Tuesday, April 10, 2012

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd and Plumly's The Morning America Changed.

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
         endless grass,
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,
Night and day journeys a coffin. 

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.

1 comment:

  1. I really hate to be the heckler in the crowd but Whitman is beginning to irk my nerves. For me 9-11, and the assassinations of Lincoln and JFK represent what Malcolm X famously described as "chickens coming home to roost." And, in the same vein, I agree that with Malcolm in that "chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they've always made me glad." Following each of the aforementioned tragedies, a period of extreme hatred towards people of color ensued. Everyone remembers the tragedy, but few remember the aftermath. New Orleans still hasn't been rebuilt!

    The more I read Whitman: the more I believe that he suffered from the same disillusionment of the war poets. I believe that the detachment you identify with Whitman is accurate and is an spot on description of Whitman's supposed connection to all things Americana. Nestled away in Camden, New Jersey, what could Whitman possibly know of Americana? What is for certain is that he was a long-winded American and, in this sense, I reckon he is a success.