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American poetry

Piano Fire

How she must have dreaded us and our sweaty coins, more
than we hated practice, the lessons, scales, the winter-hot parlor,

her arthritic hands, the metronome’s awful tick. She lectured

The Summer Houses

All winter long they are occupied only by their vacancy.
The paintings look out from the white walls.
The wicker beds and the wicker chairs are not taken.

The Most Contemptible Moth: Lowell in Letters

A man’s letters have a different claim on privacy than his poems and therefore a different claim on truth. Letters lie in the uneasy realm between writing published (the words, if not anonymous, a writer must stand by) and writing meant for no one else’s eye (the best diaries are often those published from the grave). Letters are usually directed to one person alone, like a whisper, though in some centuries they have been passed around like dime novels (when Nelson captured letters in which Napoleon grumbled over Josephine’s infidelities, he published them). The inky page, the homely sheet of paper itself, becomes the property of the receiver (in this way letters follow a peculiar byway of property law, but the words remain the writer’s, not to be published except where leave is given).

Whitman and Patriotism

What some might call Whitman's essentialism is only one of the features of his statement about the United States that might mark it, in some eyes, as dated, obsolete, historically confined and limited. Another is his use of the plural verb “are,” as opposed to the “is” that gradually became dominant after the American Civil War forever rearranged the notion of an American nation. Only 79 years into the American experiment in 1855, Whitman’s grammar reflects the evolving balance between, on the one hand, the plura of e pluribus and, on the other, the emerging unum under construction. In addition, without listening closely to history, or to various histories, we might not catch the note of desperate, even doomed, hopefulness behind the vatic pronouncement that the United States are essentially the greatest poem. With the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act the year before and the first virulent eruptions of the killing that would go on for more than a decade, Whitman is not so much swaggering and flexing as he is urgently speaking a spell or charm against social and political malignancy, even as it too rapidly metastasizes.

In Whitman’s Country

I cannot imagine myself in America without Whitman.

Sometimes, in times of difficulty, when reinvention of the self is a fierce necessity—a time such as now—I think of myself as having been wafted here by Walt, a creature with a tumbling grey beard, cap askew, bony wings sprouting out of his corduroy jacket. 

There are bits of grass in his mouth, and when I am about to pass out, with all the air gushing through—we make a curious kind of airplane together—he pushes a few stalks into my mouth. The grass is filled with moisture, rather cold and glittery, and the bits of ice on the blades help moisten my tongue. I totter a little with the unsteadiness of it all. Am I on a “trottoir,” as he called it? Am I really in Mannahatta? 

On Whitman’s “To a Locomotive in Winter”

While Wordsworth and Crane express differing levels of anxiety about the relationship of poetry to the materiality of the industrial and modern eras, Whitman expresses none. “I will make the poems from materials,” he writes in “Starting from Paumanok,” “for I think they are to be the most spiritual poems.” Instead of reserving the sublime for Baillie’s “Vast objects,” Whitman argues for a sublime of “objects gross” that are “one” with “the unseen soul” (“A Song for Occupations”). In Wordsworth it is rare to come upon steamships, viaducts, and railways. And in Crane we find them used strategically. But in Whitman they are common and ordinary. He catalogs things, places, occupations, tools, machines, and all manner of modern objects the way Homer lists ships and warriors or the Bible tribes. From “Song of Myself” to “Song of the Broad Axe” and “A Song for Occupations,” Whitman “peruse[s] manifold objects” and finds that no two are “alike, and everyone good, / The earth good and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good” (“Song of Myself”). 

A Clear Midnight

Midnight: the witching hour, a haunted time, moment of epiphany. It is at this moment that our swaggering national bard, epic chanter of democracy, becomes a tender and delicate solitary, who addresses something wordless and imperishable inside himself, which he would free and let roam in the world.

Democracy, Self-Reviews and the 1855 Leaves of Grass

Most of this essay will be devoted to the prose surrounding Whitman’s poetry in the 1855 Leaves of Grass. But it is worth pausing for a moment over the volume’s first poetic sentence to see the negotiation between writer and reader at the center as well as the periphery of the work. 

I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

 

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