American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Archive for July 2009

American Eggceptionalism

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That famous Egg of Plymouth Rock,
Laid by a fowl of noble stock,
Was hatched, about that time o’clock,
They stepped ashore —
The pastor and his little flock
The Mayflower bore.

A sample egg, a pattern food,
Un Œuf, that as a feast is good,
A grand egg-sample set: fain would
Men imitate;
Get eagles’ eggs, too, if they could,
And incubate.

— Abraham Coles, The Microcosm and Other Poems (1881)


Written by Ben Friedlander

July 28, 2009 at 10:26 am

Posted in Everything Else

For a Commonplace Book 6

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With a Pair of Spectacles

The glass set in gold
May soon break from its hold,
But the gold no such accident fears;
And so our frail senses
Are like these brittle lenses,
But the heart keeps the same all the years.

— Nathaniel Langdon Frothingham, Metrical Pieces, Translated and Original (1855)

I found this while looking into the Frothingham poem on Berlin; it comes from Metrical Pieces, Translated and Original, which carries a lovely dedication: “To the Friends of My life and of Its Lighter Studies.” Among the translations are poems by Propertius, Martial, Manzoni, Goethe, and Schiller. There is also a large number of poems by Friedrich Rückert, best known for his lyrics to Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. Emerson chose one of the Goethe versions for Parnassus.

“With a Pair of Spectacles” relates to the translations, sort of. It’s one of ten (or eleven; I’m not sure about the last) grouped under the heading “Xenia,” which Frothingham introduces with the following prose note:

This Greek word has found its way into the English Dictionary. It meant originally the presents that were made by a host to his departing guests; but afterwards through various transitive meanings, came to denote gifts in general. Epigrammatic inscriptions for articles thus bestowed form a department, though a very humble one, of Latin literature. The word has been adopted by the French and Germans; the former using it most in the sense of new-year’s gifts.

I was attracted to this because it offers some context, I think, for Emily Dickinson’s practice of pinning notes to flowers and cakes.

Also noteworthy in Metrical Pieces: a poem on “The McLean Asylum, Somerville” (where Plath, Lowell, and Sexton all had stays), and a hymn for the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Female Asylum. The latter includes these quatrains:

It does not loose, but hold;
It says not, Go — but, Come;
And pens the feeblest in its fold,
And builds the orphan’s home.

O thanks for fifty years
Of woman’s pity shown!
For all it saved of Misery’s tears,
And Ruin’s heavier moan!

I also liked the opening quatrain of “To a Sigh”:

I am not ill, I am not grieved,
Pain has not wrung, nor hope deceived;
Why, then, thou sad, unmeaning guest,
Disturb the comforts of my breast?

Written by Ben Friedlander

July 25, 2009 at 11:14 am

In Kamf

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leninThis is then the story how the Lenin Song was created, out of the song expropriated from the narodniks, with the common effort of composers, authors, text writers, journalists, and the whole society singing it independently of their conviction. Its microhistory also illustrates how each one contributed, in the measure of their forces, to the creation and maintenance of the regime.”

I’m gathering up Yiddish lint, mostly from my father’s library, but here in the meantime is a wonderful example of musical genealogy; it includes a discussion of David Edelstadt‘s “In Kamf” (“In Struggle”), written in 1889, about seven years after Edelstadt came to the U.S. in the wake of the Kiev pogrom. The poem was composed to the tune of an old worker’s song, putting it in a lineage that extends back to the Russian theme of Beethoven’s Razumovsky string quartets, and forward to Ernst Busch, Shostakovich, and the Hungarian “Lenin-Dal” (“Lenin Song”) of Ernő Rossa and Miklós Szabó. The genealogy (traced out by Poemas del río Wang) is illustrated with recordings — “In Kamf” is represented by a Klezmatics recording from 1994 — and a fine assortment of photographs of Lenin and Lenin kitsch. I borrowed the shoeshine photo because of its resonance with Edelstadt’s story: according to the bio note in Jewish-American Literature, he first came into contact with Russian revolutionaries in his brother’s shoe factory in Kiev; it was probably from them that he learned the tune used for “In Kamf.” In the U.S. he became an anarchist; Emma Goldman described him as “a spiritual petrel whose songs of revolt were beloved by every Yiddish-speaking radical,” “In Kamf” being the best known of those songs.

Written by Ben Friedlander

July 24, 2009 at 10:16 am

Poems of Places 7

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From Poems of Places, vol. 17, Germany 1 (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1877), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:


I’ve spent the past month packing up my father’s library, in preparation for his move to Maine. He and his late wife were historians, both doing their principal work on the holocaust, and the vast majority of the books are on that and related topics. Going through them, I’ve paid particular attention to items that touch on family history: my father is a survivor, born in Berlin, then deported to Łódź with his family, and after that to Auschwitz and other camps. There are a great many books that touch on those places, and I find them evocative even when they don’t pertain precisely to my father’s experience — as in the book shown below, which does not appear to include the Jewish school my father attended in the 1930s.

berlinIn the midst of all this packing and browsing, it occurred to me to look up the family sites in Poems of Places, just to see if anything interesting was there. I’m a big believer in the value of bibliomancy: ever since learning about the medieval practice of using Virgil’s Aeneid as an oracle, I’ve paid attention to randomly chosen text; fortuitous juxtapositions are even better. It’s not that I believe in such oracles, only in the value of exploring their hermeneutic possibilities. I have greater respect for chance than divination; I trust in fortune, not fortunetelling.

juvens1All that said, very few of the places I looked up were represented. There are some evocative poems about Poland in the Russia volume, but none about Łódź or Oświęcim. Nor are there poems in the Germany volumes about the cities of Braunschweig, where my father was briefly a prisoner near the end of the war, or Brandenburg, where the family went to stay in the days after Kristallnacht. I did find a few interesting resonances with other cities, most notably the text below, Longfellow’s sole entry for Berlin.

I have to wonder what other choices Longfellow had, since the poem has almost nothing to do with Berlin, or even with Germany. It concerns a Greek statue from 300 BC commonly known as “The Praying Boy.” Of course, since the Nazis considered Jews a foreign element, I find it fitting that Longfellow’s choice for Berlin should concern an outsider, indeed a refugee, if only a refugee from antiquity. And if this interpretation seems forced, note that the poem itself presents the boy in just this way: as a survivor miraculously pulled from the mass grave of history.

A few minutes with Google unearths the poem’s prior publication in The Monthly Religious Magazine (1862), as well as a later publication in Every Other Sunday (1900), the latter as part of an article on the statue that inspired the poem. Given these pious contexts, it is not surprising that the author, Nathaniel Langdon Frothingham, was a minister. A Unitarian minister, part of the broader circle of New England intellectuals that included the Transcendentalists, with whom Frothingham was on friendly terms.

According to Frothingham’s headnote, “The Praying Boy” was dredged from the Tiber at the end of the seventeenth century, an origin central to the poem’s story, though it doesn’t seem to agree with what the curators in Berlin currently say about the statue. Indeed, according to some commentators, the statue is not even a depiction of prayer. They say the boy’s arms are raised because he is carrying a lost object. But whatever the statue’s original meaning, its altered meaning — the very fact that its meaning has altered — only adds to the sense that the bronze is alive, that it’s subject like any actual person to the vicissitudes of time. For this reason, the story of the boy’s recovery from the Tiber is as meaningful as his pose, whether that story is true or merely a myth.

If you look closely at the cover of Jüdische Schulen in Berlin, you’ll see that there’s a tall boy in the center of the crowd with his arms raised in a manner that rhymes with that of the statue. The meaning of the poses is of course different, but the natural gesture of upraised arms makes an evocative parallel, suggesting welcome and fellowship in one case, solitary thanks in the other:
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More Lint

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Matted in my head, as in the filter of a drying machine.

Emma Lazarus, who wrote the most famous of all American sonnets, “The New Colossus,” made translations from Petrarch. So too did Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who domesticated the Italian form by inscribing it in an American landscape. In “Sunshine and Petrarch,” written for Atlantic Monthly in 1867, he describes a little cove set above a steep bank of buttercups and grass, then comments:

If Petrarch still knows and feels the consummate beauty of these earthly things, it may seem to him some repayment for the sorrows of a lifetime that one reader, after all this lapse of years, should choose his sonnets to match this grass, these blossoms, and the soft lapse of these blue waves. Yet any longer or more continuous poem would be out of place to-day. I fancy that this narrow cove prescribes the proper limits of a sonnet; and when I count the lines of ripple within yonder projecting wall, there proves to be room for just fourteen. Nature meets our whims with such little fitnesses. The words which build these delicate structures are as soft and fine and close-textured as the sands upon this tiny beach, and their monotone, if such it be, is the monotone of the neighboring ocean.

A beautiful tranquility. But sonnets are not tranquil by nature, if only because they are often occasioned by powerful emotions. Here are the last ten lines of one of the Lazarus translations; they enact as it were an argument within the sonnet against the placidity sonnets are said to exemplify:

This life is like a field of flowering thyme,
Amidst the herbs and grass the serpent lives;
If aught unto the sight brief pleasure gives,
‘Tis but to snare the soul with treacherous lime.
So, wouldst thou keep thy spirit free from cloud,
A tranquil habit to thy latest day,
Follow the few, and not the vulgar crowd.
Yet mayest thou urge, “Brother, the very way
Thou showest us, wherefrom thy footsteps proud
(And never more than now) so oft did stray.”

Petrarch’s straying footsteps work very well as a figure for free verse, and free-verse sonnets are the ones I know best from my own era  —  Ted Berrigan’s being the best known (though I have a special fondness for those of John Clarke). The prototype is Walt Whitman’s “Death-Sonnet for Custer,” published in the New York Daily Tribune on July 10th, 1876. Here is a reproduction of the manuscript, held by the New York Public Library:

Click for a link to the NYPL website and a larger image

Click for a link to the NYPL website and a larger image

The Walt Whitman archive reproduces the newspaper printing and gives a transcript here.

For a sonnet that takes issue with its own form, you cannot do better than Poe’s “Enigma” (1848): Read the rest of this entry »

The Dark Laurel

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To a Lady
Who Had Offered Him a Wreath
of Laurel

Laurel is a sacred leaf
And forbidden to be worn
Lest Apollo, flushed with scorn,
Shoot the rhymester for a thief.
Yet if any human grief
Be half uttered in a song
The dark laurel will belong
To all poets that have writ.
Let your heart but mend my wit
And my crown is not wrong.

— George Santayana

The half-uttered grief is unrequited love; yet by asking his Lady to mend his wit, not his heart, the poet is blending gallantry with ambition. Or ambition with gallantry, since he accepts the laurel on behalf of all poets, not just himself. Or rather, is willing to accept it — if that is what his Lady dictates.

The poem records an act of renunciation, bittersweet in all its implications. Records and revisits: according to William G. Holzberger, editor of Santayana’s Complete Poems, the dedicatee is Nancy Toy, “the attractive young wife of Harvard theology professor Crawford H. Toy when Santayana, as a young philosophy instructor and poet, made her acquaintance in the early 1890s.” The poem was written sometime before the end of the decade, but only published in the 1950s, after Santayana’s death. The manuscript is owned by Washington University (catalog entry here).

Written by Ben Friedlander

July 13, 2009 at 1:08 am

Posted in forgotten poems

Tagged with ,

For a Commonplace Book 5

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Neglected record of a mind neglected,
Unto what “lets and stops” art thou subjected!
The day with all its toils and occupations,
The night with its reflections and sensations,
The future, and the present, and the past, —
All I remember, feel, and hope at last,
All shapes of joy and sorrow, as they pass, —
Find but a dusty image in this glass.

— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, October 22, 1838

Posthumously published in Samuel Longfellow‘s 1886 biography of the poet and Volume III of the Poetical Works, in the latter case with three other notebook jottings gathered under the heading “Fragments.”

Written by Ben Friedlander

July 10, 2009 at 8:05 am

Great Companions

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The following is excerpted from a note I wrote a week or so after Robin Blaser’s death.

Blaser-sundayRobin Blaser was a lover of quotation, of echoing words staged as conversation; his beautiful, learned writing was a testament to the resounding otherness that constitutes experience. “We are articulated into labor, life and language, the three great modes of the Other,” he once declared, adding, “Yes, I’m talking about a mystery, and yes, I’m talking about the absolute invasion and the peculiar task of poetry to perform in public the Otherness of these huge realms.”

Blaser’s name will forever be linked with those of his friends Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer, poets to whom he paid continual tribute, and yet Blaser’s own writing took shape most marvelously after he took his distance from Duncan, leaving their shared San Francisco for good, and after Spicer’s death. A lesson in detachment whose script was written most forcefully by Walt Whitman, in “Song of the Open Road”:

Listen! I will be honest with you,

I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes,

These are the days that must happen to you:

You shall not heap up what is call’d riches,

You shall scatter with lavish hand all that you earn or achieve,

You but arrive at the city to which you were destin’d, you hardly settle yourself to satisfaction before you are call’d by an irresistible call to depart,

You shall be treated to the ironical smiles and mockings of those who remain behind you,

What beckonings of love you receive you shall only answer with passionate kisses of parting,

You shall not allow the hold of those who spread their reach’d hands toward you.

We can guess that Blaser read these lines, and took them to heart, because he took a title — and task — from the one that comes right after:

Allons! after the great Companions, and to belong to them!

Walt Whitman in New Orleans, 1848

Walt Whitman in New Orleans, 1848

The “Great Companions” in Blaser’s collected poems, The Holy Forest, are Pindar, Dante, and Duncan, but Blaser’s interest in companionship hardly stops there; friendship is one of the pillars of his poetics. One poem begins: “Aristotle said, ‘all men by nature desire / to know’ / Dante added, ‘every man by nature is a / friend to every other man’ // I believe both worlds / and dream their necessity.” And elsewhere, in a statement of methodology, “I have chosen a poetic practice of entangling discourses, including the running about of my lyric voice. A companionship of seeing through ‘the lack of meaning in our time and the lack of a world at the centre of meanings we try to impose.’”

To be after the great companions is to work in the absence of what life finds most necessary, and yet make a livelihood out of the search. It can feel at times like a mournful half-existence, and yet it makes one attentive to all that remains, so that even the rumbling of a stomach (“borborygmus”) can be instruction from the gods, as in Blaser’s “Demi-Tasse,” an elegy that begins:

the silence surrounds me   political silence    where
the words were deeds once upon a time and space
social silence    where a fragile good composes    bankruptcies
of ideas run through two centuries    my centuries, watching
the poets sit on the shelves

Later in the poem he writes, “yet here among gathering bankruptcies, we touch / and part … according / to our lights.” And also:

after is never a condition of beyond, but of comparison, even
of companionship

He will be missed, sorely.

Read Stan Persky’s obituary for Blaser at Dooney’s Cafe. Persky also has a more extended essay about Blaser at the same site.

Robin Blaser’s author pages at the Electronic Poetry Center and PennSound.

Written by Ben Friedlander

July 8, 2009 at 12:14 am


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Minute shreds of information gathering in my head, as in a pocket or belly button…

I was watching an episode of Law & Order: SVU the other day and saw that one of the scenes was filmed in front of the statue of William Cullen Bryant. I tried to get a picture but was too slow. It’s the episode with Robin Williams (appropriately titled “Authority“).

Emerson was Harvard’s class poet the year Bryant read his Phi Beta Kappa poem in Cambridge (something I mention here). I’ve now found the poem Emerson wrote for commencement, and it bears comparison. Sample lines:

In this bright age, with seeds of glory sown,
The hand of fate hath placed us, — not our own.
When the old world is crumbling with decay,
And empires unregarded, pass away…

Bryant’s poem was called “The Ages”; here’s a sample:

Thus error’s monstrous shapes from earth are driven;
They fade, they fly — but truth survives their flight;
Earth has no shades to quench that beam of heaven;
Each ray that shone in early time to light
The faltering footstep in the path of right,
Each gleam of clearer brightness shed to aid
In man’s maturer day his bolder sight,
All blended, like the rainbow’s radiant braid,
Pour yet, and still shall pour, the blaze that cannot fade.

In a comment a few weeks ago, David Sheidlower praised Emerson’s phrase “horizon walls” from “The Romany Girl.” I see now that Emerson liked the phrase too: he drew it from his earlier poem “The Humble Bee.”

Lacan citing Julia Ward Howe???

Yes. In “Psychoanalysis and Its Teaching.” The reference comes after a brief discussion of Jeremiah’s sour grape, leading into a self-quotation. Here’s the reference:

This is what made me pen the following passage … , restoring the import of paternal authority … , conjoining it as one must — in the Biblical terms used by the female author of the American “Battle Hymn of the Republic” — with the curse of the mother:

And here’s the self-quotation (it comes from “The Freudian Thing”):

For the sour grape of speech by which the child received the authentication of the nothingness of existence from a father too early, and the grapes of wrath that responded to the words of false hope with which his mother lured him with the milk of her true despair, set his teeth on edge more than if he had been weaned from an imaginary jouissance or even deprived of some real attentions.

Howe wrote her “Battle Hymn” in 1861, at the start of the Civil War, during an exciting visit to the front line. She had the idea of writing new words to “John Brown’s Body”; the visit inspired her. She tells the story in her 1899 autobiography. The description is worthy of analysis by Freud; strange to think it was written at the same time as The Interpretation of Dreams: Read the rest of this entry »

The American Flag: 2009, 1819

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Fourth of July thoughts on Dick of the Dead and the Croaker poems, continuing on from what I wrote a few days ago:

The biggest difference between the two bodies of work may lie in their authors’ views of the United States. Dick is a product of post-Watergate America, of the Bush years and the Patriot Act. The Croaker poems were written after the War of 1812, in which Fitz-Greene Halleck (“Croaker, Junior”) took drills as a member of the Iron Grays, a New York militia. He and his collaborator, Joseph Rodman Drake (“Croaker”), were patriots in the old-fashioned sense; they waved their flag without anxiety or qualms. Rachel Loden, who wrote Dick of the Dead, is also a patriot, but she waves her flag under threat of confiscation, in opposition to the security state; her anxieties and qualms are inevitable: Read the rest of this entry »