Pet Book Report #8: The Civil War in Song and Story

In light of this week’s material, I’ve taken a look at my pet book with the understanding that poets, even at their most conventional, continually make choices of shape and form and that every poem can in a way be read as a pattern poem. The Civil War in Song and Story deploys a variety of poetic forms. None of them adhere to shape so obviously as George Herbert’s or Puttenham’s examples of the genre, but Moore’s editorial decision to use different systems of indentation, justification, and arrangement as best suit the internal logic of each poem or song instead of a consistent standard throughout the book suggests a “sensitivity to the visual forms of poetry” which suggests the potential value of reading the form a verse text finds in The Civil War in Song and Story more closely.

Moore copies John G. Whittier’s “The Voice of the North” in very regular stanzas of three lines each, all of them left-justified (Moore 22). The unattributed poem “Abou Ben Butler” on p. 23 would, except for three lines that spill past the page margin and wrap onto a second line, otherwise be a solid sonnet-like block of nine couplets; the left-justified lines of J.R. Randall’s “Maryland” is punctuated with indented refrains of “Maryland!” seemingly without rhyme or reason (48). Oliver Wendell Holmes’s “song” “To Canaan!” follows a kind of left-to-right horizontal movement where the lines begin progressively further to the right as the stanza goes on before resetting at the start of the next stanza, which, like comb poesies, imply and encourage a kind of visual movement on the reader’s part (52). Unlike Puttenham’s examples, as when the spaces between words in the later lines of “Fuzie” multiply in size so as to maintain both the metrical integrity of the poem and the clean lines of the shape, the 19th-century poems reprinted in Moore’s work are more likely to have ragged edges where parallel patterns of syllables do not necessarily translate to lines of parallel length. The result is less of an attention to the physicality of each word, its existence as a unit and potential inadequacy to support and construct the poem’s total shape.

These poems would’ve first been printed (and reprinted, through the system of exchange) in 19th-century newspapers, which is a medium that chafes against a close wedding of verse and its material manifestation. I’ve discussed before in my treatments of advertisements of Anecdotes, poetry, and incidents and of the particular case of the anecdote “A Curious Incident” how each of these texts’ transmissions across multiple periodicals and various forms of Moore’s anthology accumulated the detritus of editorial and compositorial difference in changes to accidentals (as when the Richmond Dispatch reprint of the Staunton Spectator’s “Remarkable Phenomenon” used parentheses instead of brackets to encircle a particular interjection) and format (as when the same list of people whose illustrations are included Anecdotes, poetry, and incidents is presented in a list with a single item on each line in the Bellows Falls times and in a single centered paragraph in the St. Cloud Democrat). These sometimes minute and sometimes glaring changes foreground the periodical practice of resetting the text of clippings to be reprinted; as I’ve discussed (somewhere) before, exchanging does not maintain the materiality of the source text in the way that scrapbooking does. This has particular implications when thinking about poetry through the lens of trencher poems, for which the material on which the verse is inscribed can be integral to the identity of the poem.

In the context of editorial exchange, the choice of poetic form is one that is made anew with each reprint. “Under the Washington Elm,” again by Oliver Wendell Holmes, which appears on p. 8 of The Civil War in Song and Story, also appears in at least four newspapers between 1861 and 1976 (the May 16 1861 edition of the Belmont Chronicle, the May 23 1861 edition of The Alleghanian, the August 15, 1862 edition of the Pomeroy weekly telegraph, and the January 2 1876 edition of The New Orleans bulletin). Of these four publications, the Chronicle, Alleghanian, and bulletin all print it with different forms, reproduced below (hover for newspaper name and date):


16 May 1861


2 January 1876


23 May 1861

Though there’s a lot to be said here about how the paratextual differences between publications of “Under the Washington Elm” create different reading experiences–for one thing, it’s notable how the only Southern publication which appears in the Chronicling America database not only appears around fifteen years after the other appearances but also lists a publication date which predates the Civil War, thus severing its nationalistic sentiments from anti-Confederate implications–I’m primarily interested in the way the same verse is reshaped by different editorial offices and whether it can be said that the result is the same verse, after all. Stanza breaks are barely visible in the Alleghenian’s rendition, giving the impression to readers not specifically looking for stanza divisions that “Under the Washington Elm” is a single stanza of 25 lines. The Chronicle and bulletin break up the poem in the same ways. The Chronicle chooses to indent every line except the third and fourth lines of each stanzas, which are usually longer, eight to eleven syllables to the first, second, and fifth lines’ usual five to seven; in this way, the Chronicle privileges preventing single lines from over-running the margins and wrapping around, which would disrupt the visual regularity of the poem. The bulletin, in contrast, indents based on rhyme. The rhyme scheme of each stanza is ABAAB, and the “A” lines are left-justified while the “B” lines are indented. The bulletin’s chosen pattern to display “Under the Washington Elm” thus, like Puttenham’s diagrams in Chapter 11 of Part 2 of The Arte of English Poesie call attention to the lyrical qualities of Holmes’s poem at the expense of the metrical qualities that the Chronicle foregrounds.

The Civil War in Song and Story imitates the shape selected by the Chronicle, although in Moore’s case it is less likely to be a matter of an institutional or editorial aesthetic dislike for wrapping overlong lines of poetic verse, as many other poems throughout the anthology do not or cannot avoid it. It’s interesting to think about this difference in terms of a 19th-century popular convention we discussed in thinking of “American” literature as though it came from a New England literary culture, as opposed to the South and West. Certainly a cursory look at other books in the Civil War anthology genre indicate what might be a particular fascination on the part of Northern audiences for “Southern songs,” perhaps a counterbalancing stereotype; the North writes, and the South sings, a distinction reflected here in terms of how Louisiana and Ohio publications might differently choose to emphasize rhyme and meter. Does this point to a particular attention paid by newspaper editors to the meaning-making qualities of form? Boeckeler’s discussion of the “continuity between material form and verbal content” suggests that part of what defines the poem is the pattern of the pattern poem, the material of a trencher poem; these poems would not be the same poems if they took different forms or different materialities. In the context of the poetry of a “canonical” writer like Oliver Wendell Holmes, this is an issue that takes on particular significance for me. We discussed in class how book-adjacent objects like literary board games are part of the culture which shapes what becomes part of the canon; but the instability of form of newspaper poetry causes me to wonder which versions of a poem become part of a canon. Time doesn’t currently permit, but I’d like to take a look at the publication of this poem (or, if the bulletin is right about its prewar publication in a collection before its appearance in the newspapers, some other poem which appears mostly in newspapers) and compare it to the form that eventually becomes codified in Holmes scholarship.

Finally, in thinking about the book as a particular kind of object with which readers interact, constrained or enabled as they are through the exigencies of print, it’s interesting to me to read how the nature of The Civil War in Song and Story and books like it, which don’t have the resources to ensure that each individual article and poem is presented in the most suitable visual way, subordinate the visual form of the text to the visual form of the medium–much like the newspaper forms from which they cull. Just as the demands of the newspaper column would override any artistic vision–I highly doubly that any nineteenth-century newspaper would’ve considered it worthwhile to print a pattern poem like one I wrote in the ninth grade in the shape of the Pieta–so too are poems sometimes broken across a page-flip in Moore’s work. Images, too, are cut off from the text; in reading, one often comes across a blank recto that heralds an illustration on the next opening, or turns the page of an illustration to see the blank verso that suggests the difficulty of integrating the different printing processes of text and image. If the “suspense of rhyme pushes toward particular engagements with the object” in the purposeful division of the lines of a comb poem, if in this way comb poems can “mak[e] the other present while physically out of view,” how does this incidental breakage of verse/image “mobilize writing” (Bockeler 2, 1)? For me, it develops a sense that the text exists in spite of the constraint of the page. If newspaper exchanges and scrapbooks contributed to the idea of information as “framented or ‘morselized,'” the materiality of The Civil War in Song and Story similarly suggests a conceptual divide between text and object (Garvey 7). When read against its subject matter, an attempt to give a fuller account of the war as it occurred beyond the documents of the military and government, the tension between the text and page suggests the persistence of a self-referential narrative, one which links image to text by the captions and page references, which creates a narrative that moves smoothly between anecdotes from the last days of the war to poems from the first, when the inherent linearity of the book resists it.

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