Tag Archives: Poetry

Old-Fashioned Knitting Rhymes

One of our favorite knitting books, Kids Knitting by Melanie Falick (read our full review), teaches children to knit through the use of rhyme:

Under the fence
Catch the sheep
Back we come
Off we leap.

Each of the four lines represents one step in the process of making a knit stitch:

  1. Inserting the tip of the right needle into the loop on the left needle.
  2. Wrapping the yarn around the right needle.
  3. Inserting the tip of the right needle back into the loop on the left needle to create a new loop and pull it through the old one.
  4. Pulling the right needle up so that the stitch slides off the left needle.

Some people prefer to use this rhyme about the sheep to teach the purl stitch. However, it can be used for either.

The Tradition of Knitting to Verse

While we will probably never know just how old the tradition of knitting to verse is, knitting rhymes have been recorded as far back as the 1800s. The early rhymes appear to have been recited at least partly to amuse the knitters.

Verses used when knitting in 1800s England may have varied regionally. This rhyme was preferred in Northamptonshire:

Needle to needle, and stitch to stitch,
Pull the old woman out of the ditch;
If you ain't out by the time I'm in,
I'll rap your knuckles with my knitting-pin.

One song that comes from the dales of Lancashire and Yorkshire was used to count how many rounds had been knitted:

Bell-wether o' Barking, cries baa, baa,
How many sheep have we lost today?
Nineteen we have lost, one we have fun,
Run Rockie, run Rockie, run, run, run.

In this song, “Bell-wether o’ Barking” is the name of a mountain, “one we have fun” means “one we have found,” and “Rockie” is the name of the sheepdog. The knitters who sang this song would alter the numbers as they worked. The next verse would say, “Eighteen we have lost, two we have fun,” for instance.

Verses for Teaching Children to Knit

Because each line of most knitting verses corresponds to a particular movement or position of the knitting needles, it is little surprise that knitting rhymes evolved to serve an instructional purpose.

The traditional and probably best-known verse used to teach children the knit stitch goes something like this:

In through the front door
Once around the back
Peek through the window
And off jumps Jack!

For very young children learning the knit stitch, we find this rhyme:

Into the bunny hole
Run around the tree
Out of the bunny hole
Away runs she.

(Or “away runs he,” if you prefer.)

Typically reserved for purling is this rather puzzling scenario:

In front of the fence
Catch the goat
Back we go
Jump off the boat!

As some have pointed out, it is rather unfathomable what a boat has to do with anything, but perhaps it is more memorable for that very reason.

Of course, as with all forms of folk verse, countless subtle variations on each of these little poems exist. The point is not so much the precise words used as the joy of sharing knitting and a funny verse.

Seasons in the Flint Hills

 Crisp and black with cold, dry ash,
You cover yourselves with green,
Awakened to life by rain and sun,
You thrive in the breezes of spring.

Days grow long, the south wind blows;
Your green now changes, too—
First more vibrant, then more soft,
And then to a golden hue.

A gentler sun ripens your gold
To copper and rich red rust;
Heat gives way to autumn frost
And mist that quells the dust.

Day by day your frost grows thicker,
Gives way to sleet and snow;
Grasses lie beneath the ice,
A-shine in the moon’s pale glow.

© 2019 Michelle Lindsey

Johnny Kaw: A Tall Tale

Johnny KawHe was born on a night when a stormy wind blew;
Five minutes old, already six feet two.

Thus begins the story of Kansas’s own legendary hero and Paul Bunyan figure, Johnny Kaw.

Johnny Kaw: A Tall Tale by Devin Scillian presents the story in a format that children will love—playful verse accompanied by hilarious illustrations.

Young Johnny Kaw grows fast—too fast to stay in town, in fact. But when Johnny’s family moves west to find more room for their son to grow, the young man’s immense size proves to be a decided asset. Readers young and old are sure to chuckle as Johnny Kaw carries the family wagon across the river, tackles a tornado with a scythe, and pulls stones from his father’s field with his bare hands, incidentally creating the Rocky Mountains in the process.

The Johnny Kaw legend is of recent origin, having sprung up in Manhattan, Kansas, in 1955 to celebrate that town’s centennial. The original Johnny Kaw was a rather feisty man, known for keeping a wildcat and a jayhawk as pets and for having once settled a dispute with Paul Bunyan by plowing the bed of the Mississippi River with the latter’s face.

Parents will be happy to know that the new Johnny Kaw introduced in Scillian’s book is a gentle giant, displaying a tenderness that warms the heart.

Great read for youngsters and those who love all things Kansas!

2018 Reading Challenge: Kansas

2018 Reading Challenge: KansasA new year—a new reading challenge!

This year, Kansas is the theme. To complete the challenge, you must read 12 Kansas-related books by the end of 2018:

  1. A book about Kansas prior to 1854.
  2. A book about Kansas flora.
  3. A fictional book written by a Kansas author.
  4. A book about territorial Kansas.
  5. A book about Kansas travel.
  6. A book about Kansas fauna.
  7. A book about Kansas in the late 1800s.
  8. A book of poetry written by a Kansas author.
  9. A book about a famous Kansan.
  10. A book about Kansas in the 1900s.
  11. A book of Kansas photography.
  12. A book about a current issue in Kansas.

Here are the rules:

  • Books in electronic formats count.
  • Both fiction and nonfiction books count.
  • You can read the books in any order.
  • Books cannot be counted twice, even if they fit into more than one category.

If you can complete a book a month, you will be able to complete the challenge easily.

Stuck? Sign up for On the Range, our free weekly country living update (learn more). In the last issue of every month, we’ll suggest a book for one of the categories as a hint.

Let us know what you’re reading this year! We’d love to hear from you!

Helpful Resource

The Homestead Bookshelf
Looking for a good book? Start here.

Introducing Cowboy Poetry

Introduction to Cowboy PoetryThe early cowboys seem to have been artists at heart.  Every aspect of their daily lives seems to have made it into verse, from their love of nature to their battles with wild horses to their prosaic bacon-and-beans diet.

Many of the first cowboy poems were song lyrics.  Thus, this poetic style shares the same cultural origins as Western music.  The ballad form of the British Isles became a key feature early on.  The repetition and sense of rhythm popular among black cowboys did, as well.

That said, cowboys did not always set their verses to music.  Recitation was a popular pastime all over America in that day.  Often at night, the cowboys would simply enjoy reciting and listening to recited poetry, copying the example of their acquaintances back East.


A Range of Topics

Cowboy poetry primarily deals with the West.  Long-standing favorite subjects have been cattle chores, love-hate relationships with horses, observations on nature, religious musings, and thoughts of home and family.

As the West has evolved to fit the modern era, so has cowboy poetry.  Favorite topics today include everything from politics to the woes of adapting to new technology, but the traditional ranching flavor will remain as long as the cowboy way of life does.


Key Characteristics

In the days of the cattle drives, cowboys had to find ways to pass long nights on the prairie.  One favorite was swapping yarns.  Ever since, telling a story that can evoke a laugh, a thrill, or a tender sentiment has been a key goal of cowboy poetry.  The method of concocting the story varies by poet.  Some prefer to stick to the facts, especially if offering a historical narrative, but the tall tale still rides on today.

The poems that tended to last the longest were those that could be memorized the easiest.  Cowboy poetry was frequently published in newspapers, but recitation was at least half the fun.  Here is where the African-American influence proved to be extremely helpful.  A definite rhythm makes memorization easy.  So does a good rhyme scheme.  As previously mentioned, the ballad form has long predominated, but anything with a solid rhythm and a catchy rhyme scheme is commonly accepted.


Is That Cowboy Poetry?

One sticky question is whether only true cowboys and cowgirls can write cowboy poetry.

The stricter school of thought is that it takes a working cowboy to write about the life of a working cowboy.  A tenderfoot will never be able to properly appreciate the joys and hardships of the Western way of life and will sooner or later betray his inexperience in his poetry.

The looser school of thought is pleased to recognize an appreciation of the West wherever it can be found.  So the poet only rides in his imagination?  Well, at least he showed his love for all things Western.  After all, some of the earliest writers of cowboy poetry were Easterners who never worked cattle in their lives.

The result of this diversity of thought on and approach to cowboy poetry is an equally diverse genre.  Cowboy poetry, one might say, is the poetry of life, life in the West in particular.

The Kansas Poems of John Greenleaf Whittier

The Kansas Poems of John Greenleaf Whittier
John Greenleaf Whittier as he appeared in 1855

John Greenleaf Whittier was probably best known for his book-length poem Snowbound, but as a Quaker he was also an ardent abolitionist, even taking an active hand in political lobbying for the cause at one point.

When the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 plunged the entire nation into a debate on slavery and the respective roles of state and Federal governments in regulating the practice, it was not possible that Whittier could overlook such critical events.  People on all sides of the question felt that Kansas would be the testing ground for their respective philosophies.

Whittier, therefore, took up his pen and contributed a series of poems on events in Kansas which have been collected and preserved at KanColl, a volunteer-based website dedicated to archiving the primary sources of Kansas.

The first poem is “The Kansas Emigrants,” also known as “The Song of the Kansas Emigrant.”  These lyrics, originally sung to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne,” were written to inspire the abolitionist pioneers who were moving to make Kansas a free state.

The second is “The Burial of Barbour,” written after the death of Thomas Barber on December 6, 1855.  Earlier that year, the murder of an abolitionist settler led to a series of retaliations, culminating within a proslavery posse besieging the Free State stronghold of Lawrence.  Barber had been among the defenders of the city, but was returning home briefly to check on his own affairs before returning to Lawrence.  He was stopped and shot by the besiegers after refusing to join their side.  Barber was considered the first Free State martyr of Kansas by many, and Whitter’s poem became a rallying cry for the abolitionist cause.

The third poem is “Le Marais du Cygne.”  It commemorated the Marais des Cygnes Massacre of May 19, 1858.  A group of Missourians captured 11 unarmed Free State men, marched them into a ravine, and opened fire.  Five of the victims were killed and five severely wounded.  A shaky truce between the two factions was formed shortly after the massacre.  Although matters still appeared to be precarious, the men on each side concentrating around their strongholds, Marais des Cygnes proved to be the last major act of violence in Kansas prior to the outbreak of the Civil War.

The fourth and final poem is “John Brown of Ossawatomie,” written upon the notorious abolitionist guerrilla leader’s execution.  John Brown had left his base of operations in Osawatomie, Kansas, in late 1856 to raise funds and followers back East.  Meanwhile, he developed an idea of ending slavery by leading a large-scale slave revolt, culminating in the creation of a new free state, complete with a constitution written by Brown himself.  The first major act in the revolution was the failed raid on the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in October 1859, for which Brown was hanged.

These four poems provide an interesting look into the minds of the Northern abolitionists of the 1850s.  Whittier eloquently encapsulated the sentiments of the antislavery cause with regard to Kansas, leaving us a poignant record to enjoy and ponder.