Here We Stand
An introduction to a new publication about poetry, ancient and modern
In 1861, a man named Henry Williams Baker (1821–1877) organized a collection of hymns for use in the Church of England. Appearing in the great era of formalizing religious music, the book was a late fruit of both the Protestantizing of Methodism (which gave English believers a new sense of hymn composition) and the Catholicizing of the Oxford Movement (which gave Anglicanism a reawakened awareness of the old Latin hymns). Connecting the two, Baker and his advisors chose for their new hymnal the title Hymns Ancient and Modern.
The neatness of that title inspired “Poems Ancient and Modern,” the title of our new Substack publication on poetry. And something more, as well, for we live in a strange era of poetry. Here in 2024, our literary moment is dominated by a kind of presentism, with the past largely locked away, forgotten and obscure. The tradition of English-language poetry — an enormous deposit of art — seems too easily dismissed these days: a dustpile of ignorable work by the morally suspect authors of ages past. At most it is visited to make some point in contemporary social politics, either in praise or disparagement of an old writer because praise or disparagement serves a present-day extra-artistic purpose.
What we plan for our postings for Poems Ancient and Modern would seem mild and unexceptionable at any other literary moment — an act of critical abdication or even cowardice: merely plunging our hand into the vast sea of English verse, grasping a text, and hauling it to the surface.
Take Today’s Poem, for example: Leigh Hunt’s “Jenny Kiss’d Me,” a sweet minor 19th-century rondeau that was once well known but now seems to have slipped from the commonly shared memory even of the widely read. We intend to offer our readers regular doses of such work, pointing out the historical setting and the interesting features of meter and construction. Even something as charming as the 1838 “Jenny Kiss’d Me” can seem radical when made present again in these unrooted days — for we want to revive awareness of poetry’s power to delight the ear, instruct the mind, and inspire the soul.
The founders of Poems Ancient and Modern are Joseph Bottum, a writer living in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and Sally Thomas, in the Western Piedmont of North Carolina. Acutely sensitive to copyright (violated by far too many online postings), we will be limiting ourselves to works that are in the public domain (currently those from before 1929), which is much of what we mean (somewhat ironically) by Poems Ancient. As for Poems Modern, we will be soliciting permissions for more recent poems, by living poets, that are in continuity with the structures of formal verse.
And through it all, we declare — we shout, we exhort, we demand: Art for Art’s Sake. We will publish or refuse nothing merely because of some extraneous feature of the author. Fascinated by biography, we will often comment on the life and times of the writers whose works we choose, as well as the literary movements and genres to which they belonged, but we will do no bean-counting. No special pleading. No elevations or diminishments based on the poets’ socio-political opinions. Good poems, or even just interesting poems, are not dependent for their goodness, or even just their interestingness, on anything other than their poetic content.
Art must be revived in our time, and so we have begun this new poetry publication to examine the great tradition of English verse in the terms of English verse. And we will present these poems to the reading public as still alive, still powerful, and still worth holding on to — permanent gifts to our shared sense of language, the inner life of the psyche, the natural world, and the numinous that lies beyond.