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Friday, September 25th, 2009 | Author:

Hey Whitmaniacs, here’s a shiver-inducer:

Today I was in C’ville for an appointment and when it was done, my traveling companion Professor Emerson and I decided to stretch our legs on the grounds of our alma mater.  Professor Emerson has a friend who works in the new rare book facility, which I had not seen, and we stopped by to see him.  Although we missed him for the day, we paused to look in a small display on the edge of the controlled rare book area.  And (hold your slouch hats), I suddenly recognized the handwriting on two pieces of paper, each about 3×5 (one with ragged edges as though torn out): a hand-written manuscript of “When I Heard at the Close of Day,” in ink with WW’s revisions in pencil (description in the display: “autograph manuscript  with pencilled and pasted corrections in author’s hand.  1857-1859”), the final lines of the poem squeezed near the bottom of the second page.  Needless to say, I nearly shrieked, but instead read the poem aloud to Professor Emerson, who bravely offered to risk jail by using her cell phone as a camera in the controlled rare book space.  Though I was perfectly willing to risk her freedom in pursuit of Walt, we both felt the manuscript would not photograph through the specialized glass, so instead you have only this, my testimonio, and will have to trust me that it was wonderful.

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Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009 | Author:

When I was reading Sam P.’s post this week, I commented that he and I had discussed that Whitman Immersion had affected our very way of encountering the world, even making us question if we were reading Whitman too much into everything we see and hear and do.  I called this in the comment wearing “Whitman-vision goggles,” and included the following parenthetical challenge which I repeat here in case you missed it:


I know Brendon the Cupcake Man is already musing on it; I invite one and all in to the challenge.

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Sunday, September 20th, 2009 | Author:

As I trekked around F’burg this morning with my dog Groundhog, I was listening to a podcast from The Memory Palace about Marconi, credited often with inventing the radio.


According to Nate DiMeo, late in his life, Marconi came to believe that sound waves never disappeared, but rather went on and on, infinitely in time and space, and that if he could just find the right frequency, he could listen to the past– to great speakers and figures and historical events, to the praise of others that would ensure he would live beyond his imminent death, to the most intimate of moments in his own life.

I was thinking about this tonight as I read the poem “So Long!” from Songs of Parting, in which Whitman announces his own departure from the text, from the stage, from the world.  (Isn’t there a great tension in the line “To conclude—I announce what comes after me”?)

“I remember I said…”, says Whitman. “Hasten, throat, and sound your last! / Salute me– salute the day once more.  Peal the old cry once more.”


Screaming electric, the atmosphere using,

At random glancing, each as a notice absorbing,

Swiftly on, but a little while alighting,

Curious envelop’d messages delivering…


So I pass—a little time vocal, visible, contrary,

Afterward, a melodious echo, passionately bent for—

(death making me really undying)


Remember my words—I love you—I depart from


I am as one disembodied, triumphant, dead.

If Whitman is sounding his voice out into the ages, then I am Marconi (we are Marconi), hand at the dial, turning so, so slowly and carefully to get out the static– or maybe wildly turning the dial left to right and back, trying to find the frequency on which we can really, truly hear Whitman, the real Whitman (won’t he please stand speak up?).  For all the sound and fury signifying everything that Whitman generates, for all the meta-discussion of his own voice, I am straining across the ages trying to hear it for myself, sure with that same certainty that afflicted Marconi that it is still resonating.

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Tuesday, September 15th, 2009 | Author:

Like many of you, I’ve been thinking a lot about the body-soul  claims of Whitman: does the emphasis on body objectify (as surely Whitman’s attempt to write the body does since it becomes basically a ludicrously detailed blazon)?  do we have souls that are separable from our bodies, in ways that Brendon detailed through philosophical history in a post last week, or as common love songs or mainstream religions would tell us?  is there a self for each of us that can transcend our material worlds, the social experiences of living in bodies marked, experienced, and interpreted by race, gender, sexuality, (dis)ability, etc etc etc?  (I kind of think no, but I live in a house with an active and basically communicative ghost–a story for another day when you are trying to put off real class discussion). . .  No one has yet taken up the “act-poems” of the flesh in tonight’s reading, where not only body and soul but poem become one, but we’ll talk them through tonight.

So, the title of this post is related to the place in which I find myself writing it, which has me thinking more about body-soul: a few hours shy of class, sitting on the playroom floor beside the couch on which my little girl, feverish, is trying to sleep (cold water in a non-spill cup, iced eye mask, sleepytime cd playing close by) but mostly fretting about.  And here is where My Walt Whitman, the nurse Whitman, begins to return to me from the lonely exile into which I banished him this week when I reread “A Woman Waits for Me,” a poem marred at its core by what I experience as rape imagery.  So to the maternal, a soul (body?) Whitman often claimed for himself and that the boys he nursed (okay, now thinking of that image he gives of himself suckling) gave to him as well.

At 7, my daughter is just beginning to understand/believe that she just may be a separate essence and body from her mother.  (I know, a little late according to Lacan, but whatever.)  Though she is (too) fully her own person, the bond is physical in a most intense way.  When she is sleepy or sick, she wants to rest full-length on my body.  When she is sad or happy or honestly just close by, she likes to press her the bridge of her nose into the flesh of my arm, singing little songs (primary words: “love” and “squishy”– okay, very embarassing, but the point is that those are not concepts she sees as different from one another on a very true level.  To touch her body to another’s is more than she can stand.)  She runs her hands over my face, she closes them around my arms or bare legs, she lays her cheek against my face or neck.  The body and soul, love, are all one to her.  So, in conclusion, I believe Whitman.

I feel like I’m in danger of naturalizing the maternal or the mother-child bond, and to be clear, I don’t want to.  I don’t believe in it one whit, man.  I’m speaking about one maternal body, one child, one childlike bearded maternal-man looking for a love pure and essential and unconditional.  A sickbed edition.

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Friday, September 11th, 2009 | Author:

This afternoon I heard a lecture by Dan Cohen called “The Future of the Digital University,” and as I listened I started this list of words and phrases he said, in the order he said them, that seemed to me to be about WW as much as about the digital world, showing yet again the crazy nexus at which we are working:





thought leadership



the everywhere library


60 million



simplified interface

accessible, discoverable

unusual, indicative case studies

hamstrung by traditional ways



public domain

macro- and micro-


spider symbolism


galaxy zoo

sky objects


boundaries are permeable

help from the crowd


search and retrieval



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Thursday, September 10th, 2009 | Author:

I had been meaning to post this Sharon Olds poem for several weeks, but it speaks directly to Chelsea’s post on Ginsberg.  Let’s say it takes womanliness and Whitman to a new level.

“The Language of the Brag”

I have wanted excellence in the knife-throw,

I have wanted to use my exceptionally strong and accurate arms

and my straight posture and quick electric muscles

to achieve something at the centre of a crowd,

the blade piercing the bark deep,

the haft slowly and heavily vibrating like the cock.


I have wanted some epic use for my excellent body,

some heroism, some American achievement

beyond the ordinary for my extraordinary self,

magnetic and tensile, I have stood by the sandlot

and watched the boys play.


I have wanted courage, I have thought about fire

and the crossing of waterfalls, I have dragged around


my belly big with cowardice and safety,

my stool black with iron pills,

my huge breasts oozing mucus,

my legs swelling, my hands swelling,

my face swelling and darkening, my hair

falling out, my inner sex

stabbed again and again with terrible pain like a knife.

I have lain down.


I have lain down and sweated and shaken

and passed blood and feces and water and

slowly alone in the centre of a circle I have

passed the new person out

and they have lifted the new person free of the act

and wiped the new person free of that

language of blood like praise all over the body.


I have done what you wanted to do, Walt Whitman,

Allen Ginsberg, I have done this thing,

I and the other women this exceptional

act with the exceptional heroic body,

this giving birth, this glistening verb,

and I am putting my proud American boast

right here with the others.

“The Language of the Brag” is from SATAN SAYS by Sharon Olds.

Copyright © 1980

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Tuesday, September 01st, 2009 | Author:

Those of you who have suffered through other courses and projects with me know that one of my enduring obsessions is the dialogic and poetry.  Dialogic can mean admitting or representing more than one or many voices, but a much richer definition would insist that it is more fundamentally an ethical encounter with the other (voice, being, world view, mind…), an openness to and responsibility for the other, who/which also brings the same to me.  Theorists of ethics and literature think, among other things, about ways that this ethical relation is represented in AND produced by a piece of literature, whether in the characters of a text or in the reader’s relationship to the textual other.  For years Whitman, especially in “Song of Myself,”  has been one of the most confounding figures for me to think about through this lens, and some of you in your blog posts for 9/1 are also struggling with it (e.g., Sam P, Jessica, Ben, Meghan, Erin— you guys really have me thinking).  To wit (NOT twit), how can Whitman be, in my students’ words, messianic, prophetic, Biblical, authoritative, self-inflating but also have a relationship with the reader that is intimate, empowering, like a lover, inviting journey and witness, democratic, inclusive?  The latter Whitman (note to self: decide if this is part of the womanly Whitman I am seeking and if I am coding authoritative as masculine) emerges tenderly in the prose writing from the Civil War that we will be reading in a month or so.  But “Song of Myself” captures its ambivalence and contradiction in its very title, since it proclaims itself as a monologue, but really only if we can see the speaker as collective, a nation, both transcendent and painstakingly positioned (a kosmos, for god’s sake).  When he fetches us “flush” with himself, is that making us equals, or demanding that we march lockstep? 

Whitman describes his words as “omniverous”  and says that the poet is “not one of the chorus.”  His voice is “orotund, sweeping, and final” (one of my favorite lines, but not exactly dialogic).  My students in the past have found his inclusion of the slave, the weeping widow, and others to be not inclusive but appropriative.  What do we do with one of the most splendid passages of Song, “Through me many long dumb voices” (50-51), which announces that the poet  and his text will ethically include and represent the oppressed other, but does so only by insisting on his/its own power (“Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigured”)?  (Sam P, you’re right on the money in seeing the slippage at these moments).

I don’t want to end by saying he contradicts himself.  I want better clarity on this plaguing issue this semester.  But for today I will throw in one more piece, some ethical literary theory that Erin and others are approaching already, and that is the function of the “you” address in Whitman.  A critic I really admire, William Waters, writes about the lyric “you” in his work, saying that it is a pronoun which “tends to hail; it calls everyone and everything by their inmost name. . . . One can read unidentified ‘I’ or ‘she’ with comparatively small concern, but the summons of unidentified ‘you’ restlessly tugs at us, begging identification” (1996, 130).  Waters’ choice of the term “identification” is deliberate—not only do we wish to ascertain an identity for the “you,” but we may ourselves identify with it.  The reader may feel that she, as Waters writes, “(implausible as it may be) . . . is the poem’s intended addressee.”   When Whitman repeatedly, in quiet confidences and throbbing insistences, addresses “you” (who, me? you talkin’ to me, old man?), I feel called out, or called in, or called over.  

Whitman’s poem offers a vision of democracy, of poetry, of nature, of the divine, of love, of war, and more.  And since the dialogic must be reciprocal, then, if we are actively addressed by the poem by the you address, if we ourselves want to be ethical, answerable readers,  we must consider what Waters asks: “How will we stand?” (130)


Waters, William. 1996.  “Answerable Aesthetics: Reading ‘You’ in Rilke.”  Comparative Literature 48.2 (Spring): 128-149.

Sunday, August 23rd, 2009 | Author:

Here is a piece on Lincoln from a blogger I fell in love with myself first through her incredibly funny children’s book What Pete Ate From A to Z.  Since I am also increasingly obsessed with Abe, I appreciate the sentiment, and I enjoy imagining that her fantasies about a relationship with Lincoln layer right onto those of Whitman, standing every day by the road in DC (Washington City) to smile and bow to the gaunt President as he rode by on his horse, convinced that they knew each other as true souls in their eye contact, later convincing even himself that he was present when Lincoln was killed.

Kalman's Lincoln Sampler

Kalman's Lincoln Sampler

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Sunday, August 23rd, 2009 | Author:

When Whitman says, “I contain multitudes,” or even, “I contradict myself,” he seems happy about the multiple identities that he occupies.  I’ve been thinking about his imagined occupation of these many selves; for me and many other people I know, living in different roles (for me, primarily professor and mother) can be less harmonious and more schizophrenic.  Tonight, on the final night of summer break, though, I’m amazed at the way my personal, professional, and national contexts seem to have aligned this year– and how much Whitman has been arguably present in all three.  The professional immersion in Whitman, counting down to the grand opening of Digital Whitman on August 25 and including our visits to Brooklyn and Camden,  has been intense; Jim Groom said this weekend, “You really can’t help but fall in love with Whitman,” unwittingly echoing something that Whitman himself once said about Lincoln: “I love the man personally.”   Nationally, we are celebrating the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, so Ford’s Theater, where Whitman’s young lover watched Lincoln die, has reopened, and I’ve seen the American History Museum’s special exhibit on Lincoln (the hat he wore to Ford’s Theater, the cloth that draped his coffin, the masks worn by the assassination plotters when they were hanged, Mary’s purple dress…).  Obama’s inauguration in this same year, and strong attachment to Lincoln, the president who probably freed the First Lady’s ancestors, resonates deeply as well.  Personally, my son’s mania for American history has carried us to a Lincoln impersonator at the Kennedy Center, to Harper’s Ferry where John Brown attempted his raid (and close to where he was hung while John Wilkes Booth looked on), to Yorktown and to Appomattox, where we stood in the parlor where Lee surrendered to Grant and began the process of reuniting the nation Whitman loved.  I’ve been to Montpelier and thought about slavery, freedom, democracy, and the individual.   Here in Fredericksburg, I live on ground saturated by the blood of Union soldiers, walking distance from the Rappahannock River that 10,000 slaves from nearby counties crossed to reach the Union army and become not slaves but “contraband,” a river Whitman would have seen every day during his December days at the Union “hospital” at the Lacy House.  There are more examples to list, but, in summary, in a powerful alignment of my selves, I feel like I have spent 2009 thus far seriously grappling, personally, professionally, and as a citizen, with the foundational principles of the nation Whitman loved, with the evil that split it in two and the people, places, and events of 1861-1865, those terrible years of reckoning, with race and legacy and region, with rhetoric and poetry–in short, with Whitman.  “Walt Whitman!  Walt Whitman!” said my son back in June.  “Why is everything about Walt Whitman?”  Good question.

Friday, July 17th, 2009 | Author:

This is the home where Whitman found his brother George in December 1862 in the makeshift Union hospital, and spent a week visiting with soldiers before traveling to DC to begin his serious work as a spiritual missionary to the wounded.  This image and the one below of Marye House (Brompton) are courtesy of a digital archive from UMW’s Historic Preservation Department.


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