«A Dissertation by SARAH ELIZABETH HART Submitted to the Office of Graduate Studies of Texas A&M University in partial fulfillment of the requirements ...»
Cathy Caruth suggests that to narrate trauma is itself a kind of ethical imperative.
She explains that survival itself can change one's existential attitude about one's relations to others and oneself. Caruth explains how surviving the death of a loved one changes a person from an attitude that responds to the "living" beloved to an attitude that "receives the very gap between the other's death and his own life...." (106). Theorizing through Freud and Lacan, Caruth suggests that this "survivor" attitude entails "an impossible responsibility of consciousness in its own originating relation to others, and specifically to the deaths of others" (104). The death of the other seems to compel me not only to "tell the story" of the other, affirming her life, but also to tell my own story of "what it means not to see" the other's death because of my own wish for her living presence (Caruth 105). In Wilbur's poem, the boy's personification of the snowman positions the boy himself as the survivor, since he is the one who looks out at the storm from a safe shelter. This view of the boy as survivor, as one who imagines himself needing to account for his snowman's death, may offer an appeal to readers to identify with this "survivor" stance, and perhaps even to recognize the kind of ethical imperative conveyed through the structure of responsibility it seems to share with Levinasian subjectivity itself. Such coincidences between poetic attitudes toward trauma and literal traumatic events that involve physical suffering validate poetry as a particularly appropriate medium for expressing one's responses to trauma and thus also for coping with the enduring effects of traumatic events.
Elegy vs. Anti-Elegy Even as our responses may all express, to greater and lesser degrees, the ethical essence of subjectivity, our responses themselves may not be equally ethical. In "'Grief without Grievance': Robert Frost's Modern Elegy," Eleanor DesPrez outlines Derrida's critique of "the very act of commemorating another who has died," which "entails limiting, even destroying, that other..." (30). DesPrez finds Frost "anticipat[ing] Derrida's resistance to reducing the dead to any sort of loot for the living" in poems like "The Spoils of the Dead," which convey his "strict poetic and ethical standard" that "death should occasion sorrow and dread, not pleasure, and so the 'spoils of the dead' should not be aestheticized in poems" (DesPrez 34). We may recognize this "anti-elegiac principle" in the affective restraint expressed in "Desert Places," in which the resonances of grief are subtle and do not even seem to belong to the mourner himself (DesPrez 34).
We may identify "After great pain" with this "anti-elegiac principle" as well, given the speaker's restrained emotions (DesPrez 34).
When Frost does grieve poetically, as DesPrez demonstrates in "To E.T.," his speaker ultimately mourns for his own loss. This elegy for Edward Thomas, Frost's poet friend who died in World War I, ends with Frost's speaker "ask[ing] how the end of the war can even be real 'If I was not to speak of it to you/And see you pleased once more with words of mine?'" (DesPrez 37; Frost qtd. in DesPrez 37). DesPrez explains that "the loss he cannot assimilate is his loss of a witness to his own life and work" (37). This poem may also connote, however, a Levinasian sense of loss of "the other" who "assigns meaning unto the self" (Spargo, Vigilant Memory 47). Even a "mourner's selfinvolvement," like that of Frost's speaker and Wilbur's boy, may express aspects of Levinasian responsibility to the other. This kind of affective mourning may serve other ethical purposes as well in that it may help us actualize our "emotional opportunities" and "release a suitable emotion, persuade us that we are adequate to life, and so assist us to live some more;" Wilbur claims, "A prudent heart will not despise such aids" (Responses 92-93). I suggest that Wilbur's emphasis on not allowing our "emotional opportunities" to pass us by may implicitly emphasize our human agency—our ability "to be able" (Responses 92; "Time" 42). This agency allows us to act on an experiential level, allowing us to actualize our ethical responsibility to the other. Anti-elegies like Frost's "Desert Places" and Dickinson's "After great pain" may represent ethical mourning by attempting to preserve the other's alterity. Affective elegies, like Wilbur's "Boy at the Window" may represent ethical mourning insofar as they help readers actualize their "emotional opportunities," appealing to their human agency on which their responsible actions depend (Wilbur, Responses 92).
Poetry as a Healing Process Wilbur identifies poetry as a deeply ethical genre that is defined in part by its consoling effects. He explains, "My first poems were written in answer to the inner and outer disorders of the Second World War and they helped me, as poems should, to take ahold of raw events and convert them, provisionally, into experience" (Wilbur, Responses 152). Much like the personal and cultural difficulties surrounding Dickinson's and Frost's poems, war seems to have motivated Wilbur's poetic turn. Poetry is most significantly a response to the loss of order (which entails the loss of relations) for Wilbur, as he expresses to Stanley J. Kunitz, "One does not use poetry for its major purposes, as a means of organizing oneself and the world, until one's world somehow gets out of hand. A general cataclysm is not required; the disorder must be personal and may be wholly so, but poetry, to be vital, does seem to need a periodic acquaintance with the threat of Chaos" (Wilbur qtd. in Hill 21). Loss of order thus seems to be an important connection between life and poetry for Wilbur.
Philip White suggests that poetry serves a similar function of ordering experience for Frost, for whom poetry was "clarification of life... a momentary stay against confusion" (Frost qtd. in White 250). Such "confusion" may well have seemed like a matter of life or death to Frost, haunted by his mother's "incipient insanity," and the mental illnesses that underlay his sister's and his daughter's institutionalizations, his son's suicide, and his own "tendency toward depression" (Parini 9, 199, 375, 332, 444). In "The Writer," Wilbur concludes his description of his daughter writing a short story by telling her "It is always a matter, my darling,/Of life or death, as I had forgotten" ("The Writer" 31-32). Writing poetry thus seems to be nothing less than a kind of essential, existential affirmation of a person's presence against an impending threat of losing oneself. Levinas's account of our responsibility to the other shows us that these existential issues are ethical at heart and are also the very threshold of subjectivity itself.12 Rosen and Weishaus affirm lyric poetry's healing capacity. Healing, for Rosen and Weishaus, involves "becoming whole" in part by "'sacrific(ing)... the ego to the Self, a higher principle'" (5; Rosen qtd. in Rosen and Weishaus 5). Death can be an important part of this process since the death of the ego can help one develop "a larger life" (Rosen and Weishaus 5). Rosen describes their book The Healing Spirit of Haiku as "not a self-help book... but rather a non-self (beyond the ego) healing volume that ideally helps one to realize that we are alone, yet interconnected" (2). Both Rosen and Weishaus express how much reading and writing haiku has helped them heal; Weishaus claims that "every haiku is a prescription for a larger life" because of haiku's
12. Frost's and Wilbur's lives literally coincided in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At Harvard, Wilbur finished his Masters in 1947 and became an Assistant Professor in 1950 (Hill 13). Wilbur's wife remembers "late evenings in Cambridge when she and the younger poet lounged on the floor at Frost's house, reciting to the now-old man poem after poem from his own work" (Michelson 29). Michelson notes that this personal connection informs Wilbur's "Homage to R. F.," entitled "Seed Leaves," and this poem of Wilbur's has inspired several scholarly comparisons between Frost and Wilbur, including commentary by Donald Hill and John B. Hougen in addition to Michelson.
Frost also had ongoing professional associations with Amherst College, where Wilbur earned his B.A. in 1942 ("Robert Frost and Amherst;" Hill 13). Amherst College was in fact founded by Emily Dickinson's grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson, and Dickinson herself spent the majority of her life in her family's Amherst home (Pollak 20, 24-25). These biographical coincidences underlie stylistic comparisons both between Frost and Wilbur, such as those by Philip White, Allan Sullivan, and Peter Harris, in addition to comparisons between Wilbur and Dickinson, as made Donald Hill, Ralph J.
Mills, Jr., Bruce Michelson, and John Gery. Rodney Stenning Edgecombe observes that like Dickinson, Wilbur "undertakes journeys into nothingness that have the semblance of a normal outing" (139). Indeed Wilbur himself summarizes the "sentiment of lack" that he recognizes in Dickinson's oeuvre in a speech he gave in her honor at Amherst in 1959, affirming the similarities of both place and purpose that resonate in amidst Dickinson's, Wilbur's, and Frost's poetics of loss (Responses 16).
"[c]ompunded wholeness (healing)... and emptiness (non-being/being)" (5). In their "Feeling Death" section, Rosen and Weishaus explain that writing poetry helped them cope with their encounters with death; Rosen describes how tears ended his melancholic, "deadening writer's block," and Weishaus survived his near-death illness by "scribbling in [his] notebook" all night (12-13). Writing, even if only incoherent "scribbling," helped Weishaus to face death in the moment before he narrated his story to readers.
Similarly, Mell McDonnell relied on Emily Dickinson's lyric "'Hope' is a thing with feathers" as she struggled to survive the United Airlines Flight 232 crash in July
1989. McDonnell describes how, when the captain announced the blown-out engine, fragmented thoughts of "[o]ld prayers, old poems, and thoughts of my family race[d] through my head," along with the question, "What's the right way to die?" (65). Amidst her chaotic thoughts, the "Emily Dickinson poem [rose] to the surface" (65). McDonnell conveys the trauma of her experience through the fragmented, present-tense style of her narrative, through which she weaves fragments of Dickinson's poem. Although McDonnell did not write a poem or the narrative in the moment she faced death like Weishaus wrote in his notebook, she still remembered Dickinson's poetry, the rhymes and rhythms of which were a source of life-sustaining order amidst the chaos of the crash—and it is only after the crash that she can retrospectively create a narrative about the event. McDonnell's anecdote suggests that lyric repetition may not only express incoherent un-narratable images, as Sychterz suggests, but may also function as a mnemonic device, allowing poetry readers like McDonnell to rely on snippets of order in other writers' words when encounter their own moments of incoherent distress.
Insofar as lyric poetry as a genre may help us cope with loss, Wilbur's "Boy at the Window" seems to be a rich emotional resource for readers dealing with loss. The loss of connection between the snowman and the boy—and the boy's loss of connection with himself, his unawareness of his own acts of personification and projection—make loss a central theme of Wilbur's poem. The loss of connection between the snowman and the boy, and their respective gestures of mourning, seem to depend in part on each character's narcissistic projection of himself onto the other, as, for example, when the boy projects his own fear of the winter weather onto the snowman. Loss of connection, including misunderstanding of an other, may be the cause of much of our grief, Wilbur seems to suggest in line with Hopkins. The boy's and the snowman's grief and sense of loss nevertheless become a common ground of connection between the boy and the snowman and the reader who sympathize with his sadness. Wilbur suggests that love, fear—and even wonder, as Nadel proposes—are all connected to loss, an appeal that complicates our assumptions that loss turns only on affects of mourning and grief by demonstrating that loss may in fact have many faces. Thus Wilbur seems to appeal to a broad, diverse audience of readers who may have had many kinds of experiences of and responses to loss, experiences that exceeded stereotypical, even sentimental accounts of mourning. Wilbur's depiction of deep and diverse affects of loss counters Dickinson's and Frost's illustrations of affect's absence, and together these poets represent a continuum of various ways in which affect may be both present and absent in the face of loss.
Epideictic Rhetoric as Poetry's Healing Power As readers participate in substantiating personal presence in Frost's, Dickinson's, and Wilbur's poems, we may recognize the poems' potential to comfort readers and writers alike. In A Rhetoric of Motives, Kenneth Burke identifies both external and internal audiences, suggesting that "a man can be his own audience, insofar as he, even in his secret thoughts, cultivates certain ideas or images for the effect he hopes they may have upon him" (38). Given the personal and cultural hardships surrounding both Frost and Dickinson when they composed their respective lyrics, we may infer that these authors wrote poems in "hopes" that their poetic images would have a comforting "effect" on themselves (Burke, RM 38). Gregory Orr argues, "Many of Dickinson's greatest poems are tiny dramas of survival... The writing of poems is how she survived" (13). This life-sustaining effect of Dickinson's poetry also applies to her readers, who "can also participate in this vitalizing survival by reading her poems...
with lyric identification" through which "her survival becomes our survival" (Orr 13).
Orr names this effect "the intimate rescue mode of the personal lyric," which suggests that Frost and Wilbur and other lyricists may have similar effects on their readers, too (13). Lyric poetry like Frost's, Dickinson's, and Wilbur's thus seems capable of having the same consoling effects on readers that writers may hope to craft for themselves. As Orr suggests, such similar effects may create personal relationships between writers and readers across distances of time, space, and experience (26). By invoking personal connections across such distances, these lyrics seem to embody Jeffrey Walker's definition of epideictic as "speaking across boundaries persuasively..." (330).