Special Series : Poetry Tour Tour Report

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Oddly enough it was one of my least favorite poems that struck my heart mo.  A poem by W. G. Simms about the Palmetto Regiment of the Mexican American War is a fairly standard, militaristic, jingoistic affair made up of rhyming couplets. But in the end, the author finishes the poem ‘ rings the welkin”. While the poem is straightforward, it ends on an interestingly high note. In our research, I found it struck a chord of curiosity in me.

I was previously not aware of this word before reading the piece. I ended up having to Google the definition. I now know that “welkin” was used in layman’s terms for the ringing of the bell.  Specifically, the bell created by the arch of the sky against the firmament. When I discussed this line with the tour group and illustrated by raising by arcing my arms, there was an immediate and vivid response accompanied by the nodding of heads.

Upon reflection, I was struck by the poetic implications of the work in a more fundamental and heartfelt sense. The depiction of young soldiers heading off to war in a foreign land, with the valediction of a cosmic bell.

 This accomplished what one of my goals for the tour was: To paint a picture of the people and experiences that made up 19th century Charleston. My hope was that lyrical verse would break us out of the standard tour experience. One of the tools I explained to Mr. Enlightenment, my co-tour leader, and local poet, was to experience the tour as a ‘memory palace’. To visualize each stop along the way. Be it Church, house or park- any location could be associated with a particular historical period and specific literature.

Across from us was the large tiered piazza mansion of John Robertson, constructed in 1846. I wanted to include Simms work and relate it to a more popular period of history. In this particular case, I had researched Meeting Street houses and was thrilled to see that date. On the tour, I briefly discussed the importance of the Lowcountry cotton market and its implication for the increased demand for slave labor. At this point, I would expand on this topic by relaying its relevance to the Mexican-American war and what Americans could have entailed about the future of their nation. 

Yada yadda yadda. I am just of the opinion that transposing a history lecture onto the street, even amid the stunning architecture and historicity of the Holy City is lacking in imagination.  Some of my favorite guides do delve deep into the contextual and almost historiographical nature of Charleston’s tumultuous history. For myself, however, I find that this approach although educational does not lend itself to the total breadth of imagination. In particular, this method does not touch the heart and soul of Charleston’s past. Lectures do not bring to life the men, women, and children who made up the city’s population and bore witness to its trials and tribulations. 

And so, I let the welkin ring. I could only speak briefly of how W.G. Simms was a bit of a hometown hero and the excitement of the parade that welcomed the return of the regiment. I wanted to let the experience rest on the poem, but unfortunately, this was not a complete success. But the welkin line touched a bit on what I envisioned and a physical demonstration certainly seemed to connect with many of the group. If history is a palace of memory, then we were understanding its location through the language of poetry. Even if this entrance may have been through the servants’ quarters, these conditions allowed us a new perspective we may not have gained anywhere else. It was this moment that successfully connected that different view with some of the bones, sinew, and muscle of the past. 

Similarly, it was difficult not to take note of Caroline Gilman while researching the history behind Southern literature. I knew she had come down with her Unitarian husband and their pastor friend, and that she had published the Rosebud, a literary magazine for children. I was not aware of her ‘ historical fiction’ however, that explored life for a woman in the south. Remarkably, whilst briefly reviewing her text on the web I discovered that each chapter was headed with three to four literary quotes, all from plays, essays, and poems. Gimlan’s inclusion of these quotes led me to the piece ‘Raciad’ by William Craft. In diplomatic terms, it is a fair poem, but what it lost in poetic beauty it made up for by providing a snapshot of 19th century Charlestonians as they poured onto The Neck for Raceday. Gilman’s use of the quote by Craft of ‘ Grim Visaged Vice’ at the head of her chapter was speaking about the personal politics and conflict of young women and men amidst a grand ball. We read the poem outside the Nathaniel Russell House, which allowed a good introduction to the ‘carrying trade’ wealth of early Charleston while also providing well as a prim and elegant backdrop for talking about the grand wealth, fancy parties and extravagant balls of the wealthy elite of the time. 

The discovery of Penina Moise was one of the most exciting moments in developing the Antebellum Poetry Tour. Moise was the first Jewish woman to publish a book of lyrical verse in the United States while also starting an education program at the KKBE. Many of her hymns are still sung today. And her book of poetry, Fancy’s Sketchbook was filled with some interesting work and a certain amount of lovely poems from a Charleston author. Joey Tucker found her poem reaching out to persecuted foreigners inviting them to come to Charleston particularly inspiring. This poem was written in response to anti-Semitic attacks in early 19th century Germany and it resonates with Emma Lazarus’ poem on the statue of liberty, which itself was a response to attacks on Jews in the later 19th century.  Most appealing to me was Moise’s poem about The Nullification Crisis, an important event surrounding the Tariff Act of 1828 and John C Calhoun’s use of it along with Jackson’s Force Act Response.

This turbulent period would prove to be a key moment in the social and cultural development of Charleston as well as a turning point for many of its citizen’s political agendas. The poem itself is a little snarky and funny and does a nice job getting a woman on the streets in response to this important historical political occurrence. We took advantage of Mordecai Cohen’s home at 69 Meeting Street to briefly touch on the Jewish history of Charleston, which was a nice introduction to the synagogue and then Penina Moise and her work.

At Washington Square Park we concluded the tour, and I took the opportunity to discuss Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Defence of Poetry. I did this to give a sense of the critical value, the moral purity and compass he argues that poetry provides. We have moved from the W.G. Simms Memorial in White Point Gardens up to the Henry Timrod memorial at Washington Square. I talked briefly about Henry Timrod and discussed his well known ‘What is Poetry’ essay from Russells Magazine. After a brief discussion of that literary supplement and southern poetry, I read Timrod’s Vision of Poesy to explore more deeply what he saw at the purpose and meaning of poetry. This treatise is filled with delightful visions of the Muse Poesy and his unique vision of what poetry can do by connecting us via lyrical verse to a greater sense (pull quotes here)  As a conclusion, we discussed Grayson The Hireling and The Slave for a poetical reference to the upcoming, active and ongoing military activity of the 1860s. It was a unique moment when Mr. Enlightenment, our poetry presenter, read a personal poem as both a response to this work and some of the history presented on the tour as well. Overall, viewing history with a poetical lens or the niche facet of poetry led to my discovery of some unknown Charlestonians. Understanding their history provided a more intimate and heartfelt cognizance of the living awareness and sense of people for the time. Reading verses written in response to events that were connected to important historical events, as well as poems were written explaining and exploring these episodes themselves opened up new avenues and approaches to the Holy City’s History. We missed a few stops and the tour was far from perfect, but it did at least lightly ring the welkin and attempted to create an appreciation of past peoples’ consciousness using the written word and the value of poetry.

These are just a few of the highlights of the Antebellum Poetry Tour. I would be remiss to not mention Mr. Joey Tucker’s reading of Charleston Poet Laureate’s Brother Denmark poem, near St. Michael’s Church. A site that looks upon the towering Romanesque architecture of the Post Office at the 4 Corners of Law, the former location of the guardhouse, and the location of the nightly militia patrols and slave code enforcement. The sight was poetry itself, you had to be there. Some things are not meant for prose, and I apologize for not being able enough poet to capture the moment. Marcus Amaker’s reading comes far closer than I will ever reach. Listen below. Let the welkin ring.

https://marcusamaker.com/poem-brother-denmark/