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Poetry Don't Love
History No More

Since the 20th century, historical
poems have lost their sex appeal

Childe Hassam Poetry and history had been happy bedfellows since the dawn of civilization, but lately their marriage is on the rocks. The two just don't seem compatible any more.

In ancient days poetry readings was the equivalent of TV. People with long memories and a talent for acting (today we call them "politicians") traveled from town to town telling stories. These were long stories about Ulysses, Ramses, Moses and Caesar. The poets sang about gods making love to mortals and kings making war with each other.

Every culture had these tales - wild, exciting stories that were, in their time, indistinguishable from history. Legends were like facts and our ancestors saw no reason to pry the two apart, as we do today, to get separate fact from fiction, as if one were truer than the other.

Long before the written word, poetry made these stories memorable; the dramatic embedded in the shape of the words made a powerful impression on audiences. The patterns of rhythm and rhyme helped the tellers to commit all those details to memory in an era when a good story could take days to recite.

I read a lot of these classics with prayerful attention and, unlike most of my classmates, I didn't hate them. It started in eighth grade with "The Song of Roland" in which this cool guy blows a trumpet so hard that his head explodes. I read the German "Niebelungenlied" and the one about the hungry monster "Beowulf" who stalks the village. I read "La Morte de Arthur" best known as the cycle of King Arthur. I read the Miracle and Mystery plays, stories of the Bible, performed in the Middle Ages by local workers guilds to teach the illiterate public.

King Arthur I read Chaucer's erotic and earthy "Canterbury Tales" in the original Middle English. I read Shakespeare, all 35 plays, always aloud to myself because Shakespeare is poetry, and poetry never makes sense to me unless I hear the words spoken. I graduated to the "modern" poetical works of Milton, Pope, Burns, Whitman, Wordsworth, Coleridge. I read them all out loud because poetry demands it. In short, I had no life at all, but it didn't matter. I had the past in my hands.

In the "olden" days when I went to school, teachers still believed that reading old books broadened the reader's mind. Kids were still required to memorize poems, usually patriotic ones like Longfellow's "Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" or Holmes' "Old Ironsides" or "Barbara Fritchie," the one about the gray-haired lady who held the American flag out the window for the passing troops. Teachers didn't seem to care that the poems were rarely accurate history. We were drilled like soldiers at boot camp, learning our citizenship and literature at the same time.

Beaten into my brain, snatches of these stories still buzz around in my memory even after all these years. Meanwhile, I hated history, which seemed more to me like math, numbers without rhyme or reason. The more the teacher drilled us for important names and dates, the more I forgot. I craved stories about people. Poetry was the demilitarized zone where, for me, the two warring partners met. Turn it into a poem, and I would listen. Today, you'd have to make it into a video game or a web site. Times change.

I especially remember reciting Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade" in front of a sixth grade classroom. It was a traumatic moment because my puritanical upbringing did not allow me to curse. The poem ends:
    Into the jaws of Death
    Into the mouth of hell
    Rode the six hundred.

I said "heck" instead of the h-word, and the whole class exploded into laughter. I had robbed the poem of its power and suffered for my cowardice, a lesson well learned. Since then, I have been swearing like a trooper.

The marriage of poetry and history created an awesome tool for teaching patriotic lessons. But that tool has grown dull in the 20th century, as our national cynicism grows ever stronger. Poetry as an art form has been replaced by music and film, while poetry as history is considered corny, complex, obscure and sentimental. Except for rap music, people just don't recite long poems anymore. We sing about feelings which have been reduced to sound-bite emotions. Even Arlo Guthrie's 20-minute talking tale of his draft dodging days in the ballad "Alice's Restaurant" plays like an eternity these days.

Yet oddly, when it comes to history, people are still sitting through lengthy "history" films like "Titanic" as they did with "War & Peace," "Gone With the Wind", as far back as the controversial 1895 film "Birth of a Nation." Just, please, unless it's Shakespeare in love, don't wed history to poetry any more, the public cries. Thanks to instant gratification, we've lost our attention span and with it, our taste for epic verse.

Which is too bad, because I wanted to recite for you some amazing poetry I discovered in the back dusty shelves of the library the other day.

One is called, "Rambles About Greenland in Rhyme" by Mieajah Otis Hall (1900). Yes, that's right. This is the history of the sleepy village of nearby Greenland turned into a 60-page poem in iambic hexameter. And it isn't half bad, what I've read, as the author reveals the tasty bits of local history in a spunky poetic format. No takers? Okay, I've got more.

Consider "The Famous Cruise of the Kearsage" by H.S. Hobson (1893). Back in the late 1800s it was considered quite masculine to read and write poetry. This character was on the Portsmouth-built ship Kearsage in 1864 during its famous battle with the Alabama. Because poetry was as hot then as the Internet is now, Hobson turned his exciting eye-witness account into a stuffy 100-page poem. Fighting through the poem today takes more time the original naval battle.

That's because the poem stinks, but it's still fun like a John Wayne war movie. Imagine the author in his handle-bar mustache, 30 years after the Civil War, medals dangling from his chest, his tongue between his teeth, as he struggled to find just the right word or meter - losing the battle time after time.

JPJ flag Yet there's still gold in them thar poetic hills, if you're patient and willing to mine the nuggets of old history. Take the work of Miss Clara Lynn of Portsmouth, for example. A local historian rediscovered her "Poems About Portsmouth" in a vault at the Portsmouth Athenaeum a few weeks back. It was an old, obscure, volume of mediocre poetry, so, of course, I was contacted immediately. If you have no life, word gets around.

Suffice it to say, I love the book. Miss Lynn, blind, elderly and never married, wrote three books of local history in her final decade. A lot of it ran in the local newspaper and was collected into booklets. Her poems are a treasure chest of local lore. Why are there upside down canons at the Athenaeum door? What happened to the bridegroom who disappeared in 1668? What ghost appeared by candlelight at the North Church? When did Portsmouth have a 9pm curfew? Who danced on the decks of Old ironsides? What slave saved the gold of his "owner" in a bucket of grease?

See how interesting history can be? My favorite is the one about the Ranger flag. Legend says the women of Portsmouth died their petticoats to create the first naval flag for John Paul Jones' ship, the one we're trying to re-build in Portsmouth. This cute little poem spells out the details as Miss Lynn heard them in her childhood in the 1800s. In fact, it is one of the few written accounts of this local legend. History says this was the first American flag ever seen by foreign nations when Jones sailed the Ranger to France and then attacked the British.

Too bad it's a poem, and a pretty long one too. People don't much like poems nowadays, especially when they're about history - right? I was going to recite it for you, but, well never mind. You'd just be bored to tears.

Article by J. Dennis Robinson
Article and page design
© 1999 SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved.

Illustrations: (1) Childe Hassam on the Isles of Shoals from the UNH Photo Services Archive. (2) Boys book of King is an edition by Henry Frith and illustrated in by Frank E. Schoonover. Garden City Publishing Co., 1932; (3) John Paul Jones illustration from an 1895 children's book in SeacoastNH.com collection.

For more on local verse visit: Poems, Ballads & Songs

For more on history visit: History Theme Sites

Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.

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