By: Stephen Cushman, Robert C. Taylor Professor of English
It’s as though a mischievous genie waggishly exaggerated the divine command to Noah: Bring two of everything. Not just male and female animals in pairs, but two coffee cups to fill, two doorknobs to grasp and turn, two rows of buttons on a shirt to fumble with, two wristwatch faces to decipher, two sets of icons on a computer screen or smart phone to try to click on or touch. It’s called “diplopia,” or double vision, combining Greek “diplo-” for “double” or “two-fold” (originally, a diploma was a document folded double, often carried by diplomats) and “-opia,” signifying a visual condition, as in myopia or presbyopia, and descending from ōps, Greek for “eye.” Whatever we call it, it’s usually no fun, after one has outgrown childhood experiments of crossing the eyes on purpose, and it’s often alarming and upsetting. True, it can be a symptom of nothing more serious than fatigue or, oh yes, one too many glasses of champagne at that wedding reception. But it can also accompany trauma, migraine, sinusitis, Lyme’s disease, vertigo, and many other serious conditions. Nobody wants to wake up seeing double involuntarily.
But seeing double–sometimes voluntarily, sometimes not–is a crucial ingredient of poetry. Look at a sunrise and think, Nice sunrise, and you’re on one page, but look at the sunrise and think, Rebirth, rejuvenation, second chance, resurrection, and you’re on another. In the second case, you’re on the page of what’s figurative rather than literal, what stands for itself and more than itself, something unseen or abstract, something otherwise hard to express. Poetry doesn’t have a monopoly on the figurative; it’s also a staple of good prose fiction, most religions, national symbolism (an eagle or a piece of cloth with stars and stripes on it), team mascots or icons (the Cavalier or the pair of crossed sabers), and all advertising campaigns designed to brand the consumer mind with a brand. Think of the tiger you associate with a particular gasoline–or is it a breakfast cereal? To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, most people think they have no use for poetry, and yet in our deep, often unconscious involvements with this kind of figurative double vision, we’re all poets all the time.
A poem begins for me when I look at something and see both it and something else. The Red List (LSU, 2014), for instance, began with thinking about the bald eagle, on the brink of extinction in the early 1960s because of DDT use, but now no longer on the endangered species register, also known as “the red list.” I happen to love bald eagles and seeing one sitting in a dead tree or coasting effortlessly on its huge flat wings is as good as seeing a sunrise, maybe better. The literal eagle is already plenty, abundant, bountiful. But then came seeing double; then came thinking about all the other endangerments in our world, not just environmental but social, economic, political, religious, educational psychological, emotional. Suddenly, the mischievous genie was hard at work. In particular, I found I couldn’t stop thinking about all the ways in which our young people–our children, our students–face many kinds of endangerment. And I couldn’t help hoping that, like the eagle, they’d come through endangerment and get off the red list. From this base The Red List grew into a fast-paced, book-length steeple-chase of associations, punctuated at regular intervals by rest-stop haikus. My aim was to weave the serious into the playful and produce another kind of doubleness, a two-fold tone.
Some historians may not like the connection, but history, like poetry, sees double as well. If you pull off the road to read that historical marker about Revolutionary War barracks or the Lewis and Clark expedition or a Civil War battle, you run the risk of seeing double. All at once, that roadside pull-off or parking lot or shopping center or tract development is no longer just itself; it’s also the place where the past took place, and still takes place before your mind’s eye. In advanced stages, this condition–call it “historiopia”–may even lead to seeing the present landscape as the less substantial one, the flitting ghost or phantom, while the eighteenth- or nineteenth- or whatever-century one, which has been there much longer than the new cineplex or carwash, is more solid and real.
My interest in the Civil War is older than my interest in poetry. It began when, as a first-grader during the Civil War centennial, I came across those uncanny black-and-white photographs in the American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War, first published in 1960 and still very much in print. Staring at those photographs, and the colorful maps that went with them, I stepped through the looking glass and have never crossed back. My first book about the war, Bloody Promenade: Reflections on a Civil War Battle, published by UVA Press in 1999, took the May 1864 Battle of the Wilderness, the nearest major battle to Charlottesville, and tried to think about all the kinds of writing through which our memories or imaginations can approach it: eye witness accounts, newspapers and weekly magazines, histories, memoirs, poems, and prose fictions. In the second book, Belligerent Muse: Five Northern Writers and How They Shaped Our Understanding of the Civil War (UNC, 2014), I took the writings of five major figures–Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, William Tecumseh Sherman, Ambrose Bierce, and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain–and tried to think about another kind of doubleness, about how each writer is both a narrator of military events and a self-conscious artist, using words, phrases, and various kinds of echoes to produce certain aesthetic effects. In many ways these aesthetic effects could be considered poetic–think of them as the poetry of history–and they have played a crucial role in shaping the ways we remember and imagine those events here at the end of the Civil War bicentennial.
When I joined the UVA faculty in 1982, I was writing about the history of poetry, especially American poetry, and now, thirty-three years later, it’s the poetry of history. But how different are they really? Poetry and history, history and poetry: for me they’ve become an inseparable pair of double visions. The genie won’t go back in the bottle.
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