Saturday, October 1, 2011


When October rolls around, I always celebrate its arrival by reading a poem I've known and loved since childhood.

“When the Frost is On the Punkin” is, to my mind, James Whitcomb Riley at his evocative homespun best. It was also one of my father’s favorite poems. Each year, when the weather began to cool and leaves commenced to show their paintbox hues, Dad would invariably grin at me across the breakfast table and begin quoting the verses. I could quote half of them back to him by the time I was in grade school.

The rural scenes and situations the poem detailed were of another time and place, plucked from a way of life I knew nothing whatsoever about…at least not firsthand. James Whitcomb Riley was born in a log cabin in rural Indiana in 1849. Both my parents were raised on hill-country farms in eastern Kentucky in the early-1900s. Yet the word pictures Riley so wonderfully painted were almost identical to memories they shared with me daily in song, stories, food, and cultural attitude. I naturally grew up as countrified as if I’d been born to it in actuality.

When Riley talked about the “kyouck and gobble of the struttin' turkey-cock,” I could hear that fantailed bird loud and clear. When he mentioned “fodder in the shock,” or wrote of a “feller leaving the house, bareheaded, as he goes out to feed the stock,” I could, through vicarious history, identify wholeheartedly. What’s more, I knew firsthand about apples “poured around the cellar-floor in red and yaller heaps.” Dad always spread several bushels of apples out this way, every autumn, on the cool concrete floor of the basement’s coal bin. They kept well there until at least the end of winter.

I liked the way Riley wrote, the way he used language. The tongue-testing rhythm of such lines as “the husky, rusty russel of the tossels of the corn,” were as sweet to me as a spoonful of sorghum molasses. 

James Whitcomb Riley was a poet of the old school. His poems rhymed, a style now sadly out of vogue in today’s free-verse literary circles. Modern critics often dislike his use of dialect. They call his writing sentimental, proclaim its subject matter superficial, even refer to him a regionalist—as if that were a bad thing. Yet from the 1880s until well into the Twentieth Century, Riley was the nation’s most widely read poet. His books sold millions of copies and are still in print. When he went on tour across the country, tickets for his readings sold out almost overnight; audiences were huge. Newspapers called him “the poet laureate of America.” His writing became the basis for courses at many Ivy League colleges, and he received any number of honorary degrees—including ones from Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, Indiana University, and Wabash College. The National Institute of Arts and Letters made him a member and conferred upon him a special award for his poetry. To this day, the level of popularity he received has not been surpassed by any other poet during their lifetime.  

You can tell James Whitcomb Riley knew and loved October. While the poem’s setting may reflect a bygone era, anyone attuned to nature, the outdoors, the rhythm of the seasons, and is familiar with rural life and country ways, will find the unerring ring of authenticity still remains. I find an absolute seasonal verisimilitude in the way the lines so perfectly capture the month’s marvelous mood.

Yessir, the old Hoosier poet, who looked like anyone's avuncular uncle, could make words dance and sing and sometimes practically jump off the page, into your heart and head. That’s why my father read him, why several of his books graced our hallway bookcase, why I still turn to this particular poem to usher in October. 

When the Frost is On the Punkin'

WHEN the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock,
And you hear the kyouck and gobble of the struttin' turkey-cock,
And the clackin' of the guineys, and the cluckin' of the hens,
And the rooster's hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence;
O, it's then the time a feller is a-feelin' at his best,      
With the risin' sun to greet him from a night of peaceful rest,
As he leaves the house, bareheaded, and goes out to feed the stock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock.

They's something kindo' harty-like about the atmusfere
When the heat of summer's over and the coolin' fall is here—
Of course we miss the flowers, and the blossoms on the trees,
And the mumble of the hummin'-birds and buzzin' of the bees;
But the air's so appetizin'; and the landscape through the haze
Of a crisp and sunny morning of the airly autumn days
Is a pictur' that no painter has the colorin' to mock—
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock.

The husky, rusty russel of the tossels of the corn,
And the raspin' of the tangled leaves as golden as the morn;
The stubble in the furries—kindo' lonesome-like, but still
A-preachin' sermuns to us of the barns they growed to fill;
The strawstack in the medder, and the reaper in the shed;
The hosses in theyr stalls below—the clover overhead!—
O, it sets my hart a-clickin' like the tickin' of a clock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock.

Then your apples all is gethered, and the ones a feller keeps
Is poured around the cellar-floor in red and yaller heaps;
And your cider-makin's over, and your wimmern-folks is through
With theyr mince and apple-butter, and theyr souse and sausage too!...
I don't know how to tell it—but ef such a thing could be
As the angels wantin' boardin', and they'd call around on me
I'd want to 'commodate 'em—all the whole-indurin' flock—
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock.
(Note: I just found this wonderful recitation of the poem by the late Kent Risley. Moreover, his introductory story is lovely.)  


Scott said...

After your introduction, thanks very much for reproducing the poem. I'm an old sentimentalist, too, and think that good rhyming poetry almost always trumps free verse because of the inherent difficulty of construction. Good post.

Scott said...

Grizz, after I read your post, I turned on my iPod and listened to Cheryl Wheeler's contemporary folksong, "When Fall Comes to New England" from her album "Driving Home." It's unapologetically sentimental--and I'm not ashamed to say that love it! You might give it a listen.

Grizz………… said...

Scott x 2…

Ha, guess it takes a sentimentalist to know one—I've had that Cheryl Wheeler CD for years. It's the perfect autumn song—great job of word-painting the quintessential calendar scenes. In fact—and I swear I'm not making this up!—I spent an hour or so yesterday trying to figure out how to use iMovie, a bunch of my recent autumnish shots, and that very tune to make a YouTunes post (not an original idea; I don't care) figuring to then put a link to it on a future Riverdaze post. I can get the pix and music together, but can't figure how to sync them so the total viewing time for each shot works out to the length of the song.

Re. Riley's, and rhyming poetry in general…I agree completely, and for exactly the reason you point out. It is unquestionably harder to construct really fine verse that says what you want to say in rhyme and not sound childish or sappy. That requires talent beyond mere wordsmithing; rhythm, musicality, and a mastery of language are all necessary. It is a gift, an art given to few, and one that simply can't be taught or learned—let alone mastered—from just desire and lots of practice. Either you have it, or you don't. I'm not saying free verse poetry doesn't have its place, or that such poets aren't good, even great; but rhyme adds an additional dimension, and such talent is never common in any generation.

The Weaver of Grass said...

I love this Grizz - I had never heard of him but what a jolly poem.

Kelly said...

...absolutely loved this post. Thanks for posting the poem and the reading of it too. I enjoyed it.

Grizz………… said...


Riley has been a favorite poet since—well, since Dad began quoting his poems to me when I was a child. One of the first new books I bought as an adult was a copy of his complete works, which I still have. Actually, Riley was rather popular in Britain—his books sold well and he made one reading tour there, though found he liked home best of all. He wrote in a variety of styles on all sorts of subjects, but I think he was always at his best depicting rural scenes and life.

Grizz………… said...


Riley is a comfortable old friend to me. I often sit down and read a few of his poems as a sort of pastoral therapy. I'm glad you enjoyed the piece, poem, and recitation.

KGMom said...

Scribe--this brings to mind our discussions of poetry.
Riley is a poet who fits into the regional poets category--not meant as any diminution of his talent, but it is a descriptive way of categorizing poets. Use of dialect is one of the characteristics of such poets.
As for writing in rhyming being more difficult--as you & Scott noted--it can actually easier. That's because you factor in rhythm--meter. So, the sing-song aspect gets going, and the rhyme starts flowing.
A poet who has some regional touches, but expanded to national fame, was Robert Frost. Frost always (or nearly) wrote in rhyme, but was a consummate master of it, never sloppy, always very careful. His poems are like finely woven fabric.
I still prefer the free verse approach--the spareness that style affords, the demands on selecting just the exact right word. Rhyming poetry frequently has MORE words than needed.
Back to Riley--another favorite of mine is "Little Orphan Annie."

Grizz………… said...

Glad you weighed in. I expected you could be counted on for a good comment.

I do understand about the regionalist appellation, which is why I took a poke at those who like to use such terms to imply it somehow limits or lessens a writer's work.

As to rhyming poetry being easier to write than free verse, I agree that the rhythm/meter can often make the task easier; we both know the world is full of rhymed poems that are amateurish and puerile. That's why I added the caveat that it "is unquestionably harder to construct really fine verse that says what you want to say in rhyme and not sound childish or sappy." However, I've read plenty of free verse poems just as badly written, and a lot which are reasonably well-written prose that seem to have been rather arbitrarily chopped into verses and christened poetry. And of course, good or bad poetry is, to some extent, a subjective call. But I do think the finest rhymed poems require more work/talent than free verse, simply because free verse gives you the choice of all words to use when constructing your verses; you can use the perfect word because it is the perfect word. Whereas the added dimension of rhyme severely limits your choices; it must rhyme with another verse when forming your stanzas…plus, it must still exactly say what you as the poem's author mean to say. If you have to force it, it doesn't work. If you have to settle for a lesser word, it doesn't work. If you can't find the word, you have to change the verse, the stanza, maybe the whole poem. Keep in mind we're talking genuine literary works of enduring quality. It comes down to a numbers issue—unlimited available words vs. severely limited. All this is just my opinion. I like both free verse and rhymed poetry. I greatly admire real poets…the really good ones are the ultimate short story writers.

Not all of Riley's work was good. But I expect you underestimate his national fame. In some ways, Frost is doubtless the better overall poet. Yet, as much as I like a lot of Frost's work, I would be willing to bet that in his heyday, Riley achieved a national audience and acclaim far, far greater than Frost. His books sold millions. His many tours for years across the nation from coast-to-coast were sell-outs. His popularity cut across all social, economic, and geographic lines…a poet beloved by presidents and poor dirt farmers alike. He was like a rock star of today. No less than Mark Twain learned the hard way not to share a stage with Riley and expect to be star of the show. Times and tastes change. Nowadays, Riley and his style of poetry are out of favor. Frost made the audience transition; Riley didn't. In the end, poetry is a very personal thing. The good ones (poems and poets) can reach inside and move you…and a lot has to do with what you bring to the table. This is why every October I read this poem by Riley.

George said...

A delightful read on this cool, wet October morning on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. I enjoyed your memories, Grizz, as well as the poem itself, and, being a lover of good poetry of any kind, I greatly enjoyed the discussion about rhyming poems, versus free verse. Have a good week in this, the most glorious of months.

Grizz………… said...


Thank you. I'm sure Riley isn't to everyone's liking. He was often compared to Robert Burns, another "regionalist" poet I also enjoy. And he championed the work of, among others, Paul Lawrence Dunbar—again a regionalist who often employed dialect, and sometimes wrote about sentimental subjects. Both Burns and Dunbar had an eye and love for nature, country ways, rural folks—which, if you get right down to it, are tags which could be said of Wordsworth and a host of others.

It is sunny here this morning, but cool—35˚F when I got up. We have a hearthfire going and I just put a roast in the oven. The leaves are starting to turn a bit—though more so away from the water than here along the river's moist, protected corridor. Enjoy you weekend and coming week, too, my friend; I'm sure it's pretty up along the coast.

giggles said...

Wonderful... Loved the video. Must look up this Risley fellow, too...

Grizz………… said...


Thank you—I'm glad you liked the post.

I tried looking up more information on Kent Risley, but with little luck. I would like to know more about him. He certainly did a good job here. I expect his would prove a good story. Let me know if you find anything out.

KGMom said...

Scribe--round 2.
First, Frost would be known and valued around the world. Not sure that Riley would be. Yes, Riley was very popular in his day, but I always look for the ability of a poet to last.
Second, when I first taught creative writing, I had students who wrote woeful poetry (or maybe it was verse). They were CRUSHED if I told them their poems, er, um, lacked poetic worth. I finally learned to say to them--just because you felt something deeply and then wrote a poem does NOT make the result good poetry.
You are so right--there has been plenty of bad poetry written in verse, and bad poetry written in free verse.

Grizz………… said...


First, understand where I'm coming from on this—I didn't set out to become an apologist—or critic—of Riley's work; my intention was simply to share a poem I've known and enjoyed since childhood. I'd be the first to admit Riley was not the greatest poet around. He had his personal demons, and his writing suffered. Some of his efforts are, frankly, pretty dreadful. Though in fairness, I've read a poem or two by Frost that could have been penned by one of those students you mention.

Too, I'm not sure worldwide popularity vs. national popularity matters in regards to a poem's or poet's literary merits. Though the older I get, the less certain I am that "literature" and "literary" are terms of real meaning instead of just subjective opinions, possessing little value beyond the classroom or age in which they're delivered. Maybe popularity is the only judge and jury, and time the only yardstick.

You are perfectly correct in pointing out that writing from deep emotion does not make good writing in and of itself. Theme, insight, one's ability and vocabulary command, and the style or voice you have when stringing words together—all contribute. At some point pure God-given talent comes into play, a sort of inherent individual magic which can only be admired but never explained or taught or duplicated. But even all this does not insure success, though you might fool both critics and the public for awhile. And to be perfectly honest, I don't quite know what that final "mystery whatever" truly is. Whim? Luck? Attrition? Divine province?

I recall a remark, made some years ago, by Bennett Cerf, publisher and co-founder of Random House. He said that more and more often he received manuscripts which were wonderfully, beautifully written, yet had nothing to say. This, it seems to me, is the flip side of those students of yours who had something to say (or at least something which was important to them or moved them deeply) but failed woefully in the delivery.

But, really, can anyone ever be taught to be a poet? Not a person who writes poems…but a poet? A poet whose work, even if it is only a single poem, will be read by others a century from now and will give that reader great joy or courage, faith, or understanding? A poem which makes their heart sing, or brings them to tears?

Who gets to say what is or isn't literature—providing such a thing exists? An editor? A college professor? A critic? A million readers? Or just a single individual who takes in the words and is moved or enlightened or changed in some way? Must a work be relevant and reflective of the universal human condition, or simply understandable and meaningful to one person?

I expect a couple hundred years down time's stream, one or two poems from Frost might still be read outside the demands of scholarship, just as a few still read the Iliad. As to Riley, I fear his poetry will likely fall into that darkness which appears to have engulfed Madison Cawein, another "regionalist" poet with an international reputation, who published thirty-six volumes of poetry, many revealing a love and understanding of nature, and whose poem "Waste Land," published in a magazine edited by Ezra Pound, proved a direct influence for Eliot's "The Waste Land."

Or I may be wrong. It's just possible that in that distant age, some old throwback hillbilly, a countrified anomaly sitting in a cabin in a holler, who awoke to his own rooster's hallylooyering that very morning—this selfsame backwoods gent will give the hound dog lolling on the hearth a scratch behind the ears, ease back in his rocking chair, and open a book (yes, a genuine print-on-paper book, because books will still be around, while kindle will be what he did to the hearthfire on this crisp October morning) and therein and with much pleasure begin reading "When the frost is on the punkin…"

giggles said...

Didn't look with much effort...but...nuttin. Interesting character in the vid. though. I enjoyed his story and recitation of the poem immensely.

Grizz………… said...


"Nuttin" is about what I came up with, as well—but I didn't do much research, either. But like you, I really enjoy his recitation and introductory story. Thanks for letting me know.

Don't drink downstream from the herd…

Lindah said...

This was indeed excellent. I hadn't thought of that poem for years. I enjoyed this rendition immensely. Thank you for this post. Fall, October and November, my favorite time of year. Wish I could somehow stretch those months out a bit more.

Grizz………… said...


You're most welcome—I'm always glad to accomodate a Riley fan.

I love October and November, too, though poor old November is often unsung, yet it serves up some of the finest days of the year.