As April’s National Poetry Month ends, here are a few highlights from the millions of pages in our online historical newspaper collections, giving you a chance to read poetry within a historical context.
Poetry was a regular feature of many anti-slavery newspapers, one of the tools to inspire readers to deepen their support for the abolitionist cause. The North Star, 1847-1851, and its successor, Frederick Douglass’ Paper, 1851-1860, both edited by the eminent abolitionist, featured poetry in every issue on the back page, page 4, in column 1. While the location was a common one for poetry at the time, Douglass was particularly consistent in its use. He inaugurated the column in The North Star’s premier issue, December 3, 1847, with John Pierpont’s “The Fugitive Slave’s Apostrophe to the North Star,” serving as a nod to the newspaper’s title and its stated purpose of attacking “slavery in all its forms and aspects.” (p. 1, col. 1). Pierpont, an abolitionist Unitarian minister whose poetry sometimes opened antislavery meetings, wrote the poem eight years earlier. The poem’s initial publication can be found in at least one other abolitionist newspaper, the Vermont Anti-Slavery Society’s The Voice of Freedom (Montpelier, VT) on November 30, 1839, also on the back page, column 1, available digitized in our Chronicling America online newspaper collection.
Chronicling America, sponsored jointly by the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities, has the broadest array of poetry of all our digital newspaper collections.
The earliest example currently in Chronicling America is in the second issue of The Gazette of the United States, April 18, 1789. The poem saluted the new Constitution and the election of George Washington. The Constitution had gone into effect on March 4th with Congress convening for the first time on that date. On April 30th, less than two weeks after the ode was published in this newspaper, George Washington was inaugurated.
The Gazette of the United States, edited by John Fenno, was a Federalist newspaper, strongly in favor of the Constitution, and heavily supported by Alexander Hamilton. This ode was published widely in newspapers and its publication in the Gazette was one of several reprints from its initial publication in another Federalist newspaper, The Massachusetts Centinel, April 4, 1789 (The Documentary History of the First Federal Elections, 1788-1790, Volume 4, p. 216-217).
While poetry in newspapers sometimes had a political focus, many poems provided a more personal view that resonated with a wide audience. Among these are works by both famous and obscure poets.
One of the most famous of such poets in one of the most unusual of such newspapers is Emily Dickinson, whose poem, “A Day,” appeared in The Prison Mirror (Stillwater, MN), January 15, 1891. The issue date places it as one of the earlier attributed newspaper publications of her poetry, shortly after the posthumous publication of her first book of poetry.
Emily Dickinson might not come to mind as a poet of particular interest to convicts, but the appearance of this poem in that prison newspaper may reside in her depiction of a sunrise and sunset poignantly including, in the closing stanza, “A dominie in gray / Put gently up the evening bars.”
The Prison Mirror, “written by and for people incarcerated in prison” is the “longest, continuously published prison newspaper in the country.” The Mirror was founded and briefly edited by inmate Lew. P. Schoonmaker, who solicited help, including start-up funds, from brothers Cole, James, and Robert Younger. The three former members of the James-Younger Gang were serving life sentences for their failed attempt in 1876 to rob the First National Bank in Northfield, Minnesota. Cole Younger, by then the prison librarian, was initially listed as “Printer’s Devil,” a term for an apprentice printer. The role provided some of the newspaper’s humor, particularly when Younger was referred to as the “Satanic member of THE MIRROR force.” A prisoner’s four-line poem also graced the initial August 10, 1887 issue with a more practical purpose of criticising the night guards, than the later Dickinson poem.
The World War I era American Expeditionary Forces’ Stars and Stripes newspaper was published “by and for the soldiers of the A. E. F.” It had a regular poetry column, “The Army’s Poets,” with its poets described in the August 16, 1918 issue as “the spokesmen of the Army’s soul.” Below that explanation, was the poem, “The Fields of the Marne” by Sergeant Frank Carbaugh, which ended with the note, “Written while lying wounded in hospital; died August, 1918.”
Sadly, many war poems have carried similar postscripts. The Stars and Stripes at times published poetry by better known poet-soldiers, including Joyce Kilmer, described in the same issue as “poet and newspaperman, killed in action near the Oureq July 30.” Carbaugh became well-known at the time, not for his poetry, but through a wire service profile that showed how admired he was by his fellow wounded soldiers hospitalized in France.
McConnellsburg, the town where The Fulton County News continues to be published, is about 30 miles from Greencastle, Pennsylvania, Carbaugh’s hometown, but the article wasn’t local. It appeared in several newspapers across the country, often along with other matching wire service coverage. The digitized newspapers in Chronicling America containing the article come from as far away as South Dakota.
Moving from one world war to the next and from a poet-soldier to an interned Japanese American teenager, 16-year old Ruth Tanaka’s Scholastic magazine award-winning poem appeared in The Poston Chronicle. This newspaper was published in the large Poston Internment Camp in southwestern Arizona in the harsh Sonoran Desert. Her “Saga of a People” shows a deep understanding of the Issei, first-generation Japanese immigrants, the tremendous hardships of the camp, and the resiliency of the people forced to move there.
It’s your turn now. Keeping in mind some date limitations, you can search a poet by name, a poem by title or line, or even the words, “poetry” or “poem,” within our online historical newspaper collections. Along with poetry, you will find articles about poets, reviews, and more. You might want to browse a newspaper that interests you to see if you can find a poem by the way it’s printed within a column. For more guidance, check out this blog: Exploring Chronicling America for Poetry in Newspapers Before 1922.
- Chronicling America Topics Pages: World War I Poetry, Walt Whitman, and Maxim Gorky
- Edgar Allan Poe and “The Raven”
- Walt Whitman: A Life in Newspapers
- Teachers Collection Connections: The Stars and Stripes: The American Soldiers’ Newspaper of World War I, 1918-1919
- Behind Barbed Wire: Japanese-American Internment Camp Newspapers
- Poetry and Literature