Poetry and History: A Guest Post by Tom Sexton

I began these posts by mentioning that I could see Campobello Island, New Brunswick where Franklin Delano Roosevelt had his summer home across a narrow channel of water, Eastern Passage, from Eastport, Maine where I’m spending the winter while I finish a collection of poems about growing up in Lowell, Massachusetts. The only thing the two places have in common is that they are former mill towns, one sardine and the other cotton, and they are both rich in Euro-American history and the tragic history of Native Americans. There is a postage stamp sized Passamaquoddy Reservation on the road into Eastport, a road that splits the reservation in two. There are soldiers who fought in every war beginning with the revolution buried in the cemetery and classic New England churches. It’s a very welcoming place for a poet who is interested in history.

At one time poems about history and historical figures were common and admired, but not so much today. Here is one of my poems based on an historical event. The Millerites in the poem were a 19th century American Christian sect that formed out of the Second Great Awakening. William Miller, a Baptist preacher, believed that by studying the prophecies in the book of Daniel he had determined that Christ would return to earth on October 22, 1844.

A Harvard Millerite Ascends

-Harvard, Mass. 1844

When the fateful day was about to dawn,
the day the preacher’s calculations promised
Christ’s return, his animals were left to wander
the fields. Nothing of this world would be missed.
He regretted only that he lived in a valley
and would not be among the first taken up
and purified. His bible was all he carried
to the roof. The promised return filled his cup.

The preacher had told him to wear a white
robe and he did. He watched the stars fade
and began to weep. What of the comet’s flight
at noon that promised Judgment Day?
He stood shivering in his dew-soaked robe.
Dark clouds gathered, and it began to snow.

I enjoy writing about historical events and figures because it frees me of the burden of self. A lyric poet has to have his antenna up all the time, or at least I feel that way. It’s both instructive and enjoyable to imagine you are someone else. Do Euro-Alaskans, who after all have not been here very long, have a usable past? I’ve written a poem about Vitus Bering and one about the Gold Rush, and Dick Dauenhauer has led the way with many of his poems; I’m sure there are others that I’ve forgotten at the moment.

Here’s a section from my poem “El Dorado”


Baptized Mary Nelligan in Montreal,
my sister lives in Brooklyn and can

hear the bridge singing like a harp
at night. I was slaving in the kitchen
of a rich man’s house on Nob Hill
when I heard the gardener telling
of the Klondike strike. He disappeared.
The cook called me his little Irish blackbird
and made me knead his dough at night.
I know the miners call me Nell the Pig.
Let them call me what they will.
Even curses freeze in hell.
They mew like kittens in my sheets.
On Sunday, after dark, the minister prays
with us. He slips in by the back.
Deirdre thinks all Protestants are bishops.
I sold Olga, my little anvil-thighed lark,
to a Dago for her weight in nuggets.
My lover was the lad who weighed their gold.
I greased his hair to make their fine dust
stick when he ran his long fingers over it.
I rinsed it every morning and hid his stake.
The night he left we sucked blue plums
from China long past dawn. Not long now.
When my steamer reaches San Francisco,
the finest waiting on the dock will say–
that lady is as graceful as a swan.

“Eldorado” was the first part of a long poem I intended to write about the Gold Rush in the Yukon and Alaska. Nell the Pig is a real character. I just might get back to it one of these days.

Tom Sexton began the creative writing program at UAA in 1970. His latest book, I Think Again of Those Ancient Chinese Poets, will be released by the University of Alaska Press in February 2011.

1 thought on “Poetry and History: A Guest Post by Tom Sexton”

  1. I'm a history buff, working on a novel set in 1906 Fairbanks right now. I love your poem about Nell the Pig–you should do more with that one day! It is interesting to me that few modern poets seem to write about history nowadays. There are so many rich stories and people to draw from. Is it a style thing?

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