Allison for Sept. 29 (My Birthday!)

I promise I will address the topic at hand this week, but first I must briefly continue the discourse from last week concerning Whitman’s stylistic (and personal?) change by cause of the war. Please excuse me as I quote at great length from The Better Angel:

“One of the marks of any great writer is adaptability, and Whitman, after a few short days in camp among the young Northern soldiers, had already begun to grasp that his old enthusiastic style of writing was sadly unsuited for capturing the grim realities of their war. A new approach was needed, one that reflected more accurately the soldiers’ homespun ways and quiet courage. With his great gift for mimicry, Whitman would write poems that spoke in the drawling voices of the men themselves, in accents he first heard around the campfires at Fredericksburg. This was a new way of  writing, not just for Whitman but for American literature in general, and its importance can be scarcely overstated” (61).

Wow. Where was Roy Morris last week? I cannot even attempt to disagree with anything in this quotation. Morris reiterates Whitman’s unique, almost alien, existence in the 19th century, creating something new, beautiful, and inconceivable all at the same time. My passion for Whitman is renewed; my image of him  as a raw, brilliant, zealous, slightly obsessive artist lives on. *sigh of relief*

Okay, enough of that.

What I found most interesting about this week’s reading regarding documenting the war were the many parallels I could make to photography (a topic I now know much more about, thank you very much, Matthew Brady). Both the photographer and poet desire to document an experience rather than a statistic; both attempt to create an image (the photographer more obviously); both want to make something “real.” However, quite sadly, neither the photographer nor the poet will ever create that whole image, they struggle against the same infinite limitations of the tangible realm. Neither the poet nor the photographer can bottle up the scents of gunpowder and sweat, or contain the bursting, violent sounds of battle, or articulate the energy that surrounds them or the taste of the air that fills their mouth with each anxious breath. It cannot be done, by anyone, ever. Life is ephemeral, and for the artist that really freaking sucks.

This artistic frustration could lead to artistic surrender or artistic insatiability, and with Whitman I believe it’s the latter. Why would Whitman keep both an extensive journal, Specimen Days, and write dozens of poems, Drum Taps, if not to make every effort to wholly document the experience? With Specimen Days, Whitman shows us snapshots, gives us names, places, and dates, and a detailed account of both ordinary camp life and the chaotic buzz of the hospital. There is so much information in Specimen Days it’s hard to believe that the poems included in Drum Taps are not redundant. His poems voice the metaphysical, the intangible, the vague sensations that swim around our minds invisibly. I’m not a psychology major, but it seems as though Whitman uses two different parts of his brain to write his journal entries and his poems. Though some segments of his prose are equally as eloquent as his poetry, his poetry contains the energy of those little “lightening bolt” or “light bulb” moments that happen the moment a dream comes to an end. For instance, in the closing lines of “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim,” the speaker compares the face of a dead soldier to that of Christ– a blasphemous claim made without apology. Never in Specimen Days is there such a bold metaphor, not even when Whitman talks about Abraham Lincoln (side note: how creepy was the part of Morris’ article when he revealed that Whitman was planning to write a fake dialogue between himself and Lincoln?!). With these two different documenting methods, Whitman does not attempt to reach different audiences, but the same audience in different ways.

To answer the question of “will the real war ever get in the books,” the answer for myself and Whitman is a resounding, thwarted NO. However, Whitman succeeds in giving feeling and “reality” to an occurrence, which might have otherwise been smothered with numbers and facts. Humanity lies within the details, the idiosyncrasies, the peccadilloes and simple joys, the little ice cream treats that a grey-bearded poet brings to wounded soldiers. Whitman lends the reader his own personal experience of the Civil War, and though it does not nearly encompass everything, it is sufficient.

  1. Avatar of cirvine1965

    #1 by cirvine1965 on September 27, 2009 - 10:29 pm

    I really like that quote. Virginia and I are doing our oral report together, and she is reading that book, “The Better Angel.” It sounds so good, I really feel like I need to check it out. But…moving on…
    I have to agree with the renewed appreciation of Whitman as his poetry developed in response to his exposure to the war. Sometimes Whitman can seem so preachy. But in the war poetry he reveals that he doesn’t know everything. The psychological implications of war, especially one as devastating as the Civil War, surely had the same sort of trauma on everyone. Luckily, we have Whitman’s accounts to capture those feelings of ambiguity.

  2. Avatar of Mara Scanlon

    #2 by Mara Scanlon on September 29, 2009 - 10:36 am

    Courtney, you ARE reading The Better Angel. It’s Morris.

    Allison, I am of course so happy with you for mentioning ice cream, as well as the planned pamphlet dialogues with A.L., a tidbit I really love.

    There is much to comment on in this great post, but one thing I wanted to mention in relation to the split between poetry and prose was that, reading Speciman/Memoranda this time, it really jumped out at me in several places that the prose occasionally took on the very recognizable rhythms of W’s poetry– just for a few sentences, or a short entry. As Meghan’s post explores, it is sharply juxtaposed with what feels at times like a blunt failure of adequate language.

  3. #3 by Lillian on March 7, 2014 - 4:27 am

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