Next week I’ll join about 90,000 or so of my best friends on one of North Dakota’s favorite days, hunting pheasants on the opening day of Pheasant Season. I thought I might share here some of the poetry of Paul Southworth Bliss, my favorite North Dakota poet, in honor of the occasion.
Paul Bliss was no outdoorsman. Born in Wisconsin in 1889, educated at Harvard, a World War I veteran, he rose to the rank of colonel in the U.S. Army.
Bliss began his professional career as a newspaper reporter and music critic. But sometime in the mid-1930s he found himself driving the back roads of North Dakota during the darkest days of the Great Depression, as front man for President Roosevelt’s New Deal WPA relief program.
He traveled the state with pen and paper in hand, and he used his gift as a poet to describe what he saw and felt on those long, dusty, sometimes freezing cold, sometimes sweltering hot, roads. From those North Dakota travels came three of his seven published books of poetry, three volumes full of poems about places in North Dakota.
And what makes Bliss’s poetry so enjoyable is that he identifies the time and place where each poem happened to him, and in many cases you can say “Yeah, I’ve been there,” but generally, Bliss throws a whole new light on those places.
Bliss has been dead 75 years now, but I’m still a fan of his poetry and short essays. He spent as much time in the Badlands as possible, and loved what he saw there, and in his unique style, found ways to describe the countryside that I have never seen before. For example, this line from a poem called Blue Heaven:
Under the torture of 47 degrees below,
The air of McKenzie County
Is pure as the soul of Christ.
Bliss comes to mind as October—Pheasant Month at my house from the time I was old enough to jump into the back of Dad’s station wagon—begins calling me from my warm bed on those first few cold mornings of late fall. His seasonal poetry is some of his best, and it’s clean and clear and shows an obvious love for his adopted state. Two of my favorite Bliss poems—one about pheasants, the other about dogs—are the reason I’m thinking about him right now.
But now, for me, in retirement, October is much more diversified. When I was a student and then when working for a living, hunting and fishing were done pretty much on weekends, and so choices had to be made, and in October I most often chose pheasants. But now it is not unusual for me to be sitting in a duck slough or a goose blind or a fishing boat on a Wednesday in October, sometimes more than one of them in a day, because in retirement every day is Saturday, and there’s time to do everything.
What I don’t do much of in October is read, especially poetry. These days, my reading is pretty much left to those winter days when the wind is blowing too hard to go ice fishing, or summer days when it is too hot to sit in a boat. But on those days, I often turn to Bliss to remind myself what a great place we live in.
You can probably find Bliss’s books in your local public library, or buy them online at Amazon.com, or your favorite used book website, or you can just Google Paul Southworth Bliss poetry, and you’ll find a place to buy his books. They’re all out of print now, so they might be a little pricey, but if you shop around a bit, you can probably find one in your price range.
Without further ado, let me share a couple of his best poems with you. Both are from a volume titled The Rye Is The Sea, printed right here in Bismarck, North Dakota in 1936, using recycled farmers’ burlap bags for the covers.
In the introduction to this book, Bliss writes “Attention is invited to the physical appearance of this book. “The Rye is the Sea” could be produced from a farm village. The burlap binding is the gunny sack of agriculture. The bag of which this binding is a part has held in its time wheat and corn. The paper used is ordinary wrapping paper.” The book is about 7 ½” by 10” and is so intricately printed and bound it is a joy to hold in your hand.
The first poem is titled Pheasant Cry. I love it because Bliss tells us what color pheasants are, like no one ever has before. My friend Dan Nelson says, every October, “Let’s go get some of those big red birds.” And we usually do. But Bliss adds a few more colors to his description.
Shine on me—
Make me glorious!”
Walking the rowed wheat
In the morning.
North of the way,
South of the way,
The sun shone upon them all.
Said the pheasant:
Shine on me—
Make me glorious!”
It was afternoon:
Of white cumulus
Lay in the north;
Hung in the east;
The sun shone upon them.
The pheasant cried:
Shine on me—
Make me glorious!”
The pheasant called
And at evening
Hearkened to his cry;
And the sun
Bestowed upon him
All his colors:
And the sun said:
“From the early
When you walked
The rowed wheat,
You have asked
A little bit
-May 17, 1936, Minnesota-North Dakota border, south of Wahpeton-Breckenridge
Now you know what color a pheasant is. Then read this one, and see if you don’t recognize you and your dog.
JUST ANOTHER OLD DOG
Just another old dog with sorrowful eyes,
Peering at me from the rug where he lies;
Watching me always, calm as a sphinx,
With two aging eyes, neither one of which blinks.
Knows I’m no company—not for a dog
Dreaming of meadowland, forest and bog;
Dreaming of pheasant, partridge and quail,
And curious things by the aspen-leaved trail.
Wond’ring why men stay so long in one place,
Chained to a desk—when there’s plenty of space.
Just a run out of town and the fun might begin—
I know that he reckons such sitting is sin.
A law would be passed if dogs had their way–
That men must go out in the open each day—
Out to trees, brushland or prairie remote:
Ah, that would win every honest dog’s vote!
Old fellow, stop looking so sadly at me;
If only you knew it, we agree to a “T.”
Come, we’ll just chuck it! These papers are trash—
Let’s go where clean, cool forest streams splash!
There, you old rascal with sorrowful eyes,
That far-a-way look was a crafty disguise.
Now you jump up, wiggle tail, wriggle ears,
Shedding like water a half-dozen years.
You’ve waited so long, but you knew you would win;
You scoundrel, I see that you’re hiding a grin!
So off we go, leaving no trail, and no track—
I hope they don’t miss us; let’s never come back!
-May 19, 1935; Williston, N.D. To a venerable red-eyed springer spaniel, 11 years old, who keeps faithful and friendly watch.
How many times have you seen an old dog jump up and “shed a half-dozen years?” Yeah, me too. Isn’t that a marvelous line?
After traveling the back roads of North Dakota for a couple years, Bliss was convinced by his new North Dakota friends that he must take up hunting as a sport. And so he did, and he recounts some of the adventures of that first year in a short essay titled “Hunting Begins at 40” in the back of The Rye is the Sea. Interestingly, the account is kind of what you might have read in an old issue of Field and Stream or Outdoor Life of the same period. Yeah, me and Joe did this and this and this.
But at the very end, Bliss recounts for us how much money he spent on hunting that year (something I’ve always considered too dangerous to undertake—there are some things you just don’t want to know). Here’s his tally. Check out his note at the end.
Hunting License No. 28634 N.D. $1.50
Federal Duck Stamp 1.00
Take-down Repeating Shotgun 26.95
Gun Case 4.95
Box of Shells .98Additional Shells, 3 boxes at 98c 2.94
Ramrod Set .39
Oil Can .25
Khaki Hunter’s Coat 3.50
Wading Boots 4.50
Decoy Ducks 2.25
Duck Call .65
Oil and Gas 10.00
Broken Auto Window 2.50
Visits and Office Treatments 18.00
Films, Developing, Extra Prints $5.00
GRAND TOTAL $88.21
Author’s Note: From this you will see that it cost me $88.21 for one sharp-tailed grouse, one partridge and one duck. Rather expensive—but I will never forget how yellow the cordgrass was on the duck pass, how the reeds waved their plumes and how the dawn turned the ice into pink sherbet.
October 18th 2017
October 11th 2017
October 11th 2017
September 27th 2017
September 20th 2017
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