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.

My Annotation, or Taking it Apart, and Putting it Together Again

First, I will reproduce the poem for easy access.  Please disregard the different font colors for now; I will explain what the colors mean, eventually.

Election Day, November, 1884

If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest scene and show,

‘Twould not be you, Niagara–nor you, ye limitless prairies–nor your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado,

Nor you, Yosemite–nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic geyser-loops ascending to the skies, appearing and disappearing,

Nor Oregon’s white cones–nor Huron’s belt of mighty lakes–nor Mississippi’s stream:

–This seething hemisphere’s humanity, as now, I’d name–the still small voice vibratingAmerica’s choosing day,

(The heart of it not in the chosen–the act itself the main, the quadrennial choosing,)

The stretch of North and South arous’d–sea-board and inland–Texas to Maine–the Prairie States–Vermont, Virginia, California,

The final ballot-shower from East to West–the paradox and conflict,

The countless snow-flakes falling–(a swordless conflict,

Yet more than all Rome’s wars of old, or modern Napoleon’s:) the peaceful choice of all,

Or good or ill humanity–welcoming the darker odds, the dross:

–Foams and ferments the wine?  it serves to purify–while the heart pants, life glows:

These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships,

Swell’d Washington’s, Jefferson’s, Lincoln’s sails.

The next logical step is to look at the title “Election Day, November, 1884.”  As a few of my classmates pointed out in their posts last week, this election was very close and intense.  The candidates James Blaine (Rep) and Grover Cleveland (Dem) slung mud at each other throughout their campaign.  Grover Cleveland narrowly defeated his opponent by winning New York state, and the election.  Blaine probably would have won New York state, but something happened during his campaign that pushed enough people to vote for Cleveland, allowing him to win the election.  During a campaign meeting with several hundred pro-Blaine Protestants,

Reverend Samuel D. Burchard delivered a warm welcoming address which ended with the words: “We are Republicans, and don’t propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.”

Pasted from <http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/presidents_and_first_ladies/34661/2>

Blaine didn’t catch the slur directed towards Irish Catholics, but a reporter hired by the Democrats to cover the meeting did.  Blaine didn’t give himself enough distance from Dr. Burchard, and it cost him the election.

Whitman is in part reacting to the tumultuous, intense election, but, primarily, he is writing in awe of the electoral process, “America’s choosing day.”  Because he is both in awe of the act of voting, and reacting to the intensely heated campaign, Whitman combines positive and negative images–sometimes in the same line.  Now, I think my highlighting will make more sense.  I have highlighted the positive images and words in green, and the negative ones in red.

The poem begins straightforward enough.  Line 1 reveals that the speaker wants to name the best illustration of America’s power.  Lines 2-4 list in typical Whitman fashion all of the things the speaker doesn’t want to talk in his poem.  However, at second glance, these lines are doing more than listing:  They are describing, briefly, various images of strength, but also instability and turmoil.  As you can see, there are both green and red colored words in the first four lines.  Whitman describes the prairies as “limitless” and the canyons as “huge rifts.”  The limitlessness of America’ s potential is something Whitman awes, but he also recognizes the divisions.  I would argue Whitman chose these various images to coincide with his feelings about the election of 1884, and the electoral process.  The words, “rifts,” “spasmic,” and “seething” mean, respectively, divisions, convulsive, and tumultuous or intensely heated.  All of these words could be used to describe the campaign of 1884.

In Line 5, the speaker reveals his intended topic of discussion:  “America’s choosing day.”  Now, there are some absent things I should mention.  Nowhere in this poem, does the speaker mention Cleveland’s victory or even hint at it.  He is, as far as I can tell, non-partisan, a neutral voice reacting to a particularly heated political battle, and the resounding voice of Democracy making a choice, which has potential for good or ill.  The speaker doesn’t seem to care much about the winner:  “The heart of it not in the chosen,” (6) but he does care about the process of voting:  “the act itself the main, the quadrennial choosing” (6).  Quadrennial simply means every four years, as in America’s presidential elections taking place every four years.

The next line (7), simply takes note that the entire country was involved in the election.

Line 8 threw me the first wrench when initially dealing with the poem.  “The final ballot-shower from East to West” was simple enough to understand.  The votes were coming in from across the country.   It’s the “paradox and conflict” that threw me.  First of all, I expected to see the word conflict, especially after reading about the history of the election itself.  But, “paradox” didn’t seem to make sense to me.  At first I thought he meant “paradoxical conflict” as in “swordless conflict,” (9) or the idea of a peaceful revolution every four or eight years—sometimes longer, like, in the case of FDR.  Only he didn’t seem to be using “paradox” as an adjective but as a noun, indicating the election itself was a paradox.  This compelled me to look “paradox” up in the OED to see if there was another meaning I was unaware of, and there was.  Paradox can, rarely, mean an outcome that doesn’t seem logical, or doesn’t make sense, but when evidence is accounted for, it does prove true.  With this possibility in mind, I looked further into the history of the event.  This is when I learned about the “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” debacle, which cost Blaine the election.  Using the new definition of paradox, the word could be a description of Cleveland’s victory.  This didn’t seem to fit in with the phrase, “the heart of it not in the chosen,” (6) at first.  But, after I looked at the entire poem again, and again, and again, I noticed the language of conflict throughout.  Plus, if all he wanted to do was glorify voting, Whitman could have called the poem “America’s Choosing Day” rather than the event itself.  Whitman wasn’t writing in a vacuum; he was inspired by the events surrounding the election and wrote about them.

“The countless snow-flakes falling” (9) seems to be modifying “The final ballot-shower” (8), and would imply that each vote was like a snow flake, cleansing, purifying, rejuvenating the country, allowing a fresh start—a new president.

The conflict between the candidates was “swordless;” however, it was very intense:  “Yet more than all Rome’s wars of old, or modern Napoleon’s” (10).  With this line, I had to answer the question:  more what?  More peaceful? More intense? More paradoxical?  In the end, I decided I don’t think Whitman meant more peaceful than Rome’s wars or Napoleon’s because that wouldn’t make much sense.  Of course our elections are more peaceful than their wars were; nobody is killed during our elections, typically.  Plus “swordless conflict” already covers the peaceful angle, so I’d guess Whitman was referring to the intense mudslinging between the candidates and comparing that intensity to that of warfare and claiming war doesn’t always have to involve violence and death and swords.

The phrase “the peaceful choice of all” (10) seems to say, the choice of all Americans, the ones permitted to vote, create the peace.  Voters end the “swordless conflict” by choosing a candidate to become America’s president.  This is the most important part of election day for Whitman, “The act itself” (6).

The next line seems to present the possible consequences of “America’s choosing day.”  The “chosen” could work for the “good or ill [of] humanity.” (11). Voters are potentially “welcoming the darker odds, the dross” (11).  I take “odds” to be part of the phrase “odds and ends,” which means bits and pieces.  This meaning, with the word “darker,” fits best with “dross,” which means impure matter, or rubbish.  These darker items working for the ill of humanity would “foam or forment the wine” (12) making it impure, in other words, ruining the purity of America.  There is a question mark at the end of the phrase, obviously, implying there is a question somewhere.  After rereading the poem a number of times, I came to the conclusion it questions the role of “America’s choosing day.”  This question doesn’t mean the speaker has a negative view of the role of voting in America.  It is a rhetorical question for him to answer:  “it serves to purify,” (12) like “the countless snow-flakes falling” (9).

The concluding lines explain how “America’s choosing day”(5) “serves to purify.”  He gives examples of positive outcomes from negative situations.  “While the heart pants,” (12) has a negative connotation.  Usually when I think of panting, I think of dogs, or my breathing after running.  So I looked it up in the OED and discovered there is a rare use for pant, mostly for poetry that means the heart is pulsating, throbbing, due to powerful negative emotion.  But, when the “heart pants,” (12) “life glows” (12) or shines bright.  From a negative situation comes a positive outcome.

The final two lines provide the ultimate example of hope for America.  “These stormy gusts and winds” (13) refers to the intense battle of elections.  In the phrase “waft precious ships,” (13) waft means to guide, convoy, or propel like the wind.  In the next line, the “precious ships” are revealed:  Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, Whitman’s heroes.  Literally, Whitman is saying each of the great presidents of America’s history arose from turbulent times.

Bottom line:  Whitman doesn’t know what the outcomes of Cleveland’s presidency will be.  He seems to be pretty non-partisan.  The poet is reacting to the turbulent conflict, though swordless, between the candidates, and to the way “America’s choosing day” ended the conflict.  He ends by saying the president—without revealing his identity—has the possibility of rising to greatness out of the turbulent, stormy conflict of the election and other storms of America—“rifts,” “spasmic” situations, and examples of “seething humanity.”  Whitman ends his poem on a hopeful note.

Emily for Nov 12

November 12th, 2009

Yesterday at work, (I’m an English tutor at Gloucester County College.) a student came in for help with an assignment.  She had to write a 550 word essay analyzing a poem.  The poem she had chosen was “Success is Counted Sweetest” by Emily Dickinson.  Part of my task in helping the student was to ask her questions to force her to look deeper into the poem, so she could better analyze it.  I also had to teach a crash course in creating a thesis and organizing a paper around it, but that’s not the point.  In helping the student, my own understanding of the poem improved—one of the many benefits of tutoring.  Last night, after I’d come home from work, I read Whitman “To Those Who’ve Fail’d” and immediately thought of Dickinson’s poem.

Here is Dickinson’s poem:

Success is counted sweetest

By those who ne’er succeed.

To comprehend a nectar

Requires sorest seed. Read the rest of this entry »

War Zombies

November 6th, 2009

During last night’s class, we learned that Whitman wrote a “zombie” poem about the dead soldiers who haunted him.  This reminded me of a short Japanese film “The Tunnel,” which I watched for a course last spring.  I was able to find it online.  I will let you view it for yourself, but in a nutshell it’s about one soldier coming back from the war and how he is haunted by the men who died while under his command.  It is roughly 15 minutes long, and is in Japanese with English subtitles.  You’ll probably notice a dream motif; that’s because the film is part four of an eight part film Dreams.

The Tunnel

Emily for Nov. 5

November 5th, 2009

I hope when I reach the end of my life that I have the strength of character to write a final send off like Whitman did.  In The Songs of Parting, especially in “So Long,” Whitman takes control of his life, death, and work.  He makes himself larger than life, immortalizing himself through his art, and ends the poem “disembodied, triumphant, dead” (71).  At first glimpse, the word “disembodied” has a negative connotation—literally being without a body isn’t a particularly nice image.  But then, I looked it up in the OED, instinctively knowing the word would help me better understand the line and the poem, and found that it actually means to be “freed from that in which it has been embodied” (OED Online).  Using this definition, I’m able to reread the line:  free, triumphant, and dead.  In this sense, death for Whitman is a positive thing.  However, some of the other poems in this section and the account of his final weeks in With Whitman in Camden paint death in a different light.  In the end, Whitman, as a man and poet, has a complete view of death, much like he did of war, and writes of death from every angle.  Ultimately, Whitman chooses to accept the fact of his impending death.  This allows him to take control over it and the final image his readers will have of him.

In “So long!” Whitman briefly recounts his lifelong career as poet (Singer) and writes of his fate after dying.  He sets the tone in the line “To conclude, I announce what comes after me” (1).  This act of concluding has multiple meanings.  He is concluding his book, his career, his life.  Notice also, the word “announce:” He is making one final proclamation, singing one last song, and he is doing it about his own death.  What better way is there to take control of one’s life and death, but to make a proclamation about it?

In the next stanza, Whitman refers to a time before he was a published poet:  “I remember I said before my leaves sprang at all,/I would raise my voice jocund and strong with reference to consummations” (2-3).  Whitman promised to sing joyfully and strong, and he has.  He always knew he would sing of consummations, which has several meanings:  perfections, completions, sex, the end, and death (OED Online).  Whitman, indeed, sung of every item on this list, and more.  Now, at the end of his life, he will sing of his ultimate consummation—his death.

The next few stanzas recount his previous songs, which lead to several stanzas of announcements.  When he returns to the idea of his songs, he writes “My songs cease, I abandon them,” (51) which he further explains in the stanza:

Camerado, this is no book,

Who touches this touches a man,

(Is it night?  are we here together alone?)

It is I you hold and who holds you,

I spring forth from the pages into your arms—decease calls me forth (53-57).

Whitman immortalizes himself through his work, a motif he as used before in his earlier poems, but now it is his last hope for immortality.  His book is more than a book; it is him, and after his death, Whitman will only exist in his writings—and anything written of him.  As people continue to read Whitman, his “avataras,” (67) or manifestations to the world, will ascend.  In one final message, Whitman requests:

Remember my words, I may again return,

I love you, I depart from materials,

I am as one disembodied, triumphant, dead (69-71).

Whitman is free from the world of physical pain, he exists only in his words, and will continue to do so, as long as we read them.