Sam Krieg for October 20

October 18th, 2009 -- Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

     Today I am going to consider Whitman’s troubles maintaining close friendships, and how that may reflect on his relationship to his readers. Throughout our readings for this week, Whitman’s relationship with William Douglas O’Conner is repeatedly mentioned. Whitman’s relationship with O’Conner interests me because it seems very reminiscent of what most of the students in our class have gone through this semester: at times, his ideas and personality have drawn us in, and at other times they have driven us away. The friendship of the two men reads something like a modern-day celebrity story; initially, the two published writers walked all around town together and couldn’t be separated. However, following an especially heated argument, they would not exchange words for years. This did not prevent O’Conner from coming to Whitman’s aid against a law suit though.

     As we have seen in his relationships generally regarded as “more than just friendly,” Whitman expected an incredible amount of emotional energy from those he was close to. For a time, the passionate O’Conner seems to have fulfilled those expectations. According to the account of O’Conner’s wife, Ellen Calder, he was never reluctant to challenge Whitman’s ideas and, perhaps, would even intentionally provoke the poet. Interestingly, it was because of an issue that Whitman was more ambivalent about that the two men went their separate ways: slavery. Whitman’s more middle-of-the-road stance, which saw him as reluctant for society to set former slaves on the same level as those of European descent, did not match the abolitionist sentiments of O’Conner. However, when it came to his allegedly more intimate friendships, Whitman did not tend to gravitate towards personalities like O’Conner.

     Instead of intellectuals, Whitman tended to become romantically attached to younger men of the working class. Some of the letters assigned for this week center around Peter Doyle, a former soldier who apparently did not think very highly of Leaves of Grass. It is intriguing that Whitman was attracted to someone that disregarded such a large part of his life, namely his pre-war poetry. Doyle was perhaps symbolic of Whitman’s ideal person, but seems to have been unaware of the message that Whitman sought to communicate in his early poetry. Perhaps it is through Doyle’s dislike of Leaves that we can explain his eventual separation from Whitman. When one ignores poems like Song of Myself, the passion of the poet behind the words is also missed. However, why did Whitman still expect so much of Doyle, even though he was obviously not ignorant of the man’s opinions? Through his demands, Whitman became like the father whom he had heard about so many times from young soldiers: the man that had driven his son away because he asked too much of him.

     How does all this reflect Whitman’s relationship with his readers? Well, in his early work, Whitman demands of his readers that they acknowledge and reciprocate his passion for life and people. It is most appreciated when the reader questions and challenges it, as our class has found. This does not apply as much to the more somber tone of Drum Taps though, which appears simpler at face value. It must be seen in light of the earlier work as well though, and so Whitman’s passions shine through. So, if the reader’s wits are kept about him, Whitman becomes an infinitely-interesting companion. However, he can quickly become too much for those that do not at least have some idea of his full scope.

Sam Krieg for October 6

October 4th, 2009 -- Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

     I am going to focus my blog on the Song of the Banner at Daybreak, and its dialogic style. The poem has five distinct speakers (the poet, the pennant, the banner, the child, and the father), which differs from Whitman’s previously-favored format of one single speaker that occasionally speaks for others. Through the interaction between this multitude of voices, Whitman most notably shows the power of the poet to rouse people from their habits, although he notably slams those that stand against the principles he holds.

     The poet here, a very thinly disguised picture of Whitman himself (an anti-academic, the poet is at one point referred to as a “bard out of Manhattan”), is the torch-bearer for change (423). He has both the first and the last word in the poem and is able to fully articulate what is hinted at by the child and rejected by the father. The child is able to glimpse what the poet knows, and expresses a desire to follow the anti-materialist, country-spanning path of the poet, but the father’s final word overshadows his. Here, the father is the voice of people content with the establishment, those that want nothing to upset what has been built thus far. However, the father is paralyzed by that love of the establishment, so that he will not even rise up to defend it. He is paralyzed by what he sees directly in front of him, so that he is unable to see future threats that must be defended against.

     The pennant and the banner occupy similar roles, although the banner’s small size probably explains why it is the one to speak to the child and the banner speaks to the poet. The banner serves as the connection between the world of the child, which wonders “what is that in the sky beckoning to me with long finger?” and the banner that of “Demons and death then I sing” (421, 425). The banner is the recipient of the poet’s focus and seems to be dependent on the poet for direction: “Point this day [O bard out of Manhattan], leaving all the rest, to us over all—and yet we know not why, / For what are we, mere strips of cloth profiting nothing, / Only flapping in the wind?” (423). It shows Whitman’s high view of the national poet, who is able to infuse objects with meaning, including the meaning that inspires people to war. The poet does not create democracy here, but he is the force that spurs people to enjoy and defend it. He gives direction to those that dare look up from the pavement and money exchanges in front of them.

     In previous centuries, the dialogue poem had been an oft-used format that generally facilitated a discussion between the soul and the body. Generally, things came down in favor of the soul, reflecting the strong Christian influence of the time. While it’s reasonable to assume that Whitman would be on the side of the body, the answer is much grayer than that. While the poet obviously comes down on the side of the physical, with his call to arms, he also is outside of the world. He calls for a rejection of what the world deems worthwhile, such as money, while extolling the abstract idea of democracy. The poet is connected enough to sense the currents of the world, but separated enough to be in touch with the world of ideas and souls. In other words, the poet is a kosmos.

Sam Krieg for September 29

September 27th, 2009 -- Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments »

     So, earlier in the semester, I posted about how Whitman’s soldier descriptions in Song of Myself were generalized and idealized, with a promise to update on how his writing changed once he got up close and personal with war. It’s hard to think of a better time to do just that. I am going to track what I see as an important indicator of Whitman’s connection (or lack thereof) to the Civil War soldiers: his naming of them.

     As the war (and our reading in the LOA) began, Whitman’s view of the soldiers seems to have been similar to what it was in 1855, with his descriptions of the returning, defeated Union soldiers after the first Battle of Bull Run remaining pretty general. These men, lacking “the proud boasts with which you went forth,” do not have names (732). The act of naming someone, or something, signifies an affection that Whitman does not yet seem to feel for these men; instead, they are “queer looking objects” (733). Not surprisingly, this distance rapidly shrinks when Whitman begins to search for his brother in the hospitals.

     By December of 1862, Whitman had begun to see the faces of the soldiers he was writing and hearing about. Beginning with the “Back to Washington” note, Whitman begins to give names to the soldiers he had previously left untitled. “D.F. Russell” and “Charles Miller” are sitting there, with Whitman watching over them (738). That exact specificity does not last though; a mere six months later, Whitman reduces the soldier’s names to abbreviations.

     The abbreviations are not a sign of a returning disconnect between Whitman and the men: they convey the man’s initials, as we as his unit and where the unit was raised from (presumably around where the soldier was from). Instead, the reduction of names abbreviations reflects how there were simply too many men that Whitman was in contact with for him to convey how he truly felt for each individual. Despite the grand declarations he made about himself, our great poet of democracy had to deal with the limitations of being one man.

     Whitman deals with that forced namelessness in an interesting way though: instead of bemoaning his powerlessness, Whitman turns it into a glorification of the working-class foot soldier. However, while in “Unnamed Remains the Bravest Soldier” Whitman seems to solve his own problem and put a plug in for his favorite team, to do it requires him to put that old distance between himself and the men. Like Whitman’s captive hunters that are betrayed and slaughtered in Song of Myself, the bravest soldier here is also unfailingly young: “Our manliest—our boys—our hardy darlings; no picture gives them. Likely, the typic one of them (standing, no doubt, for hundreds, thousands)…” (748). That distance turns out to be more the rule than the exception with Whitman’s treatment of the Confederate soldiers.

     Although it is admirable that Whitman did not appear to show preference for northern soldiers when he was moving through the hospitals, he does in the written descriptions he gives of soldiers. With a couple of exceptions, the personal descriptions he gives of the soldiers he encounters are of Union men, with some men warranting entire notes for themselves. Not so for the Confederates: they remain almost entirely faceless. This should not be surprising, since Whitman was spending his time in Union army hospitals, that doubtlessly gave preference to Union wounded over Confederate wounded, but it shows another of Whitman’s limitations.  While he may have celebrated himself as containing galaxies, Whitman was very quickly shown by the war what size he was. It warrants mention though that, while these boundaries may have affected Whitman’s writings, they drove him to physically do work that belied those limits.

Whitman goes corporate

September 27th, 2009 -- Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

So, as I vegged out in between reading assignments today by watching football, I saw something very interesting: a Levi’s jeans commercial. This wasn’t just any jeans commercial though: it had what I thought sounded like a Whitman poem being recited. Upon further investigation, turns out I was right. Here is one version of the commercial, which features a recording of Whitman reciting part of his poem “O’Pioneers!”:

Here is another version, with another narrator:

Perhaps Dr. Scanlon should offer more video close analysis? :-)

Donne with Whitman

September 26th, 2009 -- Posted in Uncategorized | No Comments »

So, Dr. Scanlon briefly mentioned a connection between death and sex in This Compost! last class, and that’s what I’ll explore here. Why the mention of John Donne in my post title? Well, he was brought to mind by this Whitman line: “Perhaps every mite has once form’d part of a sick person — Yet behold!” This seemed reminiscent of Donne’s famous plea for some sweet lovin’, The Flea:

MARK but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is ;
It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.

Both poems express the rather repulsive idea that people are unknowingly connected through the parasites that plague them, but they cast it in different (albeit sexual) lights. For Donne, the unity represented by the flea is a positive: it is a sign of the good times that are (he hopes) soon to arrive. The connection is between the speaker and the girl he’s pursuing, exclusively; even though it has a sexual undertone, it is a monogamous sexuality. Donne’s lines are also light-hearted: he wisely knows that pick-up lines are good only insofar as they can make the girl laugh. He turns the flea into a holy thing, a carrier of souls and a tragic victim. However, that “marriage bed and marriage temple” does not fulfill its normal 17th century role: it is not a sign of re-birth and re-production. Instead, it’s end is pleasure.

Basically all of those things contrast with what Whitman has to say in his poem. Until the afore-mentioned line, This Compost! has a very dark and serious tone. After reflecting on how many sickening bodies the land has taken into itself, he speaker has sworn that he will no longer give himself to the land as he once did. The land has been promiscuous with the “drunkards and gluttons of so many generations.” The mite, the parasite, marks a disease-born connection between people. There is nothing holy about what has been done to establish that connection; like the land, the mite has prostituted itself out. However, after the mite-mentioning line, the tone changes and focuses on (exactly what Donne’s amorous speaker was hoping to avoid mentioning) reproduction. Once the cycle of things has come around, the ground overcomes its past and is blameless, perhaps like the literal prostitute that Whitman writes to in other poems. Whitman doesn’t seem to cast himself as a redeemer here though: the earth has healed itself. This emphasis on cycles/seasons and the power of the earth are another oft-repeated Whitman themes, with Song of Myself coming to mind immediately.

Why these distinct differences (I mean, besides the obvious, 100+year gap and several thousand miles of geographical difference)? Well, Donne’s poem doesn’t seem to have much significance beyond the woman he’s writing to: it is simply not one of his wider-scope poems. This seems much more within the realm of possible explanations, since he never styled himself as “England’s poet” the way Whitman did in the Union. Of course, it’s always wise to have historical context in mind when one reads a poem, but with Whitman, it is pretty much a requisite when reading his poems. In the immediate wake of the Civil War, the regeneration of the earth after it has imbibed so much “foul liquid” is symbolic of the country putting itself back together after years of in-fighting. This is obviously a much more somber topic than Donne’s peace-time pursuits of good times. So guys, perhaps the next time you find a six-legged pest clinging to your leg or arm, you should see what you can relate it to.

Sam Krieg for September 22

September 20th, 2009 -- Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments »

     We have talked at great length in class about how Whitman worked to construct a public image of himself as the great American poet: When I Read the Book seems to be a reflection by the poet on the fact that his control over his image is really quite limited. Just as Whitman rails against the foreign (read: traditional) styles of literature in other poems, he mocks the traditional form of biography in the opening lines here:

When I read the book, the biography famous;

And is this, then, (said I,) what the author calls a

man’s life?

And so will some one, when I am dead and gone,

write my life? (268)

These lines remain the same in the later version of the poem, showing that Whitman’s conviction about biography (and biographers) does not change. However, there is more of Whitman’s trickery afoot here!

     Through Leaves of Grass, and all its editions, Whitman is constructing a new sort of biography: it is both autobiography and biography of the Union (but I will just be looking at it as autobiography here). By creating a private conversation with the reader, through parenthetical revelations, Whitman seeks to draw the reader into accepting his new biographical form. Confusion arises in the following line though: “(As if any man really knew aught of my life…” (268). On the surface, it seems to be discounting what other men might write about him, but it forces the reader to wonder if Whitman himself, as autobiographer, really knows about his own life.

     In the 1867 version, the poem ends with the line “As if you, O cunning Soul, did not keep your secret well!)” (268). This distances the reader, by turning the parenthetical information into a dialogue between Whitman and the soul. It also gives Whitman the appearance of knowing more about himself than other men possibly could: who else could know the secret of his soul? So, again, Whitman is tearing down barriers with one hand, while at the same time he builds them back up with the other hand. The changes made in the later edition of When I Read give a very different picture though:

Why even I myself I often think know little or nothing of

my real life,

Only a few hints, a few diffused faint clews and indirections

I seek for my own use to trace out here.) (171)

     Here, Whitman is almost on the same level as the reader: there is no dialogue between him and the source of secrets. This also comes close to putting him in the same boat as the traditional biographer that he blasts in the earlier part of the poem. Whitman still stands out though; while his knowledge may be incomplete, his chosen biographical form is not confined to mere retellings of historical facts. Poetry can see history call within its walls, but it extends far beyond textbooks. Poetry is open in a way that allows for “diffused faint clews and indirections” (171). That openness can lead to frustration if one is searching for specific answers, but Whitman sure does love his mysteries. What is the use that he refers to in the last line? At the very least, it notes more separation between author and reader and tempts the reader to search for them in the rest of his writing.

Something about Whitman that Sam doesn’t know enough about

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

I am very interested in comparing the different versions of poems. For example, as we sat in class tonight, I happened to open my book to the 1855 version of I Sing the Body Electric, and see how some of the punctuation differed in that edition from what we had read in the 1891-92 version. Also, the lines differed in length, although I couldn’t really investigate the reasons why, since we were talking about something else in the class discussion. So yeah, textual comparisons here I come!

Sam Krieg for September 15

September 13th, 2009 -- Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

     Two recurring themes jumped out at me as I was reading Calamus: obviously, the exaltation of a love that we receive different explanations of, and an uncertainty about that love that seems impossible to shake. I’m going to think about the latter in this post. Continually in Calamus, Whitman proclaims the saving power of love; however, insecurities show through the joints in his “American poet” armor.

     This frustration appears initially in the first poem of the collection, In Paths Untrodden, when the speaker says that he cannot express himself fully in the company of others: “for in this secluded spot I can respond / as I would not dare elsewhere” (268). He will “tell the secret of my nights and days, / To celebrate the need of comrades” (268). However, in order to tell those secrets, he must separate himself from most people, including many that wish to be close to him. He must discern who is worthy and who is not, which requires that he expose his inmost self to those that might end up harming him. In Scented Herbage of My Breast, Whitman talks of the beauty that comes from putting himself out there, but he first complains of the pains that precede it: “You are often more bitter than I can bear, you burn and / sting me” (269). Indeed, death itself becomes analogous to love for Whitman: pain becomes one with pleasure.

     This pain often manifests itself as fear: he voices a fear that what he loves might elude him repeatedly throughout the Calamus collection. Are You the New Person Drawn toward Me? shows the narrator questioning whether he is one able to give the love that he is so sure of at other times. On the other hand, in Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances, the narrator is so unsure of the existence of anything outside himself that he has to talk to himself, sounding a bit like one of Plato’s dialogues in the process: “The skies of day and night, colors, densities, forms, may-be / these are (as doubtless they are) only apparitions” (274). That poem ultimately ends when the narrator is satisfied with the company of another, but the feeling that is so satisfying then brings more death with it: the end of words.

     Silence may suffice for the narrator when he is in the company of his beloved, but a lack of verbal communication breeds insecurities in other situations. Still, the sacrifice of words is required in To a Stranger: “I am not to speak to you, I am to think of you when I sit / alone, or wake at night alone” (280). With that poem being an exception, solitude tends to be negative for Whitman. Even at the end of the Calamus collection, there is an uncertainty about the existence of the redeeming companionship that Whitman has repeatedly espoused. In Full of Life Now, the collection’s closing poem, Whitman writes to future readers about his message, “Fancying how happy you were if I could be with you and / become your comrade” (287). However, the poem, and thus the collection, ends with confusing language: “Be it as if I were with you. (Be not too certain but I am / now with you)” (287). Whitman leaves readers questioning whether it is they that he is addressing, and if his message even extends beyond the words on the pages in front of them. So it goes with our poet of contradiction and questions:

Even while you should think you had unquestionably caught

Me, behold!

Already you see I have escaped from you. (271)

A Barbaric Yawp

September 10th, 2009 -- Posted in Uncategorized | 12 Comments »

So guys, this is my first time “finding Whitman”!

Sam Krieg’s Image Gloss

September 7th, 2009 -- Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments »

“I hear the bravuras of birds… the bustle of growing

wheat… gossip of flames… clack of sticks

cooking my meals” (Song of Myself 53).

A bravura can be either a noun or an adjective. As a noun, it is generally associated with music, meaning a “Brilliant technique or style in performance… [or] A piece or passage that emphasizes a performer’s virtuosity.” However, it can also be more general, signifying “A showy manner or display” (The American Heritage Dictionary).

The word functions similarly as an adjective, with it’s musical meaning being “Of, relating to, or being a brilliant performance technique or style.” More generally, it means “Showy; ostentatious” (read: Victorian) (The American Heritage Dictionary).

Since, within the context of the poem, “bravura” is referring to bird songs, here is footage of the lyre bird as it busts out a mating song, which even comes with some awesome British narration. It’s not surprising that Whitman would use this word to describe the bird song that he hears. To him, nature is divine, and it’s creatures can’t help but sing at that level. The ornateness of the “bravuras of the birds” contrasts with the simplicity of the terms that follow it, but together they form a sort of uncivilized, bustling metropolis.

I know that Whitman refers to birds when using the word but, as a fan of heavy metal, something else came to mind when I read this definition: guitar solos. So, here is a video of Yngwie Malsteen, the most showy and ostentatious guitar player I can think of. I also found what was doubtlessly one of the inspirations for “This is Spinal Tap,” an 11-minute live version of Van Halen’s “Eruption,” but I decided to spare you guys.

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