Joan Shelley Rubin, a professor of history at the University of Rochester, discussed her new book, “Songs of Ourselves: The Uses of Poetry in America,” at Cal Poly yesterday.
Rubin said poetry reading was once a social practice for many Americans.
“My book is an effort to recover the notion of poetry reading as a live experience,” Rubin said.
Her lecture to about 30 student and faculty attendees focused on both the personal and collective social means of poetry during the 19th and 20th centuries.
One example Rubin used was from the book “Understood Betsy” by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, first published in the early 1900s.
The book is about a young girl who moves from the city to live with her cousins in Vermont and arrives with no clear sense of self. At the farm, Betsy gains independence from reading poetry aloud with her uncle after dinner.
“Betsy acquires self-reliance,” Rubin said. “Poetry reading certifies her belonging and autonomy.”
Another example Rubin discussed was the story of a poetry discussion between author William Dean Howells and the twentieth president James A. Garfield.
One evening in 1870, Howells sat on Garfield’s porch and spoke of schoolroom poets, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes.
Garfield reportedly jumped up, interrupted Howells and ran to the end of his lawn, insisting that his neighbors join the discussion. The group discussed poetry until midnight.
“The neighbors expressed reverence because of their devotion to the poets,” Rubin said. “It was easier in the 19th century for Americans to feel that kind of connection to poets.”
Rubin said because people are seeking to connect with others or the world, there are numerous instances of personal relationships formed between poets and readers.
Poet Carl Sandburg exchanged letters with a female reader in the 1950s. The woman wrote that she felt important because of his work. Although his responses were form letters, he nourished the fantasies of friendship in his responses.
Rubin said readers did not see the form letters as such, and instead viewed them as the construction of a social relationship.
She also discussed collective uses of poetry, including the poem “Dedication” written by Robert Frost for the presidential inauguration of John F. Kennedy.
Rubin said Frost was aware of the reciprocal arrangement between poetry and politics.
Another example Rubin shared was the popularity of speaking choirs between World War I and World War II, and post-war.
Speaking choirs were composed of members with different voices that sounded like instruments when they recited poetry.
“The agenda of the choirs was to keep the country uniformly in line with genteel cultural ideas from the 19th century that still persisted in the 20th century,” Rubin said.
She concluded that the study of how Americans experienced poetry leads to the recovery of literary history.
Rubin has also authored “Constance Rourke and American Culture” and “The Making of Middlebrow Culture.” She is the recipient of several grants, including the Guggenheim Fellowship.