American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Archive for February 2009

Pavese’s Whitman

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The Italian writer Cesare Pavese wrote his thesis on Walt Whitman at the University of Turin in 1930. He subsequently revised the text for publication (drawing in part on input from Benedetto Croce, one of the best-known critics and philosophers in the world at that time). But no publisher was found, and Pavese was forced to reduce his book to a single essay. The long process of sifting may explain why the essay is so good.* Here is an excerpt: Read the rest of this entry »


Written by Ben Friedlander

February 20, 2009 at 3:03 pm

Emily Dickinson’s “Suez” Crisis

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(part three of an essay; part two is here; part one is here)

Susan Gilbert Dickinson

Susan Gilbert Dickinson

I want to take up a remark left unexplained in part one of this essay, which focused on Emily Dickinson and Egypt by way of a brief, cryptic note sent by the poet to her sister-in-law Sue, probably in September 1882. That was the date of the Battle of Tel el-Kebir, fought between British troops and Arab nationalists. Dickinson makes reference to that battle in her note, signing her name with the title of the Egyptian governor (“Khedive”) instead of with “Emily.” The note is witty, and its wit lights up an event that most readers of Dickinson will not know. Lit up in this way, moreover, the event becomes a hole in time through which Dickinson’s own historicity becomes more visible.

With any other poet, this historicity would hardly be worth remarking, but Dickinson’s withdrawal from public life and the loftiness of her habitual concerns makes it necessary even still to say that she was interested in world affairs, even if only as the basis for one of her jokes. She was, emphatically, a creature of society. The joke is proof of that, and not only because of its topical concern. Jokes are the most social of all speech acts, the very opposite of the solitary writing for which Dickinson is best known. They are in effect a testing of the social contract’s looser provisions; when successful, they ratify the contract with laughter. The assent of the governed find its truest parallel in the ungovernable assent of the amused.

But what society is involved in this joke? In my previous reading, I remarked in passing that Dickinson’s ultimate subject is probably not Egypt. I did not elaborate on this point, but did suggest that her comment was likely intended as an illumination of something having to do with the note’s recipient, Sue, whose name, I added, is echoed in the cause of the Egyptian crisis: Suez.

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Written by Ben Friedlander

February 15, 2009 at 11:50 pm

For a Commonplace Book 1

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All bent one way like flickering flame,
Each blade caught sunlight as it came,
Then rising, saddened into shade;
A changeful, wavy, harmless sea,
Whose billows none could bitterly
Reproach with wrecks that they had made.

Not all the sorrow man hath known,
Not all the evil he hath done,
Have ever cast thereon a stain.
It groweth green and fresh and light
As in the olden garden bright,
Beneath the feet of Eve and Cain.

— from “A Tuft of Grass” by Emma Lazarus (written when she was 17 and published in her first book, Admetus)

Written by Ben Friedlander

February 5, 2009 at 1:58 am

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Poems of Places 3

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Khosru Observes Shirin Bathing, 1431

"Khosru Observes Shirin Bathing," miniature from the manuscript "Khamsa" by Nisami, 1431

From Poems of Places, vol. 23, Asia: Persia, India, Chinese Empire, Japan (Boston: Houghton, Osgood and Company, 1878), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:


On lofty Beysitoun the lingering sun
Looks down on ceaseless labors, long begun;
The mountain trembles to the echoing sound
Of falling rocks that from her sides rebound.
Each day, all respite, all repose, denied,
Without a pause the thundering strokes are plied;
The mist of night around the summits coils,
But still Ferhâd, the lover-artist, toils.
And still, the flashes of his axe between,
He sighs to every wind, “Alas, Shireen!”…

— opening of “Mount Beysitoun” by Nisami (tr. William Rounseville Alger)

The poem is prefaced with the following summary:

Ferhâd was a sculptor of transcendent genius, who, from his passionate love for Shireen, was a troublesome rival to Khosru. The king, to get rid of his presence by engaging him in an impossible task, promised that if he would, unaided, cut through the impassable mountain of Beysitoun a channel for a river, and hew all the masses of rock into statues, the lovely maid he adored should be the reward of his labors. The slave of love accepted the condition. The enamored statuary commenced his work, crying, every time he struck the rock, “Alas, Shireen!”

Written by Ben Friedlander

February 3, 2009 at 12:06 pm

Are You an Astor? No. I’m a Whitman.

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DeMille cover Last week I read The Gold Coast by Nelson DeMille, about a Mafia don on the North Shore of Long Island, the same setting as The Great Gatsby. But the book’s most delicious twist on literary precedent is not the setting, but the blueblood narrator, John Sutter, a Wall Street lawyer whose middle name is Whitman.

Early on there is a scene in which Sutter takes a brief Rabbit, Run-like flyer on his life, ending up in a working class bar. He’s asked there by a biker, “Do you live around here?” Then comments to the reader:

You have to understand that even in jeans and sweatshirt, unshaven, and with a Bronco outside, John Whitman Sutter was not going to pass for one of the boys, especially after I opened my preppie mouth. You understand, too, that there was deeper meaning in that question. I replied, “Latting-town.”

“La-di-da,” he responded musically.

I’m honestly glad there is no class animosity in this country, for if there were, the leather gentleman would have been rude.

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Written by Ben Friedlander

February 1, 2009 at 4:11 pm