ccountryman Just another Looking for Whitman weblog Tue, 15 Dec 2009 03:59:28 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Song of the Open Road Cinepoem Tue, 15 Dec 2009 03:57:28 +0000

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Finding Whitman Thu, 10 Dec 2009 22:50:20 +0000

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More experiences and sights, stranger, than you'd think for;
Times again, now mostly just after sunrise or before sunset,
Sometimes in spring, oftener in autumn, perfectly clear weather, in
plain sight,
Camps far or near, the crowded streets of cities and the shopfronts,
(Account for it or not--credit or not--it is all true,
And my mate there could tell you the like--we have often confab'd
about it,)
People and scenes, animals, trees, colors and lines, plain as could be,
Farms and dooryards of home, paths border'd with box, lilacs in corners,
Weddings in churches, thanksgiving dinners, returns of long-absent sons,
Glum funerals, the crape-veil'd mother and the daughters,
Trials in courts, jury and judge, the accused in the box,
Contestants, battles, crowds, bridges, wharves,
Now and then mark'd faces of sorrow or joy,
(I could pick them out this moment if I saw them again,)
Show'd to me--just to the right in the sky-edge,
Or plainly there to the left on the hill-tops.

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Second-Annex thoughts Thu, 12 Nov 2009 22:02:56 +0000 I enjoyed the unexpected exuberance of Sail Out for Good, Eidolon Yacht! The “death as a journey” metaphor is put into effect, and you can almost visualize this old sea-captain, the speaker, a wizened snarl on his face as he’s battered by heavy waves and seaspray, taking the helm on this voyage. Not a “concluding voyage”, however, “But outset and sure entranceto the truest, best, maturest”. Death is not an end. It is “Now on for aye our infinite free venture wending,/Spurning all yet tried ports, seas, hawsers, densities, gravitation.” It is more of a frontier, unmapped territory in need of exploration, and this old soul is ready for it. Good stuff.

I was also intrigued by the “Good-Bye My Fancy[!]” pair of poems. This first poem does not include the exclamation point, and occurs at the very beginning of this Annex. It goes:

Good-bye my fancy–(I had a word to say,

But ’tis not quite the time–The best of any man’s word or say,

Is when its proper place arrives–and for its meaning,

I keep mine till the last.)

The speaker here starts the poem but then self-consciously interrupts himself, feeling that he can’t express himself properly at this point of the Annex. So after fleshing more thoughts out, if you will, over the next several pages, he revisits Good-Bye My Fancy! as the last poem. And it is essentially straightforward in its message: “I’m going away, I know not where,/Or to what forturne, or whether I may ever see you again”. But he stops himself again, “let me not be too hasty”. “Then if we die we die together, (yes we’ll remain one)/If we go anywhere we’ll go together to meet what happens”. So death might be a seperation, but purely in a physical form. I think this is a timeless sentiment that Walt captures beautifully and simply.

]]> 3 Article on Whitman’s Levi’s Commercial Tue, 27 Oct 2009 15:21:49 +0000

What goes around comes around!’s Seth Stevenson has a regular column that basically reviews consumer advertisements, primarily commercials. In his newest column he just so happens to review the Levi’s commercials that use Walt’s poems (America and Pioneers! O Pioneers!) that we talked about at the beginning of the semester.

Stevenson generally loves these commercials, saying, “there’s logic to this match between a quintessentially American poet and a quintessentially American product. Whitman’s verse allows Levi’s to evoke not only its proud history but a forward-looking present—the pioneering, American mindset that Whitman captured and that Levi’s hopes to embody.”  I think Stevenson makes a great point in channelling Walt, but perhaps it’s a tad misdirected if applied to a pantsmaking corporation?

Stevenson also waxes a bit poetically himself when describing the nuanced ambiance of the commercials: “That scratchy Whitman recording also sets a mood of vague disquiet. Paired with the music behind it and the startling crack of sudden fireworks, that raspy, distant voice sounds rather ominous. Where the ‘Live Unbuttoned’ ads were about carefree self-expression, this “Go Forth” spot is about squalor and anxiety.”

He gives the commercials an A, for “astounding aesthetics” but is mindful that, after all, this is a still just a multimillion dollar company trying to sell jeans anyway it can, regardless of what literary monuments it desecrates, er, utilizes.

Readers of the article are much more ambivalent, as the message board is rife with division, with headings like “Our cultural heritage turned from gold to shit” juxtaposing “This ad succeeds where the Chevy ad failed” juxtaposing “does the average levis buyer know who walt whitman is?” and getting downright mean with “Seth Stevenson’s a hack with no taste”.

So  in a way this article does bring up the question of just what Walt’s legacy means to us now. Has the legacy been reduced to a clever but artfully done advertising schematic? Is it only meaningful in some secondary context, i.e. a Levi’s commercial or a Robin Williams’ rant in Dead Poets Society? I mean, I know we as a class can appreciate Walt, but I’m talking as a generation. Does Walt matter?

I contend that Walt is a difficult read today, where EVERYTHING is compartmentalized. Politics, religion, diseases (PLEASE do not get me started on the swine flu), diet, sexual orientation. We’re judged not by our quality as a human, but the various tags and demographics that are spit out like tickertape at a deli. “Hi, I am Chris. I am a straight, white male who enjoys eating steak, is politically apathetic, atheist, and Irish. True, there is a lot more to me, but in this day and age of 3 minute pop songs and 30 second commercial spots, I doubt you have the attention span to care about the rest. But hey! At least Bud Light and McDonald’s have spent millions and millions on demographic-focused marketing to fill in the blanks of my identity and personality for me!”  O! How Walt would think of us now!

Walt transcended categorization. His enigmatic contradictions are downright baffling at times, but show the convergent and divergent nature of humans. Biologically, what, there’s a 0.00001 difference between every single person? We all have lungs, legs, elbows, fibulas, A COCCYX!  But that fraction tends to make all the difference. Walt understood the perpetual flow of ideologies that inundate us, and tried to reconcile them all. There may be no right or wrong, it just always depends on who you ask.

Are we still talking about pants?

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Walt and the Centennial Exhibition Thu, 22 Oct 2009 21:14:40 +0000 Walt Whitman and the Centennial Exhibition

 America does not repel the past or what it has produced under its forms or amid other politics or the idea of castes or the old religions. . . .

 -Walt Whitman, Preface to Leaves of Grass

Panorama of Centennial Exhibition Grounds

Panorama of Centennial Exhibition Grounds

 Walt originally wrote Song of the Exposition for the Annual Exhibition of the American Institute in 1871, where he also recited it, however it was later taken up by the Centennial Exhibition of 1876. The spirit of the poem was just as relevant.

 The Centennial Exhibition of 1876 was arguable the largest non-war spectacle to ever grace American soil. Between May and November of that year, nearly ten million visitors converged upon West Fairmount Park in Philadelphia to experience what was officially called the International Exhibit of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine. It brought in over 30,000 firms—9,222 of which were American—to present their goods. Walt certainly would have approved. In I Hear America Singing, he invokes the mechanic, the carpenter, the boatman, the shoemaker, the wood-cutter, “Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else”. Were that the case, the Centennial Exhibition would serve as a choir for America’s workers of industry, agriculture, and manufacture alike, as the country did not only celebrate its Independence with this event, but to showcase the profound progress and accumulation of wealth since then. This is echoed also in Song of the Exposition:

 Mark the spirit of invention everywhere, thy rapid patents,

Thy continual workshops, foundries, risen or rising,

See, from their chimneys how the tall flame-fires stream.

 Mark, thy interminable farms, North, South,

Thy wealthy daughter-states, Eastern and Western,

The varied products of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri,

            Georgia, Texas, and the rest,

Thy limitless crops, grass, wheat, sugar, oil, corn, rice,

            hemp, hops,

Thy barns all fill’d, the endless freight-train and the bulging


Thy grapes that ripen on thy vines, the apples in thy orchards,

Thy incalculable lumber, beef, pork, potatoes, thy coal, thy

            gold and silver,

The inexhaustible iron in thy mines.

 And while it’s true that agriculture was well represented at the Centennial, it was the inventions that set America far apart from the rest. Sure, the introduction of Heinz ketchup, popcorn, Hires root beer, and bananas to the American public were fascinating and tasty revelations, but couldn’t hold a candle to some other truly world-changing exhibits. For one, a Scottish immigrant, by way of Canada, holding U.S. patent 174,465, unveiled to Exhibition visitors the manifestation of his experiments with sound. Yes, if you were lucky enough to make a trip out to the Centennial Exhibition, you would have seen first hand Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. The Remington Typographic Machine was also presented, the most efficient and successful typewriter of its time. These two devices ushered in a new era of communication. But the most powerful of all the machines and knickknacks and displays was the Corliss Steam Engine, which powered virtually all of the exhibits in Machinery Hall.

Corliss Steam Engine

Corliss Steam Engine

 Yes, the Centennial was grand in size and scope. 250 buildings were built on 285 of Fairmount Park’s then 2,740 acres. The five major buildings were the Main Exhibition Building, Machinery Hall, Agricultural Hall, Horticultural Hall, and Memorial Hall.

 Walt marveled the enormity of the Exhibition’s Main Building when he said, “looking up a long while at the grand high roof with its graceful and multitudinous work of iron rods, angles, gray colors, plays of light and shade, receding into dim outlines.” His sentiment was hardly without exaggeration. The Main Building was a colossal achievement as far as architecture goes. The Board of Finance for the Centennial described the extensive amount of components needed to build it: “Some idea of the large amount of material which enters into the requirements of a structure covering 20 acres may be formed from the statement that to complete it 3,928 tons of iron must be rolled and fitted, 237,646 square feet of glass made and set, 1,075,000 square feet of tin roof-sheeting (equal to 24 -5/8 acres welded and spread” (Giberti 85). Indeed, in the end the Main Exhibition Building would cover a ridiculous 21.47 acres after all was said and done. Of that acreage, the American section of the Building, situated in the southeast corner, covered 187,700 square feet, far and away the largest exhibition space of any country. And in keeping with the worldly spirit of things, other countries’ exhibition spaces were laid out in accordance to their geographic closeness to America. Thus, England, France and Canada would be closer, and Japan and China would be on the far outskirts. (Gross and Snyder 29).

main building

Main Exhibition Building

 How long to build such a massive structure? A few years? A decade? No, the idea behind such a building is that it is not meant to be permanent. Most of the building was prefabricated, and set up like a series of sheds right in a row. The process took a mere 18 months, at a cost of $1.78 million—about $26 million today (Gross 29). The breadth of this undertaking might’ve even had Walt thinking twice after writing, “All architecture is what you do to it when you look upon it;/Did you think it was in the white or gray stone? or the lines of the arches and cornices?” (Song of Myself 94).

 The Exhibition also proved to be more than a one-up show of America’s might and a long procession of displays and exhibits. It was an affair of togetherness. It was countries from all over the world, people gathering from all over the world, in one place to impress and amaze with exotic and local wares. In a gesture of solidarity, France constructed for America the Statue of Liberty, which, while not completed and dedicated until 1886, made a partial (literally) appearance at the Centennial. The Statue’s right, torch-bearing arm was a popular sight to see for Exhibition-goers, and for 50 cents you could climb a winding stair to the top. Even standing atop this mere fraction of the Statue of Liberty granted people a nice view of the Exhibition grounds. The solidarity is something Walt would have appreciated. If I can interpret This Moment Yearning and Thoughtful on a broader scale, I think it effectively encapsulates the closeness of these otherwise faraway nations:

 It seems to me there are other men in other lands yearning

            and thoughtful,

It seems to me I can look over and behold them in Germany,

Italy, France, Spain,

Or far, far away, in China, or in Russia or Japan, talking

            Other dialects,

And it seems to me if I could know those men I should

            become attached to them as I do to me in my own


O I know we should be brethren and lovers,

I know I should be happy with them.

While Walt never wrote explicitly on the Centennial Exhibition of 1876, I think it’s clear that implicit within this astounding event are many of his ideas: The celebration of the self, of the common worker, progression, invention, the harvest of crops and ideas. He allows himself to stand in wonderment of the fruition of these when he observes the incredible Main Building. And all in all, what is a successful world fair without people coming together?

Statue of Liberty's torch-bearing arm

Statue of Liberty's torch-bearing arm

If I can make an ancillary note here, the only buildings still standing in Fairmount Park from the Centennial Exhibition are the Memorial Hall and Ohio House. Memorial Hall became home to the Please Touch Museum in October 2008 after many years of disuse. The Please Touch Museum includes an extremely fascinating section devoted to the Centennial Exhibition, including a scaled replica of the entire Exhibition grounds. It’s something worth checking out. Ohio House, also abandoned for many years, has been renovated and turned into the Centennial Café, where I can attest to the delicious Turkey Club and Tomato Bisque soup found on the Café’s lunch menu.

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Walt’s fingerprints Thu, 01 Oct 2009 21:28:29 +0000 One of my favorite musicians is a fellow named Conor Oberst. One of his big claims to fame is his band Bright Eyes, a fantasic, folky, acoustic-with-a-twang-of-electric-guitar band. I’m a huge fan of the guy’s lyrics, even if his voice isn’t exactly opera-worthy (though I’d argue that’s not the point). But anyway, he has this awesome song called “I Must Belong Somewhere” that I love (off of my favorite album, Cassadega), yet can’t help but feel this song has the spirit of a Walt kind of poem.  You can listen to the song off of this playlist here. Here are the lyrics:

Leave the bright blue door on the whitewashed wall
Leave the death ledger under city hall
Leave the joyful air in that rubber ball today

Leave the lilac print on the linen sheet
Leave the birds you killed at your father’s feet
Let the sideways rain and the crooked street remain

Leave the whimpering dog in his cold kennel
Leave the dead star lit on her pedestal
Leave the acid kids in their green fishbowls today

Just leave the sad guitar in its hard-shelled case
Leave the worried look on your lover’s face
Let the orange embers in the fireplace remain

Because everything, it must belong somewhere
A train off in the distance, bicycle chained to the stairs
Everything, it must belong somewhere
I know that now, that’s why I’m staying here

Leave the ocean’s roar in the turquoise shell
Leave the widower in his private hell
Leave the liberty in that broken bell today

Leave the epic poem on its yellow page
Leave the gray macaw in his covered cage
Let the traveling band on the interstate remain

Because everything, it must belong somewhere
Soundstage in California, televisions in Times Square
Everything, it must belong somewhere
I know that now, that’s why I’m staying here

Leave the secret talks on the trundle bed
Leave the garden tools in the rusted shed
Leave those bad ideas in your troubled head today

Leave the restless ghost in his old hotel
Leave the homeless man in his cardboard cell
Let the painted horse on the carousel remain

Because everything, it must belong somewhere
Just like the gold around her finger or the silver in his hair
Everything, it must belong somewhere
I know that now, that’s why I’m staying here

In truth, the forest hears each sound
Each blade of grass as it lies down
The world requires no audience
No witnesses, no witnesses

Leave the old town drunk on his wooden stool
Leave the autumn leaves in the swimming pool
Leave the poor black child in his crumbling school today

Leave the novelist in his daydream tune
Leave the scientist in his Rubik’s Cube
Let the true genius in the padded room remain

Leave the horse’s hair on the slanted bow
Leave the slot machines on the river boat
Leave the cauliflower in the casserole today

Leave the hot, bright trash in the shopping malls
Leave the hawks of war in their capitol
Let the organ’s moan in the cathedral remain

Because everything, it must belong somewhere
They locked the devil in the basement, threw God up into the air
Everything, it must belong somewhere
And you know it’s true, I wish you’d leave me here
You know it’s true, why don’t you leave me here?

The first thing I note is Oberst’s use of the rhetorical device known as ANAPHORA. A lot of people are probably very familiar with anaphora in its application, but probably weren’t aware it was called that. Here’s a definition from  (an-NAF-ruh): Figure of repetition that occurs when the first word or set of words in one sentence, clause, or phrase is/are repeated at or very near the beginning of successive sentences, clauses, or phrases; repetition of the initial word(s) over successive phrases or clauses.

Oberst’s application of this device comes in his repetition of “Leave the…” in his verses. And Walt uses this device an obscene amount of times, mostly in his cataloging of things. Take from Calamus, for example, the Not Heaving from My Ribb’d Breast Only, which is comprised entirely, until the final line, of anaphoric lines:

Not heaving in my ribb’d breast only,

Not in sighs at night in rage dissatisfied with myself,

Not in those long-drawn, ill-supprest sighs

Not in many an oath and promise broken

. . . . .

And so it goes on. You could probably pick a random page and find anaphora in this Walthology, at least in his poems, anyway.

So what’s the point? Anaphora tends to be used to emphasize some thing or things, but in the context of Walt, I think he’s attempting to connect many different things, people, places, what have you, into a convergent “oneness”. As if to say, we’re all part of this world, and that alone doesn’t make things that different from one another.

Back to the song, besides the rather obvious rhetoric at play, I think Oberst is echoing what Walt had been writing about, that is, an awareness, if not necessarily a celebration, of the place of things in this world. I think Oberst captures the pantheistic exuberance that Whitman often proclaimed:

In truth, the forest hears each sound
Each blade of grass as it lies down
The world requires no audience
No witnesses, no witnesses

And also is less than pious in regard to traditional religious beliefs:

Because everything, it must belong somewhere
They locked the devil in the basement, threw God up into the air
Everything, it must belong somewhere

True, this isn’t the deepest of blogs ever, but it’s something I couldn’t help but think of as I listen to this song.

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Whitman’s “God” Thu, 24 Sep 2009 21:41:26 +0000 O, there’s this fellow named Walt,

Of the earth he’s the salt,

He’s got views on God

Of which I must give a nod.

You could peg him a pantheist

Like Danny Baldwin on the B-list

To him there’s no guy

On a throne up in the sky,

Though he calls God a “bedfellow”-

Such a scandalous thing to tell-o!-

To him, “God” and Nature

are synonymous nomenclature.

Walt’s more concerned with what he feels and sees,

The pain and beauty of living, not to mention morning glories.

He talks not of the beginning or end,

Discussion of an afterlife quickly he will rend.

Walt strongly feels that he is deathless,

That “nothing, not God, is greater than one’s self is”,

And there is a child who once asks

Innocently, impossibly, “What is grass?”

A silly answer comes, unsure,

“I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord”?

But Walt is not satisfied with such a broad view,

But another argument he has in lieu,

There is “inspiration in real objects today”

It is a view he does never betray,

And in a revelation, he says, much like a diamond from coal,

“They shall not deign to defend immortality or God or the perfection of things or liberty or the exquisite beauty and reality of the soul.”

Walt is a genius, there is not a doubt,

He leaves other thinkers in a corner to pout.

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Grape and Canister Imagegloss Thu, 17 Sep 2009 19:22:51 +0000 Walt says,

 “Only three guns were in use,

One was directed by the captain himself against the enemy’s


Two well-served with grape and canister silenced his

       Musketry and cleared his decks.” (68)

 Walt makes many mentions of firearms and weaponry of his time in the mid-1800s. Arcane terms like “firelock” and “carbine” come to mind immediately. But I focus here on the sequence where Walt puts himself in the midst of naval battle and his brave little captain who, after a cannonade from the enemy puts their ship in shambles, stands tall and “serene” to return fire. The heroic unlikelihood of only three guns taking down another ship is glorious, and it helps to know what is meant by “grape and canister”.

Encyclopedia Britannica defines grapeshot as a “cannon charge consisting of small round balls, usually of lead or iron, and used primarily as an antipersonnel weapon. Typically, the small iron balls were held in clusters of three by iron rings and combined in three tiers by cast-iron plates and a central connecting rod. This assembly, which reminded gunners of a cluster of grapes (hence the name), broke up when the gun was fired, spread out in flight like a shotgun charge, and sprayed the target area. Grapeshot was widely used in wars of the 18th and 19th centuries at short range against massed troops.”

In Echoes of Glory: Arms and Equipment of the Confederacy, canister shot is described as “made for both smoothbore and rifled artillery…[it] consisted of a thin iron can containing lead or iron balls packed in sawdust. Unfailingly lethal at 350 yards or less, canister shot sprayed from the muzzle of a cannon like a monstrous shotgun blast.” Echoes of Glory also mentions that grapeshot had “larger iron balls [than canister shot] encased in cloth or in an iron frame” and “was used infrequently on the battlefield, but saw some action along the seacoast in larger-caliber guns—24-pounders and up.”

 So what we have are two short-range but horrifically deadly types of ammunition, indicating the fighting that took place between these combatant ships was chaotic and close. While—we’ll say for the sake of it—Walt’s ship was taking a beating with the enemy’s “eighteen-pound shots under the water,/On our lower gun-deck two large pieces had burst at the/ first fire, killing all around and blowing up overhead”. To me, this indicates the enemy’s artillery using a more conventional means of explosive ammunition.

 So with that, I’m going to go out on a limb. I think the scattered, spread out nature of canister and grape shot is analogous to Song of Myself as a work. In the 1850s readers of poetry would have been bombarded with conventional poetic structure: rhythm, rhyme, cadence, syllables, lines, feet, etc. Here was a clear-cut, direct hit of poetic typicality. But then enter Walt. Armed with a ferocious piece of work that appears chaotic, strewn across pages and pages with nary an anapest or tetrameter to be found, Song of Myself, too, is shot from a cannon and hits every single person within range with overwhelming force and devestation.


An example of grapeshot
An example of grapeshot


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Song of Chris Countryman Thu, 10 Sep 2009 19:43:33 +0000 CCPIC

I have said that the soul is not more than the body,
And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,
And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is,
And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own
funeral drest in his shroud,
And I or you pocketless of a dime may purchase the pick of the
And to glance with an eye or show a bean in its pod confounds the
learning of all times,
And there is no trade or employment but the young man following it
may become a hero,
And there is no object so soft but it makes a hub for the wheel’d
And I say to any man or woman, Let your soul stand cool and composed
before a million universes.

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Hello world! Thu, 03 Sep 2009 22:46:13 +0000 Welcome to Looking for Whitman. This is your first post. Edit or delete it, then start blogging!

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