“Walker’s Whitmanian Moment”

Margaret Walker’s poem “Southern Song” possesses various Whitmanian influences, from its strong sense of detail, its sense of crisis, and its focus on the unification of the body and soul. What interests me most though about this poem is not the very concrete setting she provides us, nor is it the Whitmanian relationship between the physical and spiritual. What I find most intriguing in this poem is the crisis it presents and the way in which it is presented.

The third and fourth stanzas take a sudden digression from the extremely concrete Southern picture that’s been painted to a more abstract and frightening place. Even though it’s obvious that the speaker is referring to the crimes committed in the Jim Crow South after the war – the lynchings, destruction of people’s homes, and the burning crosses of the KKK – the way in which she illustrates those offenders is ambiguous. She calls them “forms” and asks that they do not force her into a “nightmare full of oil and flame.” She goes on to describe the trespassers as “fiends” who would “stand between my body’s southern song.” The fact that the speaker suddenly switches into the vague realm of abstraction in describing her offenders lends a stronger feeling of tension and uncertainty in the lines.

Moreover, Walker neglects a key part of Whitman’s crisis-recovery poetry in that there’s no real recovery. The first two stanzas full of idyllic imagery, but in the third we transition to the poem’s crisis. Then it continues into the forth as the speaker cries that she wants no one to disrupt her “southern song,” but offers no actual resolution. Instead, she offers further explanation of what her southern song is, “the fusion of / the South, my body’s song and me.” Even though the poem ends on this beautiful, poetic note, it never resolves itself. Nothing is ever done about the “fiends” and “forms” that lie in wait for the speaker in the South. Even though this makes sense for the poet’s time, I wonder what impact this has on other readers. While I tend to enjoy stories that don’t have are neatly tied up with happy endings, I do find myself wanting more from this poem in one way or another.

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