Responses to American Poetry
The aim of this online space is to host the research work of university students or young scholars as this emerges from larger projects focusing on the American poetry scene. The objective of this initiative is to bring this kind of research activity to the attention of the general public in an attempt to further promote the exchange of ideas with regard to the process of reading, understanding and appreciating poetry writing.
Re-imag(in)ing Whitman: The American Poet and Contemporary Wars
What made the most striking impression to me upon reading Walt Whitman is his unique poetics, his individuality, and some powerful images. Of these, imitating the style would not offer anything original, and copying his individuality would be pure irony, so I decided to work on or, rather, rework these images. A twenty-first century recontextualization of Whitman’s images could result in something very far from his original, so the final product had to incorporate some of his own lines, so that his unique voice may be heard above the allusions that were meant to enrich him. So, while I wanted the script to offer something new, I also wanted for Whitman’s voice to be kept, partly because of the untranslatability of his poetics. Originally, I meant to make four or five scripts, but seeing that, being very busy, we had no time to film them ourselves, the other scripts that relied heavily on visual allusions had to remain drafts or were never put to paper.
“Grief” is the first script I wrote, and it takes its impression from the striking image in Whitman’s “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night” included in Drum-Taps (1865). At the time, I had just finished reading P. B. Shelley’s “Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude” (1816) and taken an interest in elegies. This is perhaps why I chose to recontextualize with an emphasis on death and the feelings that it brings, rather than war or solidarity. At the same time, I wanted to speak about modern battlegrounds, and lament the victims of a war that is more relevant to my time and place than the American Civil War. So at first I thought to dedicate it to victims of homophobic or transphobic attacks, then to victims of femicide - thus changing the son to daughter and messing with Whitman’s rhythm - but in the end I saw that it all narrows down to a basic scheme: the battles we have to win are not against homophobia, racism, sexism alone, it is against all forms of violence and hatred for a group that is considered less human. Therefore, the victim in our hopefully pessimistic video does not have an identity, and neither does the final ‘we;’ it speaks for all people who want to see the world change.
After I had finished the first draft of “Grief,” I continued reading the rest of the poems in the Drum Taps collection. It was around October 28, a National Day in Greece, which is celebrated with a military march in Thessaloniki. This context helped me realize that the kind of war that I replaced in “Grief” with ideological struggle is, in fact, very real today as well. What inspired me the most was the sound of the aircrafts that practiced their show, which filled the city in a quite ominous and disturbing way. The following months Greece would continue a process of militarization with the economy and society going through substantial crises. The situation in the USA is, to my knowledge, not very different. I noticed that while Whitman presents a lot of the horrors of war, he also makes it seem necessary to safeguard values, or as a way to earn virtue. So, the second script came as a cry against this very absurd valorization of war as a national pride and as a means to protect the nation - it is neither. That is why our second video is about a topic that might be considered out of time or out of place, but I would like readers to think beyond the actual images of war and consider all that lies behind it, which leads to the atrocities that we, in our Western precarious peace, presume are too far away to hurt us.
Shelley, Percy Byssche. Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude, edited by Bertram Dobell. Printed for Private Circulation Only, 1816.
Walt, Whitman. Drum-Taps. Peter Eckler, 1865.
Contributor Bio: Manousos Lionis