With all the upheaval in the publishing industry because of ebooks, at least one positive development has resulted: we have the opportunity to read things we might not have otherwise.
A case in point: my Kindle version of Wessex Poems and Other Verses by Thomas Hardy. Kindle price: free, part of the volunteer project to convert old books to digital format in a literary “creative commons” effort. (It’s still free, by the way.)
I wouldn’t have ordinarily been looking for this in a bookstore or even at Amazon, but I saw a link, clicked on it, and downloaded.
And I started a journey I didn’t expect at all.
The poems in the volume are vintage 19th century. The book was published in the U.S. in 1898; the text in this ebook version is based upon a 1919 edition published by Macmillan. The volume includes love poems (including poems about dead and dying lovers), ballads and songs, and even a group of poems about the events and people of the Napoleonic wars, written when the Age of Napoleon had already become distant, dusty history.
As I read the poems, I was reminded of Kipling and Tennyson; Whitman and Longfellow, even Poe (one poem, “Amabel, ” reminds me so much of “Annabelle Lee” that I wondered about the line between inspiration and plagiarism). I was even reminded of poems that would be written decades after this volume appeared, poems by Sandburg and Frost and many others on both sides of the Atlantic.
I also realized that many if not all of these poems would not see the light of day if Hardy tried to publish them in 2012, except perhaps by a self-published ebook. For a long time now, poetic stories have not been popular with poets or critics. Ballads and songs are frowned upon; they are simply not “serious” poetry. And anything smacking of “national” poetry would likely be derided. Nationalism and patriotism are not popular poetic subjects today.
In fact, I can think of numerous poets with a national reputation – John Ashberry, Louise Gluck, Ted Koozer, Maya Angelou, Jack Gilbert, and Billy Collins, to name a few. But I don’t think I could call any of them “national poets” in the sense of writing “national poetry.”
It’s not necessarily a bad thing. But I can remember attending public schools (before the Age of Self-Esteem, so you know what a Neanderthal I am) and the class reciting poems by Longfellow, Emerson, Dickinson and Whitman (“safe” poems like “Brooklyn Bridge” and “I Hear America Singing;” we avoided “Leaves of Grass”). Two others that immediately come to mind are Emerson’s “Thanatopsis” and Stephen St. Vincent Benet’s “John Brown’s Body.” Even Frost was a poet commonly read aloud in the classroom.
But Frost may have been the last. The 1960s came and changed everything, including the literary and poetic canons.
While many of these poems are guilty as charged when it comes to the worst thing a critic can say about a poem today – “Sentimental!” – they did do something important. They help to bind us together in a common past and a common present. I know that some groups might feel or felt excluded, but this may and can be an “exclusion in retrospect.” A fifth grader in 1961 didn’t understand all the exclusionary nuances when he recited “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” in his classroom.
My own children received little if any school instruction on poetry. They read some poems and poets, but poetry and, to a lesser extent, fiction became deemphasized. Penmanship did, too, and long before the arrival of computers. Too many other things had to be taught, too many agendas to fulfill, too many directives to carry out. Something had to give.
So I pose two questions.
First, can you cite any examples of contemporary “national poets” or “national poetry” as opposed to poets with a national reputation?
And second, will what constitutes “national poetry” be simply a nostalgic look backwards at the Thomas Hardys and Tennysons in Britain and the Whitmans and Longfellows in the United States?
Photograph: Silhouettes of the Past by Let Ideas Compete. Sourced via Flickr. Post by Glynn Young, author of Dancing Priest: A Novel
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Chris Yokel says
I could certainly think of poets of national reputation, but I’m not sure there are any “national poets” as you described these days. Perhaps the result of that very dismantling of common culture, as you described?
Jody Collins says
Glynn, sadly, I’d have to agree with you….not much poetry teaching going on in the last 25 years in schools–that’s my first hand experience. And ‘national poets’? I’m afraid the only poet any child could tell you about, maybe, would be Shel Silverstein. And he is no longer here…..
Perhaps there’s a subtle revival–we so need the discipline and the beautiful cadence of children’s voices–all ages–memorizing something, anything.
Ebooks can be a start, maybe?
Diana Trautwein says
Excellent questions, Glynn. And I think your answers are the right ones.
1. In regard to contemporary poets, do you mean modern-day poets that write from an American (or whatever country they hail from) vantage-point, ones who include patriotism and aspects of their specific culture? Beings that I’m officially an unschooled poet and reader of poetry, I’d have to say I don’t know much about it at all… BUT I do know that America’s true cowboy crooners do lend much to this genre. For example, Wylie Gustafson of Wylie and the Wild West. (I’m partial to him because he’s from around these parts and I first him in college.)
2. No, no, no. Not just them. Not if folks took a listen to old-time country & bluegrass music lyrics and rediscover our country’s fascination with cowboys and the west. And maybe some unknown, simple country girls are nearing the horizon… ya just never know.
Sir Glynn, one of my favorite poetry books is “Best Loved Poems.” The cover says it costs 35 cents. It is edited by Richard Charlton MacKenzie and printed by Perma Books.The copyright is 1946, Garden City Publishing. And it also has poems divided into sections like Love, Home & Childhood, Inspiration, Faith, Patriotism, Old Story Poems, etc. I LOVE THIS BOOK.
My favorite is “God, Give Us Men” by Josiah Gilbert Holland.
Scroll to the bottom of this link to see some of Wylie’s words…
davis nancy rosback says
How about the National Poetry Slam?
Marilyn Yocum says
I don’t know the answers to either of your questions, Glynn, but I certainly appreciation the link to the free Kindle book and the trip down Memory Lane through so many poems learned, studied and discussed in school. Fond memories. I treasure the memories of those teachers and the poems are still with me.