American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Posts Tagged ‘Walt Whitman

Emerson’s Blight

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ecopoetics
The new issue of Ecopoetics includes two interviews with Gary Snyder, one conducted by the editor, Jonathan Skinner, the other by Kyhl Lyndgaard. One portion in particular caught my eye from the former:

JS — You said at one point — in one of those interviews in The Real Work — that you never write of an animal or a plant that you haven’t seen.

GS — Not usually, no. Unless I dreamed it.

JS — Could you say a bit about the importance of that experience?

GS — I take animals seriously. They’re real beings. It’s exploitative to just try to play with them like counters. They don’t like it.

JS — Plants too?

GS — Yeah. You have to take into account …

JS — What about rocks?

GS — Anything. The world is solid. And spiritual. It’s just not something that you move around ny way you like. You have to give respect to it. Just like what Dick Nelson says about Koyukon, Athapaskan Indians in Alaska, in the Yukon area. He says they are so sensitive … to the etiquette of nature, that a mother will say, “Don’t point at the mountain, it’s rude.”

JS — I think there is a baseline rule for “ecopoetics,” in some respects, that it has to go beyond book-learning, beyond poems put together with the dictionary or encyclopedia.

GS — Koyukon are really something about that. Nelson talks about a guy trying to get his outboard started on the river there, and he’s getting kind of pissed off at it. And his friend says, “Don’t get mad at the outboard, it’s got feelings you know.”

The language philosophy underlying this exchange is a charming mixture of pragmatism and magical thinking. Pragmatism, because the emphasis falls on how words influence human action. For Snyder, the self-imposed discipline of writing about animals he has seen (or dreamt about!) and no others is a means of fostering respect — respect for animals and also for nature as a whole. It’s a constraint, but unlike the constraints of Oulipo and its progeny, Snyder’s constraint treats writing as part of the moral life of the writer. The magical aspect of Snyder’s practice lies in his further belief that words have an effect on the world, not just because they influence human action, but directly, as directly as any other tool. Even as guns, axes, traps, and engines alter the shape and character of the solid world, so too do words alter the shape and character of the spiritual. The exploitation of animals begins in the indiscriminate use of their names. Read the rest of this entry »

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

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 »

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

The Casquet of Literature

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Casquet-title.php I want to write something about Emerson’s poem “The Romany Girl,” which was first published in the first issue of Atlantic Monthly (1857), then in Emerson’s second and last book of poems, May-Day and Other Pieces (1867). The poem was subsequently reprinted in a  variety of contexts, including the British anthology illustrated on the left. The title of that anthology and the title page for the first volume, the one in which “The Romany Girl” appeared, are so suggestive of Emerson’s fate as a poet, that I thought I’d savor the image while preparing my notes on the poem.

Emerson is hardly the only poet buried in literature, but he at least is remembered from time to time, his casket lifted up and admired, for its craftsmanship and sturdiness, perhaps, or out of fondness for the memory of his prose. But what of those poets who were simply tumbled into the earth, buried without even a stone to mark their brief time under the sun? What sort of casket has literature given them?

In asking this question, I’m reminded of the story of McDonald Clarke, the mad poet of Broadway, whose funeral was attended by Lydia Maria Child and Walt Whitman. He died penniless, but friends arranged for his burial in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, and raised money for an obelisk, which is still standing today, though none of his works remain in print.

I’d like to write about Clarke too someday.

Written by Ben Friedlander

June 13, 2009 at 4:43 pm

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 »

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

Pavese’s Whitman

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The Italian writer Cesare Pavese wrote his thesis on Walt Whitman at the University of Turin in 1930. He subsequently revised the text for publication (drawing in part on input from Benedetto Croce, one of the best-known critics and philosophers in the world at that time). But no publisher was found, and Pavese was forced to reduce his book to a single essay. The long process of sifting may explain why the essay is so good.* Here is an excerpt: Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

February 20, 2009 at 3:03 pm

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

February 1, 2009 at 4:11 pm