American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Archive for August 2009

A Mental Photograph of Sidney Lanier

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Frontispiece to Letters of Sidney Lanier (1902)

Sidney Lanier, 1857

I found the centennial edition of Lanier’s works for a ridiculously low price and so I bought it. I’ve only dipped into the set a little, but one of the best bits I’ve found is Appendix D to the last volume of letters, “The Mental Photograph of Sidney Lanier.” A footnote explains:

In Baltimore, during the winter of 1874, Lanier acceded to the request of a Miss Anne Perot and made a “mental photograph” of himself by writing answers to certain printed questions in her album.

The footnote adds that the idea “impressed him sufficiently to bring out a reference to the fad in his Peabody lectures on Shakespeare.” Basically, the mental photograph is a Facebook meme avant la lettre!

In 1874 Lanier was 32 years old and just at the start of his very brief literary career (he died from TB at age 39). He had only recently quit the practice of law in his home state of Georgia to become the first flute in the Peabody Orchestra of Baltimore. So far as appearance goes: he already had the full beard and mustache he wears in most photographs (see question 31), but I prefer the image to the right, as it shows the delicacy of the young man who went to war, before imprisonment broke his health (see question 22).

There are forty questions and answers. Full text below. Read the rest of this entry »


Written by Ben Friedlander

August 31, 2009 at 12:58 pm

Manhatta (1921)

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manhattaManhatta (1921).

A ten-minute film by Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler inspired by Walt Whitman, with lines from Whitman interspersed, viewable at UbuWeb (go here)

A predecessor to Berlin: Symphony of a City (1927), viewable at the Internet Archive (go here).

I meant to write something about these two, but I’ve been packing up an apartment, and now I must shut down my computer, and fill up my truck. Perhaps in the coming weeks I’ll get back to it.

Written by Ben Friedlander

August 29, 2009 at 9:55 am

Only a Few Days Left…

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…to buy my book Simulcast at half price. It’s a work of conceptual art disguised as literary criticism: all of the writing (apart from the introduction) is based on a source text. The ostensible subject is modern and contemporary poetry, but there’s a nineteenth-century angle too: a good chunk of the book is based on Edgar Allan Poe’s literary criticism.


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Written by Ben Friedlander

August 28, 2009 at 12:33 am

Posted in Everything Else

Songs of the Diaspora (part one)

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How two Yiddish poems about the class struggle in America became songs of Russia.


"Mrs. William B. Owen standing between Miss Alice Stone Blackwell, and Mrs. James Lees Laidlaw," 1915 (Library of Congress)

In her self-published Songs of Russia (1906), Alice Stone Blackwell includes four Yiddish poems, two each by David Edelstadt and Morris Rosenfeld, the latter versified from prose versions by Leo Wiener. The former are also versified, but no individual collaborator is given. Since no dates of composition are given either, it is left to the reader to imagine which of the four, if any, were written before the poets fled Russia — assuming the reader is aware that the poets did flee; there are no biographical notes to prompt curiosity on the point. This was surely purposeful. Blackwell was an officer of the Society of Friends of Russian Freedom, a group originally organized by Julia Ward Howe (its founding members also included several other old soldiers of the abolitionist movement: William Lloyd Garrison, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, John Greenleaf Whittier). Her anthology was designed to aid the Society in its work. That is, “to give a glimpse into the thoughts and aspirations of some Russian lovers of freedom, as revealed in their poetry.” I’m inclined, then, to see the presentation of Edelstadt and Rosenfeld as a deliberate obscuring, especially in the case of Edelstadt, in order to emphasize the Russianness of the two American Jews. Yet the very fact that their work was rendered into English — without facing text — only serves to re-Americanize it: an American impersonation of a Russian song, albeit one that performed its Americanness in a very different manner than Edelstadt or Rosenfeld.


Alice Stone Blackwell, sometime between 1905 and 1917 (Library of Congress)

But I don’t mean to be criticizing Blackwell. Her accomplishments are every bit as deserving of celebration as those of the two poets. Born in 1857, she was an editor as well as writer and translator, and also a lifelong political activist, as befits a daughter of Lucy Stone. Her career stretched, amazingly, from the end of Reconstruction to the dawn of the Atomic Age, a longevity beautifully illustrated in the photograph above, which shows her in a plain cloth dress and shawl, looking like a character out of Uncle Tom’s Cabin — an effect heightened by the two women beside her; their silk dresses and fancy hats seem to shine forth from a different century altogether. Not that Blackwell was a relic, not even in her attire: her fashion could be as radical as her politics, witness the second photograph, which shows her in a tweed suit, holding up a copy of the Woman’s Journal, which she edited from 1909 to 1917. And since I’m harping on fashion here, let me also cite one of Blackwell’s last appearances in the press, a New York Times story from 1947: Read the rest of this entry »

The Haughty Pile

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Still is the haughty pile erect / Of the old building Intellect
— “Monadnoc”

Since allowing two months ago that Emerson’s poetry didn’t speak to me, it’s begun to speak to me.

This happens all the time: opinions I thought written in stone become rewritten by wind when the stone turns to sand. In Emerson’s case, the stone turned to sand a few years ago, when I read his poetry notebooks and saw that the work’s more annoying qualities (greeting-card rhyme, Polonius-like advice) were softened in effect when I read the writing as improvisation.

In this state the sand lay still for a good long time. Only this summer did the wind rise, when I found myself restless at my father’s nursing home and Emerson was the only poet who caught my eye at the nearby bookstore. This was fortuitous: if you’re ever going to appreciate an awkward fit between process and product, a nursing home is the place. There too an imperfect project confronts you, and there too “process” can be rewarding even though the “product” tends toward failure.

The nursing home analogy could be drawn out at great length, with CNAs as textual editors (and some, oh yes, some much better than others), but it’s not the place I’m thinking of here, only the appreciation of everyday life it teaches. With my father, for example, after his stroke, even swallowing requires conscious effort; the effort makes me appreciate the complexity of the task, and this in turn makes me appreciate the result, even when the result is poor. Not that Emerson’s poems are efforts in that sense; their defining quality is probably ease, hence the greeting-card rhyme. But the notebooks show us that poetry was an everyday activity for Emerson, and that’s how I came to appreciate it this summer. A compositional mundanity with irregular moments of grace and insight, reminding me why I persevere. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

August 10, 2009 at 10:02 am

Posted in Emerson

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A Monster Woe Lies in My Breast

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Since the images are so small in the post below, here’s E. M. Lilien’s strange creature in the web, feeding on the heart of the poor:


And here’s a Rosenfeld poem, as rendered by Rose Pastor Stokes and Helena Frank, chosen, of course, for its leeches: Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

August 6, 2009 at 4:26 pm

The Ghetto through a Spiderweb

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I’ve been taking notes on Yiddish poetry, as time permits, hampered by limited access to a library — the one near at hand is not, alas, rich in relevant materials — but I’ve managed to find a few useful leads online. As well as a few things that are truly incredible. one of which I thought to share right away: Berthold Feiwel’s German translation of Morris Rosenfeld’s poetry, Lieder des Ghetto (Benjamin Harz Verlag, 1902),  which features breathtaking graphic work by E. M. Lilien. Truly, one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever seen, starting with the colophon, which is printed in the shape of a Star of David:

The colophon appears on the verso of the title page, to the left of the following illustration, I guess a combination frontispiece/half title, which shows a drooping, leafless tree twined with barbed wire, holding up a harp with torn stings. An image of despair, though the carved-dove corner of the harp gives an illusion of escape, as it seems to be alighting from the branches, its head poking out from under the gate that reads Songs of the Ghetto:


The book includes a number of other full-page illustrations. I’ll show only a sample. This one opens the section “Lieder der Arbeit” (Songs of Work):


And this one, which makes plainer Lilien’s debts to Jugendstil, opens the section “An der Nähmaschine” (On the Sewing Machine): Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

August 6, 2009 at 2:29 pm