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Introduction: Present Valor

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 January 2024

Brian Yothers
Affiliation:
St Louis University, Missouri
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Summary

The idea for this book took shape late in 2016, when I found myself revisiting James Russell Lowell's powerful poem “The Present Crisis,” which, although it was written in December 1844 (according to the Cambridge Edition of Lowell's Collected Works), seemed to have acquired a new and compelling resonance (67). The sort of popular verse that had flourished in the nineteenth century seemed to be on an upswing throughout the year as a result of the enthusiastic response to Lin-Manuel Miranda's widely beloved musical Hamilton. The fact that an especially fraught election for the presidency of the United States had just concluded made the young Lowell's commitment to poetry that addresses the public good in a polemical form especially topical. The impetus for writing such poetry became all the more powerful in 2021, when after the defeat of a president who had offered encouragement to those nostalgic for the Confederate insurrection against the government of the United States, that president's supporters stormed the Capitol building in an attack reminiscent, for example, of the attack on Charles Sumner in his Senate chambers in 1856.

Two weeks after the horror of this attack, the inauguration of a new president unexpectedly found as much attention paid to poetry as ever before in US history—this despite the fact that previous inaugurations had featured poets as distinguished as Robert Frost and Elizabeth Alexander. The youthful poet Amanda Gorman read lines that reflected significant engagement with the US past even as it reached out to popular audiences at the present of January 2021. Gorman's poem showed evidence of the sort of cataloguing and parallelism that defined the poetry of Walt Whitman at the same time that it incorporated rhythms, internal rhyme, and alliteration that associates more closely with contemporary hip-hop—or with the experimentation with rhythm and sound that we might associate with Edgar Allan Poe or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the nineteenth century. Both tendencies are visible in the most Whitmanian moment in her inaugural poem “The Hill We Climb”:

We will rise from the golden hills of the West.

We will rise from the windswept Northeast where our forefathers first realized revolution.

We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the Midwestern states.

We will rise from the sun-baked South.

We will rebuild, reconcile, and recover.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2023

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  • Introduction: Present Valor
  • Brian Yothers, St Louis University, Missouri
  • Book: Why Antislavery Poetry Matters Now
  • Online publication: 10 January 2024
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781800103368.001
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  • Introduction: Present Valor
  • Brian Yothers, St Louis University, Missouri
  • Book: Why Antislavery Poetry Matters Now
  • Online publication: 10 January 2024
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781800103368.001
Available formats
×

Save book to Google Drive

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

  • Introduction: Present Valor
  • Brian Yothers, St Louis University, Missouri
  • Book: Why Antislavery Poetry Matters Now
  • Online publication: 10 January 2024
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781800103368.001
Available formats
×