Mourn­ing be­comes elec­tronic

Po­etry that com­forts the bro­ken heart gives way to the dig­i­tal el­egy

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By Suzanne Fields

weep for Adon­ais — he is dead! Oh, weep for Adon­ais!” These open­ing lines of Percy Bysshe Shel­ley’s el­egy for the poet John Keats could be a dirge for our times. It’s a poem about a young man whose petals were “nipp’d” be­fore the wind blew them away, a poet who died “be­fore the prom­ise of the fruit.”

Not so long ago it was a poem stud­ied by high-school schol­ars as a re­flec­tion of ro­man­tic lyri­cism, a po­etic form to mourn, to ex­pe­ri­ence grief with words of so­lace, to vent anger through po­etic im­agery, pow­er­ful metaphors and sim­i­les to lament loss and ex­press rage, sad­ness and help­less­ness con­fronting the death of a young man or young woman with prom­ise and the years ahead to re­deem such prom­ise.

“Woe is me,” wails the poet.

“Woe is we,” echo­ing the un­speak­able tragedy at Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas High School in Park­land, Fla.

We don’t live in a time when tears find lyri­cal so­lace. How can we be com­forted when 17 stu­dents and adults who tried to pro­tect them die in a mas­sacre or­ches­trated and played out by a teenage mad­man. How do we ex­press our anger, an­guish and frus­tra­tion mul­ti­plied by the num­bers of fam­ily, friends — an en­tire na­tion — who fol­lowed the de­tails of the tragedy on mul­ti­ple meth­ods of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, imag­in­ing the cries and whis­pers of those hud­dled in hid­ing as shots rang out in their hall­ways. Adrenalin screams “do some­thing, do some­thing, and do it now, ” and back comes a ca­coph­ony of voices of politi­cians and pol­i­cy­mak­ers as if shouted from the Tower of Ba­bel.

We look for an­swers, for so­lu­tions, for peo­ple and places to blame in a po­lar­ized cul­ture where ar­gu­ment for one point of view quickly de­mo­nizes those who dare to hold a dif­fer­ent one.

The mega­phone of mal­odor­ous mes­sages criss­cross in con­ver­sa­tions. But deeply felt emo­tions find few out­lets. Rea­soned dis­course is dif­fi­cult in a deeply di­vided coun­try when the peo­ple who live here are more con­cerned with at­tack not cre­ation, the clever put-down down rather than the en­cour­ag­ing word. Scor­ing ver­bal points is more fun than craft­ing work­able pol­icy.

Some cry to nar­row the Sec­ond Amend­ment right to own a gun, oth­ers to put the cra­zies in the asy­lum to pre­vent them from get­ting guns. No­body knows ex­actly how to do that, and still oth­ers find an an­swer in arm­ing teach­ers, many of whom don’t want to be armed. When Sarah Lerner, a teacher of se­nior English and jour­nal­ism at Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas High School, heard the pro­posal to re­quire teach­ers to carry a gun in their class­rooms, she de­murred. “I wouldn’t ex­pect the first re­spon­ders to come in and teach Shakespeare, and I shouldn’t be ex­pected to take down an ac­tive shooter with a gun.” She de­scribed to New Yorker magazine how many of her stu­dents re­ported the tragedy in real time on so­cial me­dia. “This is what we teach the kids. To get the story, to doc­u­ment the story.”

So this is not the time for the po­etry that stirs emo­tions. Ele­gies have be­come dig­i­tal as tragedies be­come in­stant news. Mourn­ing be­comes elec­tronic. Sad­ness is sac­ri­ficed in the search for quick so­lu­tions.

To sift and sort through the so­cial me­dia that ig­nites in­stant con­flict be­tween the red and the blue in 140 char­ac­ters, a grass­roots bi­par­ti­san or­ga­ni­za­tion called “Bet­ter An­gels” has emerged, tak­ing its name from Lin­coln’s First In­au­gu­ral ad­dress, where he urged us to find some­thing bet­ter within us and within the in­sti­tu­tions that we can build to­gether. Bet­ter An­gels posts es­says about po­lar­ized po­si­tions on is­sues such as im­mi­gra­tion, health­care and of course, in the cur­rent sea­son, guns. The An­gels stretch to find a com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor and the elu­sive com­mon sense every­one craves. The devil in the de­tails howls at our clum­si­ness in bring­ing red and blue Amer­i­cans to­gether into a work­ing al­liance, “by build­ing new ways to talk to one an­other, par­tic­i­pate to­gether in public life, and in­flu­ence the di­rec­tion of the na­tion.”

They warn against the heated lan­guage and name call­ing that ap­peal more to emo­tion than rea­soned think­ing. Par­ti­sans on ei­ther side are en­cour­aged to take off their blink­ers, to quit cherry-pick­ing facts and statis­tics that dis­tort rea­son. The An­gels cau­tion against triv­i­al­iz­ing lan­guage so that it re­in­forces bias. Those on each side are urged to lis­ten for clues to what every­one can agree on.

It’s an ide­al­is­tic at­tempt — some would say naive — to im­prove a cul­ture in splin­tered times when pes­simism reigns. Nev­er­the­less, it’s an at­tempt to find a dif­fer­ent way to mourn the dead at Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas High, in the hope ar­tic­u­lated in a pas­sage from an­other Lin­coln speech, “that we here highly re­solve that these dead shall not have died in vain.” With Con­gress back in town, we’ll need all the bet­ter an­gels we can find.

Par­ti­sans on ei­ther side are en­cour­aged to take off their blink­ers, to quit cher­ryp­ick­ing facts and statis­tics that dis­tort rea­son.

Suzanne Fields is a colum­nist for The Wash­ing­ton Times and is na­tion­ally syn­di­cated.


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