Ed Folsom first heard Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” in 1963 on the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Folsom, now the Roy J. Carver Professor of English at the University of Iowa and editor of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, was in 11th grade at the time. He recounted the experience in 1998 when he was the featured speaker for the UI’s Presidential Lecture Series:
Then, in my English class, my teacher (Tom Dunford), walked into the room five minutes late, an unprecedented tardiness, stood behind the small lectern on his desk, and opened a copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, a book we were to study later that year, and read, with no introduction or explanation, Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” his great poem written on the occasion of Lincoln’s assassination, then closed the book and left the room. I didn’t understand a word of what I had heard. But I also knew, somehow and somewhere, that those odd words which never mention the event or the person they are responding to (Lincoln and the assassination are absent from the very poem that responds to them) were the only words that I heard that day that seemed appropriate. But what did that poem represent? I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now: it has remained for me the one Whitman poem that is an absolute mystery. But those words seemed more concerned with manifesting me in a process of grieving than with representing grief. The poem was somehow calling my grief into presence.
Whitman’s poem will be at the center of this year’s edition of MusicIC festival, presented by the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature organization. George Walker’s “Lilacs for Soprano and Piano” (originally for orchestra) will be performed as part of a free concert on June 17 at 7:30 p.m. at Trinity Episcopal Church in Iowa City.
Walker, born in 1922, became the first Black American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for music when “Lilacs” garnered the prize in 1996. The piece sets Whitman’s poem to music.
Folsom will discuss “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” and why Whitman’s poetry is often set to music in a free presentation on June 16 at 5:30 p.m. in Meeting Room A of the Iowa City Public Library. An additional excerpt from his 1998 lecture provides a potential preview of Folsom’s beautifully expressed consideration of the poem:
Its opening lines, you’ll recall, represent a spring day, “When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d, /… I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.” Only much later would I learn that Whitman was visiting his mother’s home in New York when he got the news of Lincoln’s death; he got up from the breakfast table, walked out into the dooryard, where lilacs were blooming that April day, and, gripped by grief, he inhaled deeply, and the scent of lilacs forever fused in his synesthetic memory with the news of Lincoln’s death, so that from that moment on, spring, the season of new beginnings, brought a sensory memory of death and grief, now bound permanently with birth and spring: “find myself always reminded of the great tragedy of that day,” he wrote, “by the sight and odor of these blossoms.” His aesthetic response to the tragedy was synesthetic, and that recycling affiliation of death and birth, grief-work and new beginnings, kept his response from ever becoming anesthetic. The smell of lilacs would always be the sniff of birth and the scent of death. And the poem required breath, a breathing reader, who would inhale air long after Whitman’s death and exhale grief. Whitman’s “Lilacs” were now, through the trick of metonymy, both flowers and poem, and the act of reading becomes, as it always is, a physical act of inhaling and exhaling.
Lilacs will be central to the entire June 17 concert, which will also feature Brahms’ Violin Sonata No. 2 and Sonatensatz in C minor; complementary vocal pieces “die Mainacht,” “wie Melodien zieht es mir,” “Feldeinsamkeit,” “Meine Liebe ist grün” and “Auf dem Kirchhofe”; and Rachmaninoff’s Lilacs for solo piano. The concert will feature violinist Tricia Park, pianist Dominic Cheli and soprano Faylotte Joy Crayton.
Park, Cheli and vocalist Meagan Amelia Brus will present MusicIC’s family concert on June 18 at the Iowa City Public Library. They will perform Debussy’s Clair de Lune, Copland’s “Hoe-Down” from Rodeo for violin and piano, and Alan Ridout’s Ferdinand the Bull, in partnership with the Iowa City Public Library children’s department.
All MusicIC events are free to attend and will be recorded by City Channel 4 and the Library Channel for later viewing.