Poetry as history?

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by guest contributor Dr. Will Pooley

This post is the first installment of a forum on the genres in which we write history. A series of scholars will discuss the choices they make in communicating their research and reflect upon the suitability of various media.

When academics discuss alternative genres for presenting histories, we tend to concentrate on the usual suspects: historical fiction, biography, documentaries, and film.[1]

These genres all share significant commonalities with academic research articles and monographs. Whether or not they are fictionalized, they are often presented through scenic realism. Many of them include the scaffolding of foot- or endnotes, bibliographies, or references to academic research. Most are narrative and – with the exception of film and television – are written in grammatically-conventional prose.

What can historians learn from other genres of history making that are less similar to narrative history, genres that do not necessarily tell stories, represent realistic scenes, or use prose?

This is one of the questions I have been exploring since January 2019 on the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project ‘Creative Histories of Witchcraft’, a three-way collaboration with the playwright Poppy Corbett and the poet Anna Kisby Compton. Through the project, Anna and Poppy have introduced me to a range of history being done through other forms, from visual art, to music, theatre, and poetry.

So what can poetry do as history?[2]

I will be the first to admit it: after nine months of working together, I am no good at writing poetry. But I find it interesting to draw a distinction between writing poetry as an output, and writing poetry as a research method. Poetry-as-research reveals new insights and suggests different ways of writing history.

The poetic methods that I have found most useful as radical departures from historical methods of reading texts are ‘found text’ methods. In one sense, the idea behind found text poetry sounds obviously historical. Like historians, found text poets take existing sources and quote from them, rearrange them, carve them up to find meanings that the text itself does not say directly. But these techniques also clearly break the rules of how historians quote from texts.

Consider ‘erasure’ as a poetic technique, for instance. Erasure involves deliberately obscuring words in a found text. Using this method, the poet Tracey Smith reveals meanings that are submerged or implied in historical sources. To take away is paradoxically to reveal what has already been silenced in a document such as the ‘Declaration of Independence’.  

What does this do as a research technique?

One of the problems with witchcraft and witches is the problem of definition. What should count as witchcraft? How did people identify witches? In a recent discussion on the project, we took inspiration from Sarah Knott’s ‘unconventional history’ Mother. Knott calls her book ‘verb-led’ because she is less interested in motherhood as an identity, and more interested in what mothering involves. We decided to apply this approach to a historical source about witchcraft: what are the verbs of magic?

To answer this, we took a newspaper story from 1890 about a case where a young woman was cleared of infanticide on the advice of medical experts, who said she had acted as if under hypnosis, due to her belief in witchcraft. In my attempt to turn this short news story into a poem, I cut away everything except the verbs and the subjects, and rearranged the phrases into a telegraphic version of the original story:

The newspaper announced Adolphine was charged.

Adolphine claimed to have obeyed.

Adolphine depicted, the court interrogated.

The court postpones.

The court allows the doctors conducting to conclude: Adolphine’s responsibility was.

Adolphine appeared. Adolphine maintained. Adolphine had done.

Adolphine strangled. Adolphine was.

Adolphine gave birth.

Bastide told her it was a ball of water going away.

A ball of water squeezed. Adolphine thought she was squeezing.

Bastide has denied, Bastide has said.

Bastide claimed Bastide was.

Bastide seems. Bastide reads. Bastide is not.

Bastide cannot read.

Bastide courts, Bastide has relations.

Did Bastide tell?

Adolphine claims Bastide did.

Did Bastide make her drink?

Bastide made her drink.

Adolphine did not want to: the milk has not been strained.

Bastide forced Adolphine to drink.

Adolphine’s employer gave evidence.

Adolphine was, her employer said.

Adophine had, Adolphine laughed, Adolphine ran.

Adolphine said Adolphine was told to be quiet or to leave.

Adolphine was quiet or left.

Was Bastide?

Bastide did chase, Adolphine’s employer noticed.

Adolphine and Bastide had taken a fancy to each other.

Had Adolphine?

Had Adolphine?

Adolphine was acquitted.

What does this do to the source?

First, it works in a similar way to Tracy Smith’s ‘Declaration’, erasing some of the historical specificity of the case. The employer, ball of water, courts, doctors, milk, and birth could all be from a story that happened today. As Smith points out, this blurring of the distinction between then and now forces new kinds of empathy with the past.

This is linked to the second thing the poem does as research: it draws heightened attention to the struggles over agency and responsibility that are the heart of the case. Had Adolphine? Had Adolphine? Did Bastide make her drink? Bastide has denied, Bastide has said. Bastide claimed Bastide was.

These uncertainties are part of what Anna, the poet on the project, has described as the power of poetry to untell stories, to unpick and undo them. The poet Abigail Parry has expressed a similar idea:

We put a high premium on narrative, but narrative can be destructive, because it demands a strong chain of causality: it flows through and is halted by truth gates, which act like locks on a canal. This is where poetry comes in, I think – it puts us in touch with our natural capacity for dissonance and ambivalence, reminds us that the locks are artificial. Some truths are delicate, and won’t stand up to the brute force of propositional logic: they can only be held in view when looked at askance, in our peripheral vision.

One of the most frustrating aspects of studying modern witchcraft is the certainty that journalists and judges, medical experts and folklorists impose on stories of mystery. The newspapers take the confusing, distressing and disjointed story of a young woman who killed her own child and believed her lover was a witch, and they summarize it as a case of hysteria.

Perhaps what poetry offers the historian, then, is a way back to some of the ‘dissonance and ambivalence’ of delicate truths.


[1] See, for instance, Jerome de Groot’s work, including Consuming History: Historians and Heritage in Contemporary Popular Culture (2008) and Remaking History: the Past in Contemporary Historical Fictions (2015).

[2] On poets doing history, see for example an interview with Hannah Lowe: http://www.thecompassmagazine.co.uk/hl/, or Camille Ralphs’ pamphlet on the Pendle Witches, MALKIN: an ellegy in 14 spels (2015).

Will Pooley is historian of modern France researching popular and folk cultures in the long nineteenth century (c.1789-1940). His first book – Body and Tradition in Nineteenth-century France: Félix Arnaudin and the Moorlands of Gascony, 1870-1914 – will appear with OUP in 2019. He is currently researching cases of modern French witchcraft (c.1790-1940). Alongside this research, he has been working in collaboration with other researchers to explore ideas of ‘creative histories’, through the blogs https://storyingthepast.wordpress.com and https://creativewitchcraft.wordpress.com

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