Writing in the style of a poet is a way to practice creating poetry while creating original poetry. The poem, “Map of My Country” by John Holmes, is a powerful self reflection.
In 1954, Holmes typed a copy of the poem with lengthy annotations, explaining the choices behind the evolution of the poem. This annotated version has been recreated here:
One way to write in the style of a poet is to go line-by-line through a poem and ask a question that would get at the heart of the line. Then, the writer could answer that question in the rhythm and with the substance of the original line. What follows is Holmes’ poem and my attempt to write is his style.
Memorial Day connection: According to Adele J. Haft in “The Map-makers’ Colors”: Maps in Twentieth-Century American Poetry in English,” the Navy adopted John Holmes’ “Map of My Country” (Holmes, 1943; see Holmes, 1999) for the “libraries of its ships and stations” (Eyges, 2007, 117). The first of several American collections dominated by map metaphors, “Map of My Country” opens with a sprawling twelve-part poem (3–34), an autobiography so expansive that it not only pays homage to the American people and places that enriched Holmes’ life, but also charts his generation and the literature that molded those who lived through two World Wars.
“Map of My Country” by John Holmes
A map of my native country is all edges,
The shore touching sea, the easy impartial rivers
Splitting the local boundary lines, round hills in two townships,
Blue ponds interrupting the careful county shapes.
The Mississippi runs down the middle. Cape Cod. The Gulf.
Nebraska is on latitude forty. Kansas is west of Missouri.
When I was a child, I drew it, from memory,
A game in the schoolroom, naming the big cities right.
Cloud shadows were not shown, nor where winter whitens,
Nor the wide road the day’s wind takes.
None of the tall letters told my grandfather’s name.
Nothing said, “Here they see in clear air a hundred miles.
Here they go to bed early. They fear snow here.”
Oak trees and maple boughs I had seen on the long hillsides
Changing color, and laurel, and bayberry, were never mapped.
Geography told only capitals and state lines.
I have come a long way using other men’s maps for the turnings.
I have a long way to go.
It is time I drew the map again,
Spread with the broad colors of life, and words of my own
Saying, “Here the people worked hard, and died for the wrong reasons.
Here wild strawberries tell the time of year.
I could not sleep, here, while bell-buoys beyond the surf rang.
Here trains passed in the night, crying of distance,
Calling to cities far away, listening for an answer.”
On my own map of my own country
I shall show where there were never wars,
And plot the changed way I hear men speak in the west,
Words in the south slower, and food different.
Not the court houses seen floodlighted at night from trains,
But the local stone built into house walls,
And barns telling the traveler where he is
By the slant of the roof, the color of the paint.
Not monuments. Not the battlefields famous in school.
But Thoreau’s pond, and Huckleberry Finn’s island.
I shall name an unhistorical hill three boys climbed one morning.
Lines indicate my few journeys,
And the long way letters come from absent friends.
Forest is where green ferns cooled me under the big trees.
Ocean is where I ran in the white drag of waves on white sand.
Music is what I heard in a country house while hearts broke.
Not knowing they were breaking, and Brahms wrote it.
All that I remember happened to me here.
This is the known world.
I shall make a star here for a man who died too young.
Here, and here, in gold, I shall mark two towns
Famous for nothing, except that I have been happy in them.
From the “Epilogue” of Growing Up Floridian:
“Remapping My Country” (with respect to John Holmes)
Massachusetts, a rectangle, ends as a boot,
kicking back the salty waves of the Atlantic,
a barrier island sheltering Cape Cod Bay,
where people can stop for a Sandwich between
Plymouth and Provincetown.
Buzzards Bay intrudes at the ankle,
while Vineyard Sound is ground under the heel.
Nantucket looks longingly at the toe
and westerly at the dust kicked up over Martha’s Vineyard.
My snow-suited youth understood little about latitude lines
crossed when visiting a grandfather’s stone house in New Hampshire.
Reds and yellows of New England falls
dappled the rural hills in memories
of September jaunts to Vermont.
The sight of lobster traps in stacks pulled forth
scents of Old Bay seasonings bubbling around
red claws and protruding feelers that fed
galloping appetites born in piles of playful leaves.
Road signs spoke only of overlooks, not of what to look over.
Parental tales of trips taken twenty years earlier
in a Hudson Commodore did not realistically inform the imagination swaying in the back of a Mercury Comet.
A child’s mind must explore his own byways,
and he must sculpt his own dragons in the clouds.
A black bear on a stone wall frightening chipmunks
did not intimidate a latter day Mohican Cooper inspired.
Fly fishermen down a distant stream did not decorate
the AAA triptik followed up the east coast.
A Studebaker Daytona, ten years later, on the same route
populated by Firebirds, Fieros, Camaros, and Thunderbirds,
shared the roadway with 18-wheeled behemoths jockeyed by
ratchet-jawed rooster cruisers defying the double nickel.
The flat tires fixed on the shoulders refocused the destination
that was not intended as a permanent relocation but as a
waypoint during an exploration.
Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, written in the year of my birth, set a traveling rhythm twenty years later.
His journey was not retraced, but the spirit was embraced.
The only Mary Lou I knew populated Ricky Nelson’s song
on a worn out eight track tape,
but letters from Floridian tourists set new waypoints that
beckoned off interstate exit ramps.
Brautigan’s Confederate General at Big Sur altered my reality.
Trout Fishing in America took me down a humorous path.
Richard’s images entwined within me on western mountain slopes and rolled down shimmering highways into setting suns.
Topographical symbols reveal the contours of my life.
Straight, curved, dashed, and solid lines link moments.
Circled cities connected by yellow highlighted routes merge
melodic memories that bridge kaleidoscope reflections
with echoes resounded through my years.