American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

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Leopardi in America

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leopardi1

Scrolling through the title list of the American Verse Project, I came upon George Cabot Lodge’s Song of the Wave (1898). Intuition, or something, told me to look closer. When I did, I found the following dedication:

TO THE POET
GIACOMO LEOPARDI

Which pleased me no end, as Leopardi is a poet I admire in the abstract but find almost impossible to read: I really liked the idea of getting to know him again through an American poet who took him to heart. Even a minor or bad poet might help! A few summers ago, I made a fairly intense effort to read all of the Canti. Unfortunately, the word “lugubrious” kept drifting into my head as I made my way, distracting me with its ungainly shadows. I mean, how concentrate on a poem like “All’italia” when lugubrious keeps floating over the page, blocking the sun? It’s a poem that needs all the light it can get! In the end, I gave up reading altogether for a desecrating mistranslation. And yes, I was on a plane when the idea first came to me: Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

September 4, 2009 at 10:14 pm

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

Songs of the Diaspora (part one)

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

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"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.

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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 »

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:

recto-spider

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

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:

[Berlin]

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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Inquisitor of Sprats and Compost!

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Rachel Loden

Rachel Loden

On a recent train ride down through New England and New York to Washington I read Rachel Loden’s marvelous new book Dick of the Dead. I chose Loden”s book for the last leg in particular: the Dick of her title is Nixon; I thought him a good talisman to carry into the nation’s capital. A kind of rabbit’s foot, something like the leg of Brezhnev broken off white marble in the book’s third poem, “In the Graveyard of Fallen Monuments.” What I did not expect is that the book brought New York to mind more insistently than D.C.; but not the New York of my own experience, the decaying urban shell of the 1970s; nor the gentrified metropolis of today. Rather, Loden’s poems reminded me of the city mocked and celebrated and preserved for a dubious posterity in the Croaker poems of Fitz-Greene Halleck and Joseph Rodman Drake, written for the New York Evening Post in 1819 and published under the names Croaker (Drake), Croaker, Jr. (Halleck), and Croaker & Co. (Drake and Halleck together).

What do the Croaker poems and Dick of the Dead have in common? Two things: first, a tone — by which I mean a certain attitude about their subjects; and then, a luxuriation in fact, in the whimsical properties of data.

The tone is easier to describe with the Croaker poems, but reading Loden in light of them makes it easier to hear the equivalent quality in hers: the sprightly, even agitated sound of language that comes from mocking a thing and loving it at the same time. You can hear this sound in one of the Croaker poems written by Drake; a fierce bit of nonsense addressed to the surgeon general of the State of New York, sprinkled with as many exclamation marks as a poem by Frank O’Hara:

Joseph Rodman Drake

Joseph Rodman Drake

Oh! Mitchill, lord of granite flints,
Doctus, in law — and wholesome dishes;
Protector of the patent splints,
The foe of whales — the friend of fishes;
“Tom-Codus” — “Septon” — “Phlogobombos!”
What title shall we find to fit ye?
Inquisitor of sprats and compost!
Or Surgeon General of Militia!

We hail thee! — mammoth of the state!
Steam frigate! on the waves of physic —
Equal in practice or debate,
To cure the nation or the phthisic:
The amateur of Tartar dogs!
Wheat-flies, and maggots that create “em!
Of mummies! and of mummy-chogs!
Of brick-bats — lotteries — and pomatum!

The sentiments are just as wonderfully unbalanced in Loden’s work; one never feels that she has seized on Nixon out of disdain, or disdain alone. And the same is true when she writes about other monsters: Cheney, Dubya, George Costanza. “Must not let on that my feelings are increasingly inappropriate,” she writes in “My Subject,” a poem that figures the writer as some kind of researcher. In a lunatic asylum? Perhaps so. But the inappropriate feelings are essential, more so than the research: the latter merely situates Loden’s language; the former gives it an audible character. Consider the sprightliness of “Nineveh Fallen”: Read the rest of this entry »

The Best of the Rest

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tuckermanBack when Whitman was out of fashion and Dickinson had not yet achieved full recognition, scholars divided their attention more evenly among the poets. Yvor Winters wrote a monograph on Edwin Arlington Robinson, and he passionately championed Jones Very and Frederick Goddard Tuckerman. A Winters student, N. Scott Momaday, edited Tuckerman’s Complete Poems for Oxford and Charles Anderson edited Sidney Lanier before writing his fine book on Dickinson. Whitman specialists existed, but they shared the field with biographers of Longfellow and Whittier. Decades before he helped edit the variorum Leaves of Grass, Sculley Bradley worked on George Henry Boker. In 1930, Yale published a critical study of Fitz-Greene Halleck; there would be no other for the rest of the century.[1]

For us, with Whitman and Dickinson, the question is not “These two also?”but “Who else, if anyone?” After 1970, the “if” became a very steep slope, though individual poets had their advocates. Melville’s poetic reputation held steady and even grew while the Fireside Poets slipped into obscurity (I’m old enough to remember engraved pictures of Bryant et al. in my classroom). Scholars did pay the first serious attention then to African American and women’s poetry from the nineteenth century, but the work was looked at in isolation, or as distinct from other poetries of the same time, so that no full picture of the century’s literary cultures came into focus. This began to change in the last half-decade, with long essays by Barbara Packer and Shira Wolosky in the new Cambridge History of American Literature (2004) and important monographs by Mary Loeffelholz (From School to Salon, 2004), Angela Sorby (Schoolroom Poets, 2005), and Joan Shelley Rubin (Songs of Ourselves, 2007), to cite only those that reappraised the whole period. More specialized studies by Paula Bernat Bennett (Poets in the Public Sphere, 2003), Janet Gray (Race and Time, 2004), Eliza Richards (Gender and the Poetics of Reception in Poe’s Circle, 2004), and Christoph Irmscher (Longfellow Redux, 2006) also deserve mention. All of which has made possible a new answer to the question: “Who, after Whitman and Dickinson, should we read and enjoy and remember and study?” Or to put it more colloquially: Who are the best of the rest? Read the rest of this entry »