Poetic Moments Through History
Massachusetts minister Michael Wigglesworth outlines the doctrines of Puritanism in his epic poem "The Day of Doom." Snapped up and memorized by 17th- century colonists, the fiery work is widely considered America's first bestseller.
A teenaged George Washington pens anguished love poems, one of which is inspired by the young lady Frances Alexander, and laments: "Ah! Woe's me that I should love and conceal,/ Long have I wish'd, but never dare reveal."
Jupiter Hammon, "property" of a Long Island aristocrat, manages to print his poem, An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ with Penetential Cries, which is the first work published by an African-American slave.
After witnessing the British bombardment of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, Maryland attorney Francis Scott Key writes the poem "Defence of Fort M'Henry," which is later set to the melody of an English drinking song, and becomes the U.S. national anthem.
The poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (aka "T'was the Night Before Christmas") is published anonymously in a small-town New York paper (authorship is widely attributed to Manhattan classics professor Clement Moore), and shapes today's image of Santa Claus as a round-bellied fellow who smokes a pipe, descends chimneys, and travels in a reindeer-drawn sleigh.
Upon hearing the news of Lincoln's assassination, poet Walt Whitman passes a solemn day at his mother's Brooklyn home and its flowering yard; his famed elegy "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" is published later that year.
A plaque bearing the sonnet "The New Colossus" by Manhattan socialite Emma Lazarus is mounted inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, greeting newcomers with the lines, "Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."
Pocket-sized collections of poems by writers including Percy Bysshe Shelley, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge are distributed to WWII soldiers for comfort and inspiration.
San Francisco book publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti is arrested for publishing Allen Ginsberg's new poem "Howl." The landmark obscenity trial (and not-guilty verdict) essentially leads to the end of U.S. government censorship.
At a campaign stop in Indianapolis it falls to democratic presidential candidate Sen. Robert F. Kennedy to deliver news of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination to a largely black crowd. In his spontaneous eulogy from the back of a flatbed truck, Kennedy quotes his "favorite poet," Aeschylus: "In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."
Nineteen-year-old Occidental College student Barack Obama publishes his poem, "Pop," in the school's literary magazine. It reads, in part:
"Pop switches channels, takes another
Shot of Seagrams, neat, and asks
What to do with me, a green young man
Who fails to consider the
Flim and flam of the world."
President Ronald Reagan borrows a few lines from the James Magee Jr. poem "High Flight" in his Oval Office address to comfort a grieving nation following the Challenger disaster, saying the crew had "slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God."
Maya Angelou, great granddaughter of an Arkansas slave, becomes the second poet to read at a presidential inauguration when she delivers "On the Pulse of Morning" at Bill Clinton's swearing-in.
Following the September 11th attacks, a flurry of poems is pinned to makeshift memorials across New York City and circulates widely on the internet (such as W.H. Auden's "September 1, 1939" which says about the German invasion of Poland: "The unmentionable odour of death / Offends the September night"). "In times of crisis it's interesting that people don't turn to the novel or say, "We should all go out to a movie," then U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins told The New York Times after the tragedy. "It's always poetry."
With thanks to the Library of Congress for research assistance.
Poetry Through The Years