I asked Robert Sullivan at a recent reading about the role of history in his poems. He replied, “I’m making a genre argument that historians are, like poets, imaginative writers; that poetry is also well equipped for these conversations; and that the historical can also be personal.” (I suspect those semicolons are all mine, but I’ll save my comments on orality for another day.) I admire his point—accounts of the past are never neutral and there’s no reason they need to be prose. The “poem containing history,” though (Ezra Pound’s phrase), is usually epic or long poetry. The brevity of lyric requires different modes of argument. Even in a lyric sequence with narrative elements, any tale is full of skips, blanks, recursions; metaphor and music have their own logic and can’t always accommodate names, dates, and other factual details.
So how can a lyric poem contain history? When in “Indian Cartography” Deborah Miranda remaps California, she embeds a narrative of colonization in her list of place names: “Tuolomne, / Salinas, Los Angeles, Paso Robles, / Ventura, Santa Barbara, Saticoy, / Tehachapi.” The displacement suffered by her family is the very ground of the poem, the landscape she assumes, and her poem constitutes an imaginative return to those waters, that earth. Words themselves, their textures and etymologies, widen a poem’s field. That’s also true in “The Day Lady Died” by Frank O’Hara, with its train times and brand names. The speaker grabs “an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets / in Ghana are doing these days” and suddenly race is in the poem, many lines before Billie Holiday sings. Think even of Emily Dickinson’s “Publication – is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man –.” The first word sends you in one direction, chasing after the agoraphobic belle of Amherst, but this is a politically astute New Englander writing in the middle of the nineteenth century. After images of auctions and whiteness, she concludes her four quatrains with the ringing imperative: “reduce no Human Spirit / To Disgrace of Price –.” Of course she’s thinking about abolition. It’s tricky; I say she’s condemning slavery but you could also accuse her of using that vast, terrible trauma as a metaphor for her own situation. That’s one risk of opening a newspaper inside your stanzas. Your poem can gain power, or the world can shrink absurdly.
There are stories inside words themselves, but collage and direct quotation are also important strategies; visual elements such as typefaces, margins, and gaps can signal temporal and spatial shifts; titles, dedications, and notes can carry some of the burden of context. Within the lines, verb tenses and pronouns also involve highly-charged decisions. The poet is always in the poem somewhere, but how far inside the frame does she stand? In one of Robert Sullivan’s sequences about Captain Cook, “For the Ocean of Kiwa” in the book Voice Carried My Family, he represents the Polynesian members of Cook’s various crews, beginning well inside the frame. Addressing one of those men, Mai, Sullivan protests, “I just can’t take the middle of your throat. / Who would I pay for the privilege?” (28). Nevertheless, he keeps stepping back, out of the picture. That anxious “I” appears only once in the following poem, and by the next, the first person pronouns belong to those Polynesian crew members, speaking in the present tense.
When fictionalizing a real person’s voice in a poem, I think it’s best to acknowledge the transgression as Sullivan does. However, when I brought up that issue on Wom-po, The Discussion of Women’s Poetry List, a couple of writers, Eve Rifkah and Pat Valdata, explained why they disagreed. Valdata wrote, “if you have no personal connection to the people involved then it seems self-serving to make the poem about your own life and your own issues” (Fri, 18 Mar 2011 16:40:26). Many problems unfold from our contrasting views: what stories does a person own? Are there tales a privileged European-American like me should never presume to tell? Is there an extra burden on poetry as a genre (as opposed to, say, historical fiction)—is it inevitably personal? And anyone writing history as lyric has to decide what her goals are, what kind of experience she wants her readers and listeners to have. A poem engaging the past can provoke, evoke, give answers, or leave disturbing questions hanging in the silence.
Addressing history in a poem is one way of constructing a community. The affiliation is through time rather than, or as well as, across space. Some might say that cross-temporal community can’t exist because one side of the conversation is always already over. I talk to dead poets all the time, though, and their poems are complex enough to present new answers. And I recently heard a similar point made by digital archivists who are trying to change the ownership of history by making original documents available online—letters, maps, early printed texts, often in nineteenth-century Maori. One of them said at the end of his presentation, almost as an aside, that he often felt guided by the tupuna; his ancestors collaborate in the project. Some documents pop up just as you need them; others hide, or the computer breaks down. “You know they want you to tell the story,” he said, smiling, “because they allow you to.”