Only in the past five or so years have I become a fan of Walt Whitman’s poetry. I’ve never disliked his work, but I also never could generate an enthusiasm for it either. I suspect that the primary reason I have mostly avoided Whitman is because of an influential teacher; my undergraduate days were hijacked by militant feminists (that’s another story). It’s also probably the case that long poems, meaning anything over 40 lines, make me anxious; I’m looking for the emotional knock-out punch of the lyric. I admire those poets who are able to sustain a lengthy piece, who are able to avoid what I see as the minefields capable of destroying the poem.
When I took up Whitman a few years ago, I did so as a service to my literature students. I reasoned that they certainly did need to read a little of such an important poet. I also reasoned that like their teacher, any poem over one page in length would send them screaming. So, I decided to use some of Whitman’s shorter lyrics, arguably more accomplished poems such as “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” “Cavalry Crossing a Ford,” and “A Noiseless Patient Spider.” As I was reading, I fell in love with “Cavalry Crossing a Ford.” In my reading of the poem, it is stylistically so atypical of Whitman: seven lines rather than seven pages, solely concrete imagery rather than philosophical statement, and most conspicuously, the absence of the expansive and perhaps narcissistic first person.
But in thinking about sharing the poem with the class, I began to doubt my students’ willingness or ability to recognize the brilliance of the poem. In a survey course, I don’t have time to provide so much of the historical and cultural context I believe is necessary for students to begin an appreciation for literature. And too, my personal aesthetic prohibits the use of such context in judging the merit of a poem. It took me a good five years into my teaching career to give up expecting my students to understand that there is craft involved in writing poetry. Nothing makes me angrier than students flat-out denying that the writing of anything good takes skill, especially poetry. A poem is how I feel. A poem is what my therapist told me to write to express my feelings.
I have two fantasies of teaching “Cavalry Crossing a Ford.” One fantasy is reality based while the other is perhaps delusional. Based on previous experience, I see myself reading the poem to the class, trying to curb my enthusiasm so I don’t freak out the students too much, and then asking for a volunteer to read the poem. After considerable silence, I offer to read the poem again and do. Then I ask questions. I always begin with what turns out to be the most difficult question: Did you like the poem? Why or why not? Then I proceed to the easier ones: Is the poem an open or closed form? Are there images in the poem? Is this a narrative poem? Finally, I ask students to explain how the form of the poem might reflect the subject of the poem. If there is silence, I squeeze my pen until the veins in my hand are ready to burst in order to ask, “What is the theme of the poem?” As the word theme crosses my lips, I generally have the urge to stab the palm of my hand with the pen that is in my death grip. When students hear theme, their ears do prick up a bit at the familiarity of the word. Silence.
“Cavalry Crossing a Ford” is not a difficult poem. My preferred fantasy of teaching the poem has students listening to the music of the poem: The hard “c” sounds in “Hark to the musical clank”; the long “i” sounds of “silvery river”; the alliteration of “flags flutter”; the lines lengths that linger. I want them to see the vivid images, the “arms flash in the sun”; “the splashing horses”; “the brown-faced men.” I want them to respond to the repeated imperative “Behold.” I want them to see the beauty of this scene before they see the beauty of a moment during a gruesome war, which is one of the things Whitman says to us in the poem.
One of the things I more than appreciate about Whitman’s shorter poems is his ability to share his vision, the paradox of being individual and communal simultaneously. Like ambivalence, the mind simply can’t live with paradox for long, and “Cavalry Crossing a Ford” delicately balances the two ways of being even in the last two lines of the poem where the single colors “Scarlet, and blue, and snowy white” form the many “guidon flags.”
Cavalry Crossing a Ford
A line in long array, where they wind betwixt green islands;
They take a serpentine course--their arms flash in the sun--Hark to the musical clank;
Behold the silvery river--in it the splashing horses, loitering, stop to drink;
Behold the brown-faced men--each group, each person, a picture—the negligent rest on the saddles;
Some emerge on the opposite bank--others are just entering the ford-- while,
Scarlet, and blue, and snowy white,
The guidon flags flutter gaily in the wind.