February 8 Walt Whitman: O Captain! My Captain!

This week my city was ablaze in victory. Now, certainly it’s actually a minor thing; we won the Superbowl, a sports contest that matters only to Americans and only to those who care about American football. But for us it has a LOT of meaning. Here, it becomes important even when you try to avoid it. I would be at work on Superbowl Sunday and this championship football contest would be taking place in another city with two teams I barely know, yet everyone in the shop would be talking about it or getting ready for it; and everybody knew who was playing in the Superbowl, including those who planned on avoiding the whole thing. For the rest of the world, it’s the World Cup that matters and the exact same properties are involved (you know who is playing and where whether you care about it or not). Tomato, tomahto.

What I’m trying to get to is my topic for today “words”. Sports contests are like words, random things invented by humans and assigned their meaning. A word is powerful whether we want it to be or not. We are still amazed that poets and playwrights in medieval times were put to death if their words were seen to say spurious things against the kings. People still sue one another for liable and people work hard to keep stories out of newspapers.

There are words that are more important and powerful than others. “Love” always has a deeper, more meaningful context than “like”.

One of the team players for our team used the word “mediocre” to describe a player from an opposing team and himself, by contrast, as the “best” and this caused a media firestorm. Certainly, the American Press has little to do when the word “mediocre” is the sensationalized insult of the day, but if we look at this more in context, we can also ascertain a deeper meaning. For players who work hard, and strive all of their days, to be the best, “mediocre” can feel like the word “hack” or even “failure”. For the rest of us “mediocre” describes pretty much our every day existence, but not for football players; they worked very hard to get to the professionals and even harder to maintain their status. Others were calling this player, the one who originally cast out the insult, a “thug” and said that the tone of the word sounded as if they were using it as an alternative to the “n-word”. “I have worked too hard to get over those stereotypes, too raise myself and my people up, to be taken down by insult.” He invoked the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and Black America’s struggle for equality all with a word: “thug”.

This shows that word choice becomes very important, but a writer needs to get beyond the routine word if she wishes to make an impact. “Love” is a wonderful word, but becomes cliché when abstracted. So the writer needs to ask herself, “what does love mean specifically to me?” The loyalty of a dog’s eyes as he watches his master. The embrace of a beloved child. The soft lips of a lover. What’s more powerful “discrimination” or “fist pounding thug”?

Yesterday, I spoke of being careful to chose the right words, but here is one of the methods to do so. Pick the concrete over the abstract. Never say “flower” when you can pick a flower that is more meaningful to you and the context of your work, for instance “rose” or “African violet”. The textbook suggested “diaper’s years” instead of “infancy”. This is the challenge and the fun of poetry (and writing in general) to find specific words and ways of saying something that are meaningful to you, but not cliché – unique and surprising.

I picked this poem as a dedication to my triumphant team, but also an example of using the concrete to showcase that abstract feeling of victory, of dedication to a hero. When you read through it, notice the way in which the concrete is used to show the Captain’s heroism. Notice that it is specific to a certain time and event: “the flag is flung – for you the bugle trills….the ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done.” (In other words, this is the aftermath of a battle at sea and the speakers of the poem were victorious.) It also denotes a specific place: a ship. And that the Captain has sacrificed himself to win the battle. He is a hero.

O Captain! My Captain!
by Walt Whitman

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up – for you the flag is flung – for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths – for you the shores
a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

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About penneloppe

I like to write horror, dark fantasy and crime fiction. Sometimes, I'll write science fiction, but usually I like to write science fact. I also write screenplays and stage plays. My day job is office work. I live in Seattle and I have a cat.
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