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American poetry

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.

 

Give Me Life Coarse and Rank

As the American poet, Whitman is scrutinized, taken apart, reassembled, and categorized more than any other. Yet often he ends up in the wrong pigeonhole. Some readers type him as an American original who sprang fully formed from the brow of Ralph Waldo Emerson; others take him for a Civil War hippie, a no-holds bard playing tennis without a net or even a racket. In this essay, David Kirby connects Whitman to two traditions that tell a lot more about him and his poetry, the ancient tradition of dithyrambic verse and that of “the old, weird America.”

Prisoner, Fancy-Man, Rowdy, Lawyer, Physician, Priest: Whitman’s Brags

Whitman was the first American poet who ought to have been incomprehensible anywhere else, yet he had many English admirers. They bought his books direct from America, a tedious and expensive business (customs duties were crippling); they wrote him letters by the dozen (one woman, a Mrs. Gilchrist, fell madly in love with him and offered to bear his children); they came to visit; but they really endeared themselves by sending him money. 

Section 26 of “Song of Myself” and Whitman’s Listening

Whitman is a poet of all the senses, but listening, it seems, engaged him with special force: many of his work's best-known passages set down what had come to him through the ear. No gesture of style so pronounced can be accidental, and I would guess that the turn toward hearing was a necessary counterweight to Whitman's extroversion. To listen means to be quiet oneself. It is an action demanding inaction, requiring reception. For a person whose genius was kinetic, whose artistic ambition was virtually all-consuming, to listen was to renounce the bounding realms of ego. The ears hear what comes from outside the self. We cannot choose to open or close them, and the sounds of the earth come to us, entering our bodies and touching the ears’ attuned bones and hairs. Whitman’s listening, then, is a kind of synecdoche for his passion: through it he invites inside himself all of existence.

Rita Dove, Dancing

So how come there aren't more dancing poets? The title of Rita Dove's new volume promises a little more than the contents deliver, but one should be grateful for what lies within. Her earlier Grace Notes (1989) showed Dove's interest in those delicacies of thought, feeling, and expression that decoration adds to artistic enterprises. American Smooth continues its author's commitment to integrating the ornamental, the nominally "superfluous," into the weight of serious subject matter. As a kind of epigraph, she quotes two definitions from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (of "American" and "smooth"), before producing her own titular definition: "American Smooth" is "a form of ballroom dancing derived from the traditional Standard dances (e.g., Waltz, Fox Trot, Tango), in which the partners are free to release each other from the closed embrace and dance without any physical contact, thus permitting improvisation and individual expression." Dove is taking (understandable) liberties here, but that's what a creative artist does. As anyone knows who has been put through his or her paces in ballroom instruction, there's only minimal room for improvisation in the waltz and fox-trot, but as with sonnet writing, strict limits sometimes make for innovative, liberating gestures. Dove's take on dancing has consequences for, and parallels in, her poetry.

 

Milkers Broken Up

I was sleeping in Madison, Anthony Bradbury's spareroom,
after a day when we visited a gallery to look at collages
he had pasted from illustrations torn out of magazines.

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