I owe some of my enthusiasm for poetry to my 11th grade English teacher back at Marshall High School in Marshall, Missouri–Paul Hagedorn.
He devoted an inordinate amount of time that year to the study of poetry. Our major assignment for the whole year, as I recall, was two-fold. We were to create a poetry notebook in which we copied — and illustrated, if we desired — a good number of poems that spoke to our hearts.
He encouraged us to venture beyond the usual suspects. So, along with poems by Frost and Edward Arlington Robinson, I included lyrics by Paul Simon and Bob Dylan. Then, we were to pick one American poet from a prescribed list of lesser known poets, and write a lengthy term paper on our choice. (I choose John Crowe Ransom because I thought his name was cool. Incidentally, I’m was happy with my choice.)
Mr. Hagedorn passionately believed that Walt Whitman was the greatest poet that had ever lived and he did his best to infect his impressionable students with this enthusiasm. I dutifully bought a paperback copy of “Leaves of Grass,” and read the whole thing.
I failed to completely fall in love with Whitman. Some passages were interesting and hypnotic. I recognized some of the cadence of the King James Bible, which I was raised on. He clearly was making an ambitious attempt to encompass the breadth and depth of all of America in his work. I appreciated that he was attempting to do something had not been done before in American poetry. But I never could figure out why my teacher was such a Whitman nut.
One poem that did thrill me, however, was “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” I understood it was an elegy to President Abraham Lincoln, who was assassinated on April 14, 1864, just days after the end of the Civil War.
Lilacs were my mother’s favorite flower, and she had passed along that enthusiasm to me. So I was predisposed to be open to any poem about lilacs.
One other factor, just a few years earlier, America had celebrated the Centennial of the Civil War. I can remember fighting the Civil War during recess in grade school. Back in my hometown in the heart of “Little Dixie,” there were plenty of kids who had inherited Confederate sympathies from their families.
As the great-grandson of a Yankee soldier, I was clearly a Northern sympathizer. So, one year, I recall us dividing up and re-fighting great battles out on the playground.
Lincoln was a revered figure in my family. So, that made an elegy to him even more interesting.
As I re-read Whitman’s poem today, decades later, it feels a bit overdone. I had forgotten it was so long.
Just my opinion, but Old Walt could have used a good editor.
But here are those lines that are pure genius, and so beautiful that you think Whitman found them fully formed somewhere:
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,And thought of him I love.
It’s been a tough year for lilacs here in the Northwest. We had such a warm and early spring that many lilac bushes were tricked into blooming too early. Our premature spring was interrupted by some cold clear nights that nipped many lilacs in the bud.
Pity, because there is nothing quite like the heart-shaped leaf and the perfume of the lilac.