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    In his 1934 novel Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller thrusts into Whitmanhood to a degree that few other writers have presumed since the good gray poet himself.  More than “putting [his] proud American boast right here with the others,” in the words of the Sharon Olds poem Dr. Scanlon posted, Miller constructs his novel in largely the same terms that Whitman establishes for Leaves of Grass and especially “Song of Myself.”  Like Whitman, Miller loosely and lustily tries to capture the full range of thoughts and images available to him, at one point avowing that “I have made a silent compact with myself not to change a line of what I write.  I am not interested in perfecting my thoughts, nor my actions” (11).  He evidently assumes, as Whitman might say, that every ounce of material is good and in its place.  As an illustration of this intermingling, these two sentences appear in neighboring paragraphs:

    “For the moment I can think of nothing–except that I am a sentient being stabbed by the miracle of these waters that reflect a forgotten world.”

    “The trouble with Irene is that she has a valise instead of a c**t” (6).

    Like the Ginsberg and Olds poems we’ve already seen, Miller also engages Whitman more directly than this.  Miller borrows Whitman’s conceit of shattering the literary world in which he is writing by standing apart from it, exempt.  More to the point, he drags in the trope of writing-as-singing, too.

    “It is now the fall of my second year in Paris. I was sent here for a reason I have not yet been able to fathom.

    “I have no money, no resources, no hopes.  I am the happiest man alive.  A year ago, six months ago, I thought that I was an artist.  I no longer think about it, I am.  Everything that was literature has fallen from me.  There are no more books to be written, thank God.

    “This then? This is not a book.  This is libel, slander, defamation of character.  This is not a book, in the ordinary sense of the word.  No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty… what you will.  I am going to sing for you, a little off key perhaps, but I will sing.  I will sing while you croak, I will dance over your dirty corpse.

    “To sing you must first open your mouth.  You must have a pair of lungs, and a little knowledge of music.  It is not necessary to have an accordion, or a guitar.  The essential thing is to want to sing.  This then is a song.  I am singing” (1-2).

    Sure, it’s more mean-spirited than “Song of Myself,” but maybe Miller just wants to be a little more candid about articulating the poetry of wickedness.

    And just as candid about his Whitmanity.  Just like Olds and Ginsberg, Miller refuses to slip by without an explicit reference to the big bearded boy.  Later in the novel, Miller’s speaker (Miller himself? here’s the same old question) and another character repeatedly talk over “the relative virtues of Paris and New York…

    “And inevitably there always crept into our discussions the figure of Whitman, that one lone figure which America has produced in the course of her brief life.  In Whitman the whole American scene comes to life, her past and her future, her birth and her death.  Whatever there is of value in America Whitman has expressed, and there is nothing more to be said.  The future belongs to the machines, to the robots.  He was the Poet of the Body and the Soul, Whitman.  The first and the last poet.  He is almost undecipherable today, a monument covered with rude hieroglyphs for which there is no key” (239-40).

    Miller then goes on to disparage European culture and Goethe in particular, saying “he was a stuffed shirt by comparison… Goethe is an end of something, Whitman is a beginning” (240).  Did the 30s feel so remote from Whitman’s nineteenth century that Whitman was “almost undecipherable today?”  We clearly don’t seem to feel that way now.

    2 Responses to “Under My Bootsoles 4”

    1. Brady Earnhart says:

      I haven’t read Henry Miller, so I could have him all wrong, but it sounds like he would agree with D.H. Lawrence that poetry is “the spontaneous utterance of the whole man.” This strikes me as the vanishing point of Romanticism–the idea that it’s all about spirit, & craft is beside the point. Well, I have to say I’m skeptical. As far as literature goes, I’m in it for the pleasure of reading, & I’m doubtful that poets letting it all hang out is really going to lead to much writing that will bring me joy. So I don’t know, Sam–I admire & value your historical work here, but I’m not much closer to picking up a Henry Miller book.

    2. s-words says:

      I agree that the compositional outlook “anything goes” leads most often to flaccid and under-considered writing, but I think we need to remember that Miller’s insistence that he has “made a silent compact with myself not to change a line of what I write” is as much (or, I would argue, more) a calculated statement of his speaker’s outlook as it is a description of the novel’s process of assembly.

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