Posts Tagged ‘Walt Whitman’

Literary Ghost at My Table

During interviews prominent authors are often asked what dead writers would they invite to a dinner party at their house. If I were to be the hostess at a gathering of literary greats, the one notable guest I would want at my table is Walt Whitman. I would seat him at the head of the table.

I would interview him. He would do all the talking and I would do most of the listening as he responded to my main question: What do you think of America at the end of the year 2018?

I can only conjecture his responses and that would be an interesting exercise. Based on my re-reading of what is called his 1892 deathbed edition of Leaves of Grass, I can speculate on what he would say. His thoughts on the state of the Union are particularly pertinent in the light of current events because he viewed himself as the quintessential unifier, the universal androgynous man, who heralded the promise of greater and greater democratic vistas. He sang the vigor and vibrancy of a nation stretching from sea to shining sea. He sang the virtues and the dignity of the common laborer, the builder and the shaper, of the future. He encompassed the vast panoply of Americans in his song of himself. Unity in diversity was his anthem.

Would his eternal optimism prevail in our tabletop talk? How would he see the current occupant of the White House contrasted with the serious Illinois rail splitter who could also laugh at himself–the man in the stovepipe hat who visited the troops at Antietam and the wounded in war hospitals?

“Mr. Whitman, will democratic institutions survive the assault on the rule of law and the freedom of the press?” I ask.

“Call me, Walt,” he says. His face is somber and sad like Honest Abe’s at Gettysburg. Walt’s old lips begin to move. “The man I loved said once: ‘You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time but you cannot fool all the people all the time.'” He pauses and continues, his eyes assuming a hopeful glint. “Some of the people were bamboozled into thinking a fool could rule well.  The attacks on democracy like the secessionists’ attack on the Union cannot last, because the tide of history is not on the side of division. The reserves of sense and sensibility will yet arise from the depth of the American spirit to remove a despot and demand justice for all. It is our history; it is inexorable despite shipwrecks and drownings in our course. The alarums have sounded; there are those hurtling toward the breach to rescue democracy. I cheer them on; I yet sing them on to victory. They are brawny and brave, muscled and sinewed for the task. They have built our bridges, paved our roads, erected a great city on the Hudson, on the Potomac, along the Mississippi from Minnesota to New Orleans. They toiled in the blast furnaces of Pennsylvania; they have mined the coal in West Virginia; they have launched the rockets from Cape Kennedy, which I was not alive to watch but viewed from my perch above it all. Take heart, lift up your spirit, for there remain reserves of energy yet in this America I hear singing.”

“Then this is a temporary setback?” I say.

“Despots are not loved. Despots eventually are brought down by their own fatal flaws. Time and again we have seen this. So shall it be ever. Lies are snares that entrap the tellers. This I believe; this I proclaim, and so should you also. Look to the noiseless patient spider to learn that the web’s gossamer threads of the soul will extend and hold. The interconnections among all species, all climes, all ethnicities, all ranks and files, will be recognized. I found the common ground and so shall this generation. I endured four bloody years, tending the amputees and shell-shocked, wounded myself in soul, but through the turmoil and the sorrow, the nation was renewed and lived to flourish. The tide comes in; the tide goes on; on Paumanok Island I watched it roll. That is the way of the world; that is the assurance of survival, of life everlasting in the cradle of time. As it was then, so shall it be now. The nation will endure.”

“That is a hopeful message amid all the chaos,” I say.

“I saw chaos once too, and it departed, the shattered fragments reconstituting into a more perfect union–not perfect–more perfect, I repeat myself, and if I do, so shall it ever be. Endless cycles moving toward perfectibility. When all around is destruction, hold fast to the floating plank of hope. Thus spoke that lanky, dark-suited figure in his second inaugural address: ‘With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.’  As we approach the year 2019, the task facing the nation 126 years after my body gave up my spirit to the ages is still to bind up wounds and unite our diverse population in the chant of freedom. Here again in this prosperous and bountiful land, we must rededicate ourselves, one and all, to the revivification and extension of democracy.”

I pass a serving plate to my guest, “Help yourself to more turkey, Walt.”

He chuckles. “You forget. I need no more food for the body.”

Then I thank my dinner guest for offering me his food for the soul. “Please come again, Walt,” I say.

“I shall. All you have to do is summon me. You will find me under your feet and in the blade of grass. I am here.”

The vision of his bearded face vanishes from the head of the table and I am left in peace, holding his volume of poems between my hands.


Do I Hate Poetry?

The other day I read a review of Ben Lerner’s new book The Hatred of Poetry, which elicited my own examination of conscience on the matter as a person who has spent much of her life reading, critiquing, and writing poetry. Do I hate poetry? The truthful answer is that I dislike, or do not much care for, most of the contemporary poems I’ve read in The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, London Review of Books, the prestigious Poetry magazine, and numerous literary journals. Although dislike is a milder term than hate, a more accurate description of my attitude toward most of the poetry being published today is that the poems leave me unmoved or uncomprehending; therefore, I cannot really dislike poems that I don’t understand. To like or dislike a poem, I would first have to know what the intent of the poem is and then decide if I like the way the ideas of the poem are crafted in prosody.  I do not ascribe to the postmodernist notion that a poem should be a brain teaser puzzle nor to the Hallmark school of versification. Nor do I think poetry is an exercise in the purely autobiographical. Some would accuse me of being a lazy poetry reader and argue that poetry is not for mental lightweights. I will take the criticism like a woman.

But I do like poetry. I like the poetry of Derek Walcott, Dana Gioia, May Sarton, Czeslaw Milosz, and Wisława Szymborska–to name only a few. I never tire of T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman–my pantheon of poets. All poets present their own complexities, but what I find eminently likable about the poetry I do like are these traits, which conversely, I find lacking in much of the poetry being published today: cadence or musicality, linguistic virtuosity, a spiritual dimension, universality. There are many ways to achieve sound effects in poetry, but when I don’t hear them when the poem is read aloud, the language is prosaic, and meaning is banal or obscure; then the poem is a car with a flat tire going nowhere in my mental and emotional landscape. Too much of the contemporary poetry I read is too lackluster linguistically and unmelodic for me to get excited about.

So do I hate poetry? I am an indifferent lover of much of the poetry being published today, but hatred of poetry is not one of my sins. I plead not guilty. Poetry stands at the pinnacle of the literary arts, and this art attracts novices, hacks, mediocre practitioners, and artisans. Everyone loved poetry as a young child, and everyone can love it again. It is just more difficult to find poems to love in the morass of uninspiring, pedestrian, incomprehensible, and unmusical poems in the limelight today.

Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself

Walt Whitman, 1872

Walt Whitman, 1872

In “Song of Myself,” section 48, Whitman advises: “My words itch at your ears till you understand them.” Whitman’s master work has been itching at my ears probably since I was first introduced to him at age thirteen. Having finished another reading of his long song, I encounter new nuances, sounds, meanings, and responses. “Song of Myself” warrants a reading at least once a year. Sections merit reading, if only in part, to open presidential conventions, and fittingly too, at political party events, particularly Democratic Party ones to re-invigorate liberalism, which has largely been emasculated in American politics. Lines like this from section 24 may reanimate zeal for the rights of man: “I give the sign of democracy/By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.” The poem sings an unparalleled litany to the common man, the laborer, the builders, the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly that make up the fabric of humanity.

I would like to hear “Song of Myself” set to music as a magnificent opera in which parts are singled out for tenor, bass, soprano and alto arias, alternated with sections sung by the full choir. Maybe a composer has tried this already, but was it a musical arrangement of the entire poem? Whitman’s ghost, a great opera lover, would sit in the balcony, listening to its stage debut. To attend such an opera would be to truly hear America singing.

This time around reading “Song of Myself” I am more than ever impressed by the poem’s mystical nature. Whitman possesses a cosmic awareness. His cosmic vision banishes time and space; past, present, and future merge in his ecstatic vision. “I am afoot with my vision,” he writes. “I am the clock myself.” Lines dazzle me that I missed in prior readings, such as “bravura of birds.” Then suddenly, the joy of recognition strikes me, encountering these three lines in section 40: “To cotton-field drudge or cleaner of privies I lean,/On his right cheek I put the family kiss/And in my soul I swear I never will deny him.” Then I see Pope Francis kissing the deformed man and I catch the references to Jesus Christ.

There are so many wondrous passages to cite from “Song of Myself.” The poem demands to be read in its entirety–and aloud–to absorb its full vigor and cadence, the muscularity of its lines, and the cosmic energy that suffuses the whole. So many parts saying in one way or another–all creation is glorious, all men and women, races and creeds are equal, all mankind partakes of divinity, the voice of the I singing representative of the whole. Above all we are immortal.  Whitman asserts: “And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.” And also he immediately adds, to live.  The self is the ultimate arbiter: “You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.” Mystical union with the divine does not come from books. Whitman enjoins us to go outside; discover the self, which is divine. He writes: “Logic and sermons never convince/The damp of the night drives deeper into my soul.”

This song in praise of Myself is also of one of the world soul. The universal resonance of the poem leads me to assert that it is not just a work of American literature, but a classic of world literature. I’m reminded of a discussion I had with a British woman who was my colleague while teaching English in the Middle East. We disagreed with the materials the men selected for the American literature course, which the women’s faculty had no part in formulating. I stated that I thought there were three major American poets suitable and accessible to non-native English speakers–Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Frost. These are the giants of American poetry and should be studied. My British colleague unequivocally agreed.

This time around reading “Song of Myself,” section 11, affords fresh responses. This section with the three lines of anaphora–twenty-eight young men–has always baffled me. Why twenty-eight?  I ask myself a similar question: Why fifty-two sections  to the poem? I answer for the fifty-two weeks of the year.  The rich, lonely lady who lives in fine house by the rise of the bank observes the male bathers. There is another observer presumably male–the lusty Whitman. He wonders which of the men she will choose and concludes: “Ah the homeliest of them is beautiful to her.”  I derive now from this enigmatic tableau that Whitman implies all types of love are equal. Furthermore, love does not discriminate.  In this little scene we have a man and a woman both engaged in their individual imaginings, and they converge in equal admiration and love for twenty-eight men. They cannot single one or another as better or worthier of their love. And what to make of twenty-eight–the number of days in four weeks?  Whitman does a lot of counting in his poem and fills an amplitude of days and nights. The inference is one of abundance, a superfluity; he is the clock, keeping time, measuring the pulse of the seasons.  The poem is his abolition of the calendar, his testament to immortality, his obliteration of time and space. He is of all ages and of all mankind. He has inspired other poets not only Americans. He is the inspiration for this poem of mine:

I Hear Walt Whitman Singing

I hear Walt Whitman singing.
Humming the psalm of the universal soul,
In youth I swilled his verses; I’m old
And echo his hymns to earth and sky.
Rich and poor, mechanic and scholar,
Ant and elephant occupied a place
In his broad compass and so do I,
I, of the generations after him crossing
Brooklyn Ferry, chewing a blade of grass.

I hear Walt Whitman singing.
Lofting in Montana, he’s a golden eagle
On wings of windsong. I see him
Ascend over my mountain home,
Dally among the larches, spy a mole
In the grass, clasp it like a word to maw.
He blabs with the pine squirrel,
He blooms with the glacier lily,
Pulsing with his baritone, I gulp sky.

I hear Walt Whitman singing
Everywhere, in glade or ghetto,
In coyote call or infant’s wail,
In the snap of twig or clap of thunder,
In flash of trout on my silver hook.
His sea chanteys in my ear thrum,
Whisper, bellow, croon eternally
Faithful like the tide-tossed strand,
Rocking me in the cradle, endlessly.


The Road Forks: Song This Way and Poem That Way

The tradition of poetry derives from music and oral performance harking back to the bards of Greece and the medieval minstrels. Ballads through the ages have been collected and published to be read. Yet in the twentieth century poetry in the popular mind resides in song lyrics, Broadway musicals, or perhaps in the hit songs of Bob Dylan.  Songs are the closest that most people ever come to poetry today.

But that is not a bad place to start. It is in fact where my classmates and I started in our methods in education course. We used Beatles’ song lyrics to introduce our unit on poetry. T.S Eliot still had the audacity to title his famous poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Don’t tell me that the lines: “In the room the women come and go\Talking of Michelangelo” and “I grow old . . . I grow old . . .\I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled” do not replay in the mind like a song lyric.

I have always contended that good poetry must have musicality; the traditional devices of poetry–rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia, refrains, etc.–are used to create it. Walt Whitman’s poetry has musicality because he makes extensive use of the rhythm created by repetition of grammatical structure in phrases and clauses of the same cadence.

In his new book Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) Stephen Sondheim asserts that his lyrics are not poems and that songs and poems are not the same. I beg to differ with him. Good poems can be sung and composers have often set them to music. Others support Sondheim’s contention, saying poetry today is of the intellect and songs are of the emotions, as if never the twain shall meet.  Commonly, poets the likes of William Blake in his Songs of Innocence and Experience and of audacious Whitman in his “Song of Myself” boldly proclaimed the relationship of song to poem. Not many do so today. I recall one of my poems I ironically titled “A Song to End all Songs of Love.” My poem “Song of Hononegah” was adapted as part of Fred M. Hubbell’s choral work Sinnissippi Saga, which was performed by the Community Choral and Concert Choir on April 22, 1992, in Rockford, IL. Edith Sitwell in 1922 attempted to reclaim poetry’s birthright with Façade, a collection of poems that the British composer William Walton set to music.

As long as much of modern poetry remains unmusical, academic, and obscure most of us will continue to satisfy an innate desire for poetic language with song lyrics. And that is fine with me. But I must also reassert that the best of the world’s poetry of necessity is inherently musical. The two paths have not diverged in the woods. It is primarily the academic poet who has diverged from poetry’s roots in song and choral presentation.