Found Poems from Whitman’s Civil War Prose

I’m still pursuing some of the thoughts from my last blog about the difficulties of writing about current events (https://martyncrucefix.com/2015/03/13/how-do-i-write-poems-about-current-events/). I am reminded that we are closing in on the twelfth anniversary of the first so-called ‘shock and awe’ strikes by coalition forces on Saddam Hussein’s Bagdad in 2003: 

I did manage to write about the subsequent war in Iraq but on this occasion I approached it very tangentially, through the Civil War writings of Walt Whitman. The resulting poems were first published in The Long Poem Magazine (Issue 3, Winter 2009/10; sections also appeared in Acumen) with the Introduction I have posted below. There, I discuss several sections of the completed sequence though I will post up only two parts of it. For the sake of those who might be interested in how raw materials get transmuted in such a process, I have added links to the original passages from which #2 ‘The White House’ and #4 ‘I staid a long time to-night’ were derived. The full sequence was eventually published in Hurt (2010: https://martyncrucefix.com/publications/hurt/). Dan O’Brien has more recently used a not dissimilar ventriloquism in his poems about the experiences of war photographer Paul Watson. For a much more direct poetic approach to modern war (born out of direct experience as a soldier in Iraq) see the poetry of Brian Turner.

On 21st March 2003 the “big and little thunderers in chorus began to roar” over Baghdad. During Easter of that year I visited the American Museum, just outside Bath, and while my children scoured the grounds in an Easter egg hunt and my aging parents wandered around an exhibition of American rag rugs, I drifted into the bookshop and picked up a collection of Walt Whitman’s Civil War poetry and prose.

It was childhood innocence and the rag rugs’ recycling of material that were in my mind as I read the words Whitman had written in 1862 in Falmouth, Virginia: “Began my visits among the Camp Hospitals in the Army of the Potomac. Spent a good part of the day in a large brick mansion, on the banks of the Rappahannock.”

With the force of one of those visions that artists are thought to be prone to, it struck me that such a wide-eyed witnessing from an earlier conflict might be a way to write successfully about the then current conflict. Or to be more precise – since what I have just written fails to convey the powerful emotional impact of what I read – I was myself moved by reading Whitman’s observations but my emotion was not retrospective at all but immediate, topical, all about Iraq.

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The more I read of Whitman’s prose the more genuine ties with the contemporary war I sensed. Whitman writes in his letters and journals almost as a by-stander, visiting the wounded and dying in hospitals, only occasionally being drawn to wider political observations and his focus on the individual cost of warfare exactly matched my own feelings. I began to imagine a sequence of poems framed by letters to a mother, containing the search for a brother and other references to close family members: “Han’s and George’s and Andrew’s. . . Jeff’s and his little Manahatta’s too”. The sequence came together only very slowly, partly because of my own uncertainties about its status as a partially ‘found’ poem but it eventually separated itself from its original sources and it was only later that I saw what was mine, what Whitman’s.

So the second piece, describing the White House, relies heavily on notes Whitman made in February 1862, but in the light of the deceit and war mongering of the early 21st century such descriptions are redolent with a bitter irony.

‘I dream’d a stockade’ is a more ‘composed’ poem, using Whitman’s familiar listing techniques, which intends to turn the suffering of the Civil War at an angle to reflect the inner conflicts that the Iraq mission quickly created in US society itself. With the inevitable reports of civilian casualties, I had little to add to Whitman’s accounts of comforting the wounded from the opposing sides of the Civil conflict to ensure a powerful contemporary resonance.

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Soldiers in the trenches before battle, Petersburg, Va., 1865.

‘The President’ is drawn from Whitman’s many observations of Lincoln. He first set eyes on him in 1861 and, as with the White House material, while I was putting the sequence together, the passage of time had already imbued his original admiration with the bitterest of ironies. Of course, after the poems were completed, by January 2009 and the inauguration of Obama, time had ironically turned once more and some have since read this part of the sequence as ‘about’ the new US President.

With ‘To the Mother of one fallen’, the narrator is back at the bedside of an individual dying man whose ravings and sense of undeserved blame, of a corruption in the/his “system”, is intended to reflect warfare’s inevitable brutalisation of even the best of individuals, the results of which even now continue to be uncovered years after the world conjured its first surprised shock at events in Abu Ghraib. (click to see Whitman’s original letter of May 1865: Here )

 

More than it comes to

seven poems from the American War

ii. The White House

Tonight, I walk out to take a look at the President’s House.

Tonight, the white portico, the brilliant gas-light shining,

The palace-like pediment, the tall round columns, spotless as snow.

Tonight, a tender and soft moonlight flooding the pale marble,

A light that gives rise to peculiar & faint & languishing shades,

That are not shadows, for no such thing as shadow resides at this address.

On this night, a soft transparent haze under the thin moon-lace,

Where it falls amongst the bright and plentiful clusters of gas-lights,

That have been set at intervals around the façade & the columns.

Tonight, I see everything white, a marbly pure white and dazzling,

And even more so, the softest white of the White House of future poems,

And of dramas and dreams here, under the high, the copious moon.

Tonight, the pure and gorgeous front in trees under the night-lights,

The leafless silence and the trunks and myriad angles of branches.

Tonight, I see a White House of the land, a White House of the night,

And of beauty and of silence and sentries at the tall gate,

Sentries pacing in their blue overcoats, stopping me not at all,

But eyeing with their sharp sentries’ eyes whichever way I go.

For Whitman on The White House: Click Here

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iv.  I staid a long time to-night

I staid a long time to-night at his difficult bed-side.

It was a young Baltimorean, grown to the age of nineteen.

He had seen so much and yet had slept such a very little,

His right leg amputated an hour since, he was feeble,

So he slept hardly at all, the morphine costing more than it comes to.

And this is what I must do, I sit still while he holds my hand,

And he puts it to his face most affectionately.

And this young, handsome, tanned Baltimorean spoke to me:

“My dear friend, I am certain you do not know who I am,

Although your sitting here so quietly and so patiently,

It means much, yet you must understand who it is you help,

Since what I stand for & fight for I know you believe to be wrong”.

I staid a long time at the bed-side of the young Baltimorean.

I staid certainly because death had mark’d him and he was quite alone.

I might say I loved him, sometimes kiss’d him and he did me.

And of his age was his brother, a brave and religious man,

His brother and officer of rank, a man I sat beside in a close, adjoining ward.

And I staid because in the same battle they were wounded alike,

The one strong Unionist, the other Secesh, and each fought well,

Each for their respective sides, brave & obedient & mark’d for the end.

Now they lay close, following the separation of many years,

Of their strongly held beliefs, the separations these had imposed on them,

And both fought well and each died in his particular cause.

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Ward in Armory Square Hospital, during Civil War, Washington, D.C.

For Whitman on the two brothers: Click Here

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