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Thursday, July 02nd, 2009 | Author:

When I read Brady’s comment on my last post, I felt a shock of (non) recognition.  The lines of WW’s that Brady quoted were absolutely perfect for that post (thank you, Brady!) and I wished like anything I’d thought of them myself.  But I couldn’t have, because I swear to god they weren’t in the poem any other time I read it.  What I mean is, every time I read Song, and not just in its various editions but I mean even just the 1855 or the Deathbed, I find lines there that I would go to my own deathbed testifying have never been there before.  This happens to me with other long poems too, like The Waste Land, which I’ve taught so many times I ought to be able to recite it entirely.

It obviously has something to do with my own shifting concerns or interests– or maybe with how open I am that day to being invaded by what I read and what I self-protectively shut out.  But it hits me with such surprise (delight/awe/fear) that I think the poem itself is the fluid and shifting being in the encounter, not me.

So I start thinking, is this one version of literary greatness?  I am ambivalent about that whole concept since it is too easy and important to argue that it has never existed in any non-political form.  But even as I reject the idea of timeless, transcendent, and universal art, I find a poem that is so alive I believe it is changing itself, rewriting itself.  And one that is possibly more about 2009 than 1855.

Well, here is a more ludicrous look at ways in which WW still speaks for you:

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Thursday, June 25th, 2009 | Author:

For me, the real highlights of our Camden trip were of course the graveyard and house visits.  What I can’t shake about the house on what used to be Mickle Street is the juxtaposition of signifiers: home of Walt Whitman, inspired, experimental communicator, Civil War nurse, poet-philosopher of democracy and national optimist    +     the broadened, relatively gutted street on which his house now sits    +    the renaming of that street for Martin Luther King, Jr., probably our most effective and iconic national leader on race ever who, like Whitman, dreamed of a better future for a nation he believed in    +    the hulking county jail directly across from Whitman’s house    +     the fact we learned that women stand on the median in the middle of MLK boulevard and communicate with their loved ones inside the jail with an invented sign language    +    the Whitman House guide Dick’s comment that at first an observer might think those women “just got religion or something”    +    the national statistics about the incarceration of African American men.  We heard that the jail might be torn down and the prisoners moved elsewhere because the building is crumbling around them.  We heard that there are finally concrete plans to make a visitor center and park beside the Whitman House in what is now a vacant lot if money really comes through this time.  We heard that after 9-11, a woman in Europe sent her letter of condolence for the United States to Whitman House.  We saw a sign pinned to a tree by the Whitman House facing the jail that said, “Love you.  Miss you.”

The threads, at a minimum:  freedom and limitation/slavery/imprisonment, inspiration, poverty,  inventive language and necessary communications, race, hope and despair, the American Dream, future of the nation, the city, war/violence. . .

This will have me thinking for a long time.

Walt Whitmans House

Whitman House in center

View of the Jail from the WW House