By the shores of Gitchee Gumee
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
There the wrinkled old Nokomis
Nursed the little Hiawatha,
Rocked him in his linden cradle,
Bedded soft in moss and rushes…
This little outburst of Longfellow was sparked by us driving through a town called Hiawatha in northern Kansas. I must have been very young when my mother first read this poem to me and why I remember (possibly not entirely accurately) this particular bit I do not know. I can’t believe she read me the whole poem – it does go on a bit – but it is the rhythm that stayed in my mind. Perhaps dangerously so because sometimes you can so caught up in the rhythm that you no longer hear the words.
But is the rhythm that helps the memory, a point that was brought home to me many years later when I was working for BBC Radio Drama and producing a programme for Radio 3 about Finnish Folk Poetry. I learned that Longfellow had borrowed the metre and rhythm of Hiawatha from the Finnish tradition but here the rhythm and repetition had a necessary point. Like many other cultures, Finnish folk poetry was an oral tradition. The storytellers recited from memory and the repetition and rhythm were a significant aid to that memory.
It’s amazing what you start thinking about and discussing when you spend all day on the long, straight roads of the American mid-west. They told us that Kansas was “pretty empty”, well, we can confidently say there is not much in northern Nebraska either. However, we do apparently have some claim to this land as you can see from the pictures. “Palmer” has a population of around 400 and “Bartlett” a mere 128. Both these little townships are in Nebraska.
Onto South Dakota which we suspect will offer even more time for thinking.