Virginia’s Term Project: Whitman, Commercialism, and the Digital Age. Will Whitman Survive?

missvirginia on Dec 10th 2009

Walt Whitman Cinepoem – Uses readings from the first two pages of the 1855 Song of Myself from Leaves of Grass.

Abstract: Throughout the semester, I used the FlipCams to film the sun rising over the Potomac, walking to and from school, to work, on my way back from brother’s house in Westmoreland, just life. Some of the footage is from my own camera that does small, short videos. There are three pictures I used from google images and one from Facebook; the Korean conflict memorial (from Facebook), a photo of a soldier in Vietnam, a photo of a Middle-eastern man holding an automatic gun, the infamous photo of the little girl running who had napalm on her back, and picture of Whitman’s frontispiece. I used a few videos from Youtube which I converted using The videos include the mob scene (which is spliced into three different spots of the cinepoem), the bomb blowing up at 4:43, the homeless person digging for food at 4:45, footage of Bloody Sunday (London) at 4:49, the three children laughing at 4:53, footage of Devil’s Marbleyard in the Blue Ridge Parkway (which I have been there, but I did not shoot it) at 4:57. I selected to use one band, The Verve, and already had the music, so I just took it from my iTunes library and added it into my iMovie production. The song at  the beginning of the cinepoem is Lucky Man and the song ending the poem is Bittersweet Symphony.

Works Cited

“37 Years Later, Girl in Vietnam War Photo Spreads Hope.” Web. 10 Dec 2009. < showthread.php?t=294622>.

“children laughing.” Youtube. Web. 10 Dec 2009. <>.

“Bloody Sunday, 30.1.1972.” Youtube. Web. 10 Dec 2009. <>.

“Fred Phelps supporters attacked by mob.” Youtube. Web. 10 Dec 2009. <>.

“view from Devils Marbleyard in the early morning.” Youtube. Web. 10 Dec 2009. <>.

Whitman, Commercialism, and the Digital Age;

What does this mean for Whitman?

Today’s culture is centered on technology; literature and education are fighting to stay current. Gone are the days when families watched the sunset or sat on the porch after dinner to watch nature happen as their night’s entertainment. Also, gone is the age in which college classes are almost strictly taught by stuffy professors in front of simple blackboards, and with students writing not typing. Our seminar on Walt Whitman is a testament to the new age of education and that it is effective. Therefore, college has maintained its purpose and is still gradually changing for the future of collegiate education. Literature has amazingly survived as well, despite the odds of television, the internet, and radio; wait, not only has literature survived, it has evolved. The vessel of literature may have changed, the new technology has created another layer to analyze, but the message and meaning is still current and powerful.

The media world and literature have merged, most noticeably, in a commercial sense. Combining poetry to advertising, such as Langston Hughes’ poem A Dream Deferred used in a 2008 Nike advertising campaign, or creating movies based on renowned novels, like Pride and Prejudice in 2005, provide a transition of literature to the twenty-first century.

Walt Whitman is recognized as the culmination of patriotism, the voice of America and its culture. Through the different versions of Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman shed his skins and it is easy to see him evolve through with the augmentations he made in each edition of Leaves of Grass. However, when he died in 1892, it would seem that the changes in tone and voice died with him. Walt was dead, and Leaves of Grass would carry on, but it could not vary in tone anymore. However, this proves to be a shortsighted claim when the medium of Whitman is changing from wood pulp to computer chips, when the words on the paper turn into commercials seen by pixels through the computer chips. The changing of the medium has brought criticism and mixed emotions about the smooth (or failed) translation of Whitman’s message that is being reintroduced to a more 21st century-friendly medium. This evolution runs the risk of the works loosing pieces of their integrity, meaning, and being dehumanized.

In the summer of 2009, the denim company, Levi’s, took on an advertising campaign that features Whitman’s poems America and Pioneers! O Pioneers! “Whitman is an involuntary spokes-celebrity here” and the lack of control he has over peoples perception of his works (for instance, having them paired with video clips he did not choose) creates palpable tension. (Stevenson) The counterargument is the idea of simply getting Whitman to the masses, the route or direction does not matter. However, the most pertinent question is “who is using who”? Is Levi’s using Walt Whitman or is Walt Whitman using Levi’s?

When answering the first part of the question, Levi’s is using Walt Whitman, especially in the commercial that uses a supposed recording of Walt Whitman reading four lines from America. Yet, the message of the commercial is one that’s distinctly anti-capitalism. Ironically, capitalism rests on advertising and commercialism to keep the capitalist-cycle going round. From the first 15 seconds to 18 seconds of the commercial, it portrays a CEO look-alike being chauffeured in a slick town car, then he is behind a dark desk in front of a large, one-paned window that shows a cityscape with skyscraper-type architecture. Both times we see the CEO, he seems disgruntled and worried; this dark play on America’s uncomfortable state is troubling. With the market down and the war on terrorism a black hole, Whitman pops through the speakers and reminds us that there is a light at the end of the tunnel; there is beauty in us despite our plight. Thus, at the end of the commercial, the viewer is left with the sounds and sights of the ad. After 58 seconds of provocative, beautiful, and patriotic scenes, the last two seconds show a red Levi’s emblem while a definite gunshot is heard after fireworks are shown booming and lighting the screen.

When the viewer thinks back to the commercial, after almost a minute of Whitman’s reading accompanied with beautiful cinematography, Levi’s motive is to get the viewer to feel inspired enough to buy their specific brand of jeans (again, that capitalist pull, quite anti-Whitman). The demographic that Levi’s caters to are ages 18-34, most people beyond or younger than this may not feel the pull which the commercialized cinepoem seeks to enforce. The scenes of the commercial show people of all ages, from all walks of life, running, jumping, laughing, and watching other people; it is powerful in showing human nature and the unpredictable way of life. In Levi’s print campaign, they are using a tagline “specific to the economy, including ‘Will work for better times’.” (Clifford B1) Obviously, if the audience does feel the pull, then the capitalist game comes full circle and the people feel good because if they are buying something for “better times”, then the better times will be here soon. Right? The completion of that cycle, no matter how “American” capitalism seems, is not the America that Whitman was advocating or would be proud of.

Granted, Whitman’s own feelings towards commercialism are scattered and unclear. Whitman “himself had permanently mixed feelings on the subject of sales” and whether he should censor himself or make more “socially appropriate” moves in his own commercialism. (Earnhart 192) The lack of direction is unsettling. Whitman was very aware and keen of the business aspect of the written word; after all, he wrote his own raving reviews to help sell Leaves of Grass. However, because the advertising world has changed so drastically since Whitman’s time, it is hard to determine if any action using his works is justified. The answer to that question lies in the context of what company would use Whitman and to what means.

Having the Whitman seminar in a digital, evolving capacity is parallel to the way Levi’s, Starbucks, and other companies have digitalized and reintroduced Whitman. In the classroom, and classroom blog spanning four different college campuses, it combines traditional, meaningful verbal discourse and analysis with a new digitalized way of learning. This would be comparable to watching a cinepoem of a selected reading from Leaves of Grass instead a traditional reading and analysis of the same reading featured in the cinepoem. The traditional reading can provide a more personal experience and relationship with Whitman. The traditional classroom experience is somewhat stagnant, rarely do field trips happen outside of high school, but part of the multi-sensory class experience includes travel, correspondence with other students studying the same concept. The way the classroom experience leaves you with multiple understandings and levels of analysis, a cinepoem can alter, enhance, and even delude your perception of the poem. If a poem is being used only in the setting of a classroom to enhance the experience of the students, it still alters the original perception the student had of the poem. Thus, even if there is no commercial motivation in creating a cinepoem, the only original perception of a work of literature can be from the readers actively reading it for themselves. Anything other than that is tainting the original meaning of the work for the reader; which is never the intent of the author; especially when after their death, their work is used in something they never intended. Even in an innocent cinepoem, a reader’s perception of what Whitman was trying to convey could be drastically different from what they viewed in the cinepoem.

In conclusion, the digital classroom is valuable for creating a multi-sensory experience and provides layers for the students to delve into. On the other hand, a cinepoem reflects too much of what the director interprets and not the untainted message the poet was trying to convey in their work. If Whitman had been able to create his own cinepoems, or another type of multi-sensory experience, it is hard to believe that there would be a better way to interpret his poems other than his original text. Calamus and Drum-taps are both very personal works that almost feel invasive when imagining the images he describes and uses. Oddly enough, the invasive feeling means Whitman succeeded; how readers of his works come to care for him, his first person point-of-view creates a relationship with the reader that makes he or she feel like they could have been Whitman. All the feelings and emotions from the text of Leaves of Grass, without the help of a cinepoem or technology, still creates a plethora of emotion in the reader. Cinepoems are creating another layer for literature, but it is not yet obvious how long that will last. It is safe to say that the test of a truly good poem is when it can stand on its own for 150 years. Lucky for Whitman, it’s been almost 160 years since 1855’s fresh Leaves of Grass.

Works Cited

Clifford, Stephanie. “In New Campaigns, Spots Take On a Rosier Hue .” New York Times 12 Oct 2009, Tues: B1. Print.

Earnhart, Brady. “The Good Gray Poet and the Quaker Oats Man: Speaker as Spokescharacter in Leaves of Grass.” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 24. (2007): 179-200. Web. 8 Dec 2009. <>.

Stevenson, Seth. “Walt Whitman Thinks You Need New Jeans.” Slate (2009): n. pag. Web. 8 Dec 2009. <>.

Wignot, Jamila, Prod. Walt Whitman. Dir. Mark Zwonitzer.” Perf. Chris, Cooper. 2008, Web. 8 Dec 2009. <>.

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Where Virginia Found Whitman…

missvirginia on Nov 17th 2009

Virginia on Youtube reading Walt Whitman

Where I read, and show the signs in the video, are on route 24 in Appomattox County, Virginia. Zipcode 24522.

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Virginia for September 29th

missvirginia on Sep 27th 2009

Whitman, especially in his Memoranda during the War, sounds like a poster child for the United Daughters of the Confederacy. However, and obviously, he isn’t rallying for people to “nevah fahgit tha gret wahr”, but simply to never forget the men and boys who gave their life. He seems to be terrified that if he doesn’t record what happened during the war, that people will start to look at it, like a simple tiff between brothers. When in fact, Whitman saw first hand the blood, guts, the gutteral cries from dead, dying, and recovering men. He saw the “real war”.

I grew up in the center of the Civil War. Yes, I know that’s a pretty gutsy claim to make, especially if there are fellow southerners reading along. I grew up in Appomattox. Right where Lee, in a bittersweet moment, surrendered to Grant. When I was little, every family vacation had some sort of educational sidenote. In Maryland, we visited Antietam, in Nova (Northern Virginia) I walked where soldiers ran at Bull Run, after riding horses in Kentucky, my momma dragged me to Perryville. My entire life has danced around the Civil War, and I like it that way. Yet, it is another thing to truly see photographs from the era (thank you, Mathew Brady) and read the hair-raising, gag-inducing scenes from Whitman, Barton, and other “insiders” from the war.

Whitman comments in his memorandum, “in the mushy influences of current times the fervid atmosphere and typical events of those years are in danger of being totally forgotten.” I think Whitman realized that people were shocked at the horrible detriments of the war when it became public, like the way standards for becoming a surgeon in the war was so little. In the same light, he also realized the almost desired ignorance of the public. They wanted to hear “Our boys are fighting as hard as they could. Your knitted mittens and socks are coming in handy. The food isn’t delectable, but it’s healthy.” Whitman saw first hand, and heard reliable accounts from the boys he helped nurse, that the described situation was a farce and simply wishful thinking.

After helping those boys to health (or at least a little more comfortable death), I think Whitman felt he owed it to them that they would know they didn’t fight in vain just to have all the dirty secrets swept under the table. Whitman also knew the public would want to just sweep it under the table, no one wants to hear about “their boys” dying of diarrhea or some other “undignified” disease. Even though war is ugly, and Whitman certainly painted that picture stealthily and effectively, he does it beautifully as well. The Better Angel mentions both “Sights–The Army Corps, Encamped on the War Field” and “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim”. Both poems are great examples of what one critic was quoted in The Better Angel as saying “gentle but lethal”.

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Virginia S. for September 22

missvirginia on Sep 21st 2009

So, I’ve worked retail for two years now. Those years have honed my skill for picking up items that are easy to sell, harder to sell, create selling points for the customer, etc. After finishing most of the readings between the 1855 and 1867 editions, I was looking back and comparing the table of contents. OH MY WORD–comparing just the table of contents was a little overwhelming. The 12, short and sweet, lines in the 1855 table of contents make the book seem so much more marketable, so much more less intimidating to read. Wikipedia reports, “Early advertisements for the first edition appealed to “lovers of literary curiosities” as an oddity. Sales on the book were few but Whitman was not discouraged.” In fact, Whitman seems to have written L of  G for the reader, he was being selfless in a sense. Wikipedia also recounts that “Whitman once said he intended the book to be small enough to be carried in a pocket. ‘That would tend to induce people to take me along with them and read me in the open air: I am nearly always successful with the reader in the open air.'” Whitman wants to be seen as a poet of the people, which we have already established. The 1855 edition is his rise, his ambition to become America’s Bard to the Citizens.

I’m thinking that Emerson’s letter somewhat reviewing L of G prompted Whitman to, like you said last week Scanlon, “micromanage”. Almost like when you tell someone you like their hair or a certain sweater and they ONLY wear their hair like that or they wear the damned sweater a million times a season. Wikipedia quotes Whitman saying that the 1867 edition was “‘a new & much better edition of Leaves of Grass complete — that unkillable work!'” Also, the 1867 edition, with it’s almost 80 poems, instead of the original 13, lacked the legendary frontispiece.

Whitman’s Civil War experiences definitely  influenced the 1867 version. You can tell because he filled the 1867 edition with SO much more, not to mention this is the first time Drum Taps is published. Obviously, he felt compelled to show the reader, instead of what a wonderful world we live in (and being able to reach the reader “by being in their pocket”) he wanted to show the gruesome, live-or-die side of life. Which, can also be the most alive side of life. The fight for life or death, especially in the scenes Walt observed, he wanted the general public to realize the fight their sons, husbands, and lovers were putting up and mostly losing to disease and lack of proper healthcare. From just the shear amount of new poems, a lot can be inferred from his experiences as a “nurse”, of sorts, in the “Great Effort”.

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Whitman…I am your stalker.

missvirginia on Sep 15th 2009

After learning about this Whitman course last spring, I made myself familiar with Whitman’s background by reading a biography. Thus, I can’t really think of a specific question–only that I wish I could have seen what Whitman saw when he was in NYC. I loooove NYC, my brother moved from our podunk town to the great cit-ay more than ten years ago. I really want to know the route that he took to get to Pfaff’s. If someone would tell me the address that Pfaff’s was at, and how he usually went, I’d Google-earth that mess in a heartbeat. Maybe I’ll put that research on my to-do list? Or someone can make it easy for me and let me know…

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Virginia for September 15th

missvirginia on Sep 13th 2009

As I was reading for this posting, I had something on my mind. In one of my other English classes, someone insinuated Whitman as just a gay old man. He said some more unsavory things towards my Whitman, and I immediately shot up my hand and said that I was in love with Whitman and did not take kindly to what he’d said.

Funny enough, in From Pent-up Aching Rivers (248), one of the first poems in the readings, I feel like there are so many allusions to bisexuality. Or maybe, not even bisexuality, just embracing all things sensual, intimate, and physical. Just on the fifth line, he mentions a phallus. Not to be “fifth grade” or anything, but hey! Phallic suggestion! Then he goes into the songs of “procreation, Singing the need of superb children and therein superb grown people” which reminded me of the physically obsessed Romans. It was a city-state obsessed with being the best physically, mentally, and seemingly always prepared for battle. Ironically enough, I’m sure Whitman’s rumored homosexuality was a battle for him, if he had ever been blatant about it.

The next line is “Singing the muscular urge and the blending”, which when I first read it, it seemed to be very cut and dry. The “muscular urge” is obvious phallic imagery and the blending is heterosexual intercourse. However, the more I thought about it, the more it seemed interchangeable. The muscular urge could be for both types of sex, because everyone (mostly…) orgasms which is a muscular urge/twitch/whatever. And the blending is describing the bodies creating that “superb child”. Even if the line is describing homosexual sex, blending could also describe the “two becoming one”-ness about sex.

Later on, after the swimmer lines, he lists “the mystic derliria, the madness amorous, and the utter abandonment”. I started thinking, is that the cycle for sex or relationships? I’m thinking it’s both–there is the initial attraction, the infatuation and “lust/love at first sight” ordeal. If we were to look at this from a relationship point of view, then there’s the content, “I love you, you love me, we can make this work forever” stage. Lastly, cue the jaws music…there’s the “utter abandonment”, the breakup. In sex, there’s the initial arousal that is called mystic deliria (catchy), then the main course…the madness amorous…and then the climax/refractory period where the feelings of abandonment can come in to play.

Whitman was pretty much exalting and proclaiming love. Love in armies (i.e. I Sing the Body Electric), love for women (i.e. A Woman Waits for Me), love in friendships with the same sex (i.e. Out of the Rolling Ocean the Crowd). In the words of Whitman himself, “Have you ever loved the body of a woman? Have you ever loved the body of a man? Do you not see that these are exactly the same to all in all nations and times all over the earth?” I think Whitman wanted people to be able to look past the body, to look within the person.

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