Background on Albert Collins by Jeff Titon
Albert Stewart “Hap” Collins (1912-1990) was a gifted storyteller whose witty banter, when I knew him in the 1980s, was often on display at the fountain at the Blue Hill, Maine drugstore. His grandfather, a sheepherder, came from Scotland and settled on Long Island in eastern Penobscot Bay in the mid-nineteenth century. Albert earned his living as a lobster fisherman, absorbing the craft and its folkways through family apprenticeship. In winters he worked at scalloping, blacksmithing, stone masonry, shingle making, and logging. He was a fiddler, playing dance tunes like “Soldier’s Joy” and “Golden Slippers”; as a young man he attended many a local square and contradance and told me the history of the local dances between the World Wars. He built skiffs for neighbors and tourists, and near the end of his life he created small boats modeled after various sea craft on which he had worked. He was also a skillful painter in oils and watercolor, selling landscapes and seascapes to tourists. He said he had only sold about a third of the number he had painted, and when someone asked how many that was, he said he painted more than three hundred. I suppose he gave at least half away. Storyteller, fisherman, blacksmith, stone mason, shingle miller, woodsworker, fiddler, boat builder, painter--Albert Collins also was a poet, and his poetry is my subject here: what it was, how he came to write it, and what it meant to him and his community.
Albert Collins memorialized humorous local events in poems and gave them to the people involved, sometimes writing at the request of his neighbors. He wrote most of his poems between about 1941 and 1965. Few survived except for those he copied out twice and those he decided were too wicked or too private to let out. Those that remain show a keen wit, close observation, and skillful prosody. Albert was most successful in the lower comic forms such as burlesque and farce. A pious old neighbor, deacon in a local church, was an object of Albert’s poetic humor on more than one occasion. This is from “The Deacon’s Plate”:
For years, as you remember,
But when he joined the church
These are effective images. It is not difficult to imagine how the deacon looked, ate, or why the church ladies were upset. By poem’s end, the deacon has a new set of teeth to improve his image, but the poet’s final comment reveals that the solution was worse than the problem: “out of two and twenty false ones / only seven ached real bad.” (For the poem in its entirety see the selection of poems at the end of this essay.)
Surviving poems of a more serious turn include those that represent his personal experiences, some written to his wife Margaret, and some expressing his feelings about the ocean. The beginning of “To Margaret”:
O come to me in dreams and then
Margaret, we deduce from the poem, is away. It turns out that she spent a couple of months in her native North Carolina each year, working for the railroad so that she could qualify for her pension, for she had been twenty-some years in the job before she married Albert. Albert missed her and wrote her weekly, usually including a poem. Sometimes his letters were entirely in verse. It was easier, he told me, for him to write in verse than prose. Even though the subject of this poem is conventional the language in this first stanza is arresting. The reader feels the speaker’s unwell condition through relentless monosyllabic words of the first three lines, ironically relieved by “hopeless longing” in the fourth. Albert seldom achieved this kind of intensity in his other private poems, choosing instead to employ the conventional language of popular turn-of-the-century metrical, rhyme-generated verse. Unlike difficult poetry meant to be read and re-read privately, the popular poetry Albert took for a model had to be understood well enough, if not completely, on first hearing in order to be effective. His knowledge of poetry came both from books and oral tradition, and in his poetry he functioned, in a minor way, as a community prankster, poking fun at his neighbors.
Albert told me his attraction to poetry began in school. He was quick at his lessons and, with time left over once he finished them, he read poems from his school books. “But what I done, see, in school, I'd get my lessons and I would read Evangeline, Miles Standish, and Tennyson. See, we had some of that poetry in the schoolbook. And I would have those books in my desk, and when I got my lesson done I would take that book out and I'd read Evangeline from cover to cover, I loved that--Longfellow's Evangeline, and The Courtship of Miles Standish, and The Wreck of the Hesperus. . . . and I'd read that, see, and that's why I got started at an early age. None of the other kids done it.” While the other youngsters horsed around and played ball, Albert read and painted pictures. “Well, they played ball, and at recess time, I'd come home, because I only lived a few houses--so I'd come home for lunch, and them kids, they'd play ball--they didn't care nothing. All they wanted to do was get their lessons and out of there. But I, they used to laugh at me because I was different than the rest of them. I read poetry and painted pictures, and, you know, I was the oddball. I didn't play ball, wouldn't care nothing about it. I spent my time painting pictures and reading. And my brothers--none of them, well, my youngest brother, he likes poetry, but my other--the rest of my family, they didn't give a damn about it. My sister comes in here once in a while, and I ask her about, you know, I say, you ever read this poem, and, no. I mean, people's not interested in anything they ain't interested in, that's all.”
Albert’s parents encouraged his love for poetry. His father, who stopped school after 8th grade, had the habit of looking up answers to questions by getting books from the local library, or when that failed writing to request a book from the state library. Albert’s interest in poetry meant that he received books on his birthday and at Christmas. He told me he rather would have a book than be paid in cash if he worked for a neighbor, and the neighbors obliged. Albert was encouraged, also, by the local librarian, and by his school teachers.
Even before he was reading poems in books, however, he was immersed in a rich oral tradition of tale-telling, lie swapping, and poetic recitation. Old men passed time at the local shops and their banter intrigued young Albert. He recalled the settings: “Them old codgers, I remember them, you could go around the garages, around the stores, and there'd be three or four of them always hanging around because they were too old to work. I have heard some awful yarns from them fellows. It seems like one would try to outdo the other one. Maybe tonight he couldn't tell one, but he'd go home and think one up, and the next night he'd come back and he was all primed and ready to go.” He remembered one about a hay wagon that would not roll because a wheel swelled up when a snake bit it, and then he recalled another:
I remember one old fellow used to tell what he had read in the paper--well, he couldn't read. He wouldn't know his death if he saw it in the paper. But he'd go down to the store and tell about what he'd read. One night he was telling, he said that Byrd had discovered the North Pole. And he said, ‘Do you know what he done when he got up there?’ And the other fellow said no. He said, ‘He sat down under a little spruce tree and ate his lunch.’
Albert also sought out tales and recitations at a local general store. “And them fellows used to gather down there in the evenings, they'd get together, and set around the pot-bellied stove in the winter, and tell. Well, they'd color them right up good, you know. And, I being a kid, I used to go down and listen. Yeah, oh yeah, they'd be all setting around the stove there, in the deacon seats they had there, like they did in lumber camps, you know. And they'd tell them yarns, so I'd go down there in the evenings and listen. And being a kid, you remember. I can see them now. Old Civil War veterans.” Albert described the way the old men would argue with each other over the proper wording of the poems they recited:
And they'd get in an argument over it, too. One fellow would be reciting that, and somebody would pipe up and say, well, that's not right. Well, he'd say, it is right, too. Well, my God, it ain't, it goes this way, see. Well, they'd have it all frigged up. Oh yeah, and I used to kind of get them and say, well, now, both of you fellows are wrong, you know, get them arguing about it, see, and then, after a while, they'd get on to another one, forget all about that one. It was fun. I was a kid, but I got a big kick out of it. Mother used to wonder where I was in the evenings. She found out I was going down there, and she said, go down and listen to them fellows' lies--you'll be a liar yourself!
Recitations, of course, were a popular entertainment at this time, particularly among groups of men away from home. In the logging camps, at cowboy gatherings, among hunting and fishing parties, a man who could recite well was the center of attention. Albert encountered more reciters on the coastal schooners he worked on as a teenager. He helped a neighbor load and deliver cord wood to some of the out islands, and in the early 1930s he worked on small two-masters along the immediate coast and up and down the Penobscot River, carrying bricks, pulp wood to the mill at Brewer, or other freight. Some of the deck-hands were retired sailors. “And those fellows--they didn't have much to do in the evenings, and they anchored somewhere, you know, and they'd recite this poetry, and make it up and all this and that. And then I would learn it that way, from them fellows.” Albert also memorized poems from the books at his disposal, and took his turns at reciting. Most of the recitations were narrative poems, such as “The Highwayman” and “The One-Hoss Shay”; Albert particularly liked poems about the sea and Robert Service’s ballads of the Yukon.
Albert recalled an incident that helped him realize there was much more poetry than what he could find in the popular anthologies. He said that the high school English teacher visited one night and asked him if he ever read anything of Oliver Goldsmith's. Albert said, “‘Yes, I have, but,’ I said, ‘he never wrote nothing but “The Deserted Village.”’ [The teacher] laughed. Next time he come down he brought me down the complete works of Oliver Goldsmith--he wrote about five thousand poems! But I'd only read ‘The Deserted Village,’ yeah.” Albert was in his twenties now, clamming, scalloping, going out as a sternman on neighbors’ lobster boats.
In 1941 Albert moved to North Carolina to work in a shipyard building convoy boats and troop carriers for the Allied war effort. Here he began writing poems commemorating ship launchings and other incidents. I suppose he may have tried his hand at verse before this, but he did not remember doing so, and the earliest surviving poem that we could date from internal evidence is “Give England,” a serious poem praising that country’s resistance to Hitler. This and a few other poems were published in the shipyard newspaper, he said. In 1945 he returned to Maine and lobstering, buying his own boat. Now he began writing homespun verse about local events. When I asked him why he turned to humorous poetry, he replied that his neighbors found it more interesting. “They understand them better. If I wrote a serious poem, nobody would want to hear it. . . .” He was still thinking of poetry as a public performance, not as a private meditation in search of truth. Often the performances took the form of elaborate practical jokes.
This is the type of thing that we do here, you know. I mean, a neighbor does something, you know, and if it don't come out right, and then somebody writes a poem about it, why, it pleases everybody, you know, [but] it don't please the ones that wouldn't want one wrote about themselves. But I used to--of course, what I used to do--I used to write one, and shove it in somebody's mailbox, see. Well, of course, you put one in somebody's mailbox, and it goes [around] like wildfire. But, of course, when I was writing them all the time, then everybody knew they was my poems, so I had to be careful--because even though my brother--he's damn good at it, and he'd write some once in a while, and put the blame on me!
He admired the poetry of Samuel Walter Foss (1858-1911) and particularly Holman F. Day (1865-1935), a local-color poet and novelist from Wiscasset, Maine, whose narrative poems put Maine characters in stories appropriate to the region. “He wrote ballads of the Bangor loggers, river drivers, and the old schooners that carried the freight into Boston,” Albert recalled. His early collections, Up in Maine (1900) and Pine Tree Ballads (1902), sold well but, Albert said, “if you wanted a poem about something, you'd write a letter to Holman Day, and he'd compose one for you, for a certain amount of money. He made a lot of money that way, and I guess he made more money that way than he did selling his books, because he used to make up poems for everybody. He was a genius at making up them homespun [poems].” Not long after Albert started circulating his verse in the community, locals began asking him to make up poems for them. I asked him what sorts of things.
Anything that happened, like--if a fellow, I know a fellow who burned his privy down up the road here. Set a grass fire out in the field and burned his privy down. And I wrote one about that, and my God, it went all over everywhere. They read it to the Oddfellows down in Bar Harbor one time. And, things like that, you know, somebody run off a road, and considered themself to be a good driver and all that, and I write something about it. People would come down and sort of tell me what they wanted me to write. About this, about that, see. And then I'd do it because I got a big kick out of doing it. God, yes, I've sent a lot of them around.
Most of Albert’s local poetic pranks took place in the ten years or so after the second World War. As far as I know, he never charged for his services. At the same time, he composed a small number of lyric poems, most often on the sea and to his wife Margaret.
Albert did not care much for modern poetry. In his library he had some books by popular poets like Foss and Day but he preferred “the old masters--Milton, Shakespeare, Tennyson--those kind of books I like. Fitzgerald's translations, Gray's ‘Elegy.’” “What about Frost's poems about farming?” I asked. “Do you like those?” “Well, yeah, I like them. But I've read so much of that high-class stuff, and there's a helluva difference. You get used to reading the old masters, and you--this modern stuff, you don't--it's different altogether for me--it's a different meter and it's a different subject.”
I asked him about his methods of composition, and he reached for analogies to music and poetry when describing how he fit the words together in meter and rhyme: “It's like playing a tune, words kind of come along to you, you know.” Just as dance tunes proceed in melodically related phrases, so Albert’s verse came out within formal constraints. Finding rhymes never was a problem for him. He had a rhyming dictionary but, he said, he never needed to use it. “You know, very few people understand poetry, and poetry's nothing in the world, but music--you see, it's music--it has a beat, and it has a rhythm. It's music. To me, it is.” Albert also compared his methods of composition in painting and poetry. “But when I write one, I don't have any pattern. It's just like when I paint; I'll start painting; I don't know what I'm going to paint. I put the sky in first, and then I don't know what I'll wind up with. When I start one of them, I don't know how it's going to come out. And that's the fun of it.” Yet he did have ideas and subjects in mind, and the interplay of these with metrical constraints and the choice of rhyming pairs generated his verse.
If we look at one of Albert’s more successful poems we can appreciate his subject and methods. Here in its entirety is “From Pillar to Spruce”:
Some people are born for a purpose,
I refrain from calling it stealing;
I never take nothing too heavy;
Now they say I’ve an old beaten pathway
And when I have knelt in the pasture,
A spruce maybe or a cedar
Now show me the miserable sinner
This poem is a humorous dramatic monologue in which the speaker is none other than the deacon of “The Deacon’s Plate.” About the poem Albert had this to say: “He was cutting wood for a neighbor up here in the pasture. And that was after he joined the church. Well, every day when he went home, he'd take a stick home with him, see. Sneak down through with it--not that the fellow that owned the wood give a damn, but he--So I wrote this, and I sent it to the fellow that owned the wood lot.” But there is more art to it than Albert modestly suggests. Formally, the poem exhibits four-line stanzas, each line with three stresses. The predominant rhythm is dactylic, a metrical unit whose overuse results in “a grotesque jigging,” according to the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Preminger 1965:179). But not here, because Albert inserts just enough spondees to make the dactyls pleasurably musical.
The chief interest of “From Pillar to Spruce” is not in the form, but the humor involved, heightened because the poem is spoken from the thief’s point of view. Albert wrote a dramatic monologue with an unreliable narrator, and the resulting irony--the reader knows more than the deacon does--adds to the pleasure of reading the poem. We recognize the speaker’s protestations as artful rationalizations. “You would think by the sound of my neighbors / I was sent here to steal wood” in the first suggests the possibility that his thief’s reputation is based on rumor, and “gossiping fancy” in the fourth furthers it. The charming thief admits he takes wood, but justifies it because the wood is dead and of no use anyway. A somewhat esoteric irony may be implied by the third stanza: in winter, some do steal fir balsam from summer residents’ woodlots to supply the local Christmas wreath-making industry, and they “tip” the trees, taking just the tops. In order to do this, however, they often chop down the entire tree, and it is not unusual to see the evidence in the woods the following spring. Chop they do--the practice continues without the use of saws.
In 1989, a few months before he died of heart disease, Albert traveled with me to Orono to visit Edward “Sandy” Ives and to have copies of his poetic manuscripts preserved in the Northeast Archives of Folklore and Oral History. Sandy, who earlier paid close attention to highlights from the documentary footage of Albert’s conversations with me, recognized him at once as a Maine folk artist, and rose to the occasion of their meeting, which involved a tour of the archives and a lunch in which lies were swapped while his manuscripts went through the copying machine. Sandy’s scholarly writings on song-makers are based in part on the premise that “both folk and fine artists face the same problems--especially in resolving the tension between tradition and innovation--and they solve them in the same ways” (Ives 1997:159). It was fitting that Sandy treated Albert as a serious writer. Albert was thrilled that the University of Maine would so honor his work.
---------. 1902. Pine tree ballads: rhymed stories of unplaned human natur' up in Maine. Boston, Small, Maynard & Co.
Ives, Edward D. 1997. The Bonny Earl of Murray: The Man, The Murder, The Ballad. East Lothian, Scotland: Tuckwell Press.
Preminger, Alex, ed. 1965. Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Titon, Jeff Todd. 1989. Albert Collins: A Video Portrait. 1-hour, color, VHS videotape. Distributed by the Maine Folklife Center, University of Maine, Orono.
Poems by Albert Stewart Collins
selected by Jeff Titon
Long ago my old grandfather
And the old man’s sons and grandsons
And tonight across the ocean
Yet so still the herd about him
As today I lift the chorus,
Let the season of our Christmas
There are roads we may not travel,
Even as the sun climbs heaven,
Go away, you laughing beauty,
The Deacon’s Plate
Have you heard the latest ballad
For years, as you remember,
But when he joined the church
They say the last church supper
All the savor from the onions
As he sat among the elders
So at last it was decided he
Weeks have passed since this all happened
You have heard again the story
The Deacon’s Hymn
He stood before the parish
Upon the pedestal of faith
Music lovers filled the benches,
Through those swinging portals
After all had gained admission
I never shall forget his smile
The mighty organ lofted out
Loud he sang, and as the minstrel
On he sang the psalms of David
Then it came at last the ending
It was o’er, the music ended,
And you, my friend, I know must love
My wife has gone and left me,
I’m alone now with the Jack Pines,
When my stomach gets to jumping,
When my eyes behold the content
Now I’m dining on the carcass,
I get up in the morning
So now, Alice, hear my pleading,
When at night I toss in slumber,
And I reach out in my slumber,
Oh, it’s then that I must realize,
This cabin’s got a hollow sound
There is quiet here at twilight;
The surf that beats upon the shore
The old smoke house is leaning now
The ridge pole fell down through the floor,
The lone gull flying overhead
He remembers as a little chick
Now we, like him, must learn to live
Now I would like to see once more
And a cloud of smoke ascending
My friend, its my misfortune,
Now the rains of spring are coming
Old boat I hate to see you go,
We have watched the purple mountaintops
We have crossed at night the shallows
We have knifed the fog of summer,
Many times we passed the islands
It seems but yesterday we met
Years that we have been together
O tomorrow you will leave me
In my mind I’ll keep a picture
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