Making Poetry Out of History

A few years ago, after publishing two books of poems grounded in my personal experiences as a middle-class American woman, I found myself enmeshed in the 18th century, among seafaring British males of varied socioeconomic classes and the natives of a remote Pacific island, encountering each other for the first time. Eventually, my research into those encounters led to my new book of poetry, Passing Worlds: Tahiti in the Era of Captain Cook.

 Turning from the personal to the historical as a source of poetry was both exciting and challenging. Exciting because there was so much material to work with, material that was all new to me—journals written by James Cook, the aristocratic naturalist Joseph Banks, an ordinary seaman, and others; sketches and paintings by the artists who traveled with them; and eloquent accounts by historians. I loved weaving phrases from the journals into some of the poems.

The challenge of history-based poetry, though, is that even if the subject is a distant historical episode, for the poetry to take flight, the poet needs to feel the subject as somehow personal. As I worked through this project, over five or six years, those personal connections revealed themselves. The most successful poems in Passing Worlds, I’m sure, are the ones where I felt most deeply and personally engaged.

On the British side, I felt a kinship with naturalists intrigued by the plants and animals they discovered, and with thoughtful men who tried to shed some of their own cultural baggage in order to understand the islanders. I found their varied personalities fascinating. Learning about the Tahitians, I felt sympathy for the girls and women whose sexuality was commercialized, for a people blindsided by the arrival of strangers with superior weapons and other technology, for a people who would lose their entire way of life far too rapidly for anyone to adapt. I found the whole situation rife with paradoxes and ambiguities that I could neither ignore nor resolve.

This book wouldn’t exist without many other books—the primary and secondary sources listed in the backmatter, of course, but also the books of poetry that showed me ways of bringing history to life. For both these kinds of books, I feel a rush of gratitude and affection whenever I see them on my shelves.

A guiding star to which I’ve turned many times is Martha Collins’s Blue Front (Graywolf, 2006), which centers on the lynching of a black man that her father witnessed at age 5, in Illinois in 1909. The book expands from that single incident to encompass much more about racism in America, and it does so with exquisite craft. Collins varies the forms; she meditates on crucial words like hang, drag, and cut; from extensive research she makes use of newspaper accounts, grim postcards depicting lynchings, the life of a crusader against the violence. Sometimes her elliptical style compels the reader to supply an unspoken word, drawing us deeper into the poem. Blue Front is intense, unflagging, infused by the poet’s profound sense of injustice.

Another book that inspired me is Carver: A Life in Poems, by Marilyn Nelson (Front Street, 2001). Irresistibly readable, these poems about George Washington Carver speak in many voices. Nelson is marvelous at creating a wide range of personas who reveal themselves as well as their individual views of Carver and particular aspects of his life.

Here are a few other history-focused poetry books that either influenced Passing Worlds or else came to my attention after it was more or less finished:

Martha Collins, Admit One: An American Scrapbook (University of Pittsburgh, 2016). The 1904 World’s Fair and the Bronx Zoo are a lens through which to understand the sorry history of eugenics and anti-immigrant attitudes.

Adrian Matejka, The Big Smoke (Penguin, 2013). A complex portrait of Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight world champion.

Joelle Biele, Tramp (LSU, 2018). This new book draws on newspaper accounts and other materials to illuminate the lives of female hoboes and wanderers in the early 20th century.

Kathleen Flenniken, Plume (University of Washington, 2012). The poet (who is also a civil engineer) examines her family’s and her community’s experience of government deception, illness, and environmental contamination from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Elizabeth Holmes is the author of two previous books of poetry, The Patience of the Cloud Photographer and The Playhouse near Dark. Her poems have appeared in PoetryPloughshares, Prairie SchoonerThe Southern Review, and many other journals. She lives in Ithaca, New York.

Buy her new book, Passing Worlds: Tahiti in the Era of Captain Cook, on our website today!