American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Archive for May 2009

Notes for a Library of Nineteenth-Century American Poetry (part two)

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(See part one for context.)

A list! Or rather several lists ― actually just two, one short, the other long ― of essential books of nineteenth-century American poetry, with “essential” remaining blissfully unexplained, at least for now, so as to permit the inclusion of just about anything that interests me. But then, isn’t interest essential when it comes to poetry?

The short list will be twenty-five items long, with at least one item from each decade and no author represented more than once. I have it in mind, however, to shrink this list to ten and use it as the basis for a syllabus. Going in the other direction, the long list will include fifty items, at least two from each decade and multiple titles from individual authors permitted (temptation may force me to set a cap). I have a feeling, however, that fifty will not be enough to accommodate the really weird, really obscure stuff, and why bother with a long list if it sticks to what is already known? (To give some perspective: the Library of America anthology covering this period has nearly 150 poets.) So I’m thinking a list of one hundred titles will also be needed.

Call it a thought experiment, or geek party game. Either way, the rules will be simple:

  • No collected or selected works
  • Every book must have an original publication date in the nineteenth century (1801-1900)
  • Every decade must be represented (at least one book from each on the short list; at least two on the long list; the list of ten is exempted)
  • Multiple books from a single author on the long list only

Commentary and/or reasoning about the choice optional.

Since my aim here is to take the measure of the century’s poetic cultures, some effort at breadth is necessary, but I am not sure how to codify that into a rule. Anyhow, inconsistency is inevitable. Some poets will appear in their maturity, others in their youth, and this will be a result of publication histories as much as any balance of interest in their work. My rules will also force me to make certain decisions: push me to choose a book from one decade instead of another, or lead me to diminish one poet’s importance and raise up another’s. I can live with that.

I am well aware that this list will miss many important works. First of all such posthumous publications as Frederick Goddard Tuckerman’s “The Cricket,” which Witter Bynner discovered in manuscript and published in 1950 through the Cummington Press (which was bringing out work by William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens at the same time). There are, in addition, significant poems first published in book form in collected editions — my favorite poem by Fitz-Greene Halleck, the second part of “Connecticut,” went directly from its serial publication in The Knickerbocker to Halleck’s Poetical Works of 1852. And serial publications will also be missed. (See Paula Bernat Bennett’s Nineteenth-Century American Women Poets: An Anthology for a fine survey of what the journals and newspapers still hold in their archive.)

I will not apologize for my blind spots. I have yet to connect with the poems of Oliver Wendell Holmes (I do love his prose) and I am not yet especially enamored or well-acquainted with the century’s beginning or end.

I have my first book in mind and hope to write up a brief note on it in the coming days.

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Written by Ben Friedlander

May 30, 2009 at 9:12 am

a Whip lash / Unbraiding in the Sun

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(From an essay in three parts written out of sequence. This picks up where part one left off and leads directly into part three.)

Indian Whips-Snake

Frederick William Frohawk, Indian Whip-Snake (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911)

I began with one model of historical knowledge and ended with another. To conceive of events as holes in time makes language a kind of residue or debris: the sand piled up around an ant hole, the rust around the drain of a sink. However intrinsic the relationship between the two ― between language and event ― the former can never be an explanation of the latter, only a witness to the fact that it occurred. Other language is needed to make sense of this “witness.” Historical knowledge requires a metalanguage.

To conceive of texts as misrecognized or misattributed events ― as whips that turn out to be encounters with snakes ― is not so very different in effect:  since knowledge of the “event” can only be had when the misrecognition or misattribution is grasped, metalanguage is still required. This metalanguage, however, is not simply an explanation of the text, but its first moment of authentic regard.

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Written by Ben Friedlander

May 23, 2009 at 11:20 am

Devious Truths

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I have an essay in the current issue of The Emily Dickinson Journal. This was written as a talk for the first Emily Dickinson Summer Institute, “Narrative in Dickinson’s Poetry,” held in Amherst in 2008. Michael Ryan and Elizabeth Willis were the other invited speakers. Liz’s essay appears in the same issue.

Written by Ben Friedlander

May 17, 2009 at 7:13 am

Posted in Everything Else

Notes for a Library of Nineteenth-Century American Poetry (part one)

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From Collecting Everyman's Library

Image from Collecting Everyman's Library (click for link)

In almost all instances, we encounter the writing of a long-dead poet in a volume of collected or selected works, or in an anthology. The individual books making up a writer’s career tend to slip out of the frame of readerly attention, gathering dust in a public library or secondhand bookshop. With some poets, of course, the individual books, or a few of them, remain ubiquitous long after they go out of print. But even when we decide to read those poets, we tend to set aside the multiple “slim volumes” for a more comprehensive or more judiciously chosen selection.

Image courtesy the Robert D. Farber University Archives & Special Collections Department (click for more information)

Image from the Robert D. Farber University Archives & Special Collections Department (click for link to larger view)

The pattern is different with novelists. With them, individual titles predominate and omnibus collections are less appealing. If I am going to read Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, I would rather pick out one novel and finish it, and then pick out another if I like the first; the entire series would be premature. And I would not want a book of excerpts either. An abridged novel does not appeal to me, and chapters are rarely self-sufficient almost never. Short stories are another matter. As with books of poetry, the volumes in which they originally appeared can be dismantled and rearranged to make bigger or littler collections, and that is just fine.  The difference is largely a matter of how novels are read, as distinct from stories and poems: the former from front to back, the latter two in hops, skips, and jumps. One commits to a novel. With stories and poems one flips randomly in search of something interesting. And when that is the case, you may as well maximize your chances by choosing the biggest book around, or at least by choosing a book where somebody else has done some sifting before you. One wants it all or one wants the best. The individual book seems, in comparison, merely random. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

May 14, 2009 at 3:42 am

For a Commonplace Book 2

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Walt Whitman, 1989+

Walt Whitman, 1989

Tuesday, December  25, 1888.

8 P.M. … As we sat there talking Ed [1] brought in a card — a reporter’s card — a fellow I knew well and whom W. knew when I explained who he was: connected with The Record. W. put on his glasses: read the name off deliberately —  “Charles [something] Bacon” — repeating it several times as if to job up his memory…. Bacon shortly came in — shook hands: W. saying some few welcoming words and inviting B. to take the chair. B. explained that he had been sent by The Record to find out how W. had spent his Christmas. W. thenceforward affable — full, free, communicative…. Spoke of his confinement — of his “half paralyzed” condition. “It is now almost twenty years. Do you know what hemiplegia is? In my case it started here” — pressing his finger to the back of his neck — “then came down the whole side — arm, leg, face: the leg never recovered: the arm recovered quickly. Luckily the stroke did not affect, such as it is, my power of speech, or my brain: up to the time of the present attack I was able to work — to write, read — as any time before: only my power to locomote, to get about, was gone — or partly gone.” “My bete noir,” he said, “is indigestion.” But “the last two or three days” he had “in all respects” felt “wonderfully” bettered — “better, clearer of active trouble, than for five months past.” Spoke of himself as “leaning towards gain”…. He assured B. he “always” had “warning” of the attacks. “Thanks to my dear father and mother, I have been wonderfully fortunate in my constitution — my body.” He was “gifted with cheer” and that was “certainly worth more than five or ten thousand dollars a year.” “”By nature, by observation, by the doctors, I have learned that the thing to do when I am down is to rely upon the vis,  as it is called — the inherited forces: to lay low — attempt nothing — rest — recuperate: if the vis comes to the rescue — meets the peril — well and good: then for another lease! But if it does not, then all may as well be given up at once.”  He did not know — “it is not at all certain” — but “I may go from this out upon my ordinary condition of the past seventeen years.” B. asked W.’s age. “I am in my seventieth year — celebrated the end of the sixty-ninth the last of May, this year.”… B. asked about W.’s “outings.” But W. shook his head: “I have none — I have not been out for seven months: I can scarcely get from this chair to the door there unassisted — must help myself with a chair, the table, anything — sometimes calling the nurse.”

— Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, volume 3

The photograph is one of four taken on the same day and comes (like the text above) from the wonderful Walt Whitman Archive. Click on the image for a link to the gallery  (and a larger view). The caption reads: “My 71st year arrives: the fifteen past months nearly all illness or half illness — until a tolerable day (Aug: 6 1889) & convoy’d by Mr. B and Ed: W I have been carriaged across to Philadelphia (how sunny & fresh & good look’d the river, the people, the vehicles, & Market & Arch streets!) & have sat for this photo: wh- satisfies me. Walt Whitman.” A note at the Whitman Archive identifies “Mr. B” as “Geoffrey Buckwalter, Camden teacher and Whitman’s friend, who insisted on the photos.”

1 [Back to text] Ed Wilkins, Whitman’s nurse.

Written by Ben Friedlander

May 6, 2009 at 10:13 am

Of Petra

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Annie Finch wrote a note for the Poetry Foundation about the name “Petra,” which she associates with a nineteenth-century poem by the British Anglican John William Burgon. This brought to mind the Petra section of Herman Melville’s Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876), which I’ve been rereading lately for an essay that Sean Reynolds commissioned for his new journal Wild Orchids. I may post excerpts from that essay in the coming weeks. In the meantime, here is a comment I left in response to Annie’s note: Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

May 5, 2009 at 5:10 pm