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Ted Kooser’s “Rhymes of the Survivors”

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The following essay was written in 2012 by Ted Kooser, 13th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, as part of the Poetry and Literature Center’s online “Poetry of American History” series that ran from 2012-2014. The series included essays and interviews by leaders in the literary field, including former Poet Laureate Consultants in Poetry, that illustrated how poems by Americans helped define or expand the country. The aim was to complement conventional historical texts and showcase poetry’s place as an essential tool for recording our nation’s past. Though the series is no longer active, From the Catbird Seat is reprinting essays from “Poetry of American History” to bring them new light.

Rhymes of the Survivors

Ted Kooser. Photo credit: Blue Flower Arts

During my last two quarters as an undergraduate, I rented a room from a close friend of my parents. She was a marvelous cook and had at one time been the chief nutritionist at the Cook County Hospital in Chicago. She was also what these days we would call a hoarder. The house was so cluttered with belongings that even the top of the stove was used as a shelf, though with only one uncovered burner she could make a marvelous meal, meat, potatoes, vegetable and dessert.

Opposite the door to my room was a hall closet where she kept her winter coats and boots and a lot of miscellaneous debris, and on its floor were several well-worn scrapbooks with red cardboard covers. They’d been put together by some member of her family from an earlier generation, and were filled with poetry clipped from the publications that covered the annual camp meetings of the Grand Army of the Republic. At those meetings, the Union Army veterans recited poems they’d written, and each year when the proceedings were printed and distributed, these poems were a part of the publication.

I was then in my early twenties and beginning to write my own poems, imitating Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, and I remember thinking how laughably old-fashioned these veterans’ poems were, doggerel even, with traditional ballad stanzas and forced, ungraceful rhymes, sentimental and—yuck!—patriotic. But, obviously, they had once meant a lot to somebody. And it seems they made a considerable impression on me, because I have been thinking of them off and on for more than fifty years.

And when as U. S. Poet Laureate I was trying to find support for my proposed newspaper column, “American Life in Poetry,” I used my recollection of those scrapbooks as examples of the way in which people used to save poetry from newspapers and magazines, would paste it in scrapbooks, would clip it and insert it in letters.

While those scrapbooks preserved very little that would be considered “Art” by contemporary critics, they did preserve the heartfelt expressions of veterans of the War for the Union, and that someone had thought to preserve those poems meant something to me. If it wasn’t art, it was history, it was folklore, it was authentic and genuine and it touched me. Would I ever be able to write a poem that someone would want to keep in a scrapbook?

Poetry can be a means of preserving experience, and most war poetry exemplifies that. For a couple of thousand years, poets have been telling us what war was like, for them and for others, and offering us the lessons they drew from their experience. Those poems have most often been narrative, as were the Homeric epics, and as are poems in the modern canon such as Randall Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunne”: “…When I died / they washed me out of the turret with a hose.”

Every war has had its poets. Wilfred Owen and others captured The Great War. Jarrell was writing about WWII. Mike Casey published the first collection of poems about Vietnam, Obscenities, and now veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts such as Brian Turner are preserving those current wars for us. But it seems unlikely that the veterans of today’s wars are ever going to have annual camp meetings at which they recite their poems. Sure, at open mikes in coffee houses a few veterans who will try to communicate their feelings about what their wars were like, but it isn’t likely that veterans of our modern wars will gather by the thousands, in fellowship, as did those of the Grand Army. America has changed a great deal since the War for the Union. Perhaps it’s changed too much.

Here’s a poem from one of those 19th century camp meetings:

by Adjutant Byers, Fifth Iowa Cavalry

Our camp fires shone bright on the mountain
That frowned on the river below,
While we stood by our guns in the morning,
And eagerly watched for the foe.
When a rider came out from the darkness
That hung over mountain and tree,
And shouted, “boys, up and be ready,
For Sherman will march to the sea!”
Then sang we a song for our chieftan,
That echoed oe’r river and lea,
And the starts in our banner shown brighter
When Sherman marched down to the sea.

Then cheer upon cheer for bold Sherman
Went up from each valley and glen.
And the bugles re-echoed the music
That came from the lips of the men.
For we knew that the starts in our banner
More bright in their splendor would be,
And that blessings from North-land would greet us
When Sherman marched down to the sea.

CHORUS — Then sang we a song, etc.

Then forward boys, forward to battle,
We marched on our wearisome way,
And we stormed the wild hills of Resaca,
God bless those that fell on that day,
Then Kennesaw dark in its glory
Frowned down on the Flag of the Free,
But the east and the west bore our standard,
When Sherman marched down to the sea.

CHORUS — Then sang we a song, etc.

Still onward we pressed till our banners
Swept out from Atlanta’s grim walls,
And the blood of the patriots dampened
the soil where the traitors’ flag falls.
But we paused not to weep for the fallen,
Who slept by each river and tree.
Yet we twined them a wreath of the laurel,
And Sherman marched down to the sea.*

This is just one example from the scores of narrative, lyrical and elegiac poems that the annual G. A. R. camp meetings offered to history, out of a time when I believe poetry meant more to a broad audience of readers and listeners than it does today. It has its cliches, but it also has its beauties, its emotion, its sincerity, its authenticity. And it has a subject, an important ingredient I find missing in much of today’s poetry. How many contemporary poems are likely to be scissored out of our quarterly literary journals and pasted into scrapbooks and kept for a hundred and fifty years?

*From Odes, Hymns and Songs for the G. A. R. Post Meetings, Camp-Fires, and Reunions, collected by James Henry Kyner and published in 1880. Public domain.


  1. I am the fortunate owner of my Grandmother’s “scrapbook” of poems, newspaper articles and notices of various events from her childhood and young adulthood. It includes the article noting her marriage. There are so many precious poems such as “Baby’s First Christmas Stocking” as well as so many patriotic poems. Her scrapbook is actually what appears to be an agricultural text book published in 1902. This book is a cherished artifact of her life and times.

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