This is my 101st post! I'll drink to that.
I said in a previous post that perhaps all historical poetry today is really a form of elegy. I should have qualified that statement by adding "in North America." Clearly, if there is tear gas wafting through your neighborhood on a regular basis, then history takes on a different valence, whether in a textbook or a literary work. It can get you killed (and has). By the same token, the question of the role of historical or "documentary" literature within authoritarian regimes has a fairly obvious answer - that history doesn't seem so far from current events as it is in the USA, for instance. Still, that gives the whole thing a rather functional cast - history as a means to make a ("moving"?) statement about the present, rather than about the past per se.
If our (N.A.) historical poetry is elegy (monody might be a better term, since we don't really have any collective mourning - or anything), maybe it's b/c we (literati) have given up on any possibility of actually affecting history (or even of knowing whether or not we have). And of course we want to distance ourselves from celebratory accounts of history from Homer to the Benet brothers.
There is also a certain memorial impulse - that someone must speak for the dead. This is legit, albeit a bit grandiose. Better if you're just curious about someone who was as obscure as oneself. But those folks don't leave as many records to write about.
The reason for writing history per se (as in "history books") is a no-brainer, for me. It obviously doesn't prevent "us" from making the same mistakes over and over again. But it does make one a bit more at home in the world - gives one perspective. That still doesn't explain why historical poetry in an era of prose.
The answer may be that poets can present the underside of history - the bits of evidence and testimony that don't necessarily add up - or the ones that add up without anyone's having to be told (or needing paraphrase or superfluous analysis). Myung Mi Kim and Mark Nowak, perhaps - the one writing through the gaps and perplexing (and temporary) relations that defy speech, the other, presenting (in a fairly coherent manner) multiple narratives, and letting us decide how they relate to one another. (Nowak's editorial collaborator, David Michalski, does this latter brilliantly in the piece "Africa," in Cosmos & Damian - no author pontification inserted, and none needed or desired - check it out).
The way history feels. The way time feels.
The story + the monody for the loss of the (our) story. Hence, the prose narratives at the front of Susan Howe's books, followed by her fractured lyrics. Or that beautiful lyric elegy/eulogy at the end of "Book of the Dead."
Or, more recently, Raymond McDaniel's book Saltwater Empire. Most of the book is rather lush, neo-symboliste lyric. But running throughout are multiple poems, all with the same title: "Convention Centers of the New World." These seem to be snippets of speech, of testimony, from people trapped at the New Orleans Convention Center at the time of Katrina. So, the disorienting, impressionistic, or inward-looking lyrics find their counterpoint in a radically found poem. So, in the poem "Zombi Phenotypes": "Only flesh can masquerade mechanical./Timorous, shopworn glamour, we walkaround./ We hold hands, embrace prettily./ Amazers, all gone down, a drowned township./ Unfleshed, enchanted skeletons." Then, the first "Convention Centers of the New World" begins: "I come from all over New Orleans. What I feel needs to be said/about this is that everything was done wrong.// From what I can see, the police could not control the crime/ in New Orleans. Before the floods and the hurricane."
It really is just one damn thing after another. And if you're not writing paeans in exchange for money or gold goblets, you either get the people into the streets, or you bawl.
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