Cannibalism in Iambic Pentameter

I’ve given poetry short shrift over the past few years in this blog, partially, I believe, because modern poetry is at a crisis point. While there are a few excellent poets today, some to be remembered through time, the craft itself has fallen into nasal whining on the one hand and into a morass of technicality, which can’t be justified, since no advised structure has come to the fore for today’s compulsion to free verse.


But one book of poetry bears mention, one coming to the fore a second time in forty years, because, as I continue to harp, that “the story’s the thing.” I’m thinking here of George Keithley‘s book-length poem, The Donner Party, which reacquaints us with America’s only recorded case of cannibalism. Too, I’m surely not the only one in thrall to this work; it was republished in revised form in 2012. But if you aren’t familiar with the story here it is in brief:

A party of wagon trains leaves the midwest for California in an ill-advised season, and almost to their destination has to detour, trying to escape winter weather. Finally stranded, and without food, many members of the wagon train die, and, so legend has it, they’re eaten by the survivors.


This story – and the book – is part history, part literary imagining, based on author Keithley’s deep research into the subject. Keithley leads us on, as a novelist might, in traditional iambic pentameter (for the most part), letting the story tell itself though his poetic gifts. To me, this book is perhaps more compelling that a linear dispensation of the party’s history. Whether you find the original book in the library (you may not), or buy the new version, you’ll find this tale of Americana’s dark reaches compelling. I’ll mention more on the subject early next week.


My rating: 19 of 20 stars


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