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Here is John Stuart Mill in his Autobiography, reflecting on an emotional crisis in his early life, between 1826 and 1832:

I now began to find meaning in the things, which I had read or heard about the importance of poetry and art as instruments of human culture.
His crisis actually inhered in an upbringing and ongoing orientation focused almost exclusively on cultivation of the intellect or reasoning faculty, as he saw it. What he had come to realize was a missing quality not only in his interior life but in his philosphy regarding how to put thought into practice. Poetry would become a major vehicle by which he would both ground himself and orient his rational processes. While it is speculative, I wonder if such an enlightened perspective early in his development gave his inquiries via The Subjection of Women, On Liberty, and what became known as "The Negro Question," their eloquence and persuasive power. What I do believe is that poetry's foundational impact on Mill's development as a writer and thinker argue strongly for the authentic healing and transforming qualities inherent in poetry and the arts in general. This relates directly to poetry's (and the arts') role in facilitating Post-Traumatic Growth, as I hope to show as it pertains to my first diary on the subject..

While Mill never undervalued his education and training, with its focus on Reason, he discovered a means for introducing mental faculties into his intellectual framing that were then, as now, easily dismissed among elites. No doubt then, as now, such faculties then associated with "feminine" culture found difficult entry into more important, "masculine" discourse on politics and philosophy. But Mill did not disparage feeling qualities, nor did he provide them with a gender-based label:

I had now learnt by experience that the passing susceptibilities needed to be cultivated as well as the active capacities, and required to be nourished and enriched as well as guided. I did not, for an instant, lose sight of, or undervalue, that part of the truth which I had seen before; I never turned recreant to intellectual culture, or ceased to consider the power and practice of analysis as an essential condition both of individual and of social improvement But 1 thought that it had consequences which required to be corrected, by joining other kinds of cultivation with it. The maintenance of a due balance among the faculties now seemed to be of primary importance.
I would argue that in our lives, outside of the realm of thought or reflection, though later "treated" by it (in the person experiencing as well as others who try to help "translate" its impact) are experiences so horrific and traumatizing that intellect, or Reason, finds shaky ground in attempting to "capture" or interpret meaning. This is the realm in which poetry and the arts can reside (and spirituality, I believe), to attempt to provide meaning or no meaning, to simply express. This is where we marshall whatever faculty that is, adapted over millenia, to make sense of the insensible, the other-worldly. I'm not even sure what to call it. Joseph Conrad simply called it: The Horror, in Heart of Darkness.

While it will lengthen this diary considerably, for which I apologize, I feel it necessary to include an entire poem by Walt Whitman, both because of its age and timelessness, and because of its timeliness in discussions about PTSD or Post-Traumatic Growth. Mostly, I share it complete because of its power. Here is Walt Whitman in "The Wound Dresser," recounting his experiences comforting the wounded and dying at field hospitals during the Civil War:


An old man bending I come among new faces,
Years looking backward resuming in answer to children,
Come tell us old man, as from young men and maidens that love me,
(Arous’d and angry, I’d thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war,
But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d and I resign’d myself,
To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead;)
Years hence of these scenes, of these furious passions, these chances,
Of unsurpass’d heroes, (was one side so brave? the other was equally brave;)
Now be witness again, paint the mightiest armies of earth,
Of those armies so rapid so wondrous what saw you to tell us?
What stays with you latest and deepest? of curious panics,
Of hard-fought engagements or sieges tremendous what deepest remains?


O maidens and young men I love and that love me,
What you ask of my days those the strangest and sudden your talking recalls,
Soldier alert I arrive after a long march cover’d with sweat and dust,
In the nick of time I come, plunge in the fight, loudly shout in the rush of successful charge,
Enter the captur’d works—yet lo, like a swift running river they fade,
Pass and are gone they fade—I dwell not on soldiers’ perils or soldiers’ joys,
(Both I remember well—many of the hardships, few the joys, yet I was content.)

But in silence, in dreams’ projections,
While the world of gain and appearance and mirth goes on,
So soon what is over forgotten, and waves wash the imprints off the sand,
With hinged knees returning I enter the doors, (while for you up there,
Whoever you are, follow without noise and be of strong heart.)

Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in,
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground,
Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital,
To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return,
To each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss,
An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.

I onward go, I stop,
With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds,
I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable,
One turns to me his appealing eyes—poor boy! I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.


On, on I go, (open doors of time! open hospital doors!)
The crush’d head I dress, (poor crazed hand tear not the bandage away,)
The neck of the cavalry-man with the bullet through and through I examine,
Hard the breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye, yet life struggles hard,
(Come sweet death! be persuaded O beautiful death!
In mercy come quickly.)

From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand,
I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood,
Back on his pillow the soldier bends with curv’d neck and side falling head,
His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the bloody stump,
And has not yet look’d on it.

I dress a wound in the side, deep, deep,
But a day or two more, for see the frame all wasted and sinking,
And the yellow-blue countenance see.

I dress the perforated shoulder, the foot with the bullet-wound,
Cleanse the one with a gnawing and putrid gangrene, so sickening, so offensive,
While the attendant stands behind aside me holding the tray and pail.

I am faithful, I do not give out,
The fractur’d thigh, the knee, the wound in the abdomen,
These and more I dress with impassive hand, (yet deep in my breast a fire, a burning flame.)


Thus in silence in dreams’ projections,
Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals,
The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young,
Some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad,
(Many a soldier’s loving arms about this neck have cross’d and rested,
Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)

OK. So I'm not a dispassionate critic and admit to getting pretty misty after reading this. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that anyone who doesn't is probably beyond hope for understanding (read chickenhawk-Tea-Party-self-important-STOP before I rage). Here is the narrator as empath but not in some abstract, philosophical rumination but through recounting the events, describing what lies beyond the realm of one's everyday "reality." Here is the poet believably (via his identification with the sufferer) overcome by what his senses take in (sight, smell and touch), desiring not to turn away or sanitize the horror, but to encompass it. Here he courageously offers no platitudes, no patriotic sanctification. He offers severed limbs, crushed sculls, gasping breaths, shared tears, hugs and kisses. And if anything, that is where the "elevation" or whatever's possible of salvation lies. Here, I believe, is where the growth occurs, that which is necessary to incorporate the horror into one's lexicon, or one's mental roadmap, to make it possible to not only maneuver beyond the horrific, but to fashion that experience into something that can still preserve human dignity and spirit.

I would like to offer one last entry in this Post-Traumatic Growth series, if anyone's finds it interesting or useful. The day prior to election day this past November, right before I started subscribing to Daily Kos, I had two tickets to a poetry reading at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. My Sweetie couldn't go because she was preparing her polling place in Southeast, DC, that night, so we agreed that I give her ticket to the first person I saw in line before going in. The readers were Nikki Finney, who just won the National Book Award for Head Off & Split, and Brian Turner, the Iraq War veteran and highly acclaimed author of Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise. I met with both writers after the event and would like to continue the discussion of Post-Traumatic Growth and poetry's relationship to it, for readers and practioners. I hope that my brothers and sisters here will find it useful. Bless you all.

Originally posted to DKos Military Veterans on Fri Jan 25, 2013 at 10:16 AM PST.

Also republished by Military Community Members of Daily Kos and Community Spotlight.

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