Aug 3, 2016

Whitman's Civil War: Writing and Imagining Loss, Death, and Disaster week 3

This week our instructors, Professors Ed Folsom and Christopher Merrill, talked about how Whitman's voice changed with what he was writing, like when he wrote letters to the family of wounded soldiers, he wrote in the voice of the soldier. I've never thought that in writing a letter for someone, the writer's voice comes through, because I've imagined it to be more like taking dictation, but that's not the whole truth. These letters were written for a specific audience, the loved one of the soldier, but they were also passed around and helped with fundraising. The more effective the letter, the more people it got passed to. The poem "Cavalry Crossing a Ford" is also interesting in its abstraction: you can't tell who the soldiers were or even which side they were fighting for.

 When reading "Opening of the Secession War," I noticed how different names were used for the war, and both sides used names that fit their ideologies The South called it “The War Between the States” or “The War for Southern Independence,” while the North had “The War of the Rebellion,” “The Great Rebellion,” or “The War for the Union.” Freed slaves named it “The Slaveholders’ Rebellion” and "The Freedom War.” The names say a lot about what the war meant to people. It's also easy to forget that while we know how long the war lasted from reading history books, the people experiencing it didn't. Whitman thought this was a rebellion that would be over and done with in a couple of weeks. Those four years  (1861-1865) of uncertainty and horror must have felt like a lifetime.

One of the poems we studied  this week was "When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer" from Drum Taps. You can read it below:

WHEN I heard the learn'd astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns
before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add,
divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he
lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.
          Walt Whitman/Drum Taps

It's a strange poem to find in the middle of poetry about the war, but it's a moment of reflection. When things are really bad, you can look at the stars and think of the immense distances in space and time and how small a war or a human lifetime is in the great scheme of things. There is a future, even if it seems like the end of the world now. It helps put things in perspective, looking from "time to time." Some people read this poem as Whitman rejecting the science, but as the instructors explained, he only understands that he's looking into the past, that the light he is seeing has come a long way, because of the lecture he attended. It's a beautiful moment. This is something that is useful to remember as a writer: a little light in the darkness can bring everything into sharper focus.

For this week's assignment, we wrote about a conflict or trauma viewed from an unexpected place that might reveal something unexpected about the conflict. Very challenging.

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