Walt Whitman’s Drum-Taps and Poetry as Historical Data


Above is an article written about Walt Whitman’s Civil War poem “Drum-Taps”. It asks the question of why he imbedded the poem within the text of “Leaves of Grass” several years after he published it on it’s own. While I find the discussion too speculative and a lot like mental mastication for my taste, something about this article got me thinking about poetry and it’s significance as historical data, especially, since contemporary poetry is written by many people from all different walks in life and there is much to be preserved there. In fact, Whitman was one of those great trail blazing poets who contributed to the literary diversity that we take pleasure in today and will hopefully continue to enjoy in the future. Hopefully, who really knows; freedom is such a fickle blessing.

One of poetry’s true beauties is that it serves as both a historical and sociological primary source for anybody’s research and much of it accessible for free on the internet. If it’s not free, it’s contemporary and you will just have to pay for the book and support a living artist, who is probably doing their best, with limited resources, to curate a garden of truth, culture, and freedom, while keeping the seeds alive for the hope of future generations. You might not agree with me, but if you are reading this than you are benefitting from the work of those who did this kind of curating in the past.

Drum-taps is a perfect example of a great historical primary source.  It is one of the few pieces of literature contemporaneously written about the Civil War from the quotidian perspective. In other words, it was not written by an “out of touch” populous of politicians, aristocrats, and scholars. Nope, it was written by a philosophically libertarian man living in Manhattan while observing his city’s response to war. It’s full of shock mixed with an ordinariness that is so real it seems strange and almost satirical. He presents his world using sights, sounds, and the rhythm of a city’s inhabitants at the brink of uncertainty.  It’s the archaeology of one man’s soul, who is known for being the voice of the collective soul.

Drum-Taps is available to anyone who would like to read and interpret it on their own and I posted the link on a subsequent post since it seems I am not allowed to share two links in one post. Someone, please correct me if I am wrong.

Much of the history available to non-historians is the product of many revisions and interpretations, to the point, in my opinion, that the greater truth exists in edit histories instead of in the newly revised narrative. They are written, supported, and celebrated by people with an agenda. This is why I love primary sources like poetry, journals, photos…  They are to history what the discovery of T-Rex bones, Iceman, and DNA is to science. Only, they do not need to be dug-up or studied using special instruments, for they are right there at the touch of our fingertips – – for any truth-seeker to discover.

Drum-Taps is one of those primary sources. It is preservation of one man’s thoughts, at moment of their first spark 150 years ago. Yes, he edited them lots, but only to magnify and illuminate the spark so that his audience might witness it as fireworks.

If you are familiar with Whitman’s work and history,  you will know, he was antithesis of the stuffy, scholarly gent. He did not conform, nor did he live in an ivy league tower in isolation of the common man. He had no college degree and he self-published.  His ideas germinated from living amongst the bustling crowd of early urban life, as opposed from within the impenetrable stone walls of a quiet institution with a two hundred year old view.

Drum-taps is an essential document of Civil War history. So, if you know a Civil War historian who refuses to read poetry, this is the perfect opportunity to shame them.  However, seriously, I can’t imagine how this poem could be ignored by a Civil War historian.

Anyway…I do have a few questions.

Currently, there are thousands and thousands of poets out there documenting our times from their perspective and self-publishing on the net – – that is a ton of Invaluable data for future historians, however, it is all digital, meaning it could all disappear in an instant. And, all of those books that are only available on an e-reader can be wiped out without even a whiff of smoke.

Here is another nibble for thought; the worst,the most common, and self-indulgent poetry out there, might actually contain the most valuable data for future archives. Think about it.

Also, what do you think is the best way to preserve these data and better protect the History of our future?

One last question for anyone who is a historian or knows one: Do historians use poetry as a data source?


What Did I Love ~ By Ellen Bass

This has become one of my most favorite poems. This poem pushes us to confront one of the least attractive realities of existence- where are food comes from. It achieves this by stripping away our blinders and luring us deep into what is considered repulsive by clothing it with seductive or comforting imagery using lines, such as these, “Blood like liquor” or “Stainless steel altars.”

Normally, we would instinctively turn away from such scenes, and if we happened to be the executioner of cornish hens, we would find a way to anesthetize ourselves while in the act. However, this poem forces us to confront it by employing a sort of poetic wizardry. I am often brought to tears by it.

Of course, filters are there to help us sugarcoat reality, enough to keep us from going mad. However, a good poet, or poetic writer, is conditioned and has worked to develop fortitude to stare reality right in the eyes. She must be both sensitive and strong, and courageous too. They risk madness all the time. But we need them because they keep us from checking out completely. They also show us the beauty we overlooked while we were averting our gaze.

As a society, we have become addicted to filters and applying them to every problem whether they are needed or not. We watch TV, take drugs, play video games, photoshop our selfies and experience, practice too much politeness, and willful ignore the violence that underlies our very existence. We also believe in the possibility of a perfection that is wholly light and aesthetic because we are blind to the actual mechanics of life, which can sometimes be dark and ugly. However, perfection is achieved through the balance of the two. I personally believe we are perfect and I think this poem shows us the other side of perfection.

I personally find it to be a very liberating poem because it helps us to see who we are in relation to reality instead of the stage.

I pulled the text of the following poem from the Author’s website. There is a link at the bottom of the page.

What Did I Love

What did I love about killing the chickens? Let me start
with the drive to the farm as darkness
was sinking back into the earth.
The road damp and shining like the snail’s silver
ribbon and the orchard
with its bony branches. I loved the yellow rubber
aprons and the way Janet knotted my broken strap.
And the stainless-steel altars
we bleached, Brian sharpening
the knives, testing the edge on his thumbnail. All eighty-eight Cornish
hens huddled in their crates. Wrapping my palms around
their white wings, lowering them into the tapered urn.
Some seemed unwitting as the world narrowed;
some cackled and fluttered; some struggled.
I gathered each one, tucked her bright feet,
drew her head through the kill cone’s sharp collar,
her keratin beak and the rumpled red vascular comb
that once kept her cool as she pecked in her mansion of grass.
I didn’t look into those stone eyes. I didn’t ask forgiveness.
I slid the blade between the feathers
and made quick crescent cuts, severing
the arteries just under the jaw. Blood like liquor
pouring out of the bottle. When I see the nub of heart later,
it’s hard to believe such a small star could flare
like that. I lifted each body, bathing it in heated water
until the scaly membrane of the shanks
sloughed off under my thumb.
And after they were tossed in the large plucking drum
I loved the newly naked birds. Sundering
the heads and feet neatly at the joints, a poor
man’s riches for golden stock. Slitting a fissure
reaching into the chamber,
freeing the organs, the spill of intestines, blue-tinged gizzard,
the small purses of lungs, the royal hearts,
easing the floppy liver, carefully, from the green gall bladder,
its bitter bile. And the fascia unfurling
like a transparent fan. When I tug the esophagus
down through the neck, I love the suck and release
as it lets go. Then slicing off the anus with its gray pearl
of shit. Over and over, my hands explore
each cave, learning to see with my fingertips. Like a traveller
in a foreign country, entering church after church.
In every one the same figures of the Madonna, Christ on the Cross,
which I’d always thought was gore
until Marie said to her it was tender,
the most tender image, every saint and political prisoner,
every jailed poet and burning monk.
But though I have all the time in the world
to think thoughts like this, I don’t.
I’m empty as I rinse each carcass,
and this is what I love most.
It’s like when the refrigerator turns off and you hear
the silence. As the sun rose higher
we shed our sweatshirts and moved the coolers into the shade,
but, other than that, no time passed.
I didn’t get hungry. I didn’t want to stop.
I was breathing from some bright reserve.
We twisted each pullet into plastic, iced and loaded them in the cars.
I loved the truth. Even in just this one thing:
looking straight at the terrible,
one-sided accord we make with the living of this world.
At the end, we scoured the tables, hosed the dried blood,
the stain blossoming through the water.

What Did I Love