Emily for Nov. 19th

November 19th, 2009

Last Spring, I took a Seminar called Poetry as Survival at Rowan.  For that course each student had to choose one poet out of five poets and spend the entire semester working with that poet’s book.  Each contemporary poet was writing in response to human tragedies—war, loss, heartbreak, alcoholism, and failure—as a way of surviving them—and helping their readers survive their own personal tragedies.  For the final paper, I had to trace the trajectory of the entire book and connect it to other poets’ essays about poetry.  I wish I had read “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads” when I was working on that paper because Whitman explains his view of poetry and how it is essential for survival and will therefore always survive itself.  He responds to someone’s claim that poetry wouldn’t exist beyond the next fifty years:

As I write, I see in an article on Wordsworth, in one of the current English magazines, the lines, ‘A few weeks ago an eminent French critic said that, owing to the special tendency to science and to its all-devouring force, poetry would cease to be read in fifty years’ (Whitman 659).

Whitman expected the opposite to happen:

Only a firmer, vastly broader, new area begins to exist—nay, is already form’d—to which the poetic genius must emigrate.  Whatever may have been the case in years gone by, the true use for the imaginative faculty of modern times is to give ultimate vivification to facts, to science, and to common lives, endowing them with the glows and glories and final illustriousness which belong to every real thing, and to real things only.  Without that ultimate vivification—which the poet or other artist alone can give—reality would seem incomplete, and science, democracy, and life itself, finally in vain (659).

Whitman doesn’t discount science; he simply believes that poetry, art, and music, are essential to the human spirit, and science can never take their place because it is only interested in the real and reality.  Art has endless possibilities and isn’t restrained by reality.  For this reason, Whitman believes poetry must survive for the sake of humankind.

Though he doesn’t address it in “A Backward Glance,” Whitman’s poetry can be seen as an attempt to heal some ills.  Whitman writes of war, loss, pain, as well as joy, beauty, and nature.  He combines the lovely with the ugly in his imagery, mixes negative and positive connotative words—sometimes in the same line.  The poet writes of the truth, reacts to his world, and transcends it.  This is what the contemporary poets I studied last spring did in their work, which makes Whitman a poet of survival.

Because, without realizing it, he was explaining poetry as essential to human survival, Whitman was also explaining why poetry should survive—and continue to be read in the future.  For the most part, his words have been proven accurate.  People still read and write poetry—they still read Whitman—but a lot of people don’t read poetry.  So, to what extent did poetry—both by Whitman and others—survive?  This is partially the question I’ll be working with in my final project.

One Response to “Emily for Nov. 19th”

  1. lizmoser said:

    It is an interesting case to argue, whether poetry still plays a big part in modern american life. Ask anyone on the street, and it is very unlikely that they will know who the current American or British poet laureates are. Formal poetry has in some ways become too exclusive, or too esoteric, or too distanced from the modern American that it rarely raises its head out of academic discourse.

    Then again, some argue that poetry has evolved–slam poetry and rap music are seen by many as the modern evolution of poetry, one that speaks a discourse that the general public can understand.

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