Book Review from Agni: Whitman, Lately: C.K. Williams’s On Whitman

As you’ve all worked so diligently on your research papers, I thought it would be fitting to post part of a piece I’ve been working on over the course of the semester–a piece I recently published in a journal called AgniYou can read the essay in its entirety here.  What follows is a section of the essay in which I discuss C.K. Williams’s recent book On Whitman (2010).

In On Whitman and Wait, we witness two competing intelligences: a prose intelligence that works through recollection and remembrance, recreating the formative Whitman of Williams’s early career; and a poetic intelligence that more quietly forges an authentic late-Whitmanian presence for Williams’s compositional present.

Williams parcels out On Whitman into over two dozen small chapters, most with succinct chapter titles coded to Whitmanian keywords: there’s a chapter on “I” and “You”; chapters on “America,” “Imagination,” “Vision,” “Sex,” and “Nature”; we have “The Voice” and “The Body.” If these signposts bear a recognizable significance for most readers of Whitman, the chapters themselves often surprise with genuinely fresh insights. In the chapter with the shortest title, for example—“I”—Williams explores a deep affinity between Whitman and the seventh-century Greek poet Archilochos, bringing us to the very roots of lyric. In “Sex,” he offers a familiar glimpse of Whitman presiding over the ’60s, but manages to express the exuberance of the moment without overly glamorizing it: “sadly,” he writes of the often illusory freedom that saturated the times, “it didn’t, couldn’t, fundamentally change our anxieties, our propensity for aggression, our basic instinctual conflicts.” And yet there is something to be said, Williams tells us, for the way Whitman casts off centuries-old repressions, the way he eroticizes not only sex, but all of creation.

Here and elsewhere, On Whitman exceeds the standard stuff of poet-prose, which can dwell too often in mere enthusiasm for— rather than true amplification of—its subject. No one has written so suggestively, for example, of Whitman’s connection to Charles Baudelaire. Williams scrupulously documents their affinities: born just a few years apart, they both compiled their most important work in the mid-1850s, with Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal coming out two years after the first edition of Leaves. Both of their books prompted accusations of indecency and obscenity. Both men were flâneurs in their own way, city walkers wed to metropolitan centers—Paris and New York—that were in the throes of rapid industrial, architectural, and cultural change. Both were poets of love at last sight, of fleetingness and fading impressions. Both wrote of death and evil, of ruins and prostitutes. Williams enumerates and explores these connections with a critic’s assured knowledge and a poet’s knowing intimacy. Noting how both poets strove “to find new routes through the deterministic logics of mind and self that had come before,” he casts Whitman as the “creator of something entirely new, not only like Baudelaire in its matter, but in its utterance, its very shape: he created a new form to enact and encompass the world as he passionately wished it to be.” The subsequent chapter on Hugo and Longfellow, which might seem a strange aside, only deepens the Whitman-Baudelaire connection by annotating their struggles against poetic counterparts who had more fame, more money, and more cultural cachet.

Williams is a passionate close-reader of Whitman’s work, drawn foremost to what he calls, in the book’s first chapter, “The Music.” “It’s essential to keep in mind,” Williams writes,

that in poetry the music comes first, before everything else, everything else: until the poem has found its music, it’s merely verbal matter, information. Thought, meaning, vision, the very words, come after the music has been established, and in the most mysterious ways they’re already contained in it.

Williams aptly captures the unpredictable, yet somehow precise, music that Whitman’s lines often produce, and he has a supreme sense of the contrastive surprise that accompanies the accrued music of Whitman’s catalogs. If he is at times overly exuberant, that merely reflects the degree to which On Whitman is a book that looks back, unembarrassed, to the energy of his own early encounters with the poet, and also to the miraculous birth of Whitman’s poetic presence, coming, as he seemed to, out of nowhere and everywhere at once in 1855.

This emphasis on a Whitman in the full flush of health inspires and enables many of Williams’s keenest observations. But it also sponsors the study’s neglect of Whitman in age. It’s not that Williams fails to attend to Whitman in his lateness; he won’t give the old bard a break.

Discussing the endless revisions of Leaves that didn’t cease until the Deathbed edition of 1892, Williams writes that Whitman “continued to put it through his mill long after his poetic powers had deteriorated. This is a sad thing to say about any artist, but a side-by-side reading of the different versions makes it undeniable.” This staid narrative of decline is too common in Whitman criticism. Though Williams dutifully registers his respect for Whitman’s stoicism in the face of his increasingly feeble music, he largely sponsors the received account:

even when some twenty years or so later he realized it had left him, had left him even years before that, he expressed no great grief, though he surely had no inkling during those early blazing years that it ever might wane. But, sadly, at some point, it did go bad for him. He lost the connection to his music, not knowing at first hand that he had. Trying to keep it going, after the 1860s, into the ’70s and ’80s, he kept making new poems, but his locutions become odd and awkward, his rhythms uncertain, his diction sometimes almost primitive.

Whitman, to Williams’s deep dismay, resorted to an “endless tinkering” which inevitably “untuned the original power of his symphony.” Trying to guess at the roots of Whitman’s failure, Williams asserts that “he was having fatal trouble sounding like himself, the poet he had been, whose music was diluted now, and weary, maybe because his body itself had begun to be prematurely sick and weary and old.”

Can’t Whitman be allowed to evolve? Mustn’t he? Isn’t harboring a fatal fear of sounding like oneself the mark of any great poet? Shouldn’t Whitman’s music be allowed to change with the debilities of age? And also with the evolving political and cultural crises of post-war America as Lincoln’s grave sacrifice gave way to the failure of Reconstruction, to the rampant corporate greed of the Gilded Age, to the annihilation of space and the tyranny of time as the railroads carved up the countryside and portioned out the day? Deciphering Whitman’s late work requires that we seek to understand precisely how it tracks the decay of both his body and his dream for America. Yes, his late work can seem odd and uncertain, cragged and conflicted, even as it continues to echo some former glory and accomplishment. This remains the essential, contrastive drama of late Whitman, and it gives rise to a strange, difficult, and discomfiting music with a strong critical undertow for those prepared to hear and explore it.

When Williams turns to Whitman’s prose, he comes much closer to recognizing an ideologically complex Whitman. He quotes at length from Democratic Vistas (1871), where Whitman betrays the shadow side of his exuberant poetic optimism: “Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present,” Whitman writes. “We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout.” He goes on to lament the “depravity of the business classes,” the “corruption, bribery, falsehood, mal-administrating” that saturate public life. After giving voice to this other side of Whitman, Williams notes in a parenthetical aside how similar this sounds to “what we’ve come to know, politics by party, politics as power.” And then, in a crucial insight, Williams asserts: “He already knew the loss.”

These are the five truest words in On Whitman, perhaps the truest, most necessary words we could say of Whitman today. But Williams abruptly backs away, beating a retreat to the poetry, to the early Leaves of Grass, which he calls “a hymn of praise to the nation, to its people, its land, its nature, its animals.” Over this symphony of optimism orchestrated by (in Williams’s phrase) a “stunningly successful, hardly ever flagging poetical-fictional colossus,” it is difficult indeed to hear the muted strains of Whitman’s lateness.

Williams’s blindness to Whitman’s lateness and all it signifies has its roots not in any disrespect for age or fear of death, but in a profound underestimation of Whitman’s music. Reflecting on Whitman’s teasing question from “Song of Myself”—where he asks the reader: “Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?”—Williams offers this stunning claim:

What’s striking is that there are no ‘depths’ in Whitman, no secrets, no allegories, no symbols in the sense of one thing standing for another, an aspect of matter standing for an element of spirit. Everything in Whitman’s poems is brought to the surface, everything is articulated, made as clear and vivid and in a way as uninterpretable as it can be.

But this seeming tyranny of the ostensible only represents one of Whitman’s many changes of garments. What of the Whitman who writes, in the Preface to Leaves, of the essential poetic qualities of indirection and suggestiveness? The one who writes in “Among the Multitudes” of some far-off reader “picking me out by secret and divine signs . . . / that one knows me,” Whitman declares, before switching to a more direct address: “I meant that you should discover me so by faint indirections.” Whitman, we also recall, was something of an amateur Egyptologist, obsessed with hieroglyphics and their hidden portents. And wasn’t Williams himself utterly convincing when he substituted Whitman for the deeply allegorical Poe, the American poet most often compared to Baudelaire? Whitman felt his late work had plenty of secrets in store.

To be sure, Whitman worried over the status and significance of his late works, asking himself, in the preface to Good-Bye My Fancy, whether he had “not better withhold (in this old age and paralysis of me) such little tags and fringe-dots (maybe specks, stains)?” In a brief note published in Lippincott’s Magazine around the time he released Good-Bye My Fancy, however, Whitman answers his own hesitation in a pointedly distancing third-person voice, declaring that “the book is garrulous, irascible (like old Lear) and has various breaks and even tricks to avoid monotony. It will have to be ciphered and ciphered out long—and is probably in some respects the most curious part of its author’s baffling works.” That ciphering should now begin.

Helen Vendler, who reviewed On Whitman for The New York Times, is less responsive than I am to Williams’s insights, calling the chapter on Baudelaire, for example, more of an interruption than an intensification. She also regrets much of his brash enthusiasm for Whitman as a ’60s icon. While I clearly don’t everywhere agree with Vendler, we share a sense that Williams’s emphasis on a kind of cult of Whitmanian youth distracts from what could be a fuller understanding of Whitman’s lateness. “I do wish,” Vendler concludes, “that he had made more room for the old Whitman, lonely, lingering, as he leaves friends in ‘After the Supper and Talk,’ reluctantly descending the steps, but still talking, ‘garrulous to the very last.’” I agree completely.

Check out Agni to read the rest of the essay, which moves on to discuss Williams’s recent collection Wait.

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Expounding on Whitman and Hughes

Walt Whitman, in his most notable and acclaimed works, explores the dynamics of a multi-faceted identity, wades through the complexities of crisis and recovery, and strolls through the beauty of the American frontier while indulging himself in transcendence. He seeks not to convey the world, but become it—which is what distinguishes Walt Whitman from others. According to author and critic Mark Bauerlein, “Whitman diffuses his identity into various poses or characters, creating both distancing perspectives on himself…and new identities that contrast with the poet.” Some critics like Gayle L. Smith would argue that these inconsistencies cloud our ability to “reconcile Whitman’s dedication to aesthetics of clarity and simplicity,” while others would assert that his attempt to transcend alienates at times, and invades at others. In order for Whitman to maintain his multi-faceted persona as a transnational, transcendent poet one may assume that committing not only negates his ideal found in the 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass that “the proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it,” but also that it restricts and refutes the core concept of transcending which is to “go beyond the range or limits of (something abstract, typically a conceptual field or division).” One cannot attempt to ignore racial, cultural, economic or national barriers and remain intimately dedicated to ideas associated with these same boundaries. Langston Hughes, on the other hand, considers these newly found boundaries within a context that is most important to him, making use of Whitman’s cataloging strategies and “everyman” persona to allow his poetry to be just as powerful and stimulating as Whitman’s.

Although Hughes sings his songs in similar form to that of Whitman, “the subject matter and the emotional thrust are distinctively Hughes’s” (Berry 24). The use of Whitman’s strategy only demonstrates his recognition of Whitman’s poetic techniques as successful tactics for overcoming certain barriers, not his attempt to replicate Whitman’s ideas or intentions (if any). Hughes becomes a voice for a particular type of American—the African American. In his not so popular poem “Negro”, Hughes satirically takes advantage of Whitman’s “I am the…” approach and draws it back to the more specific experience of African Americans. Like Whitman in his “Song of Myself”, Hughes becomes “the slave”, “a worker”, “a singer” and “a victim”, but he remains committed, taking the universality of the “I am…” attitude and placing it on a more microscopic level. For instance, in becoming “the worker” he references the history of blacks building the pyramids and making “mortar for the Woolworth building” (ln 7-9). In becoming “the victim”, he remembers the African whose hands were cut off by Belgians in the Congo, or the black lynched in Texas (ln 14-16). Hughes, by interconnecting his exploration and embodiment of the historical and cultural evolution of African Americans and Whitman’s artful craft of poetic transcendentalism, actually broadens the connectivity of the universal approach, permitting the connection to mean more than the connections that we share we each other despite barriers, but also the connections people have to these barriers as well.

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The Consequences and Comparisons of War in Whitman and Komunyakaa

War, in the history of humanity, is a uniting and dividing force.  War is desperate, and sickening things occur during wartime.  The people who participate either seem to fall under the weight of it all or grow stronger because of it.  These participants strive to find hope in the small things that make understanding war easier, and dealing with war more approachable.  One can say that poetry is a method for catharsis, and for Walt Whitman and Yusef Komunyakaa, poetry answers that difficult equation of dealing with it.  Walt Whitman grew while embracing his role as a wound-dresser and caretaker during the Civil War.  His experiences gave him insight in to personal suffering, similar to Yusef Komunyakaa’s observations of some particularly inhumane acts during the Vietnam war.  Within the 58, 022 names on the Vietnam Memorial, Yusef Komunyakaa sees all of the loss of war, within a masculine war world in need of a female touch.  Within the faces of the men he cared for, North or South, Whitman viewed the destruction of war as a mother would.  Komunyakaa calls Whitman’s poetry “cosmic and carnal” and that he strives to “achieve a voice just as inclusive as his” and within this inclusiveness are the voices of all those that both Komunyakaa and Whitman spoke for (Collins 12).  Between the masculine and feminine world lies a poetic hand that creates an open page of cathartic reflection and care.

Particular to Whitman and Komunyakaa’s poetry of war is that of the outward experience of another being, observed and reflected on.  In his poetry and specifically in Dien Cai Dau Komunyakaa often gives the voice of his poems to a character experiencing war, separate from himself.  Before writing the poems in Dien Cai Dau Komunyakaa believes he “resist[ed] those memories,” and that he hadn’t “adequately dealt, both psychologically and emotionally” with the memories (Baer 6).  Komunyakaa has said he had planned on being a photographer, and with this in mind, his poetry began to create “a composite of meaning images” and in Dien Cai Dau that those images often “comprise incidents…allow[ing] readers who’ve had not personal awareness of such experiences, even more to hold on to” (Baer 7)

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Olds and Whitman

Sharon Olds addresses Walt Whitman directly, by name, in at least two of her poems.  But her conference with the Bard, despite the century between them, pervades a far more overwhelming portion of her work than that.  “The bodies of men and women engirth me, and I engirth them, / [t]hey will not let me off nor I them till I go with them and respond to them and love them,” wrote Whitman, in the opening lines of “I Sing the Body Electric” from Leaves of Grass.  The poem is a famous homage to the bodies of men and women, to swimmers, framers, rowers, housekeepers, laborers, mothers, babies, woodmen, wrestlers, fireman; it concludes with a curse upon anyone “who degrades or defiles the body,” living or dead.  According to Jimmie Killingsworth, “Whitman set out to elevate the status of physical existence as a theme and inspiration of modern poetry, fully exploiting the metaphorical possibilities of material life as well as advocating a complete realization of the body as a source of psychological, social, and political well-being.”  As self-proclaimed Poet of the Body, Whitman recognized the physical experience as both the only and the most supreme medium for enlightenment.  This mantra is as evident in the work of Sharon Olds as in any other modern poet.

Though her realm is often (but not always) limited to the family, both as a child and as an adult, Olds manifests her role in these relationships with bold eroticization and sharp bodily imagery.  Even when the conceit is playful – “her body hard and / indivisible as a prime number” – Olds never wavers in her pursuit of the divine made evident by the tangible details.  “[A]nd in her head she’ll be doing her / wild multiplying, as the drops / sparkle and fall to the power of a thousand from her body,” so her poem entitled “The One Girl at the Boy’s Party” concludes (20-22).  The math and magic are the sum of her or his parts, and Olds is as meticulous (if not as voluminous) in her cataloguing of the human machine as Walt himself.

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Between Komunyakaa and Whitman

The relationship between Yusef Komunyakaa, Walt Whitman, and war is simple at an initial glance, but becomes more in depth as you look further in to the specifics of their individual experiences.  Komunyakaa has experience as a participant of war, one that he pictures for his readers in Dien Cai Dau.  His experiences as a soldier in the Vietnam war have a profound effect on him ,as much as Walt Whitman’s experiences as a wound-dresser in the Civil War.  Whitman’s Drum Taps would be the most obvious predecessor of Komunyakaa’s Dien Cai Dau.  I would like to create a meshed view on both of these poets in reference to their experiences in war and how these experiences made an impact and a showing in their writing.

The relationship between Komunyakaa, Whitman, and war is an interesting one because of the differing experiences of war they both had, in time and what the did in their respective wars.  Also, the influence of Whitman on Komunyakaa that is apparent in his poem “Kosmos,” and the many essays Komunyakaa has written on differing subjects that reference Whitman.  Komunyakaa seems to view Whitman as an erring figure, but one that lessons can be learned from.  The influence of war is a personal one for both men, and it shows in their writing.

How war happens and how it affects the men and women that participate in it, in the different ways that they do is important though sometimes difficult to understand.   They seem like such disparate writers and it seems interesting that Komunyakaa repeatedly references Whitman in his scholarly writing, but he must see something in the man that he deems worth acknowledging and appreciating.  I’m delving further into what makes the draw of Whitman and the play between the experiences of war with both Whitman and Komunyakaa an interesting and worthy relationship.

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Whitman, Neruda, and Earth’s Indifference

In 1856, Walt Whitman wrote “The Poem of Wonder at the Resurrection of the Wheat,” with the prospect of the destructive Civil War looming in the distance. This poem would later be called “This Compost,” and exemplifies Whitman’s classic crisis and recovery form, though the poem does not achieve a glorious recovery. “This Compost” is Whitman’s exploration of how human beings fit into the earth’s processes of rebirth and renewal, and he may not like what he finds. Several poems by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda also typify the Whitmanian form of crisis and recovery. In particular, Neruda’s “The Great Ocean” is similar to “This Compost” in its exploration of humans’ relationship to the power of the ocean. In Walt Whitman and the Earth: A Study in Ecopoetics, M. Jimmie Killingsworth argues “This Compost” puts forth “the suspicion that the earth is indifferent to and separated from human purposes” (82). Neruda’s “The Great Ocean” echoes Whitman’s anxiety over Earth’s indifference to humankind but with the ocean playing the part of nature. Published in Canto General in 1950, “The Great Ocean” bears a strong connection to “This Compost” in that they each display a distinct pattern of Whitmanian crisis and recovery. While trying to make nature a metaphor for human rebirth and resolution, both poets recognize that nature and the earth are indifferent to human beings. In an attempt to recover from that crisis, both Whitman and Neruda try to negotiate “symbolic nature” and “indifferent nature” as a way to understand human relationships and history. Neither poet completely succeeds in their attempts, and each poet bows down to all powerful and indifferent nature.

Throughout Walt Whitman’s extensive body of work, many of his poems find themselves exploring some kind of crisis and making some attempt at a recovery from that crisis. “This Compost” displays a perfect example of a quintessentially Whitmanian poem of crisis and recovery. The crisis in “This Compost” is essentially what Killingsworth calls Whitman’s “suspicion that the earth is indifferent to and separated from human purposes,” (82). Whitman begins “This Compost” by saying “SOMETHING startles me where I thought I was safest” (495). Whitman thought he was “safest” in nature, but it “startles” him to realize that the earth is not phased by any amount “carcasses” and death that human beings put into it (495). In what Killingsworth calls Whitman’s “gothic fantasy” in the first stanza, Whitman imagines that if he would “run a furrow with [his] plough,” he would certainly “expose some of the foul meat” entrenched in the earth (82, 495). Surprised, Whitman instead finds that “the grass of spring covers the prairies,” and all other manner of “apple-buds,” “wheat,” and “newborn of animals appear” despite the innumerous amounts of death that human beings have disposed of in the ground (496). Though Whitman seems quite in awe of the earth’s “chemistry” and its ability to regenerate despite endless death, he does not quite find a reassuring recovery at the end of the poem as he is still quite anxious and “terrified at the Earth,” as it “turns harmless and stainless on its axis,” utterly indifferent to the death and suffering of human beings (496).

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Highways and Cathedrals

During our not-so-recent discussion of Juliana Spahr, there was some mention of the spoils of the future and those technological advances which seem only to set us back.  Spahr addresses senseless wars, cell phone conversations about loneliness, celebrity worship, our “alien planet” and “coal-black earth,” among other things.  But when the paranoia of our world in its present state began to take over, I thought of something David Byrne says in  True Stories.  “Highways,” he observes, “are the cathedrals of our time.”  Granted, it can be difficult to see the proliferating system of interstates and roadways, particularly in the United States, as anything but a concrete takeover of our most pristine natural spaces.  But I’m challenged to also consider the ingenuity and planning that have gone into the evolution of human transportation, as well as the manual and mechanic labor or even the amount of time — voluntary or not — we spend in transit.  Where would America be without the compulsory and expansive migration from East to West?

“Sauntering the pavement or riding the country byroad here then are faces, / Faces of friendship, precision, caution, suavity, ideality, / The spiritual prescient face, the always welcome common benevolent face… / The welcome ugly face of some beautiful soul…” so Whitman wrote in Leaves of Grass.  It is not difficult for me to contrive Walt’s opinion of the pavement itself as a kind of “welcome ugly face of some beautiful soul,” that is, an articulation (however sordid) of man’s dearest and most deeply held desires for freedom, discovery, connectedness.  In his legacy, many of the poets we’ve read this semester seem to be at odds with the detriments of a modern world, and even desperate in their attempts to resuscitate some modicum of pure, unadulterated beauty.  I imagine many of us are equally pressed to mediate between the extremes of man-made progress and natural preservation.  But I think Walt Whitman and David Byrne would have agreed that there is always something magnificent to be discovered, even in the “post-apocalyptic wasteland” we keep finding ourselves in.

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Expanding Whitman’s Influence

We had a truly great class this semester, in which we expounded upon and investigated in depth just how far-reaching Walt Whitman’s influential scope extends.  Essentially, we can thank the American Bard for the magnum opuses of a large number of the most celebrated poets of the past 100 years, whether they agreed with Whitman or not.  We found that those who are influenced by the Good Grey Poet and his ruminations on life, the nature of poetry, politics, and spirituality reach further than the confines of America, proving that there is something to be found in Whitman that can speak to us all.  This class definitely helped not only to shed light on Whitman, but to carve out a new kind of niche in which we can see the ways that the common collegiate literary canon functions as a web of connections — a godsend for students and scholars of English.

I would like to end with a kind of addendum to the syllabus.  Being an English Special Topics course, obviously the content is going to be mostly literature based.  However, I think there is something to be said for the way that Whitman’s influence and ideals expanded beyond the literary, assimilating gracefully into poltics, social theory, and art, just to name a few.  An entire companion class could be constructed for any of these topics.

For instance, I believe that the art of Frederic Edwin Church exemplifies on canvas many of the emotions that Whitman felt towards his country.  Church saw the beauty and the promise of America, reflected in the country’s unique and sweeping landscapes.  He often painted humans into his pieces, but as a miniscule part of something much greater, and whose responsibility it was to be the keepers of the magnificence.  His painting, “At Home By the Lake,” for example, is thought to be a “testament to the country’s pioneer spirit,” built on a love for and connection with the land, and a belief in hard work.

As a born-and-bred Virginian, his painting of Virginia’s famous natural bridge also comes to mind as a painting near to my heart.  I am sure the fact that our founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson and George Mason revered and marveled at this beautiful natural creation would not have been lost on Church.

Further, Church and Whitman were contemporaries, fashioning their masterpieces around the same time in history.  Below are a few examples of Church’s works that remind me of Whitman in subject, style, and content; just a taste of Whitman’s legacy as it plays out through other, non-literary mediums.

At Home on the Lake - Frederic Edwin Church

The Natural Bridge, Virginia - Frederic Edwin Church

The Old Boat - Frederic Edwin Church

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Titular Incongruity or Whitman nod?

Whilst browsing the random and ever-expanding world of Netflix instant movies the other day, I stumbled across a recent addition bearing the ever-familiar title, Leaves of Grass.  Obviously this blatant act of theft gave me pause, and I simply had to further investigate exactly what kind of scum would dare to steal the appellation gifted to Old Uncle Walt’s masterpiece.  What unforgivable presumption!

Imagine my shock when I found that the movie was actually a recent 2010 Sundance Film Festival success, starring none other than the almighty Edward Norton and praised by Ebert himself.  What follows are my snap judgements pertaining to what I have gleaned about the nature of the movie, which I have not actually watched.  Brace yourselves, here goes.

So, Norton assumes the starring roles of twin brothers Billy and Brady Kincaid, from small town Oklahoma — which probably is still technologically and stylistically stuck in a time somewhat relfecting Whitman’s lifetime, so the movie has that going for it.  Billy has seemingly broken free of his rural roots, chosing instead a life of academia, making a respectable name for himself as a Professor of Classical Studies at a prestigious university somewhere far, far away in the 21st century.  Classical Studies?  Does this even exist anymore?  Do they mean Classics?  I was hoping he would at least be a Whitman scholar, or even an English 101 professor, but okay…
On the other hand, his brother has, of course, chosen the other side of the gainful employment spectrum, making his living growing hydroponic weed.  Oh.  I get it.  A marijuana joke.  Leaves of Grass.  Yes, very droll.  Hardy har har…watch as my laughter hides my crushing disappointment in you.  Well, he apparently has a “live for the day” mentality…that’s pretty Whitmanian, I guess.  In a grasping at straws kind of way.  Although, as Whitman was a bit of a tee-totaler, I can’t see him being too enthused about Brady’s “hobby of choice.”  He’d probably be too nice to say anything, though.

Anyways, Billy is lured home again by a fake shenanigan of Brady’s strange manufacture, and dark hilarity ensues as he meets a veritable cornucopia of “off the wall” characters in an attempt to take down the resident drug lord slash Jewish mafia kingpin (Richard Dreyfuss, and I’m not kidding).  Keri Russell potrays a supposed “intellectual, poetic” type of girl (who probably wears horizontal stripes and drinks a lot of coffee), so if she doesn’t quote Walt Whitman somewhere in the movie I’m going perform some “drum-taps” on someone’s expletive.  I suppose there is some infinitesimal, glistening nugget of Whitman to be found in Brady, who (in the only quote from the movie I could find), when asked what his aversion to proper grammar is, responds “rhythm, maybe.”  Poetic enough.

Seriously though, I make all these comments in jest.  I have no quantifiable right to review this movie, as I have not watched it yet.  I’m sure it is actually a very good movie and I look forward to viewing it once my life and soul become my own again (e.g., after exams).  After all, pretty much anything with Edward Norton is okay in my book.  The rest of the cast list is also stellar, and I must admit I am a sucker for those “indie gems” billed as dark comedies.  Let’s just say that, as a student of Whitman, I am going to be slightly skeptical of any form of contemporary media that hijacks Whitman’s master title for what seems to be nothing more than a drug reference.  I guess that makes me a literature snob. 

So be it.

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Revolution, Recitation, and Reconciliation

This is the beginning of my paper as it stands, though some things may obviously be subject to change in revision. Perhaps I’ll offer more posts as it becomes more fully formed. Despite the confusion, it is fun to write about!

The Walt Whitman most Americans are familiar with is one of boundless optimism, a deep appreciation and love of nature, and, above all else, an undeniably strong sense of hope. Indeed, the multitudes are most familiar with the Whitman who attempts to contain and celebrated them all simultaneously. Who can blame them though? Who would prefer a Whitman suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, confused and disillusioned by men’s violence towards one another, and one who seems to be grasping at straws rather than one who feels firmly planted on the mountaintop, prophetic pamphlet in hand? This more serious, more restrained, and more honest Whitman is the one we find in the pages of Democratic Vistas and Drum-Taps. Though he certainly still believes something fundamentally positive about America and its people, he cannot ignore all the suffering that’s transpired during the Civil War. It is this politically charged and partially helpless Whitman who seems to have inspired so many poets around the world to use their voices in times of real crisis. Among them, the Hispanic and Latin American poets are perhaps the most well known: Federico Garcia Lorca, Pablo Neruda, and later, Martin Espada. These men pay homage to Whitman for his love of nature, peace, and liberty through their work, and have received wide recognition both in the literary spheres as well as the political. This paper will briefly establish Whitman’s political point of view by analyzing Democratic Vistas before moving on to one of his more poignant poems from Drum-Taps, “Reconciliation.” After a close reading of this piece we will then begin to examine the other poets’ contributions as they strove to aid their respective countries and take up Whitman’s cup where he left off. We will examine Garcia Lorca’s “Gacela of the Dead Child,” Neruda’s “I Explain Some Things,” and Espada’s “Rain Without Rain—“ in comparison to Whitman’s piece.

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