October 2009

Erkkila states that in “Lilacs,” “the poet . . . places a sprig of lilac on the coffin as a sign presumably of perpetual renewal and the unity of life” (231).  I saw the lilac a bit less romantically, as indicative of the magnitude of grief– both the reminders of a death that never completely disappear (those enforced and those unexpected), and the shared experience of mourning someone who had such widespread appeal and impact.  I focused on death and resounding grief less as part of a “regenerative cycle” of life that Erkkila references (233) and more as its own kosmos because part of said cycle seems too clean and simple a position for death/grief to occupy given Whitman’s writings about and emotions toward Lincoln.

I do think that when Erkkila writes, “It is unclear whether he is memorializing the death of the president with pictures of the republic that he preserved or burying an American republic that was, along with Lincoln and the lives of 600,000 soldiers, the major casualty of the war” (233), the connection between Lincoln’s death and “the real war” is paramount as Whitman tries to get Lincoln’s death “in the books” as much as is possible.  After all, Whitman himself states in Collect, “Oft as the rolling years bring back this hour, let it again, however briefly, be dwelt upon.  For my own part, I hope and desire, till my own dying day, whenever the 14th or 15th of April comes, to annually gather a few friends, and hold its tragic reminiscence” (1061).  As he goes on to celebrate Lincoln’s fine traits, we see his efforts to preserve the memory of a life, to grieve, on a regular schedule.  There Whitman enforces the reminder of a death so capacious he’s made it a priority to (try to) place its reality in the books.

Whitman further emphasizes the residual effects of the death of a great national figure when he says, “I repeat it–the grand deaths of the race–the dramatic deaths of every nationality–are its most important inheritance-value–in some respects beyond its literature and art (as the hero is beyond his finest portrait, and the battle itself beyond its choicest song or epic.)” (1070).  The explicit words “I repeat it” demonstrate his intent to make and the form in which he ingrains this man’s memory in the minds of readers and citizens.

“Sing on dearest brother, warble your reedy song, / Loud human song, with voice of uttermost woe[.]” (“Lilacs” 463)–Whitman himself warbles on forever in this poem about the lingering agonies of grief, and I have trouble finding signs of “acceptance” Erkkila mentions of death as a part of life.  I’m not saying Whitman didn’t come to a deeper understanding for death’s convoluted place in the world, but I think his grief is too persistent (or he is too persistent in his grief, however you want to look at it) to make “acceptance” a feasible word to use about Whitman’s conception of death.  Grief isn’t contained in a cycle like the repetitive meter of “O Captain!,” a poem that Whitman regretted writing even though it was a motion to commemorate a man for whom he had a unique respect.  Grief is sprawling and irregular.

“And the infinite separate houses, how they all went on, each with its meals and minutia of daily usages,

And the streets how their throbbings throbb’d, and the cities pent–lo, then and there,

Falling upon them all and among them all, enveloping me with the rest,

Appear’d the cloud, appear’d the long black trail,

And I knew death, its thought, and the sacred knowledge of death.” (464)

Reminders of death appear sometimes in un-monumental circumstances, like when we’re staring at something ordinary and then remember that some parts of life continue without another particular life.  That can be relieving or it can be distressing.  It just seems to me that Whitman didn’t want to leave Lincoln out of the continuation of the world and the connections he felt we all have to one another.  So Whitman tried to put Lincoln in the art he, Whitman, also declared actually may never measure up to the “inheritance-value” of a nation’s deaths: “O what shall I hang on the chamber walls? / And what shall the pictures be that I hang on the walls, / To adorn the burial-house of him I love?”

Whitman didn’t know Lincoln personally, and that makes the former’s infatuation with the latter more accessible/relatable/perhaps-even-credible to us and all his other readers.  The fact that these writings are beautiful and real and stem from a person’s death makes this poetry in a sense grotesquely formed, and that, I think, poses a more serious question–does death/destruction make the most beautiful/compelling/meaningful poetry/art and if we love poetry/art what does that say about us and masochism?–than whether Whitman was unhealthily obsessed with Lincoln.

Setting: Jeopardy!, October 14, 2009

Final Jeopardy Category: Poets

Final Jeopardy Answer:

In a 1921 letter this American-born poet had “a long poem in mind… which I am wishful to finish,” and he did at 433 lines.

Two of the contestants wrote: Who is Walt Whitman?

Why we might cut those guys some slack: If a contestant’s expertise is not literature, and s/he has to play on strategy, why not turn to this American icon?  Besides being “under our bootsoles” in about 93 examples we Dr. Scanlon has posted, Whitman is a common Jeopardy! topic.  Add to that the buzz-words “American” and “long poem,” and I can see how he’s a better guess than a lot of other poets (although the cynical part of me wants to say the distinction of “American-born” should have tipped off the contestants that the poet wasn’t indisputably American.  It also seems a little wild to me that two people in the same episode can make it through all the hurdles to get on that show and not know enough about literature, a regular Jeopardy! component, to guess someone who was alive a little closer to 1921.  Of course, weeks ago, we were discussing Whitman and T. S. Eliot side-by-side, so maybe these two icons are paired together more than I realize.  And now that I’ve gotten this post off my chest, I probably need to get off my high horse.)