Archive for November, 2009

Where Sam Krieg found Walt Whitman

November 17th, 2009 -- Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

I found Whitman in a variety of place, and discovered later that I looked super-pretentious. Oh well. I contain multitudes! There are slides explaining what I read and where.

The tallest of Sams for November 17

November 15th, 2009 -- Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

     The readings for this week were incredible. I have to admit that, after listening to Ginsberg’s recitation of Howl (the first time I had ever heard that poem recited, much less by the writer), I texted Chelsea and said “I feel like Ginsberg just danced flamenco on my brain with cleats.” Just so everyone knows :-).

     Anyway, for this week’s question about Whitman’s influence, I decided to focus on Robert Lowell’s For the Union Dead. In it, I think the poet takes a very balanced approach to Whitman. Lowell is not blind to the faults of Whitman: For the Union Dead observes the latent, awkward racism that has been a characteristic of both Whitman and the states throughout their years. However, a very Whitmanic idea about the necessity of memory is also beautifully articulated. The Whitman that shines through in Lowell’s poem is the emotive spirit of the country that struggles to survive in a time that often emphasizes utility over beauty.

     So, first things first, to get the less fun things out of the way: Whitman was not above racism. We’ve read stuff both in and out of class about it and, even though it hurts, it’s true. Lowell’s description of the relief of the African-American soldiers as “… a fishbone / in the city’s throat” expresses the nature of the racism in both Whitman and the United States very well. It is not too difficult for a city board to approve a mural depicting the heroics of long-dead former slaves, just as Whitman was able to write about his empathy for slaves in the comfort of his own room. That’s the meat of the fish, the good taste of stepping outside the box.

     Unfortunately, it is when the perspective shifts from the idealized to the personal that the unexpected and uncomfortable bone reveals itself. To the father of Colonel Shaw, the soldiers that fought and died with his son are less than human, a regiment of individual men all summed up in one word, and were so thoughtless that they did not even allow him the courtesy of burying his heroic progeny. According to our Higgins reading for this week, one of the fish bones for Whitman was the Fifteenth Amendment. An imagined slave was virtuous enough to warrant praise, but a real-life African-American was not trustworthy enough to be included in the country’s body of voters. I believe that this racism reinforces the importance of memory that Lowell’s speaker emphasizes.

     A recurring idea in For the Union Dead is the return of the repressed. Even though the museum housing primitive animals has been knocked down, “yellow dinosaur steamshovels” still populate the land. Even though the overt monument to the animal kingdom has been destroyed, “Everywhere, / giant finned cars nose forward like fish.” People are trying to forget their less-civilized roots, but they continue to manifest themselves. That applies to the city’s racism; they try to drown out the memory with a mural. That forgetfulness is what perpetuates the problem though: those that do not remember the less-than-savory aspects of history are doomed to repeat them.

     The pathetic substitute for a World War II monument, the advertisement for Mosler Safe Company, illustrates both the necessity for memory and the disturbing lack of it. The inspiration for the ad is nothing less than the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan, a most grave subject that must never be forgotten. However, instead of reminding passersby of the horrific nature of war, the picture emphasizes what was preserved through the atomic blast. There is no mention of the thousands that died, both immediately and later on, because of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The positive spin of the ad might make an unwary pedestrian wonder if the bomb was really that bad after all. Apply the ripple effect, and eventually the resulting callousness might result in an atomic bombing that was taken too lightly.

     Whitman saw his Memoranda notes as a necessity, preserving the memory of what the unsung foot soldiers suffered through during the Civil War so that their lives, and hopefully the lives of future soldiers, would not be uselessly thrown away by disconnected generals with a romantic view of war. It is a personal perspective that stands in contrast to the afore-mentioned racism and exposes it for the terrible idea that it is. The capitalistic call for utilitarianism would do away with these difficult memories, in the name of efficiency and the bottom line, but Whitman is the yawp that demands their remembrance. While he was not above reproach himself, Whitman is the voice that calls us to move beyond our obstacles by going through them instead of around them.

Sam Krieg for November 10

November 7th, 2009 -- Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

     I am going to do my best to answer this week’s question of “how should we read Leaves of Grass” through the poem that I decided to read for this week: Passage to India. Passage to India hits on what is both one of the strengths of LoG and one of its potential weaknesses: the myth.

     The mythic aspect of Leaves of Grass is a great strength of the work, because of the durability of the myth. The reason that we are still quoting Greek myths thousands of years after their inception is because they still resonate with our human condition, despite our societal differences. At the same time though, do those myths inspire us to action? It can be very easy for us to put those myths, and their lessons, into a case and admire them for their artistic beauty and nothing else: “O you temples fairer than lilies pour’d over by the rising sun! / O you fables spurning the known, eluding the hold of the known, mounting to heaven!” (531).

     The same could very easily apply to Leaves of Grass. The poet-speaker Whitman creates is mythically larger than life, and intends to become ensconced in the collective cultural consciousness. However, the stance that he takes to inspire can distance him so much that he loses his connection to reality. Without that bridge, Leaves of Grass becomes compartmentalized as “Towers of fables immortal fashion’d from mortal dreams” (531).

     Another way in which Leaves of Grass might unwittingly send itself off into the realm of irrelevance is its naiveté concerning the relationships between people-groups. Within the confines of Passage to India, it is simple to see the United States as “[t]he road between Europe and Asia” that will ultimately bring about the “[y]ear of the marriage of continents, climates and oceans!” (533, 535). The end result is already in sight, but the path between here and there is outlined only in the most general of terms. The speaker of Passage to India essentially ignores both the petty differences that separate people and the important disputes that drive people apart. It is just assumed that the poet, the central power in the poem, will ensure that “[a]ll these hearts as of fretted children shall be sooth’d, / All affection shall be fully responded to, the secret shall be told” (534).

     Fortunately, Passage to India ends on a note that reaches above and beyond, but not at the expense of leaving the world behind. Whitman shows himself to be aware of the line he is walking when he writes the incredible penultimate stanza of Passage:

 Passage, immediate passage! the blood burns in my veins!

Away O soul! hoist instantly the anchor!

Cut the hawsers—haul out—shake out every sail!

Have we not stood here like trees in the ground long enough?

Have we not grovel’d here long enough, eating and drinking like mere brutes?

Have we not darken’d and dazed ourselves with books long enough? (539)

 The poem is aware that it can become lost in itself; because of that awareness, Whitman is able to pull the reader back into reality. In order to accomplish the unity written about in Passage to India, action is required, and action is the final imperative of the poem. I believe that it is that final awareness, the poet leaving his room and working in the hospitals, which preserves the potential for the unity that Leaves of Grass ultimately calls for.

Sam Krieg for November 3

November 1st, 2009 -- Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

Since we’re comparing 1892 Whitman to 1855 Whitman, I thought I would re-visit the subject of an earlier blog post of mine: “the tale of a jetblack sunrise” (66). Earlier in the semester, I noted Whitman’s idealization of the frontiersman, as well as the anonymous nature of that very man: Whitman’s ideal did not have a face. Now, in the 1892 version, the “face” of the entire story is removed in an important way. The later Whitman seems to be more eager for readers to think about the poem’s speaker, rather than the subjects of the poem’s story.

     In the 1855 Leaves of Grass, there are no distinct section breaks in the first, poem. Instead, there are different sections that have, throughout the years, been given unofficial names (such as the famous “twenty-ninth bather” vignette). In the first edition of Leaves, “the murder in cold blood of four hundred and twelve young men” is given the unofficial title of “the tale of a jetblack sunrise” (66). The name is repeated at the end of the vignette as well, giving it a very “folk-tale” feel.

     The 1982 version of the vignette deals with titles differently. By the last edition of Leaves, the now-named Song of Myself has been divided up in fifty-two different sections. The sections, none of which have names, give the poem more of a King James Bible feeling. Of course, this fits with Whitman’s desire to write a new sort of scripture for America to model itself after. However, the unofficial, but more distinctive, name of the vignette is lost. The events lose their connection with the weather in the new version; however, this reduction to the name of “section 34” puts more focus on the speaker of the poem.

     The only part of the 1892 version of the vignette that really differs from its earlier incarnation is the opening section. Originally, the speaker is skipped over as the subject shifts from the Alamo to our vignette: “I tell not the fall of Alamo…. Not one escaped to tell the fall of Alamo, / The hundred and fifty are dumb yet at Alamo. / Hear now the tale of a jetblack sunrise” (66). The only thing overtly emphasized about the speaker is what he does not know. The source of the story remains a mystery, and its credibility is questionable: if the speaker does not know about something as famous as the Alamo, why should the reader trust what he has to say about something far less well-known, whose location and date is not even given? In the story’s 1892 version, the speaker comes across as far more authoritative.

     In its “Deathbed” incarnation, our story begins like this:

Now I tell what I knew in Texas in my early youth,

(I tell not the fall of Alamo,

Not one escaped to tell the fall of Alamo,

The hundred and fifty are dumb yet at Alamo,)

’Tis the tale of the murder in cold blood of four hundred and twelve young men. (226).

Here, the speaker is coming from a much more authoritative place. The author knows the vignette himself, rather than having simply heard it from someone else. In fact, the word “know” is ambiguous enough that it could be taken to mean that the speaker witnessed these events himself. Now, with the unofficial title removed, the story has significance because the speaker has given it significance. The significance is shifted from the story’s connection to the weather (“a jetblack sunrise”) to its connection to the author (“What I knew in Texas”) (66, 226). By 1892, the poem’s speaker has become specifically revealed as the source of knowledge, and the tale has become less nebulous. The earlier folk-tale has been replaced with a New Testament-style speaker that recounts events from earlier in his life.

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