Both poems I have selected to write about were particularly arresting in the way they contextualised collective tragedy. Whitman's poem is an elegy for a fallen president, one who's ideology Whitman was intimately aligned with. Plumly's poem is a lament for the tragedy of 9/11, one which united America in a grotesque spectacle of destruction.
What is especially noteworthy then, is the detachment each poem seems to communicate. There is a sense of defamiliarisation from the event itself; the profundity of the tragedy is established through almost inappropriately modest imagery in each poem. Take Plumly's poem first. The poem lends a sense of trauma in it's inability to confront the tragedy with any clarity. It is set in the alps, and much of the poem's content is dedicated to illustrating the beauty of the surroundings rather than the collapse of the world trade centre. Indeed, it is only the contemporary audience's familiarity with 9/11 that may approximate the "pillars of fire" as being in reference to 9/11. The poem's inability to articulate any detail of the tragedy itself is a telling insight into the collective trauma inherited by a generation of Americans.
Whitman's poem is similar in it's obscurity over a very specific subject matter. When Lilacs is an elegy for Lincoln, yet does not mention the president once. As we saw with Plumly, the meaning of this poem may be lost on the contemporary reader, as the Lincoln assassination becomes more a part of America's history and less a part of the collective consciousness. Whitman's use of detached imagery is used somewhat differently to Plumly however. Where Plumly uses the alps as a symbol of isolation from the event, Whitman uses two incommensurable images as a means to depict the scale of the effect Lincoln's assassination has on everything, including nature itself:
Over the breast of the spring, the land, amid cities,
Amid lanes and through old woods, where lately the violets peep'd
from the ground, spotting the gray debris,
Amid the grass in the fields each side of the lanes, passing the
Passing the yellow-spear'd wheat, every grain from its shroud in
the dark-brown fields uprisen,
|Passing the apple-tree blows of white and pink in the orchards,|
|Carrying a corpse to where it shall rest in the grave,|
Whitman's famous affinity for nature is renavigated here as a symbol of ubiquitous lament, rather than ubiquitous beauty. He elects to interpret the tragedy through recourse to the familiar, perhaps another insight into how the poet deals with this trauma.