Wednesday, May 12, 2010

`Which So Proudly We Hail'

While we walked our students around the track the marching band entered through the south gate hammering away at “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “We Are Family,” “You Can Call Me Al” and “Oye Como Va.” No Sousa marches but a marching band is always a crude and effective instrument for rousing latent emotion and under-caffeinated educators. The band reassembled in the bleachers and under the baton of a student-teacher launched into a snare-drum-heavy arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

That our national anthem should be written to the tune of an English drinking song, and its lyrics celebrate an American victory against the English, is a fitting celebration of our roots as a republic of rabble. That it’s both rousing and difficult to sing well is also fitting. The band ran through the song four and a half times while one of our autistic kids, standing in the middle of the football field, conducted them with histrionic gestures. Some of the young musicians applauded her. A little histrionically, Whitman described himself as “an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos … / No sentimentalist . . . . no stander above men and women or apart from them . . . . / no more modest than immodest.”

Guy Davenport’s Flowers and Leaves (1966) is a book-length poem written under the spell of Pound but without entirely abandoning coherence, decency, rhyme and the iambic line. Part IV, “Fire, October, Eyes,” is a quilt sewn from scraps of Americana and throughout it run the lyrics of Francis Scott Key’s poem. This is the first stanza:

“O say can you see by the dawn’s early
Light peeled birch and folded brier
And western distance in September blue?
Either comedy or incomparable love
Holds our question posed by magic eyes
In a hung mist and red maple of the mind,
Imagination’s country and blizzard of gold
And chill Housatonic and the church
In the wild wood, the question neither yes
Nor no but what landlord of this sweet land
Set the hills which so proudly we hail.”

On March 12, 1862, the euphoniously named Lt. Silas S. Soule, who had been corresponding with Whitman, wrote to the poet:

“I think we made the biggest march on record, we understood that Sibley was making an attack on Fort Union the word came to us about sundown after the men had marched 40 miles and had not had their supper and they threw their hats in the air and swore they would march 40 miles farther before they slept and they did they started off singing the Star spangled banner, Red White & Blue and Yankee doodle so you can imagine what kind of material this Reg[iment] is composed of…”

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