Thursday, November 18, 2010

Longfellow’s Children?: Reading Common-place’s Poetic Research Column

The editors of the online journal Common-place perhaps had Whitman’s line from the 1855 preface of Leaves of Grass: “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem” in mind when they decided recently to inaugurate a column that features contemporary poetry based on historical research. “Poetic Research” is a reminder that history is not the sole province of professional historians and that some of the best history has been written by poets.

To introduce readers to the column, the site offers this statement:

Something is going on in the world of contemporary poetry--history is flooding in. Poets are pursuing history and its dilemmas head-on; they are using primary source material to flesh out social, political, and lyric imaginaries; they are ransacking the tools of historiography to provision all manner of aesthetic expeditions. Within the last ten years or so, such creative inclinations have quietly evolved into a major, and pervasive, mode of literary production. History lovers, take note: these poets’ research work is thorough and driven, their archive instincts are free-range, even feral, and their use of historical source runs from the beautiful to the bizarre.

Why are so many twenty-first-century poets weaving American history into their process and product? What are the effects of this literary-historical groundswell? The answers are forthcoming, issue by issue, here in Common-place. Each edition of this new column will present the work of a poet whose creative process is deeply engaged with historical research. We will read their poems. And the poets will also give us something new, something the literary world hasn't asked for yet, a Statement of Poetic Research—poets’ own descriptions of history’s influences on their art, how they approach (and are altered by) research, and the new ways they hope their work brings history to readers.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the statement’s boldness, I sense a bit of defensiveness here. As if poets may be self-conscious about treading on historians’ turf and therefore need simultaneously to flaunt their “feral” spirit while asserting that their research processes are both “thorough” and “driven.” But is such a show necessary? Is it not our modern, professionalized conception of the historical discipline that has created a distinction between poetry and history? Are we not part of a common pursuit: gaining a deeper understanding of how and why human beings have thought and acted in certain ways in particular times and places? Perhaps contemporary poets feel it necessary to apologize for the sins of their forebears: Homer, Virgil, Tennyson, and Longfellow, to name a few. Many critics, past and present, argue that their history was not accurate—they distorted the truth or just got basic facts wrong. Different from their predecessors, today’s historical poets, this statement suggests, are capable of balancing good research with “beautiful,” and even “bizarre” creativity.

As a public historian I have a different perspective on this issue than some of my stodgier colleagues might. In graduate school, I worked at the Paul Revere House in Boston, a historic site that would not exist without a poem. Longfellow’s 1860 poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” was the text that made a middling Boston silversmith of modest significance to the revolutionary cause into a household name and a staple of historical curricula. Whenever I began a talk with “Listen my children and you shall hear,” young and old visitors alike could invariably add: “Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,” and they could always recite the line: “One if by land, and two if by sea.” From there, it was easy to get them engaged in the story of Revere’s ride and its significance to the outbreak of the American Revolution. Although I confess to having corrected the historical inaccuracies of the poem many times, Longfellow was, I hoped, the gateway to a deeper understanding of a key moment in American history.

As an interpreter, I was painfully aware of the stark contrast between Longfellow’s lyricism and my academic explanations of past events. Poetry, it seemed, was a much more effective means of communicating a history that people both remembered and enjoyed. In some ways, it was perhaps also truer, in the sense that it conveyed the spirit of the Revolution and the contingency of the moment better than historians’ descriptions of the same events. So, do the poems on Common-place’s “Poetic Research” page match up to their distinguished forebears? Readers will have to judge for themselves. The first two installments--Robert Strong’s account of the making of the Eliot Bible, “Bright Advent,” and HonorĂ©e Fanonne Jeffers’s musings on the “The Age of Phillis” (Wheatley, that is)--offer dramaturgical explorations of cross-cultural encounters. We hear, for example, John Sassamon and John Eliot’s musings on the challenges of translation and conversion, Susanna Wheatley’s advice to her slave, and Phillis’s longing for her African mother. For this reader, hearing from, rather than about, these historical actors was refreshing and illuminating. With precious few historical sources to narrate the history of Native-English interaction in seventeenth-century New England or slavery in eighteenth-century Boston, having poets’ imaginative reconstructions of the thoughts and dialogues of Eliot, Sassamon, and the Wheatleys (owner and slave) opens new avenues for discussing and thinking about the past.

Whether readers enjoy these particular poems as much as I did, I think they will agree that Common-place’s decision to include poetry alongside its excellent essays and book reviews was inspired. Other history journals would do well to emulate their model. Like a good issue of The New Yorker, prose and poetry complement one another, making for a challenging, but ultimately more stimulating, reading experience.

~ Will Walker