The Red Business: PTSD and The Poet

The representation of “real war” is more naturally expected in epics or novels than in a lyric poem or even a sequence of poems. But Walt Whitman is a rare hybrid, a lyric-narrative poet, and is necessarily aware that a war poem must visibly exhibit its primal archetype in realistic battle. His war poems can be read as a series urgently entering the war through different portals, each attempting to fill a different gap in the imagined panorama, each therefore reflecting the assumed partial inadequacy of the others, and the need for more. To read Drum-Taps, his collection of 1865, is to recognize how quickly Whitman realized the banality of his early jingoistic battle-cries and flag-wavings, not to speak of the suppression, in those early war poems, of what he called, with deadly accuracy, “the red business.” In 1861, when the Civil War began, Whitman was a man in his forties, a non-combatant who had never himself even been wounded. His most natural lyric genre was a poem spoken in the first person. Could he, should he, ethically assume the voice of an active soldier? Nor was he sure of the stance that he should take toward weapons and their wielders. Was he obliged to portray actual killing? He found comparably troubling questions everywhere in the composition of his war poetry.   In addition to such moral questions, formal questions came thronging, arising inevitably in the perplexities of representing battle. At what point should the poem enter the battle, and how much had the poem to accomplish before it could find an ending? What kind of battle should it present, in what large or small setting? Should it be seen in close-up or from a distance? Who will populate the battle, with what weapons, and in what choreography? How specific

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