effect produced by an entire book ofnMcGonagall’s verse. It is all dreadful.nI swear to you that I have just nownopened at random to this stanza, fromna lengthy account of the Johnstownnflood:nThe pillaging of the houses innJohnstown is fearfulnto describe,nBy the Hungarians and ghouls,nand woe betidenAny person or party thatninterfered with them,nBecause they were mad withndrink, and yelling like tigersnin a den.nThere are pages and pages of this stuff.nIt is estimated that a half-millionncopies of Poetic Gems have been soldnsince McGonagall’s day—not, alas, tonthe profit of the author and his longsufferingnwife and children. (Most recently,nTemplegate Publishers ofnSpringfield, Illinois, issued a volumenSCREENnPaying and Prayingnon the OldnHomesteadnby E. Christian KopffnFarming “will remain the same thoughnDynasties pass,” thought ThomasnHardy. In our own day, the farmer isnbeginning to be treated like an endangerednspecies, a poor moulting birdnthat tenderhearted environmentalistsnwant the government to take under itsnbrooding wing. Hollywood became interestednin him a few years ago, and anspate of movies with well-known actressesnappeared almost simultaneously.nThe film establishment gave annAcademy Award to Sally Field, andnJessica Lange won kudos from thencritics. They and Sissy Spacek andnJane Fonda went to Washington tonof selections, with an appreciative introductionnby James O. Jackson.) Inn1965 the BBC held a competition tonfind a worthy successor to McGonagall,nbut the judges called it off: nonenof the entries, they said, were in thensame league.nAnd of course they couldn’t havenbeen. The BBC’s contest was like askingnpeople to do primitive paintings.nPeople who paint the apotheosis ofnHank Williams do not think of theirnwork as folk art. This kind of thingncan’t be done tongue-in-cheek. It mustnbe turned out in dead earnest. (And bynpeople who ought to know better: childrenncan write like this, and sometimesndo, but the effect isn’t the samenat all.)nSo I propose a different competition.nI suggest instead that we seeknMcGonagallisms in the work of poetsnwho are, or at one time were, wellregarded.nEven Homer nods, and isolatednpassages almost as bad as the onesnVITAL SIGNSntestify before congressional committeesnabout what they felt. When it wasnplain that there was even less bignmoney to be made out of farming as anfilm topic than as a way of life, thenindustry went on to other concerns. Atnthe distance of a year or so, it may benworthwhile to step back and thinknabout these efforts to depict an importantnpart of America.nThe films, Sally Field’s Places in thenHeart, Jessica Lange’s Country, SissynSpacek’s The River, together formed anninstant genre, with its own conventionsnand stock motifs. There was thenconfrontation with the banker, at firstnbusiness-like, then confused by thenentrance of wife and kids. There wasnthe auction, which began calmly andnthen degenerated into a shoutingnmatch between auctioneer and othernfarmers. There was the confrontationnwith bad weather, rain, or tornado.nThere was typically a scene with anwoman struggling to handle machinerynand finally succeeding, a sequencennnI’ve quoted have been written by peoplenwho made better livings off theirnverse than poor Sir William ever did.nSend me your favorites; I’ll print thenmost awful specimens, and we’ll thinknof a prize.nMy candidate, to get things started,nis from John Greenleaf Whittier’s eulogy,n”Randolph of Roanoke”:nToo honest or too proud tonfeignnA love he never cherished.nBeyond Virginia’s border linenHis patriotism perished.nTrue, it scans, and the rhymes aren’tnbad. But you must admit that it hasnthat Coogleresque quality, that Petersoniannje ne sais quoi. William McGonagallnwould not have been ashamednof it.nSend your entries to John SheltonnReed at 126 Mallette Street, ChapelnHill, North Carolina 27514, in annenvelope marked “Poetic Gems.”nhandled grotesquely in River. Indeed,nit was often hard to keep the scenesnapart in one’s mind, especiallynbetween Country and River. Nownconvention and motif are a part of allngreat art, but the synthetic character ofnthese instant traditions was obvious andnrepulsive.nThe source of the filmmakers’ concernnfor farmers had tainted thenstream. Film and television, as industries,nare urban conglomerates. Theirnmoney comes from large urban companies.nScripts are written and thenndirected by city folk from LA or NewnYork, as Ben Stein pointed out a fewnyears ago. On a trip to the country,nthey feel like Spencer Tracy in BadnDay at Black Rock or Burt Reynolds innDeliverance: simple, straightforwardnsouls from a peaceful, orderly citynsuddenly involved in the chaos andnviolence and dark mysteries of thenrural world. That this vision bearsnsmall resemblance to reality needs littlenargument. It is our big cities (espe-nJULYmB/43n