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poetics

American Poetry and Poetry Criticism Now

The American poetry scene has not gone back to the days of the midcentury generation—nor should it. It also largely avoids the least attractive development that claimed the intervening years, when the ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry returned as farce.

Notes toward an Anti-Capitalist Poetics

Rich’s insistent critique of capital as it relates to issues of language, nationhood (and personhood), collective action, and American empire links her critical stance to a compelling wave of recent publications outside the world of official US verse culture (to borrow a term and characterization from Charles Bernstein). Samir Amin’s The Liberal Virus: Permanent War and the Americanization of the World (Monthly Review Press, 2004), for example, deftly assigns the link between capital accumulation and social pauperization (i.e., the growing disparity between the super wealthy and the poor) to the American pursuit of a liberal market agenda. Amin, an Egyptian-born economist and director of the Third World Forum in Dakar, Senegal, critiques American socialization practices—and the incumbent “low intensity democracy”—that function exclusively through (and for) “liberal” market forces. 

 

As in Tendrils a Transparency

The work of Adrienne Rich belongs instead to a legacy that fuses surface effect with affect; whose cultural style, too, can join outrage and joy. Such affirmative promise is what Kenneth Burke referred to as one of shaping attitudes or stimulating action in other human agents; that which, in an expanded sense of the rhetorical, makes palpable the relations of power in such sight and sound activated by the spoken word.

Reflections on Whitman in Age

Yet even the “world” itself is imagination, simply “the length of a human life,” as its etymology defines. The 150 years since Whitman's Leaves of Grass was first published is a moment in any world so conceived, and the bridges to and from such world are not determined by rational judgments or understanding. One knows, as is said—one recognizes the footprints on the floor of the caves in the Dordogne, dating back to the Upper Paleolithic—so very far, finally, from any intellectual understanding or resolution, however insistently attempted. 

Form, Eros, and the Unspeakable: Whitman’s Stanzas

Whitman did not number the fifty-two sections in the 1855 version of the great, free-flowing outpouring that is “Song of Myself,” or even separate them by much. But he must soon have realized the reader's need for a helpful scaffolding, since he added stanza numbers in the edition of 1860, and section numbers in 1867. Of these sections, the briefest are two six-line units, utterly different from each other.

The Casualties of Walt Whitman

In a journal I kept the summer before moving to New York in 1990 to study creative writing at NYU, I find an odd entry about Walt Whitman. I had been reading D. H. Lawrence's essay “Whitman,” published in 1923, and I agreed with his statement that “Something is overdone in Whitman; there is something that is too much.” “I finally found someone,” I wrote, “who speaks sensibly about Whitman's exaggerated mass of deafening declarations!” I was then under the spell of Rilke and Yeats (so much so that in the list of qualities on the facing page that I found essential for a long-term relationship with a man, I find “European” at the top). Whitman hurt my ears—he sounded arrogant, brash, positively overwhelming in the length of his poems, in his long lists, his parallel structures, his biblical rhythms. I felt trapped by Whitman: once he hooked his voice in my head, I had a difficult time extricating it. Though this would soon change, especially after I met Galway Kinnell, who cites Whitman as his “principal master,” before I arrived at the writing workshop, I wanted to shrug off Whitman’s kisses and his forever-reaching arms, his beard, his boots, his surging afflatus, that open-collared shirt, and, oddly enough, his manly muscle.

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. 

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.

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.

Panes of Glass

America had many poets before Walt Whitman, but there was never an American poet before he held the country in the sea-to-sea embrace of his imagination, named its wonders like a latter-day Adam, proclaimed its common men and women to have lives of sparkling beauty and dignity, blessed it as good, and then revealed it to itself in all its bustling, fidgeting, trail-blazing, huckstering, big, booming, melting-pot panorama. He especially loved America’s social “turbulence,” which was its lifeblood and the perfect parallel to its wild, unbridled landscapes. Whitman’s portrait of America is rich with sensations and unnervingly complex, but he also saw it whole, as one democratic fabric, where “a great personal deed has room.”

 

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