Saturday, July 09, 2016

`When a Just Man Dies'

The plan was to leave early this morning for Dallas, where my youngest son starts a week of music camp on Sunday. Michael, David and I would meet my oldest son, Josh, who lives in Austin, at the Dallas motel I booked for the weekend. As of Friday, the motel, little more than two blocks from the scene of Thursday’s ambush, is inaccessible, as police have cordoned off the crime scene. None of us has ever been to Dallas, and we had planned to visit Dealey Plaza today.

In 1964, less than a year after the assassination of President Kennedy, Basic Books published Of Poetry and Power: Poems Occasioned by the Presidency and by the Death of John F. Kennedy. The editors, Erwin A. Gilkes and Paul Schwaber, assemble seventy-eight poems, most of them very bad. In their introduction, after noting the flood of poetry written following Lincoln’s assassination almost a century earlier, the editors tell us, “If traditional elegiac forms are no longer available, elegiac feeling and expression still are.”

And that’s the problem. Nearly every poem in the collection is not about the assassination but the poet’s reaction to it, his “elegiac feeling.” The consistent object is a demonstration of the poet’s mournful sensitivity. Pomposity and bathos vie for dominance. The degeneration of poetry and literary standards in general was already well underway half a century ago. Typical is Lewis Turco’s “November 22, 1963,” which begins:  “Weeping, I write this: You are dead.” And Allen Ginsberg’s inept and indecent “Journals Nov. 22, ’63”: “Macnamara [sic] chill / Long nosed Oswald suspect in Dallas of half mast pro Castro / assassination.” And William Butler’s infantile “November 25, 1963”: “Drums, drums, I too am dead. / I breathe no breath, but only dread.”

Robert Frost (dead ten months before the president) makes a posthumous appearance with “The Gift Outright,” not among his finest efforts, but it was the poem he read from memory at Kennedy’s inauguration.  Even W.H. Auden’s “Elegy for J.F. K.” is minor stuff, though the final stanza seems worth remembering:

“When a just man dies,
Lamentation and praise,
Sorrow and joy, are one.”

[Update: We're off to Dallas.]   


Denkof Zwemmen said...

Whitman's "O Captain! My Captain" is more like it. Yes?

Mudpuddle said...

Texas, in my experience, is a good place to be from; be careful...