Recently, we spoke with NPG historian David Ward, co-editor of Lines in Long Array: A Civil War Commemoration, Poems and Photographs, Past and Present. He discussed the reasons for compiling the collection, and the mission of the project which was co-edited by former NPG curator Frank H. Goodyear III.
Q:First, Lines in Long Array: A Civil War Commemoration, Poems and Photographs, Past and Present is not only a grand artistic achievement, but something of a logistical masterpiece. You and your co-editor, Frank Goodyear, have brought many great poets together, living and dead, under one book cover.
Congratulations on this work; you have captured many great voices of the past two centuries. Can you tell us a little about the structure of this collection and about your goals in creating it?
DW: Frank had the original idea. During the Civil War not only was there an outpouring of poetry—as well as song lyrics and music—but in the North readers were put together of both historical and contemporary literature and were sold at the Sanitary Fairs and other events to raise money for wounded troops and their families.
So we thought that we might do the same thing on a small scale, with the twist that we would both re-create a sample of an actual reader by including contemporary poems but then historicize the literature by asking contemporary poets to reflect on the war. I worked on the poetry side, and Frank did the photography where he combined Alexander Gardner’s battlescapes with Sally Mann’s photographs of some Virginia sites at night.
Q: How did you bring into this project such revered contemporary writers as Paul Muldoon, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Jorie Graham, to name but a few?
DW: It was pretty ad hoc or informal. I had worked with some of the poets before—like John Koethe and Yusef Komunyakaa; Jorie Graham spoke at my Walt Whitman symposium in 2006—but others, like recent Pulitzer winner Tracy K. Smith, I just “cold called” and asked to participate. I was very gratified by the response—I only had two poets turn me down—not least because everyone seemed pleased to be asked and they were engaged by the subject.
Q: What was their assignment, so to speak? Did you send these world-class poets into the fields of Gettysburg and Chickamauga and say, "Now go write some poems"?
DW: Again, I just left it loose. I didn’t want to make assignments—I thought doing that would be presumptuous. I realized that we ran the risk of getting, say, a preponderance of poems on one subject but we didn’t.
There is a nice spread of subject matter, from foreign diplomacy in London to the experiences of the common soldier. Several poems deal with the conflicted legacy of the war in the southern mind; Dave Smith and Geoff Brock both wrote about that. All the poems are extremely well considered and thought out, plus they are formally very interesting in the way that they structure stanzas and lines, shifting points of view and so on. Jorie Graham structured her “memoir” of a common soldiers as if her lines of words were columns of troops.
This reminds me that I should say that the title “Lines in Long Array” is a slight adaptation of the first line of Whitman’s poem “Cavalry Crossing a Ford” which is included in the book. I thought it had a nice double meaning, and Jorie, consciously or not, picked up on that meaning.
Q: What works do you think will surprise the readers the most among the contemporary selections?
DW: No one really writes history poems any more—or at least there are very few of them in contemporary literature. In fact, most of the poets said that they had never considered writing about the Civil War or something like it.
I think the application of these poets to a fairly distant historical event worked itself out in pretty interesting ways. They are not the kind of poems that you ordinarily see these poets writing about, although some, like Eavan Boland, have written “history” poems. And Yusef Komunyakaa has written about Vietnam.
Q: You and Frank Goodyear had your task truly cut out when you decided to go through the great poems of the Civil War period and pick only twelve. What criteria did you use to choose those works? For example, from Walt Whitman, whose work gave you a wealth to consider, you picked "Cavalry Crossing a Ford." Why that work over, say, "The Wound Dresser"?
DW: Well, we were kind of spoiled for choice in all aspects! I think I chose “Cavalry. . .” because it was about the war itself, and while it’s imagistic it nonetheless describes a scene from the war rather than Whitman’s more mediated, complicated response in “The Wound Dresser.”
Q: In your essay from the book, "The Real War...": Poetry and the Civil War, you note that "It is the Civil War, not World War I as is commonly argued, that began the transition to a modernist America." Can you expand on that? Is this war the beginning of modernism because photographers like Brady and Gardner are disseminating their terrifying images across America and the world, or is it because of the increased savagery of man's device—man's killing machines? What combination of events makes this the beginning of the modern moment?
DW: Militarily it’s the beginning of modern war, and the war settled, at least in large measure, the question of the American nation as well as what kind of society we would be. But I’ve also been struck by the way the war had consequences especially for the language.
I’ve been very taken by Edmund Wilson’s notion that the Civil War helped create a particular emotional and even linguistic culture. The element of terseness in language mirrors a terseness in emotional response: the end of the culture of sensibility and certainly the end of a particular kind of romance; remember how Mark Twain shows the wreck of the steamboat Sir Walter Scott in Huck Finn! The war changed all that.