January 8, 2014

Lampton's yawps: They gloried in the glory

William J. Lampton did not believe he was a poet. No, he said, he did not poeticize important or profound topics or sing his "soulful sufferings." Instead, this Kentucky-born second cousin of Samuel Clemens referred to his fun and humorous verses as "yawps" and he himself was a "yawpist." His first collection, Yawps: And Other Things (1900) made that preference clear. Many of the "yawps" had been previously published in the New York Sun ("so the worst is over"). All this is by way of introduction of Lampton's poem celebrating January 8, appropriately titled "January Eighth, 1889":

There were lots of celebrations
   In the West and in the East;
There were viands and libations
   For the largest and the least;
There were speeches, speeches, speeches;
   The torrent would not dam,
When it turned upon the hero
   Who punched old Pakenham.

They gloried in the glory
   Of a glorious past, and told,
In hyperbolic story,
   Of the wondrous deeds of old;
They pointed to the future,
   And saw on Vict'ry's brow
A limb of lustrous laurel,
   They cannot see there now.

At the time of all this blowing,
   'Way down in Tennessee
A grim, gray ghost was showing
   Some signs of energy;
He sighed deep in his bosom,
   And now and then would cuss,
The meanwhile turning over
   In his sarcophagus.

He sat up, and intently,
   With hand up to his ear,
He nodded, not quite gently,
   At most that he could hear.
He listened to the buncombe,
   And thought of recent facts,
Whereby his party'd got it
   Where chickens get the axe.

He knew the wretched story,
   Which had disturbed him there
A triumph, transitory,
   Disaster and despair.
Then hearing still the speaking,
   He shook his bony head,
And groaned: "By the Eternal,
   I'm glad that I am dead!"

The poem is a reference to the anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812 and the conflict's long-dead hero Andrew Jackson. The day was a national holiday in recognition of that event 75 years prior. The "yawp," then, satirizes how the present generation celebrates the past one, which remains as ambivalent as their corpses.

Will Lampton, as his friends called him, did not enjoy doing "usual things in the usual sort way" (as the portrait of him circa 1914 above would indicate). Such was also the case with his poetry: His lines have varying syllables lengths (for the most part; a few are more conventional), often short, with a bounce that pushes the reader forward while challenging them to read carefully. As one critic noted them, they are "peculiar, perpendicularly elongated." Lampton writes about subjects as varied as George Washington, domestic news, the landscape of Kentucky, and a love of pie. He makes frequent use of alliteration, internal rhyme, and repetition in a way that adds to the comical nature of his work. Most importantly, Lampton frequently uses grandiose language for menial topics like hedge hogs and humidity, mixed with more common vernacular from "wow" to "whoop-la!"

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