now first off, and for starters,
There was oatmeal mush, logging berries, hasty pudding,
Eggs fried over easy, over hard, sourdough biscuits,
Klondike spuds, pilgrim marbles, apple grunt, sowbelly,
With all the trimmings, and a gallon of bullshit a man:
When they rolled sugar cookies down the table the boys
At the foot got gypped, and so Big Ole the blacksmith
Dreamed up the hole and toted the doughnuts on a stick.
All this was only horse ovaries before the main dish:
Hotcakes! They had a choice between pancakes, flatcakes,
Slapjacks, griddlecakes, stovelids, battercakes, flapjacks,
In piles, topped with skid grease, floating in maple slick.
The iron griddle, one hundred yards wide, over a fire
Kindled out of an acre of scrub and two of timber,
Was oiled up by kids who strapped on slabs of bacon
And skated across: out of sugar boxes, flour barrels,
Crates of rooster’s eggs and a fancy dairy the cook
Conjured up the batter in a bucket big as a steamboat,
Which was hoisted up and tipped over, creating puddles
On the stove, and he used popcorn to flip the flapcakes
To the waiters, who were on roller skates to go faster.
The boys dove into the breakfast like wildcats, chomping
And slurping with a noise like Niagara, and they busted
Out the door into the frosty camp, with the raw sun
In the east sky, all rosy on the froth of the river,
And the waking up pines stinking up the air real pretty,
And Paul Bunyan standing out on American mud, ready
To big-talk to his bunch of drifters, and brag up logging:
‘It’s an okay morning, boys, and it’s good to breathe:
This country’s lucky, and so splendiferous you want
Oh, to cartwheel and kick your initials in the sky,
Spread-eagle, hug the whole territory for dear love,
Whoop hallelujah just to hear your god-damn voice,
And reel off here and yonder with a square dance heart!
I swear only a yellowbelly or a lazybones could go
And let this morning slide, and keep from sinking steel
Into white pine, but it’s obvious as a mockingbird
We can’t scatter like a mess of kids out of school
Or we’ll wind up with nothing but a little sawdust;
All right, so slack up a minute and promise with me
On the river, your bible, to go by the logger’s rules.
One, always talk straight; be bald-faced, stick to it
Like it was old whiskey: I hear of a man dealing
In a double-talking lie, I’ll hang up his ax myself.
I don’t mean you can’t story, now; I’ve been fishing
And I like to stretch it for fun, but it’s the fakes
And the horse traders, the two timers I’m against.
Two, there’s no brawling and no boozing in the woods:
I might see a little back-of-the-shanty roughhousing,
Or a short nip on a cold Sunday, and turn my head,
But when your drunk or free-for-all holds up the drive
By a wink, say goodbye to your pals, because you’re gone.
Three, if you drag yourself to the city come spring
I want you to be all slow fingers and sweet talk
With the fillies. I imagine your idea is belly bumping,
Which is wonderful, but I catch you beating on a woman,
Look out: whatever you give her I’m going to give you.
Okay, boys, speak up; you’re on your own say-so, here:
I need upwards of half of you as sawyers, to fall
The trees, whirling an ax sharp as sunlight around you
Till you steam, and ache all over, till your veins bulge;
I need plenty of swampers, to bust up the scenery,
And slash and rut the trails, and to lop off the limbs
From the down pine, which calls for backbone and stay;
And I need ox-strong skidders, to tug the logs to sleighs
And snake the load across the ice, over the toteroad
On down to the rollway, on the slopes of the branch;
And at the spring breakup I need the top lumberjacks
As the water rats, who’ll ride the logs down the river
Into the snags and jams, just for the glory of it.
Now take a breath of this almighty Appalachian air,
Grin like an old pioneer, and pitch into the timber!’

Reviews

‘Beckett’s poem is a kind of Basement Tapes of American folklore.’

Zyzzyva