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American poetry

Whitman in Selected Anthologies: The Politics of His Afterlife

One extraordinary feature of Whitman's legacy is the variety of causes to which he has been summoned to lend support. The treatment of Whitman in mainstream academic anthologies aimed at U.S. high school and college students is a subject worthy of discussion on another occasion. Here I focus on the political uses of Whitman in anthologies intended for audiences outside U.S. schools and colleges—anthologies intended for workers and farmers, for soldiers, for children, for international students, and for a general American audience traumatized by the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. There are five publishing efforts in particular I wish to examine: first, several Whitman publications from the early 1920s in the "Little Blue Books" series brought out by the socialist publisher Emanuel Haldeman-Julius (1889–1951); second, the Armed Services Editions (ASE) volume A Wartime Whitman (n.d. [1945]) and the accompanying ASE version of Henry Seidel Canby's biography of Whitman (n.d. [1944]); third, Langston Hughes’s anthology for children, I Hear the People Singing (1946), which I contextualize by considering also his Poetry of the Negro (1949); fourth, a United States Information Agency (USIA) booklet, Walt Whitman: Poet of Democracy (1970); and fifth, a post-9/11 anthology, I Hear America Singing: Poems of Democracy, Manhattan, and the Future (2001). These five publishing efforts offer us a way to highlight central issues about Leaves of Grass and the public and—given the variety of political purposes underpinning them—about Whitman’s malleability. They clarify how Whitman has become a touchstone for addressing questions regarding the nature of the future and of democracy.

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.

 

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.”

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.

 

The Poetry of Abraham Lincoln

Not far from where I live in east central Illinois, the father of Abraham Lincoln lies buried. Though I've lived out here in this open land for more than two decades, I had not visited Thomas Lincoln's grave until last year, after my father died. He is buried in the east where I'm from, and I guess I needed a nearby place to mourn. Or maybe I just missed my father that fall day I stopped by tiny Shiloh Cemetery to stand where Abraham Lincoln once stood. That great man knew words and how to say them, and I began to imagine his voice as he lowered his head and whispered.

 

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