History and Epic Poetry

An Interview with Sheppard Ranbom on King Philip's War

King Philip's War is an epic poem about King Philip, sachem of the Wampanoags, who ended a prolonged period of peaceful coexistence with British settlers by leading one of the bloodiest wars in American history (1675-78). The war led to attacks on half the towns in Puritan New England and to the annihilation of the New England Algonquians.

  • What drew you to King Philip's story?
  • Philip was compelling to me not because of the war, but because of the battles I imagined must have taken place within Philip himself. How could he be true to his father's legacy and to carry on that great tradition in a world where his people were increasingly adopting new ways? How could he find peace and harmony when the natural world he loved was being taken away? How could he lead his people through their most turbulent times, when he was so young and not intended to be a leader? How could he do what was right, when there was no clear roadmap to follow and when others-including those he loved-would be hurt? These kinds of battles, as Auden said, are what make poetry.
  • You grew up in Western Massachusetts, where much of the poem takes place. How much, if at all, did that influence you?
  • Writing is a coupling of memory and imagination, and the landscape you carry with you becomes part of your work. What a writer absorbs in memory imprints itself as part of the DNA or wallpaper of every page. The poet or novelist, like the painter, fills the corners of the canvas with what is familiar. The natural world that I detail-streams and falls, trees and trails, the weather or how nightfall becomes "a moving mass of darkness fat as hills"-are as much of the story as any character. And if you spend anytime in the pristine outdoors in this country, it is hard not to be aware of those who came before. As I walked into the woods or hiked along the foothills and trails, I could sense the spirit of other peoples. For one thing, so many of the places were named after the Algonquians or to events associated with King Philip's War. The place names have personal meaning to me. Lake Massasoit was a stone's throw from my elementary and middle school. King Philip's Stockade, the name given for the bluff from where the attack on Springfield was launched, is one of the most prominent locations in my hometown. My mother-in-law lived on the mountain above "Bloody Brook" in South Deerfield, the scene of one of the most brutal massacres, and not far from Turner's Falls where Captain Turner was killed.
  • What were the origins of the book? Did you have in mind to write about Algonquian culture or was it something about Philip himself?
  • Faulkner said that he began The Sound and the Fury with a single image-looking up a tree at Caddy Compson's muddy drawers. For me, the origins of King Philip's War come from a strategic maneuver when Philip fled his homeland of Montaup. Rather than try to carry everything away, he had his followers strew what they most valued across a broad field to delay his pursuers whom he knew would stop to gather the spoils. It gave me a sense of Philip's cunning; I began to systematically explore who Philip was and what was it that he left behind. That episode became the first poem of the book.
  • This sweeping narrative goes against the grain of some of your other poetry, which is short and lyric.
  • Philip wasn't a large work as I wrote it; it was written in couplets and quatrains and set pieces that, as I got a sense of the story, were combined to make the larger whole. For me, every poem starts out as a sprint and sees how far it can go. I think I subconsciously learned this style of writing from one of my teachers, John McGahern, who had a technique that he called the "tuning fork." He would consciously write a page of his most vivid and evocative writing, and work to make subsequent pages match the pitch and intensity of the single page.
  • The individual poems of the book have a lyric quality. Was this difficult for you to sustain over the course of the narrative?
  • For me, the origins of poetry emerge from the lyric impulse and from capturing what one loves through the lens of loss. It was the Asians, not Wallace Stevens, who understood that death is the mother of beauty. The Japanese have a phrase, mono no aware, that means the pathos of things or an appreciation of the ephemeral that is perhaps the central principle of their aesthetics. I don't think Orpheus, the master of the lyre, really knew his own music until he looks back and Eurydice vanishes forever. But often getting to the lyric impulse is harder than sustaining it. I have written 30-page poems only to realize that it was alive only in a single stanza. In the case of King Philip, I have to say that I was aided by celebrating the different passages of Philip's life. As he leaves childhood for marriage and fatherhood, as he endures the death of his father and brother, for kingship and his early death, we understand what he loves and values. His most intense-almost operatic-feelings emerge around the changes in his life.
  • You've referred to Philip as a tragic figure. How so?
  • I doubt that Philip had any other choice but lead his people into the war. At a certain point, the inevitability of Philip's actions after he took the mantle of leadership makes his adult life seem a kind of death march, gaining poignancy as it winds toward its inevitable conclusion. But there is another view of tragedy at work. D. H. Lawrence once wrote something to the effect that "true tragedy ends in triumph, and is a great kick at suffering." My goal was to make Philip real and hope that readers might sense something of their own mortality in his, and to think about the fate of our own civilization.
  • Part of the strength of the book is the way it works slowly toward that inevitability. Does the biographical nature of the work make it easier to write a book like this?
  • Learning from one's own material to find clear patterns of action and behavior that have consequences can be a great ally in storytelling. There is a comfort in following, like the changing of the seasons, how one thing quietly leads to another. The work becomes intimate and familiar; it takes on the nature of life. But imaginative writing by its nature has little to do with history and biography. If we stuck too close to history, the weight of the actual would sink any interest. What propelled me was not staying true to biography but creating scenes that capture Philip's world as a kind of floating lightness and likeness. John Butler Yeats called this "Dreamland"-a place for poetry and drama that is vaster and more sumptuous than the world we inhabit every day.
  • What books (history/Native American/poetry) helped shape some of the writing -or even the approach you took-in King Philip's War?
  • I was immersed in some of the accounts of settlers and explorers and some of the native legends that gave me a good feel for the world they lived in and some of the language of the time. Roger Williams' Narragansett dictionary gave me a clear sense of how the Narragansetts communicated in daily life. I also had read John Neihardt's Black Elk Speaks many years ago and picked up a sense of the figurative richness of the Sioux language. But I would say that a significant source of some of the writing is my affinity with the ancient world and from writers I admire from the 17th century and beyond-certainly Chikamatsu, Japanese nature poets, some Shakespeare and Sophocles. I also admit to having channeled Anthony Hecht in a few places (in writing about Philip's son and crows).
  • How has the view of Philip changed over time?
  • We don't really know a lot about Philip beyond his movements, a few scraps from settler narratives, and legend. Philip was seen as the devil incarnate in his day, a view supported by the one-sided narratives of Increase and Cotton Mather. Washington Irving changed this image with a glowing sketch in his Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories. John August Stone's play "Metamora: Or the Last of the Wampanoag's" furthers the view of Philip as the valiant leader of a valiant race and complex individual who was generous and kind to his enemies and dreaded war. Even the wonderful children's writer Esther Forbes captured the era in one of her books. Histories in the 1950s, such as Douglas Edward Leach's Flintlock and Tomahawk; New England in King Philip's War, offer full, engaging, clear-headed narrations, but do not thoroughly explore the motivations or interrelationships of the native tribes as can be found in more recent books, such as Jill Lepore's In the Name of War and James Drakes' King Philip's War.
  • Part of the strength of the book, of course, is Philip's voice, its sustained consistency.
  • Writing from the point of view of someone so long dead, so little understood, and so silent for centuries by its nature requires a form of collaboration as weird as seance. While this does not go as far as James Merrill channeling Auden, Philip's voice comes from beyond, or-more correctly-speaks across centuries. All I could do in this circumstance was listen to what I heard and imagine what he felt and how he might have reacted.
  • You've said that the impetus of the book was partly influenced by some things that were happening in your life and in the United States at the time. What are some of its personal and political underpinnings?
  • The drama of poetry has something in common with method acting, where you can draw a lot from your own experience and breathe it into your character. It would be absurd to think that a writer in this day could use his own experience running a business and having a hard time negotiating his own life as a means of understanding Philip, but there is an element of this. Much of the hidden impetus was my visceral reaction against many things I saw happening in this country-from the nation's foolish land-grab in Iraq based on false information, our continuing degradation of nature, and our attempts to sell our shared heritage and "commons" to the highest bidders for private use also plays into the narrative.
  • How did you manage to keep these interests subsumed in Philip's story?
  • Those feelings had to be buried into the bondo and wiring of this vehicle. Otherwise, this would not be poetry but another rant or screed in the blogosphere-a medium more useless than poetry. A writer like Wendell Berry can pull this off; I can't. I think that what saves the piece from polemic is that my own political concerns are expressed exclusively through Philip's situation and the 17th century. They can be presented through the distance of a few centuries.
  • What does the book have to say about our society today?
  • Other readers will have say. The only thing I can hope for is that more people will somehow find this work and find something that speaks to them.
  • Some may question the fact that you-as a white person who grew up in New England with all the benefits of what the settlers did to native tribes-have no real standing to write about this subject matter.
  • They would be right. But I don't think that only Jews can write about the Holocaust. Isn't genocide and the state of the world everyone's business?