MONSTERS OF POETRY: Woody Guthrie!
One By One
One by one the teardrops fall as I write you
One by one my words come falling on the page
One by one my dreams are fading in the twilight
One by one my schemes are fading fast away
One by one the flowers fading in my garden
One by one the leaves are falling from the trees
One by one my hopes are vanished in the clouds clear
One by one like snowflakes melting in the breeze
One by one my hair is turning gray
One by one my dreams are fading fast away
One by one I read your letters over
One by one I lay them all away
One by one the days are slipping up behind you
One by one the sweetest days of life go by
One by one the moments stealing out behind you
One by one she’ll come and find not you or I
One by one I hear the soft words that you whispered
One by one I feel your kisses soft and sweet
One by one I hope you’ll say the words to marry
One by one to one by one forever be
– – –
The thing most people don’t understand about Woody Guthrie is that he was a truly incredible and advanced wordsmith, an American poet of the highest order. Woody Guthrie is known more as a “songwriter,” which is like a poet, but somehow cruder, more base, less academic. Really, though, a song is nothing more than a poem you can dance to. Still others know Woody as a populist, an advocate for justice and “the little guy.” For some he’s simply a bum from Oklahoma.
It’s become one of my quests in life to help Mr. Guthrie’s image and raise him up to where he belongs, a place occupied already by Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson and the like. The Pantheon of American Poets. I know that he’d rather be kicking around in Frost’s back alley playing harmonica, but he deserves to be remembered justly.
An example of his poetic prowess: “One By One.” An example of why he’s not remembered as a great poet: nobody ever heard or read “One By One” besides maybe his family, until the singer Billy Bragg, with the help of Wilco, recovered some of his unpublished work and put it to music on the incredible Mermaid Avenue records. I can tell you now, that if people had read this poem while he lived – and if he hadn’t died so young – he would be read in homes and schoolhouses the country over. As it is, it’s hard to find any of his work in print (despite the best efforts of Bragg & Co.), minus his autobiography and the new book of his artwork.
Immediately it’s easy to see that Woody had a flair for repetition. He understood and loved the sounds of words, and he knew a good phrase when he heard it. In “One By One” the anaphora is, naturally, “One by one…” which gives the poem real heft, but also slows it down in time. The sense of the phrase is slow, but reading it over and over also makes the poem move slower, in a strict, quiet rhythm. The poem is indeed one of silence. Teardrops fall, hair turns gray, leaves fall, flowers die, words are written down, not spoken. The sweet days of life – a summery metaphor – slip into the silence of autumn. The only real sounds are whispered words, in the last stanza. The poet here is not grief-stricken, but he is melancholy and verging on hearbreak. He sees life moving by as he waits and waits for his love to answer his marriage proposal. A less deft hand would have turned this subject into the stuff of melodrama, but here Guthrie handles it with delicacy, and he preserves each moment beautifully.
Wilco turned these words into a classic song, and more than a couple people have remarked that it’s one of the finest songs ever written. The group shows a real understanding of the words and turns it into a somber tune driven by piano, organ, and a steady, expecting, beat. Jeffy Tweedy’s voice is quiet and doused in reverb. I have to a agree, it’s one of my all-time favorite songs, and all-time favorite poems.