Friday, January 07, 2005

In a Station of the Metro

THE apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

Ezra Pound

Surely "In a Station of the Metro" wakens Pound's mastery of this talent and suggests that Eliot was not without justification in calling him il miglior fabbro. It begins a bit flat: a place, underground, of public transport and as simple as pedestrian directions. Only there is something Eastern beneath the Western veneer. One of the secrets of superior literature: there's always more to be measured beyond than what is before us bookworms. Pound has called upon the gods and Confucius translated Homer.

Frequently curt and irascible, Ezra Loomis Pound was an incessant talker, "a barbarian on the loose in a museum." He drew his themes from Confucian ethics, classical mythology, economic theory and other seemingly disparate sources and worked on this verse periodically from 1911 to 1913. He might have been only a difficult neighbor, but it was between 1908 and 1920 when he published a group of books that established his literary standing and enabled him to turn to journalism for a living. This particular structure of In a Station at the Metro is from the 1916 edition of Lustra. This is a startlingly visual piece of verse possessing the ability to leave readers thinking for a long time.

The Metro is the Paris subway system and this is certainly one of the finest and perhaps the first true Imagist poem. He explained that the poem was the effect he felt when he "saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another, and then a beautiful child's face, and then another beautiful woman" as he was getting off a train at the metro. Initially Pound composed a 30-line poem and destroyed it; after six months he wrote a shorter poem, also destroyed; and after another year, with the Japanese hokku in mind, he arrived at a poem which requires every one of its twenty words, including the six words of its title.

Through several publications spaces and commas appeared and disappeared until the poem turned radically on its semicolon to overlay the two images. This marks Pound's first use of juxtaposition as a structural device in his poetry. There is a distinction to be made between its various stages of composition as one expert explains:

(Some have) neglected to consider the care that Pound himself took to indicate to the reader how that gap should be "imaginatively leaped." The earliest printing of "In a Station" in the April 1913 issue of Poetry was spaced and punctuated thus:

The apparition     of these faces     in the crowd
Petals     on a wet, black     bough .

The same version of the poem then appeared in the New Freewoman on 15 August 1913. In the meantime however, Pound had published an account of the genesis of the poem in T.P.'s Weekly, on 6 June 1913, where the poem is quoted as follows:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:

Petals on a wet, black bough.

In other words, the poem has now assumed the format it has in each of its appearances in book, as opposed to periodical, form, from the Elkin Mathews edition of Lustra (1916) onwards, with the exception of the colon as opposed to semi-colon at the end of the first line. That this version was still regarded by Pound as provisional, however, is indicated by his reversal to the earlier spacing and punctuation for the poem's appearance in the August New Freewoman, two months after his piece in T.P.'s Weekly. It seems likely that the latter publication's lay-out of three narrow columns to the page meant that the spacing of "In a Station" had to be closed up and regularized, whether or not this was Pound's intention at the time; the New Freewornan version would indicate, in fact, that it wasn't.

His revolutionary idea was deep and broad. Pound had telescoped the poem from thirty lines to a single sentence and later offered a detailed account of the origins and compositional history of the "Metro" poem a year later in his article "Vorticism," The Fortnightly Review 571 (Sept. 1, 1914):

"Three years ago (1911) in Paris I got out of a "metro" train at La Concorde, and saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another, and then a beautiful child's face, and then another beautiful woman, and I tried all that day to find words for what this had meant to me, and I could not find any words that seemed to me worthy, or as lovely as that sudden emotion. And that evening, as I went home along the Rue Raynouard, I was still trying, and I found, suddenly, the expression. I do not mean that I found words, but there came an equation ... not in speech, but in little splotches of colour. It was just that -- a "pattern," or hardly a pattern, if by "pattern" you mean something with a "repeat" in it. But it was a word, the beginning, for me, of a language in colour. I do not mean that I was unfamiliar with the kindergarten stories about colours being like tones in music. I think that sort of thing is nonsense. If you try to make notes permanently correspond with particular colours, it is like tying narrow meanings to symbols.
"That evening, in the Rue Raynouard, I realised quite vividly that if I were a painter, or if I had, often, that kind of emotion, or even if I had the energy to get paints and brushes and keep at it, I might found a new school of painting, of "non-representative" painting, a painting that would speak only by arrangements in colour. ....
"That is to say, my experience in Paris should have gone into paint ...
"The 'one image poem' is a form of super-position, that is to say it is one idea set on top of another. I found it useful in getting out of the impasse in which I had been left by my metro emotion. I wrote a thirty-line poem, and destroyed it because it was what we call work 'of second intensity.' Six months later I made a poem half that length; a year later I made the following hokku-like sentence: --
'The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals, on a wet, black bough.'
"I dare say it is meaningless unless one has drifted into a certain vein of thought. In a poem of this sort one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.
"This particular sort of consciousness has not been identified with impressionist art. I think it is worthy of attention."

Its construction is both typographic and metric bringing a connotative power to the word apparition in the first line. One critic has called it "the single word which lifts the couplet from bald statement to poetry." With one word Pound packs an amazing metaphor. That he has a refined understanding of several European languages, especially French and Italian, is an unshakable fact. In French apparition commonly carries the special meaning of the way something appears to a viewer at the precise moment it is perceived. Since the poem was written in France about a French subway station it's plausible that Pound played on its false equivalent in English as he composed the poem. And because "apparition" means what it does, he is able to convey the feeling of amazed discovery that such a mental picture in such a place must induce. It seems to demonstrate flawlessly Pound's notion of the Image.

Meanings are not so important and we must move on and look at another interesting aspect of the power and energy lodged into this small phrase. What is important is the effect, the mood. "In the 'Metro' hokku," Pound wrote to a friend, "I was careful, I think, to indicate spaces between the rhythmic units, and I want them observed."

By 1913, if not from its beginning, the "vision of the blossom" became associated in Pound's mind with Japanese haiku. The image that comes to mind for this poetry lover is oriental in nature and is much like the Japanese art of ikebana the decorative form of flower arranging. An art that seeks to create a harmony of linear construction, rhythm, and color. The purpose is to emphasize the linear aspects of the arrangement and the art includes the vase, stems, leaves, and branches, as well as the flowers. The entire structure of a Japanese flower arrangement is based on three main lines that symbolize heaven, earth, and humankind. In the poem petals are people stationed upon a stem in a screaming jam-packed dirty eared 'jug jug.'

This is an underground train envisioned as a horizontal and blackened branch side by side with beautiful faces in the windows that passed the poet who likens them to flower blossoms. This calls to mind several ancient haikus like Flowers Faded and Blossoms Left Behind. They all share a simple montage of one concrete image, which attempts to share with the reader the poet's rare perception. The heart of the poem lies neither in the apparition nor in the petals, but in the mental process, which leaps from one to the other. While it merely hints to an off rhyme in crowd / bough, the modern meter of the metro moves Pound's rhythmic idea into an organic space. What is even more astonishing about the distilled handful of syllables is that even though there are no verbs one can hear them echo.

I would like to think of Pound not as a neighbor but as an uncle. Uncle Ezra. He'd be a grand embarrassment to most of my gentler family, a hotheaded uncle self-exiled to London, Rapallo, or Paris. He'd hurdle his beauty into the midst of ugliness with big pronouncements for saving society, usually wrong, often revolting and scandalous. I would have to feel baffled and terribly embarrassed. But he'd be like no one else's uncle, and there's that thing he can do with words to wonder about. He would not sit on the front stoop and tell the neighbor kids about it; he would in fact shout to them just what's wrong with global banking. And if he was my uncle he just might, one day, show me those thirty lines and tell me why he really threw them away.


On "In a Station of the Metro"
Accessed Jan 17 2004.

Public domain text taken for the poem is from The Poetry Corner
Accessed Jan 17 2004.

Public domain text taken for the the article Vorticism is from RPO -- Ezra Loomis Pound : In a Station of the Metro
Accessed Jan 17 2004.

The Wondering Minstrels
Accessed Jan 17 2004.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Somebody Blew Up America

    I believe you have to be true to people. You have to write something that people understand, but, at the same time, something that's profound enough to have meaning past, say, the six o'clock news.
    (Amiri Baraka, interview with Bill Moyers)
Amiri Baraka is a poet and playwright born in 1938 whose work focus has been about race and class in America. The Newark, New Jersey native writes with a manner that is provoking, designed to shock and rouse audiences to the political concerns of black Americans. Baraka's own political stance has changed several times, each time finding expression in his plays, poems, and essays so that his works can be divided into periods. Today his socialist art is addressed to the black community, which has, he believes, the greatest revolutionary potential in America and supporters from other ethnic groups recognize Baraka as opening "tightly guarded doors" in the white publishing establishment.

Somebody Blew Up America by Baraka, has been in the news recently prompting New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevy to ask for the immediate resignation of the state's Poet Laureate. Composed in October 2001, the poem, published in November 2001 has a twenty-nine-word verse; a small part of a rambling 1,180-word anti-imperialistic discourse composed just after the September 11th terrorist attack that is causing the most controversy. Mr. Baraka has read the poem in public several times since he composed it, but it wasn't until he was named New Jersey poet laureate this past summer that anybody paid much attention.

In it, he asks who is accountable for a wide assortment of existing and historical atrocities, including the September 11th terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. That part of "Somebody Blew Up America" implies that Israel knew in advance about the attacks. It reiterates discredited reports circulating in Arab nations that thousands of Israeli personnel at the Twin Towers did not show up for work that day, and that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon canceled a trip to the United States that week.

A reader has to begin by defining what their ideas are about poets and poetry. W.H. Auden was sympathetic to communism, and he was a good poet when he had matured, accepted religion and became anti-communist. Rudyard Kipling was a great poet, regardless of his imperialist politics and anti-Semitism, just as Cesar Vallejo was a great poet, in spite of his rather simpleminded Marxism. Archibald Mac-Leish was a mediocre poet notwithstanding being a good liberal. Some good poets are very engaged politically; their convictions and emotions inform their poem while other good poets are not so engaged. A poet's first moral duty is to write a good poem---if he can't do that, he is of no use to anyone, at least not as a poet.

Somebody Blew Up America

They say its some terrorist,
some barbaric
A Rab,
in Afghanistan
It wasn't our American terrorists
It wasn't the Klan or the Skin heads
Or the them that blows up nigger
Churches, or reincarnates us on Death Row
It wasn't Trent Lott
Or David Duke or Giuliani
Or Schundler, Helms retiring

It wasn't
The gonorrhea in costume
The white sheet diseases
That have murdered black people
Terrorized reason and sanity
Most of humanity, as they pleases

They say (who say?)
Who do the saying
Who is them paying
Who tell the lies
Who in disguise
Who had the slaves
Who got the bux out the Bucks

Who got fat from plantations
Who genocided Indians
Tried to waste the Black nation

Who live on Wall Street
The first plantation
Who cut your nuts off
Who rape your ma
Who lynched your pa
Who got the tar, who got the feathers
Who had the match, who set the fires
Who killed and hired
Who say they God & still be the Devil

With careful attention to the use of repetition--at the lexical, syntactic, semantic, and phonological levels. What is the effect of Baraka's poem? Does it inform? If so, how? Are there aspects of the poems one might regard as transformations? His themes are of death and despair, moral and social corruption with its concomitant decrying of Western values and ethics, the struggle against self-hatred, and a growing ethnic awareness.

Who own the oil
Who do no toil
Who is not a nigger
Who is so great ain't nobody bigger

Who own this city

Who own the air
Who own the water

Who own your crib
Who rob and steal and cheat and murder
and make lies the truth
Who call you uncouth

Who live in the biggest house
Who do the biggest crime
Who go on vacation anytime

Who killed the most niggers
Who killed the most Jews
Who killed the most Italians
Who killed the most Irish
Who killed the most Africans
Who killed the most Japanese
Who killed the most Latinos

Who? Who? Who?

In considering Baraka's conscious use of language for poetic effect, it compares with William Carlos Williams for its use of vernacular and idiom. It's communicative like Ezra Pound, the criticism compares them in tone and theme--moral decay and social disillusionment--with T. S. Eliot. His issues are mixed with the racial tenor of the past decades represented by the poetic aesthetics of imagism, projectivism, and Dadaism. Problems in understanding Baraka's poetry has been identified by some scholars to be what is conceivably attributable to the tension intrinsic in pairing his role as poet and activist. It may be that the strident tones of some of his poems are related to his political activism.

Who own the oil
Who want more oil
Who told you what you think that later you find
out a lie

Who? Who? Who?

Who found Bin Laden, maybe they Satan
Who pay the CIA,
Who knew the bomb was gonna blow
Who know why the terrorists
Learned to fly in Florida, San Diego

Some poems are intended to persuade a reader to believe something they didn't already believe. Others are planned to make the reader choose sides. Those varieties seem to rightly deserve the label "political," Do poems with such purposes have a place in the world of "serious" verse?

Who set the Reichstag Fire
Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?

Who? Who? Who?

Such poems set up a difficult standard for success. It's been said that poetry makes something happen. So if nothing does, the poet fails. If the reader is neither persuaded nor polarized, the poem fails.

Explosion of Owl the newspaper says
The devil face cd be seen

Who make money from war
Who make dough from fear and lies
Who want the world like it is
Who want the world to be ruled by imperialism and
oppression and terror violence, and hunger and

Who is the ruler of Hell?
Who is the most powerful

Who you know ever
Seen God?

But everybody seen
The Devil

Like an Owl exploding
In your life in your brain in your self
Like an Owl who know the devil
All night, all day if you listen, Like an Owl
Exploding in fire. We hear the questions rise
In terrible flame like the whistle of a crazy dog

Like the acid vomit of the fire of Hell

Who and Who and WHO who who
Whoooo and Whooooooooooooooooooooo!

The question Baraka asks is a complex one and he doesn't try to give an answer, in fact he contradicts himself over and over alluding to various points in history that may or may not connect with one another, technically. But, the connection he has made between them is that they are some of the gravest mistakes of humanity. As a poem, it has done its job -- it gets across Mr. Baraka's ideas and opinions with rhythm and word-play. America has been designated as the core of this entire ordeal. More specifically it's white men who are responsible for a number of racial genocides and terrorism of the highest degree. He no doubt attempts to create a poem that will remain relevant for the ages. By pointing out the various atrocities committed; to some his message is a very important one to get out; Lest we forget. Everyone in the media and mainstream consumes propaganda at an accelerated rate. This poem has a lot more to do with the "war on terror." The Jews the Irish, the Africans the Native Americans the Armenians had their holocausts the poet mingles images with one question; juxtaposing the races and incidents. Many people are outraged by this poem. They must not read much poetry, because worse can be found at the local library. Baraka's defends it saying the value lies in the fact that the poem accepts nothing as truth. Relating that he made a deliberate effort to place the following lines adjacent to each other:

While Israel put Sharon in power the Jews certainly didn't back Hitler. He also begs the question: who sold the blacks into slavery? The answer to that question is sadly more than one race. Some Africans sold prisoners from other tribes into slavery.

Perhaps if poetry did try and engage more than its tiny coterie of readers, by widening its view beyond its own back garden, it would once more become the force for change. The market driven media has blurred the lines of an urban legend surrounding the 9/11 conspiracy theories, much as they did after the Kennedy assassination, and history tells us from experience that some of his questions will never have satisfactory answers. It's poetry, not the nightly news.

Read during the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Stanhope on September 19, 2001 Baraka's Somebody Blew Up America has been characterized by the Anti-Defamation League as an insult to Jews:

    Conspiracy theories about Sept. 11 abound in Arab and Muslim nations. The pernicious lie that continues to resonate, one that has been gaining ground among some Muslims in the United States, is that Israel somehow was directly involved.

    This dangerous blame game is a rebirth of the big lie, and, sadly, not nearly enough is being done to halt the rise of this ugly, historic phenomenon.

    As we have witnessed time and again, such charged rhetoric invites extremists to step in with incitement. Incitement creates an environment conducive to, and accepting of, terrorism. As the U.S. and other nations join in the battle against worldwide terrorism, there must be renewed vigilance against purveyors of anti-Semitism and hatred.

    The battle will not be won until we can change the minds and hearts of those leaders who permit anti-Jewish, anti-Israel and anti-American propaganda to proceed.
    (Abraham H. Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League )

Good poetry creates dialogue and inspires emotions in readers. It sparks heated dialogue, Baraka replies:
    "I will clarify my position that I can criticize United States imperialism and Israeli imperialism, and I can take a position of support of the Palestinians' right to self-determination without being slandered as an anti-Semite,"
He adds that the myth that Israel destroyed the World Trade Center is one that has spread throughout the Arab world and says he welcomes a debate on his ideas. "It's all over the Internet,'' Baraka said of his poem. "I don't feel any kind of threat to my integrity."

Currently Baraka holds the position of Poet Laureate in the state of New Jersey. The position was created in 1999 and pays $10,000 per two-year term. The recommendation to name Baraka as poet laureate early in 2002 came from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, in consultation with the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. Brushing aside calls for his resignation the 67 year old has run up against Jewish groups in the past for previous anti-Semetic comments. He maintains that the poem meant what it said; that Israel knew of and had a role in planning the attacks on the World Trade Center. Calling the Governor's request for him to resign absurd, he refuses to change his mind and doesn't consider his remarks anti Semitic in spite of criticism from Jewish groups.

The poem, takes issue with many others. Over the course of its six pages, Baraka lashes out at everyone from President Bush and his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, to former Mayors Rudy Giuliani of New York and Bret Schundler of Jersey City. Terrorism is not new and it doesn't belong to the Arabs and Muslims. Every government and religion is guilty Baraka is purposefully asking a set of complex questions all with different answers. The terrible reality is that there are terrorists in every civilization. Terrorism lurks in the heart of many. The owl asks the haunting question Whooooo? We all do.

One post at a web site mocks Baraka and his poem:

    Who took the money, who called himself a poet?
    who beats his chest and thinks he is a laureate.
    who chooses to point fingers, who refuses to lead...
    who says the fault of the world is the white man...
    forever who?
    Whoooooooooooooooo is enjoying this moment ?
    you know who.
Poets live in the political world along with everybody else and have taken a multitude of stances toward that world. Scads of poems were written against the Vietnam War, however, no more than two or three of them are readable today. This poem employs a parable to expose something about human nature and exposing its blind spots of certain political views or of particular politicians. Irony can expose hypocrisy and injustice more effectively; that can be a reasonable test of a political poem. Poetry can be manipulative as an extension of rhetoric that aims to convince the already convinced or those who hover marginally at its edges. Suppose that political heaven on earth is established--there is only one criterion for consciously political poetry - protest.

There is a place in the world for political poetry. If it makes me think about something in a new light, in a concerned way, in a way that makes me want to change "something", speak out then the poem is successful. I think that the job of poetry, its political job, is to refresh the idea of justice. While I support Baraka's freedom of speech, applaud his successes and congratulate him on his many achievements; there is a vivid line drawn in the US Constitution between the Freedom of Speech and how taxpayer's monies are to be spent. As the poet laureate Amiri Baraka is required to give at least two public readings a year and promote poetry throughout the state. Poetry should educate, not propagandize and in my opinion I don't think Mr. Baraka's should be allowed to promote a personal political agenda in his current position. What were these elected officials thinking when they made him poet laureate? In all fairness Mr. Baraka brought his political leanings to their rather short attention span.

How shrewd is this quarrelsome owl? A lack of political passion has nothing to do with the quality importance or usefulness of a poets work. It goes without saying that poems are, to some degree, historically having to do with the speech and ideas and worldview of their times. They also have something to do with ethics, but that is a very complex matter. Is Baraka saying that evil comes in all colors or something more? Is Someone Blew Up America simply poor taste in portraying his opinions? What purpose does it serve Baraka to wrap up a lie that Israel was responsible for the World Trade Center? Is this propagandizing disguised as art? Is he covering a personal agenda by deliberately placing unfounded rumor in a collage of confusing questions? Confusion that began on September 12th in Lebanon, circulated the Internet and took on a life of its own; one in a series of anti Semitic outbreaks around the world. Choosing to perpetuate an inflammatory and venomous web tale of anti-Semitism is his right. However another important question is Who pays Baraka to read this in public twice a year? The New Jersey taxpayers, some of who lost loved ones on September 11th. The title of poet laureate and the grant money cannot be rescinded, and the decision to resign is entirely up to Baraka. Legislation giving the governor of New Jersey the authority to end Amiri Baraka's two-year term was introduced in October 2002.

Read the entire poem at Somebody Blew Up America

Here’s an interesting Op Ed piece.
You can also read the poet's somewaht rambling response to this debate at:


Accessed Oct 11 2002

The Boston Globe online. 27 Sept. 2002; Somebody Blew Up America

New York Daily News, Blaming Jews For 9/11 Must Stop Nov. 27, 2001.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night

Vigil strange I kept on the field one night;

When you my son and my comrade dropt at my side that day,

One look I but gave which your dear eyes return'd with a look I shall

never forget,

One touch of your hand to mine O boy, reach'd up as you lay on the


Then onward I sped in the battle, the even-contested battle,

Till late in the night reliev'd to the place at last again I made my


Found you in death so cold dear comrade, found your body son of

responding kisses, (never again on earth responding,)

Bared your face in the starlight, curious the scene, cool blew the

moderate night-wind,

Long there and then in vigil I stood, dimly around me the

battle-field spreading,

Vigil wondrous and vigil sweet there in the fragrant silent night,

But not a tear fell, not even a long-drawn sigh, long, long I gazed,

Then on the earth partially reclining sat by your side leaning my

chin in my hands,

Passing sweet hours, immortal and mystic hours with you dearest

comrade--not a tear, not a word,

Vigil of silence, love and death, vigil for you my son and my


As onward silently stars aloft, eastward new ones upward stole,

Vigil final for you brave boy, (I could not save you, swift was your


I faithfully loved you and cared for you living, I think we shall

surely meet again,)

Till at latest lingering of the night, indeed just as the dawn


My comrade I wrapt in his blanket, envelop'd well his form,

Folded the blanket well, tucking it carefully over head and carefully

under feet,

And there and then and bathed by the rising sun, my son in his grave,

in his rude-dug grave I deposited,

Ending my vigil strange with that, vigil of night and battle-field


Vigil for boy of responding kisses, (never again on earth


Vigil for comrade swiftly slain, vigil I never forget, how as day


I rose from the chill ground and folded my soldier well in his


And buried him where he fell.

--Walt Whitman

Ezra Pound wrote while confined to St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C.,"I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman--I have detested you long enough." Whitman's heritage is so huge that it is hard for any American bard not to measure their verse against his. Time does not shrink Whitman and he seems to loom ever larger and more palpable upon the page even today. Composed in 1865 "Vigil strange I kept on the field one night." was first published the same year in Drum Taps.

The collection of war poems illustrated a new approach to poetry. The verses shift from the melodramatic thrill with which Whitman hailed the call to arms of the young men at the outset of the American Civil War to a troubling consciousness of the inevitable outcome of any war. While Beat! Beat! Drums! reverberates with the harshness of the Battle of Bull Run a shift in tone occurrs in Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night depicts a wakefulness to anguish that is just as valuable for its gentle and ordinary comfort.

"Vigil strange," "Vigil wondrous" and "Vigil final" bookend the scenes as they play out across the text. In effect the phrases break up the poem into three sections -- the battle, the vigil, and the burial. The night and stars first reveal a dead boy's face as "cool blew the moderate night-wind." Discovering the body, the chronicler embarks on his vigil without tears or words of despair. His only contrition is for racing off duty bound leaving his younger companion to die alone. The storyteller discloses the vigil as "strange," "curious," "wondrous," "mystic," and "sweet" -- almost wholly mysterious and revelatory.

His sorrow designates him father and mother and lover of the fallen boy, allowing him to take part in all of the hallowed acts of devotion that becomes absorbed by the ritual. Both act out a universal consummation of love and what is being cultivated is not a public obligation but a personal relationship upon a wasteland devoid of kinship and apathetic to loss. The speaker's wordless grief--"not a tear fell, not even a long-drawn sigh"--refuses to reach the maudlin. "I rose from the chill ground and folded my soldier well in his blanket, / And buried him where he fell" implies a transfiguration of the survivor and suggests redemption for the fallen. When "bathed by the rising sun," sorrow is abandoned and turns to the practical matter of interment. The narrator pushes off from both the corpse and the reader at once to retreat back into the fabric of war.

Drum Taps, like most of Whitman's poetry, was eventually immersed into the nebulous missive Leaves of Grass, in this instance the fourth edition. One of many significant effects of these poems is that rather than taking an explicit stand on war they merely describe and the poet's views on the war are left for the readers to infer. To lend a bit of context Whitman went to Fredericksburg in 1862 to see his wounded brother. After staying some time at the camp he accepted a short-term job in Washington. On his days off he visited the wounded and dying soldiers in the local hospitals, spending his meager wages on gifts for both Confederate and Unionist soldiers. He enjoyed contributing his standard of "cheer and magnetism" to try to lessen some of the sadness and physical pain in the wards. The editor of Drum Taps (1865 ) wrote in his introduction:

    This was the secret of his tender, unassuming ministrations. He had none of that shrinking timidity, that fear of intrusion, that uneasiness in the presence of the tragic and the pitiful, which so often numb and oppress those who would willingly give themselves and their best to the needy and suffering, but whose intellect misgives (sic) them. He was that formidable phenomenon, a dreamer of action. But he possessed a Sovran (sic) good sense.

    Food and rest and clean clothes were his scrupulous preparation for his visits. He always assumed as cheerful an appearance as possible. Armed with bright new five-cent and ten-cent bills (the wounded, he found, were often "broke," and the sight of a little money "helped their spirits"), with books and stationery and tobacco, for one a twist of good strong green tea, for another a good home-made rice-pudding, or a jar of sparkling but innocent blackberry and cherry syrup, a small bottle of horse-radish pickle, or a large handsome apple, he would "make friends." "What I have I also give you," he cried from the bottom of his grieved, tempestuous heart.

    He would talk, or write letters--passionate love-letters, too--or sit silent, in mute and tender kindness. "Long, long, I gazed ... leaning my chin in my hands, passing sweet hours, immortal and mystic hours, with you, dearest comrade--not a tear, not a word, Vigil of silence, love and death, vigil for you my son and my soldier." And how many a mother must have blessed the stranger who could bring such last news of a son as this: "And now like many other noble and good men, after serving his country as a soldier, he has yielded up his young life at the very outset in her service. Such things are gloomy--yet there is a text, 'God doeth all things well'--the meaning of which, after due time, appears to the soul." It is only love that can comfort the loving.

Many young boys were present in the ranks both North and South, some of them were under age and Whitman wrote countless letters home for the soldiers that were uneducated or simply hesitant. The self-styled "missionary" to the Army hospitals found great pleasure and duty in writing for the wounded. Through his efforts he came to appreciate the abyss of estranged the soldier's existence from that of the civilian world. Scholar M. Wynn Thomas writes, "...Whitman found th(e) wholesale anonymity of the dead (in the Civil War) very disturbing. He returned to the subject repeatedly in Specimen Days after the war, noting, for instance, that in one particular war cemetery only eighty-five of the bodies were identified." The poet's letters, verse, newspaper articles and notebooks-- shaped a connection between the worlds of the military and the civilian. This surrogate and psychological bridge between two distinct cultures during the Civil War led to the acceptance of the exclusive sufferings. Whitman wrote in his journal:
    I have been sitting late tonight by the bedside of a wounded Captain, a friend of mine... in a large Ward partially vacant. The lights were out, all but a little candle, far from where I sat. I sat there by him. . . occupied with the musings that arose out of the scene, the long shadowy Ward, the beautiful ghostly moonlight on the floor.
Perhaps it is against this background that Vigil Strange was penned with the poignant urge to make certain that the field of the dead are acknowledged, considered, and grieved for. The author keeps a vigil that is both a lament and a celebration. It is a vigil he can never disregard because it harkens him to both love and death. It's interesting to note that the original outline of the poem was written to the dead soldier in the third-person singular. However, when the canto was published it had been transformed into the second-person singular amplifying the aura of familiarity and anonymity of the scene. So much so that the reader feels engrossed in the soldiers' experience and perhaps prompted to reconcile this experience between poet and soldier to the civilian world.


Public Domain text taken from The Project Gutenberg EBook of Drum Taps, by Walt Whitman.
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RPO -- Walt Whitman : Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field one Nigh.:
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On "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night"
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Whitman, Walt Encyclopædia Britannica.
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Whitman's Wartime Washington
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