Prose from Poetry Magazine

Useful Old Rhymer

Laura Kasischke on Thomas Tusser.

by Laura Kasischke

For the brief and perhaps best years of my life, when I was mother to a very young child, I found myself most nights in the company of poets, wits, storytellers, moralists, advisors, and pundits-lite who offered their words up to my son and myself for our pleasure, our safety, our welfare, our betterment, and our instruction. I never doubted for a moment that Margaret Wise Brown had written The Runaway Bunny because she foresaw a time when my son might doubt the fierceness of his mother’s love and need the reassurance that it was not only eternal but all-powerful: “If you become a fish in a trout stream,” said the mother, “I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.”

And how many other poets and storytellers explained the essentials to us! How to tie a shoe. How to grieve a pet. How to sleep in the dark. How to count to ten. How to stand up for yourself. How to be a friend. How to eat food you fear.

We had a lot of books, and there were a lot of years, a lot of bedtime stories, and then he got a driver’s license and a girlfriend and my library shelves seemed strangely bare of  books that had been written with a reader’s well-being in mind. In fact, I realized, I could run my fingers down the length of four bookshelves full of the contemporary poetry I love and not find more than a volume or two that seemed to have been written with a reader in mind at all, let alone that 
reader’s life.

That’s why I love Thomas Tusser. His thousands of  lines of  poetry 
more than prove to us that he was devoted to the art, that his poetic ambitions were great, but you can’t read one of those lines and not know that he has taken up the craft for your sake, that he is writing to tell you something, and that he wants what he’s saying to matter to you, to make your life richer, easier, safer, and in all ways more 
understandable. True, Tusser is a didactic poet, and although “didactic” 
may have earned its bad reputation (Poe named didacticism as the worst of the poetic heresies), in the case of  Tusser we are reminded that poetry which educates can also be beautiful, meaningful, and fun. When I turn to the Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry, 
after a longish spell spent reading contemporary poets, I am startled to encounter a poet who is writing to me, for me, and who has 
chosen poetry as a way to communicate — across distance, time, and space — with me (the reader) in his mind.

It’s believed that Thomas Tusser was born around 1524. He died in 1580. He was an educated man who, through a variety of circumstances, found himself spending his life as a farmer. By most accounts, he was not successful at it, but he must have loved it. His long poem on Good Husbandry records a country year in rhyming couplets, and his advice and observations pretty much cover everything from the lending of tools to the castration of roosters, the nature of the afterlife to the ten characteristics (via negation) of the perfect cheese:

Not like Gehazi, dead white, like a leper
Not like Lot’s wife, all salt
Not like Argus, full of eyes
Not like Tom Piper, “hoven and puffed”
Not like Crispin, leathery
Not like Lazarus, poor
Not like Esau, hairy
Not like Mary Magdalene, full of  whey or maudlin
Not like the Gentiles, full of maggots
Not like a Bishop, made of   burnt milk

In his poetry, Tusser comes across as what he was said by his contemporaries to have been — a thrifty, intelligent, kind man, who wants you to succeed. His work is full of weather-lore, country customs, maxims and proverbs (“Sweet April showers, / Do spring May flowers”), and comforting predictions right alongside dire warnings. The poetry lets us know that he has learned his lessons the hard way, and that he wants to save his readers that trouble if  he can.

And although Thomas Tusser doesn’t seem to care much about whether he’s reaching great poetic heights, he often reaches them. Part of this is his musical ear, but the rest might be attributed to the reverence he has for his material, the respect with which he 
approaches his reader, and, of course, the everyday hallowedness of life and work on the farm. Robert Southey called him a “good, honest, 
homely, useful old rhymer.” Clearly, that’s what Tusser wanted to be.

What a noble ambition when it is combined with an empathetic 
spirit! That Tusser’s book was to be found on the mantles of so many farmers in his day speaks to how much Tusser had to say to his peers; and, although both poetic traditions and agricultural ones have changed greatly since his period, what we learn from Tusser today, and from the real relationship, the true communication, he sought to have with his reader — well, what we have to learn from Tusser shames and thrills me with its honest compassion, its urgent desire to be of service, and its plain, sane, sacred ambition to write poetry that will be read, remembered, and understood.

Originally Published: February 1, 2013


On February 4, 2013 at 3:39pm K. Burris wrote:
Amen. Thank you for serving the poetry of service with a fine essay.
It's so refreshing to see someone defend clarity as a virtue in poetry
today. So much current work seems to relish ambiguity in form and
statement, as if meaning of any kind is passé or worse, impossible.

On February 9, 2013 at 2:33pm Mark Esrig wrote:
Laura K’s appreciation of the Tusser’s art and life reminds me that there was a time when cautionary poems of Hilarie Belloc and others seemed to serve a purpose, even to scare a misbehaving child into doing the right thing. The open question is, of course, whether or not these witty and didactic poets are able to teach us useful things and still maintain the stricture that Richard Serra declares when distinguishing sculpture from architecture. “Art is purposely purposeless.” Now this opens up a larger question than Laura K’s essay covers. Isn’t the didactic side of poetry rather limiting? If you choose to prize a poet for what he teaches, don’t you ignore the fallacy of confusing the form (“useful old rhymer”) with the content? Aside from the fact that most rhythmic and rhymed verse is a holdover from pre-literate story-telling, in which these devices were memory aids for the oral story teller, usefulness is no more than an anachronistic standard of measurement. Laura K is disturbed that most contemporary poetry “seemed [not] to have been written with a reader in mind at all, let alone that reader’s life.” The most operative word is “seemed” for it translates to “gives the impression of”. I do think she has, no doubt, put her finger on the pulse that is a symptom of poetry’s growing lack of relevance to many readers. Does poetry, to regain its old relevance, need to reconsider its relationship to the reader? Has poetry become as inbred as the references of Pope’s Dunciad?
I agree with Laura K, though she never quite advocates it, that Tusser’s “honest compassion…and its plain, sane, sacred ambition to write poetry that will be read, remembered, and understood” are qualities, over and above the nakedly didactic that distinguishes all great poetry in any age. The enuii that Laura K reveals is linked to a dissatisfaction that should be discussed more openly without offending the sensibilities of contemporary poetry.

Mark Esrig
New Mexico

On February 11, 2013 at 10:44am Jack Locke wrote:
Useful Old Rhymer, Laura Kasischke's take on Thomas Tusser, reminded me of how I should write. But not in the way Tusser describes his recommended traits for cheese. Instead, writing should be hairy, and where the smell of burnt cheese wafts from the page. And then at other times, less nasal.

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This prose originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of Poetry magazine

February 2013


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 Laura  Kasischke


Poet and novelist Laura Kasischke was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan and teaches in the MFA program at the University of Michigan. Her books of poetry include Wild Brides (1992), Fire and Flower (1998), Dance and Disappear (2002), Gardening in the Dark (2004), Lilies Without (2007), and Space, in Chains (2011), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Kasischke has won numerous awards for her poetry, including the . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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