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J A C K S C H E R T I N G Utah State University An Approach to the Western Poetry of Thomas Hornsby Ferril Thomas Hornsby Ferril has accumulated an impressive list of awards for his poetry. These include the Yale Competition for Younger Poets, the Nation’s poetry prize, the Oscar Blumenthal prize, the Robert Frost award, the Mitchell Kennerley award, a Forum award, and an award from the Academy of American Poets. In addition, four universities have given Mr. Ferril honorary de­ grees. Quite obviously, he has produced a substantial body of dis­ tinguished poetry; but in spite of these accolades, Thomas Hornsby Ferril remains an unknown or, at best, an obscure American poet. This is lamentable because he has something important to say about America to Americans. The primary purpose of this essay is to call attention to a poet whose works deserve a much larger audience than they have had. If the reader also finds that the essay offers a meaningful approach to Ferril’s western poetry, then so much the better. Ferril was born in Denver in 1896, and when I corresponded with him in 1966, he was still working at his job as publicity director for the Great Western Sugar Company and still writing poetry. His most recent volume, Words for Denver, was published in 1966. Ferril’s poetry is inextricably tied to the American west—the western landscape, the western man, and the westward movement of civiliza­ tion. Since these elements are basic to Ferril’s poetry, they provide a point of departure for exploring his philosophical outlook, which is both complex and profound. It should be remembered, however, that these are artifical classifications of elements taken from works in which they are organically treated and that, as rigid constructs, these categories tend to obscure Mr. Ferril’s dynamic world-view. In Ferril’s poetry, nature, man, and history constitute a pyramid with man at the top. Man is infinitely smaller than the mass of the other two elements, but he remains superior to them even though he is, at the same time, dependent upon them for a stable 180 Western American Literature base in life. Although Ferril regards nature as a foundation for human activity, he recognizes the delicate relationship between man and nature, and he is very much aware of and distressed by the manner in which man himself—armed with machines and motivated by shallow opportunism—has defiled his own nest. One of Ferril’s primary poetic objectives is to place nature in what he considers its proper perspective. Distressed by the quality of literature which treated his native region, Ferril wrote an essay in 1946, titled “Writing in the Rockies.” The opening sentence suggests the tenor of the essay: “Rocky Mountain literature is de­ vitalized by a low-grade mysticism dictated by landscape.” Accord­ ing to Ferril, writers allow their imagination to be “transported by enormous mountains, deserts, and canyons.” As a result, they tend “to disregard, or curiously modify, what might otherwise be normal considerations of human experience. The emotional response to the towering mountains causes the poet to say ‘This is all so big, only God could have made it.’ Ferril regards this as a Romantic weakness which vitiated the work of virtually all artists who were inspired by the Rockies; however, he was careful to point out that this “God-finding”—as he called it—was not a spiritual but an artistic error. In his own poetry, Ferril uses nature not as a premise for deducing the existence and attributes to God but as a point of reference for examining the human condition and man’s place in the patterns of nature. Although the element of Romantic mysticism is not to be found in Ferril’s poetry, it is to some degree replaced by what might be called “scientific wonder.” Since about 1930, the most dominant single theme in Ferril’s work is the continuity of life, nature being considered within this broader philosophical context. His poem “Blue-Stmmed Grass” contains lines which illustrate his poetic application of this principle: I speak with reason to the blue-stemmed grass: “This grass moves up through...


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pp. 179-190
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