Saturday, November 17, 2012

A Poetry-Fueled War

During the Civil War, poetry didn’t just respond to events; it shaped them.

From an interview on Poetry Foundation...

You write that the Civil War was a “poetry-fueled war.” What do you mean by that?
Poetry in mid-19th-century America was ubiquitous in a way that it just isn’t now. It was everywhere in newspapers and magazines, children were learning it in school…. Americans were encountering poetry on a weekly basis, if not a daily basis, in the Civil War era, and that’s a profound difference from contemporary poetry and its place in our culture.
There are so many accounts in newspapers of soldiers dying with a poem in their pockets, poems written on a scrap of paper folded up inside a book; so many accounts of songs or poems being sung or read to political leaders at particular moments. For example, after Lincoln announced the second call for a draft ... James Sloan Gibbons wrote this song poem called “Three Hundred Thousand More,” which he supposedly sang to Lincoln in his office one day. So there’s a kind of immediacy of impact, that poetry is actually, I suggest, shaping events, not just responding or reflecting on them.

How did these poems reach the general public? They must have traveled somewhat quickly since they’re responding to political events.
The technological development of the railroad and then also the increasingly affordable technologies of printing and reproduction had the result of dramatically increasing the speed with which poetry could move around. ... Harper’s [Weekly] featured poetry pretty regularly. It’s the equivalent of readers seeing poetry in a magazine like Newsweek or Time, or maybe even People magazine. ... Then also it’s a shorter genre, it can be more quickly written; it can be written in response to immediate events….

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