Paul Bunyan and the Great Poetry Contest

Francis E. Kazemek of St. Cloud, MN

Everyone has heard of Paul Bunyan and his many adventures and marvelous deeds. You probably know about his birth and how when he was three weeks old he rolled around so much in his sleep that he knocked down five square miles of standing timber. I'm sure you've heard of the time he killed the giant mosquitos that were stealing his cattle and how he and Babe the Blue Ox dug a few ponds for drinking water that today we call the Great Lakes. Certainly you’ve heard of his pancake griddle that was greased by six boys skating across it with slabs of bacon on their feet.

What most people don’t know is that Paul wasn’t only a giant of a lumberjack, but he was also a fine poet. In fact, he probably was the best lumberjack poet who ever lived. He proved it in the poetry contest he had one day with Big Cecil, the couplet spouting logger from over in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Here's the story of that famous battle of words that some old timers still talk about when they talk about Paul.

Paul loved to sit around the campfire after a long day in the woods and recite poetry to his fellow loggers. Often they would join in and add a few of their own. There were some good ones in Paul's crew too. Johnny Inkslinger could bring a tear to the eye of the most grizzled ax man with one of his poems about his dying mother. Springheels Conley, an old boomer from around Duluth, knew by heart many poems he had learned while working over in Wisconsin. And Ole Olson would recite poems in Norwegian that none of the loggers understood but liked anyway for the sound.

But Paul was different. He could sit in front of the fire with a poking stick and compose long poems from scratch. He never said the same one twice. Oh, when I think of all the great poetry that was lost because no one ever bothered to write it down! Paul never did; he simply made up one new one after another. I guess if we had all of the poetry that Paul said in the woods for those many years we'd have a book two or three feet thick.

Paul's reputation as a poet spread throughout the country and throughout the logging camps in Canada. Sometimes men would even sneak away from their own crews to spend a few days listening to Paul recite in the evening. Everybody agreed that he was the best, that is, until one day he received a challenge from a tree topper on the Onion River cut near what today is called the Porcupine Mountain Wilderness. That topper's name was Big Cecil.

Cecil was an Englishman who had somehow found his way to the North Woods of the United States. He was a huge man, just a little under seven feet tall and about four hundred pounds of solid muscle. He was a dandy too: he shaved every morning and splashed a sweet-smelling lotion on his face. He changed his underwear once a month, whether they needed changing or not. And unlike most lumberjacks he owned two pairs of woolen socks. It was his love of poetry and his elegant, English way of saying it that made him special, however. He sounded like a prince when he recited one of Shakespeareís sonnets or one of his own works.

Big Cecil had heard of Paul's reputation and scoffed. “A poet? A backwoods bumpkin who fancies himself a poet? Does he know how to read, much less write? Ah, the delusions of these colonials”, he laughed with the air of superiority that some English express towards Americans.

But Cecil decided to put Paul in his place, that is, put him down as a poet. He sent a challenge with one of his men and dared Paul to face him in a spontaneous composition contest. They would meet at Paul's lumber camp up near Whitefish Lake on a Sunday in August. That way Cecil believed he could best humiliate Paul in front of the largest group of loggers and townspeople. Paul readily accepted.

It was a warm August evening when they gathered at Paul’s camp. Loggers came from all parts of Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Canada. Local folks from Pequot Lakes and Pine River arrived on horseback, and city people from St. Paul came by train and then horse drawn carriages. There must have been a thousand or more men, women, and children gathered that day.

They brought picnic baskets full of fried chicken, potato salad, fresh bread, and apple and cherry pies. The men carried jugs of homemade whiskey, and the owner of a saloon in Ideal Corners brought barrels of beer that he sold by the mug. Almost all of the people, with the exception of the men from Big Cecil’s own crew and some English-loving Canadians, were rooting for Paul. He was the local hero, and they didn’t like Cecilís snobbery.

The crowd formed a circle around Paul and Big Cecil (who didn’t look very big next to Paul!), and they discussed the rules of the contest. They would compose on the spot two-line poems, first one man and then in response, the other. Cecil who was English to the marrow of his bones loved Alexander Pope and said he would use only the 'proper' form for poetry, and that was the rhymed couplet. Paul on the other hand was American to the core. He was a lover of Walt Whitman and kept a copy of Leaves of Grass next to his bed in the bunkhouse. He said that he would use two unrhymed lines in the contest. The loggers shook hands, and the world’s first poetry slam began.

Big Cecil was the challenger, so he went first. He stood with his hands on his hips and sang in his melodious baritone voice:

“The ax handle firm in my hand Affirms my manhood where I stand.”

The loggers cheered to Cecil’s praise of their occupation.

Paul smiled and answered Cecil’s challenge:

“Hob-nailed boots dancing on white pines in the rushing river Know the tune that the red-bearded logger is whistling”

The crowd roared in approval, and Cecil lost some of his smile. He tried another tack:

“The smell of white pine on my saw Lifts my soul in wonder and awe.”

The women and church-going people in the audience appreciated the religious sentiment and clapped in approval.

Paul looked hard at Cecil and said, “So you’re gonna bring in the church stuff, huh?” He looked up and boomed in a deep voice that seemed to stir the cones high in the treetops:

“The taste of needles on my tongue and heavy kiss of sap on my lips Stirs my blood and lifts my manhood heavenward.”

This received modest applause because many in the crowd didn’t know if Paul was being religious or obscene. Cecil, however, now knew that he was in for a fight. He started attacking Paul with rapid couplets, and Paul responded just as quickly.

“A bachelor logger’s lonely life Can’t be remedied with a wife.”

“Broken nose, half torn ear, knuckles scabbed and raw Can never please the ladies with their their Sunday teas.”

“When Charley the tree topper fell Head first he sounded his own death knell.”

“The cross-cut bucked and caught the cook’s new helper just above the knee, I took a hand saw and with his leg on a stump finished the job.”

“I’m grateful for scurrying mice, They help me forget my head lice.”

“I set my plate of beans and beef on the bunkhouse floor just for a minute The roaches swarmed and helped me share my meager meal.”

“The bosses in New York City Have no care and show no pity.”

“In offices, at polished bars, and in parlors of plush velvet Soft and fat pale men plan the death of lumberjacks”

The crowd roared in agreement with Paul and pressed toward him in gleeful solidarity. Big Cecil was reeling. Paulís loose, long lines had him in serious trouble, and he knew it.

Desperate, he tried once again:

“The siskin’s call and the owl’s cry Brings a tear to the woodman’s eye.”

The crowd was silent except for the hoots of some of the men who had drunk too much of the homemade whiskey and mugs of beer.

Paul laughed, and his teeth shone in the blaze of the fire that someone had started in the gathering dusk. He knew that Cecil was finished. Before he answered the “siskin’s call” he strode around the fire looking at people and shaking hands with some well-wishers. Then in the light of the fire he answered Cecil:

“The owl knows death, has seen death, and feeds on it, He knows more than I’ll ever know if I live for a hundred years”

No one said a word; even the drunks were quiet. As if by magic a great horned owl flew over the gathering. Cecil slumped before the fire and whispered more to himself than others:

“I try every morning to see What others around me don’t see.”

Paul put his hand on Big Cecil's shoulder and consoled him:

“The sun struggles from its tomb and the barbs of thorny trees, It doesn’t care for its bloody wounds only for its resurrection.”

Big Cecil stood and grasped Paul’s hand. “You humble me, my rustic friend,” he smiled.

Paul grabbed Cecil around the middle and lifted him high above his head. “Three cheers for the English poet!” he cried. “Three cheers for English poetry!”

The crowd raised loud “Hurrahs!” for Paul the winner and Big Cecil the gracious loser. Some men brought out fiddles, guitars, and harmonicas and began to play jigs, Virginia reels, and other country dances. Children ran around the fire and through the legs of the adults while young men and women stepped lively to the music. Groups of drunken loggers and townspeople started to sing along, and another wagon load of beer arrived from Ideal Corners. Paul and Big Cecil linked arms, toasted each other, and then did a gavotte around the roaring fire.

At last, however, a splendid young women with long auburn hair and glittering black eyes who stood as tall as Cecil stepped in between the two poets. She put one arm around Paul’s waist and the other around the neck.

“Well,” she said, “what can you show me, Mr. Lumberjack poet?”

The story goes that that was the first time Paul danced with his future bride.