Songs of Ourselves: The Uses of Poetry in America

Overview

Listen to a short interview with Joan Shelley Rubin
Host: Chris Gondek | Producer: Heron & Crane

In the years between 1880 and 1950, Americans recited poetry at family gatherings, school assemblies, church services, camp outings, and civic affairs. As they did so, they invested poems--and the figure of the poet--with the beliefs, values, and emotions that they experienced in those settings.

Reciting a poem...

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SONGS OF OURSELVES

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Overview

Listen to a short interview with Joan Shelley Rubin
Host: Chris Gondek | Producer: Heron & Crane

In the years between 1880 and 1950, Americans recited poetry at family gatherings, school assemblies, church services, camp outings, and civic affairs. As they did so, they invested poems--and the figure of the poet--with the beliefs, values, and emotions that they experienced in those settings.

Reciting a poem together with others joined the individual to the community in a special and memorable way. In a strikingly original and rich portrait of the uses of verse in America, Joan Shelley Rubin shows how the sites and practices of reciting poetry influenced readers' lives and helped them to find meaning in a poet's words.

Emphasizing the cultural circumstances that influenced the production and reception of poets and poetry in this country, Rubin recovers the experiences of ordinary people reading poems in public places. We see the recent immigrant seeking acceptance, the schoolchild eager to be integrated into the class, the mourner sharing grief at a funeral, the grandparent trying to bridge the generation gap--all instances of readers remaking texts to meet social and personal needs. Preserving the moral, romantic, and sentimental legacies of the nineteenth century, the act of reading poems offered cultural continuity, spiritual comfort, and pleasure.

Songs of Ourselves is a unique history of literary texts as lived experience. By blurring the boundaries between "high" and "popular" poetry as well as between modern and traditional, it creates a fuller, more democratic way of studying our poetic language and ourselves.

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Editorial Reviews

Tom Sleigh
Rubin’s devotion to this largely ignored part of our literary heritage not only shows off her abilities as a researcher, but also amounts to a quiet repudiation of certain intellectual debates still wheezing and gasping over Roland Barthes’s mischievious announcement about “the death of the author.” Rather than worrying about the agency of author over language, or language over author, she seems to want to elbow aside the professional critic to re-establish the compact between poet and ordinary reader. This humane, at times exhaustingly detailed literary history dignifies, against the critics’ aesthetic judgments, the comfort, pleasure and emotional richness readers found in popular poetry. And as a social historian, Rubin, a professor of history at the University of Rochester, succeeds in showing how this poetry was adopted by educators, churches, immigrant groups and other organizations to promote various social and cultural goals.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Americans-especially those who read poetry-like to ask whether poetry matters; Rubin's big cultural history demonstrates how, and how widely, it once did. From the 1880s through the 1950s, Americans of many tastes and stations considered poetry part of their daily lives; they read it to one another at home, memorized and recited it at schools, in citizenship ceremonies, in churches, in synagogues and in parades, and quoted it to reassure themselves, argue with one another or demonstrate their links to their past. Using a wide range of primary sources, Rubin (The Making of Middlebrow Culture) constructs a detailed and determinedly democratic study. Americans, she makes clear, saw poets as "celebrity and cipher," friend and wise elder, sophisticate and innocent, sometimes-as with Edna St. Vincent Millay-all these at once. Their many uses for verse contradicts simple oppositions of highbrow-lowbrow, canonical-obscure. Rubin might have spent less space on some conclusions few will find surprising (e.g., the continuing popularity of Longfellow), and she never quite says why (or whether) these uses of poetry have diminished. Nevertheless, her study should get attention, not just from historical circles but from people who want poems to matter now. B&w illus. (Apr.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
American Historical Review

This is a thrilling, sweeping overview of how—and why—poetry mattered (and still matters) to its readers.
— Angela Sorby

Robert Pinsky
Here is a model of what scholarship can do: knowledge, imaginatively applied to matters of importance. Joan Rubin gives an understated but forceful history of poetry's readership, fads, attainments and allegiances in the United States. Implicitly, by sheer force of information, Rubin dispels blather—wiping away trite assumptions, displacing stereotypes, and correcting nostalgia for some vague good old days. Through the lens of a central human art, this book provides a new way of regarding Americans and our culture.
Lawrence Buell
This unusually wide-ranging, admirably researched, resourcefully argued study demonstrates far better than anyone has done before the crucial importance of poetry in the making of American culture--not only in the past but in our own time as well. This book should be of great interest not only to specialists in literature and cultural history but to any reader interested in the place of poetry in American life.
Werner Sollors
In its fresh takes on poetry from Longfellow and Markham to Edna St. Vincent Millay and Robert Pinsky, Songs of Ourselves is both an elegy to the emotional life of a bygone period and an affirmation that even after the rise of high modernism and New Criticism, traditional, regular, and at times sentimental poetry continues to be enjoyed to this day.
Scott Casper
Joan Shelley Rubin tells a new history of American poetry, broader than a chronicle of writers or literary movements. Here are the people who read poetry: in school, at home, in church, around the scout campfire. Exhaustively researched, dazzlingly written, Songs of Ourselves reveals how poems transcended and escaped the printed page to take their place in Americans' lives and experience--from immigrant classrooms a century ago to poetry slams today.
Wall Street Journal - Brad Leithauser
Ms. Rubin has done innovative research into the wide array of social functions that poetry served from 1880 until 1950. Her book delves into school recitation days and war memorial services; the poetry of the summer camp and the verse-speaking choir; anthologies designed for Americanization programs and as devotional aids...When subjected to the tensions of a powerful nation in a tumultuous era, the timeless appeals of poetry will naturally take distinctive and surprising forms. Ms. Rubin has chosen to survey some of these surprises over 70 years of explosive American history—from the lingering aftermath of the Civil War through the ravages of two world wars to the technological wizardry of the 20th century. She has chosen a field where the eternal and the temporal contend--just the sort of terrain where poetry has always been most at home.
New York Times Book Review - Tom Sleigh
This humane, at times exhaustingly detailed literary history dignifies, against the critics' aesthetic judgments, the comfort, pleasure and emotional richness readers found in popular poetry. And as a social historian, Rubin...succeeds in showing how this poetry was adopted by educators, churches, immigrant groups and other organizations to promote various social and cultural goals...She keeps admirable faith with one ordinary reader's desire not so much to "try to figure out what the poem means, as much as what the poem means to us in our lives now."
Rain Taxi - Steve Healey
Taking a larger view of Songs of Ourselves...it’s hard not to be deeply impressed, not only by its massive evidence that poetry played powerful roles in the lives of Americans, but also its boldly...corrective stance against the knee-jerk canon-making tendencies of Literary Studies. It is no longer possible to view modern American poetry as an enterprise only occupying some aesthetically purified, uncommodified, revolutionary space outside of mainstream culture.
Dana Gioia
This is a book that needed to be written. Superb and original, it not only recovers a vast amount of American cultural history, it changes the way we understand the present. It is a book to celebrate- and reread.
American Historical Review - Angela Sorby
This is a thrilling, sweeping overview of how--and why--poetry mattered (and still matters) to its readers.
Wall Street Journal

Ms. Rubin has done innovative research into the wide array of social functions that poetry served from 1880 until 1950. Her book delves into school recitation days and war memorial services; the poetry of the summer camp and the verse-speaking choir; anthologies designed for Americanization programs and as devotional aids...When subjected to the tensions of a powerful nation in a tumultuous era, the timeless appeals of poetry will naturally take distinctive and surprising forms. Ms. Rubin has chosen to survey some of these surprises over 70 years of explosive American history—from the lingering aftermath of the Civil War through the ravages of two world wars to the technological wizardry of the 20th century. She has chosen a field where the eternal and the temporal contend—just the sort of terrain where poetry has always been most at home.
— Brad Leithauser

New York Times Book Review

This humane, at times exhaustingly detailed literary history dignifies, against the critics' aesthetic judgments, the comfort, pleasure and emotional richness readers found in popular poetry. And as a social historian, Rubin...succeeds in showing how this poetry was adopted by educators, churches, immigrant groups and other organizations to promote various social and cultural goals...She keeps admirable faith with one ordinary reader's desire not so much to "try to figure out what the poem means, as much as what the poem means to us in our lives now."
— Tom Sleigh

Rain Taxi

Taking a larger view of Songs of Ourselves...it’s hard not to be deeply impressed, not only by its massive evidence that poetry played powerful roles in the lives of Americans, but also its boldly...corrective stance against the knee-jerk canon-making tendencies of Literary Studies. It is no longer possible to view modern American poetry as an enterprise only occupying some aesthetically purified, uncommodified, revolutionary space outside of mainstream culture.
— Steve Healey

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674024366
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/2007
  • Pages: 488
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Joan Shelley Rubin is Professor of History at the University of Rochester.
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Table of Contents


Introduction     1
The Poet in American Culture
Seer and Sage     19
Amateur and Professional     25
Absence and Presence     34
Sophisticate and Innocent     53
Celebrity and Cipher     75
Alien and Intimate     92
Poetry in Place and Practice
Listen, My Children: Modes of Poetry Reading in American Schools     107
I Am an American: Poetry and Civic Ideals     165
Grow Old Along with Me: Poetry and Emotions among Family and Friends     242
God's in His Heaven: Religious Uses of Verse     287
Lovely as a Tree: Reading and Seeing Out-of-Doors     336
Coda "Favorite" Poems and Contemporary Readers     381
Notes     407
Index     451
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