American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Archive for the ‘Halleck’ Category

Gurney Halleck

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Gurney Haleck (from the Dunepedia)

I love survivals of forgotten poets in popular culture. This one (it’s two, actually) comes from Dune, which I was inspired to reread by the recent heat wave. Or rather, read for the first time: as a teenager, I found the book too tedious to finish.

One of the characters, Gurney Halleck, is a warrior and troubadour; he serves the House of Atreides. Though played by Patrick Stewart — Capt. Picard — in the David Lynch film, Frank Herbert’s description posits a far less handsome man:

Gurney Halleck strode alone at the point of the crowd, bag over one shoulder, the neck of his nine-string baliset clutched in the other hand. They were long-fingered hands with big thumbs, full of tiny movements that drew such delicate music from the baliset.

The Duke watched Halleck, admiring the ugly lump of a man, noting the glass-splinter eyes with their gleam of savage understanding. Here was a man who lived outside the faufreluches while obeying their every precept. What was it Paul had called him? “Gurney, the valorous.”

Halleck’s wispy blond hair trailed across barren spots on his head. His wide mouth was twisted into a pleasant sneer, and the scar of the inkvine whip slashed across his jawline seemed to move with a life of its own. His whole air was of casual shoulder-set capability.

The character’s name is a compound allusion, derived from the names of two poets with warrior associations: Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) and Fitz-Greene Halleck (1790-1867). The associations are particularly fitting with the former, since the real Gurney, a Brit, was a soldier and musician. Halleck, an American, was a clerk and poet, but he wrote one of the more beloved martial poems of the nineteenth-century, “Marco Bozzaris,” a favorite even of Emily Dickinson. (Actually, I don’t know why I say even: Dickinson is a pretty good index of nineteenth-century taste.) The poem is set in the Greek War of Independence, fought against the Ottoman Empire. Bozzaris (also written Botsaris) was a Suliote warrior. Halleck’s poem describes the raid in which Bozzaris fell:

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Written by Ben Friedlander

July 25, 2010 at 12:31 am

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 »

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