Mourning becomes electronic
Poetry that comforts the broken heart gives way to the digital elegy
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.