The current Maine State Poet Laureate, Wesley McNair, and former Laureate, Betsy Sholl (2006-2011), gave poetry readings earlier today at MHS that echoed themes in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s body of work. The noontime program kicked off the “The Richard D’Abate Lectures: Conversations about History, Art, and Literature,” a winter-spring series designed to honor the retiring executive director of MHS.
Speaking and reading first, Sholl thanked D’Abate for his contributions to the Society, to Maine, and to the concept of history in general. She credited D’Abate, who also happens to be a poet, for helping her understand how history can be “the flashlight we have to see through our own darkness.”
Sholl said her interest in Longfellow’s work revolves around the “way he is drawn to, and has compassion for, what those in the 19th century thought of what we would call ‘the other.'” Several of Longfellow’s poems, she said, are a “cry for the oppressed,” touching on themes of abolition, peace, and opposition to the death penalty. She also lauded Longfellow for the more personal side to his poetry, reading the 19th century poet’s sonnet, “Mezzo Cammin,” which articulates the limbo and uncertainty of the middle part of one’s life, before launching into readings of her own poems including “At the Public Market,” “The Drinking Gourd,” “Night Vision,” and “The Argument.”
Echoing Sholl, McNair said Richard D’Abate’s true legacy is that he has “always insisted on a social and cultural context for history”–that history is far more than just names and dates. McNair then stressed that despite some contemporary ideas of Longfellow as being outdated or even antique, he’s far more vital a figure than that.
“Longfellow was more than a poet. He helped invent America,” said McNair. Many of Longfellow’s poems “helped create an identity, a mythology, a legacy for America in its infancy.”
Just as important, said McNair, is that Longfellow also wrote “devastating critiques of America. It’s this Longfellow that made possible another type of poetry, a darker type.” Poets are “menders of broken things” he continued, and quoted the songwriter Leonard Cohen: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
McNair read several of his own poems in this vein, some explicitly autobiographical including “How I Became a Poet,” “Blame,” and “The Abandonment.” He also read “November 23, 1963,” his pantoum (a poem told in quatrains that repeats certain lines) about the assassination of President Kennedy–and by extension, the disillusionment of a generation that saw multiple social upheavals and deaths of important figures. But, to emphasize Longfellow’s belief that poetry had a spiritual component, he ended the noontime program with the uplifting, “Reading Poems at the Grange Meeting at What Must Be Heaven,” a delightful recounting of a real-life such meeting in McNair’s hometown of Mercer.
For more about the other six programs in this series, download “The Richard D’Abate Lectures: Conversations about History, Art, and Literature,” or visit our Programs page. And attend as many as you can!