• Home
  • About
  • Sep 20 2009

    Sam P. for Sept. 22

    Filed under: Uncategorized

    Walt Whitman can evidently get into anything, if I let him.  This week I am reading Richard Wright’s Native Son for Tweedy’s African American literature course, and I seem incapable of reading the two writers’ work separate from each other.  I recognize that this risks imposing unnecessary dialogue between two distinct works, informed by dramatically different worldviews (God, what a mistake it was to see Gigli and Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation on the same night!).  But as Luke Mancuso’s “About” essay suggests, Walt Whitman’s 1867 edition of Leaves of Grass affirms the need for a highly nationalized, comparatively race-leveling “collective identity” that empowers and protects all Americans non-dichotomously (that is, without distinguishing South/North, white/black, etc.).  Wright’s novel, published about 73 years later, maps out the extent to which African American experience had so far failed to fit Whitman’s representative identity, and thus reveals the position of privilege (whiteness, in Wright’s novel) necessary for an individual to claim Whitman’s kind of self-ownership.

                In “Leaves of Grass (part 4),” Whitman’s speaker addresses a listener as fundamentally disempowered as Native Son’s protagonist, Bigger Thomas, asserting that “None have done justice to you—you have not done justice to yourself” (165, 1867 edition).  The speaker then goes on to insist that every person must seize such “justice” through the innate power he or she possesses:

     Whoever you are! claim your own at any hazard!

    These shows of the east and west are tame compared to you;

    …Master and mistress in your own right over Nature,

    elements, pain, passion, dissolution.


    …Through birth, life, death, burial, the means are provided, nothing is scanted;

     Through angers, losses, ambition, ignorance, ennui,

                  what you are picks it way.  (167, 1867 edition)

     Whitman’s outlook, or at least that of his speaker, seems based on the assumption that, regardless of a person’s (even a creature’s) origin and specific life conditions, “the means are provided” by which that person might become “Master and mistress in your own right over Nature.”  This serves as an extension of the “it shall be you” inclusiveness Whitman articulated in the 1855 version “Song of Myself,” spreading into a sense of empowered belonging. 

    Wright articulates Bigger’s desire for that belonging in a way that points out how difficult such a feeling is to claim:

     What did he want? What did he love and what did he hate? He did not know.  There was something he knew and something he felt; something the world gave him and something he himself had; …and never in all his life, with this black skin of his, had the two worlds, thought and feeling, will and mind, aspiration and satisfaction, been together; never had he felt a sense of wholeness.  (Wright, 240)

     What does Whitman’s poetic persona seek, for himself and others, if not that same “wholeness?”  By imbuing an individual whom “justice” seems never to serve with the overwhelming natural ability to claim that justice, Whitman suggests that anyone might seize control, might “self-actualize.” Wright, whose Bigger only snatches a fleeting modicum of that self-ownership by killing two women and bringing the consequences on himself, reveals how little Whitman’s vision extends into the practical methods by which an individual becomes his or her own “master.”  Whitman’s own poem “The City Dead-House” uses the image of the neglected dead prostitute to encapsulate those marginalized Americans who fail to accomplish this self-mastery, but “Leaves of Grass (part 4)” indicates Whitman’s avowed notion that any specific American might seize justice, autonomy, etc. for themselves.  A number of decades and several “schools” of writing later, Wright and his contemporaries finally deconstruct this assumption of uninhibited individual potential, showing how the “wholeness” Bigger seeks can easily be “scanted… through birth, life, death.”

    Sep 15 2009

    To Whit

    Filed under: Uncategorized

    “What don’t you know about Whitman yet?”

    In his introduction to my copy of LoG’s “Deathbed Edition,” William Carlos Williams to  alludes some kind of consensus among poetry scholars (I guess) that Whitman’s writing eventually runs out of steam, that his poetic sensibilities lose the vigor of some of his earlier poems and end up being dry and even self-mimicking.  I’d like to know how many Whitman readers still believe that, and if we’ll ever get to the point at which we say he’s “going soft.”

    Sep 13 2009

    Sam P. for Sept. 15

    Filed under: Uncategorized

    Walt Whitman has me beside myself.  More to the point, he has put me on safari inside a population of humans.  Stranger still, I remain human.

    In “I Sing the Body Electric” even more than in most of his poetry, Whitman draws up the human body, and the ways in which people relate to each other physically, as the crucial link between the experiences of observing others and living alongside them. This awareness-as-connective-tissue flies into foreground when Whitman engages others most closely, a body among bodies.  He affirms that “To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough… There is something in staying close to men and women and looking on them, and in the contact and odor of them, that pleases the soul well, / All things please the soul, but these please the soul well” (253).  Earlier in the poem, he locates that soul within his flesh and bones down in the dirt among others, asking, “if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?” (250).  If the body and the soul are inextricable, then one’s contact with other bodies “pleases the soul well” because that touch pleasurably stimulates the flesh.

    This “flesh,” though, has got me going.  Whitman insists that contact between one person’s skin and another constitutes the truest closeness between two human beings, but characterizing a group of companions as “beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh” almost seems to me to accomplish the opposite effect of reducing people to the materials they are made of, leaving them somehow “less human” to me.  I have thus experienced as a separation what Whitman intended as an intermingling, in moments that I could hardly have expected.  For example, while sitting alone at Ball Circle late on Friday night I watched a group of people pass on their way to a party.  Suddenly I felt quite far from them, as if I understood them only in the abstract.  I could not help but be excited at the physical facts of their behavior: the way they clumped together and spread apart to accommodate conversation, their loud shouts and laughs, their habit of running after and hitting each other as the mood struck them.  I seemed to be less an anthropologist than a naturalist, marveling at creatures that I imagined quite different than myself.

    Of course, I recognized immediately afterward how my behavior is essentially identical to theirs (and that I, like Whitman, was being a bit of a creep).  I cannot, however, escape the sense that Whitman’s willingness to situate human experience within an entirely corporeal context problematically objectifies human beings, robbing them of specificity or even recognizability. As an emblem of the body and soul as inseparable, the passage successfully equates human togetherness with the biological reality of shared skin.  But as an image, it leans on a single element that I seem incapable of separating from the larger whole.  Whitman obviously means “flesh” synecdochally, since it somehow “breathes, laughs, and shows curiosity.”  In a single moment of tactile insecurity at that image, however, I somehow get thrown and have to puzzle my way back into the text.

    Sep 13 2009

    Under My Bootsoles 4

    Filed under: Uncategorized

    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.

    Sep 10 2009

    Under the Boot-Soles, No. 2

    Filed under: Uncategorized

    This is the second instalment in a series of posts meant to dig Whitman out the places people put him in, overtly or otherwise.  (I count Chelsea’s Ginsberg entry as the first.)  Since Whitman so lustily “bequeaths” himself to the world, hoping that every reader will exceed his work (and thereby add grandeur to it), can we see the proliferation of Whitmanisms and Whitman references as a practical fulfilment of his creative and professional hopes?  I find it fitting that Whitman’s insistence on readers using his poetry as a template for their own self-filtering would prompt new writers and other artists to converse with him in their own work.

    For today:

    This week’s issue of The New Yorker includes an article by Anthony Lane discussing Robert Frank, the photographer whose 1958 collection titled “The Americans” garnered no small measure of notoriety on its publication in the US in 1960.  Many American viewers took Frank as, in Lane’s words, “a hater and an agitator, the enemy within,” largely because of Frank’s attempt to document the broadest swathe of American life possible, levelling his eye and not excluding the unsavory.  Lane turns to Whitman to make sense of this:

    “In short, ‘The Americans’ was un-American.  What nerves were being hit by the ‘Swiss Mister,’ as Photo Arts labelled Frank when it printed some of his work?  [Frank moved to America from his native Switzerland in 1947, at about age 23.]  A full answer would have to reach back at least a hundred years–to the first edition of Leaves of Grass, and its clarion call of exhilaration.  Whitman, like Frank, unrolled a litany of the visages and everyday deeds that would rise up and meet the traveller. .. When Frank set off, however, exactly a century after Whitman’s ‘ psalm of the republic,’ he stumbled into solitudes.  From them he forged what Evans called the ‘ungentle poetry’ of ‘The Americans'” (89).

    This particular Whitman invocation also broaches the crucial question of the extent to which America has, or even had in Frank’s 1955 version, realized the vision that Whitman affirms is manifestly inevitable.

    Anyway, please add to the succession of posts that Chelsea began and I hope to continue!  Finding Whitman takes little more than a realization that we should be looking.

    Frank's photo of Butte, Montana: America's 'ungentle poetry'

    Frank's photo of Butte, Montana: America's 'ungentle poetry'

    Sep 07 2009

    Sam P.’s Image Gloss

    Filed under: Uncategorized

    Since the geographic focus of our particular course includes nothing so far off and up the continent as the Penobscot River (Jim says we’re a Southern town, so this is in the interest of balance), I figured we could use a partial compendium of the more obscure towns, regions and bodies of water Whitman calls up in “Song of the Broad-Axe.”  Whitman proves again to be the father of a popular and entirely contemporary cultural practice: the place-name shout-out.  (See Wu-Tang’s 36 Chambers album for more current evidence.)

    • Willamette (332): a regional name in Oregon that belongs simultaneously to a town, a valley, that valley’s river, and a national forest.

    Willamette River Valley

    • “the most ancient Hindustanee” (337): Hindustan is an umbrella term for South Asia, though it now commonly refers more specifically to the Republic of India.  The name refers, of course, to the region’s prevailing currents of Hindu religion and culture.
    • “Cutters down of wood and haulers of it to the Penobscot or Kennebec” (339): Both the Penobscot and the Kennebec are south-flowing Maine rivers that empty into the Atlantic Ocean.
    from Wikipedia

    Penobscot River watershed

    Of course, these names might have seemed no less distant, and even exotic, to mid-nineteenth-century American readers than California, Ottawa and the Rio Grande, which Whitman also includes in the poem’s vastly encompassing enumerations.  Such far-reaching invocations lend the poem an inclusive scope that acknowledges the specific identity of every inch of the nation Whitman apostrophizes in his writing:

    “(America! I do not vaunt my love for you,

    I have what I have.)” (338)

    All geographical information provided by Wikipedia.  Whitman would use it, you know.

    Sep 06 2009

    Sam P. for Sept. 8

    Filed under: Uncategorized

    Last week in a comment directed at another student (the “other” Sam), I began to question the limitations of Whitman’s footloose laissez faire outlook, particularly with regard to the more pervasively enforced geographic immobility faced by many American women before, during, and even some time beyond the nineteenth century.  By assigning greatest value to a lifestyle based on the wanderlust of a strapping-but-impoverished “underdog” (Sam’s word) in the “Song” and more explicitly in “Song of the Open Road,” Whitman indicates only a passing interest in the comparatively stable, even “tame” domestic realm beyond which few women might have roamed.  Of course, such a nearly exclusively male vision of individual liberty seems at odds with Whitman’s broad claims to kinship with people in every station, class, race, etc.  Throughout “Song of the Open Road,” Whitman repeatedly renders this disparity in terms that abstractly offer both “men and women” the freedom of the unclaimed horizon, but which specifically close women into a category set apart from that of the “unburdened,” itinerant male.

                The speaker of “Open Road” does seem superficially apt to encompass both sexes when describing “the grand roads of the universe” as a conduit for “the progress of the souls of men and women” (305).  However, the relatively equal footing of the phrase “men and women” does not prevail without exception in the poem.  In a crucial recasting of that formulation, the speaker asserts that “Now if a thousand perfect men were to appear it would not amaze me, / Now if a thousand beautiful forms of women appear’d it would not astonish me” (300).  This descriptive shift suggests a perspective that treats men as irreducible, “perfect” beings and women as mere “forms,” hollow and freely interpretable.  When Whitman’s speaker goes on to insist that “Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons” (300), we cannot help but assume he means those “persons” who exceed “forms” and become “perfect.”

    The space that opens between these two gender categories only widens more dramatically in a passage that, like “Song of Myself,” sees Whitman’s speaker attempt to catalogue all the kinds of individuals moving down the road of the poem’s title, confident that “They pass, I also pass, any thing passes, none can be interdicted, / None but are accepted, none but shall be dear to me” (298).  Quite conspicuously, the lines immediately preceding this claim include “the black with his woolly head,” “the escaped youth,” and “the early market-man,” but only include a woman when lumped in with a man as half of “the eloping couple,” or even more peripherally in the form of the assumed mother attached to “the birth, the hasting after the physician” (298).  To wit, Whitman seems to have here intended something other than a representative American population sample.  Though “Song of the Open Road’s” speaker almost unfailingly includes women alongside men as a more inclusive address to the reader, the speaker’s failure to list an authentically independent, specific woman in this stanza or anywhere else in the poem gestures to the ultimate limits of the road, and the variable freedom of those who purportedly travel on it.

    Sep 01 2009

    Son(g) of Sam

    Filed under: Uncategorized

    “The camera and the plate are prepared, the lady must sit for her


    The bride unrumples her white dress, the minutehand of the

              clock moves slowly,

    The opium eater reclines with rigid head and just-opened lips,

    The prostitute draggles her shawl, her bonnet bobs on her

                   tipsy and pimpled neck,

    The crowd laugh at her blackguard oaths, the men jeer and

                  wink to each other,

    (Miserable! I do not laugh at your oaths nor jeer you,)”


    And anyway,

    “Washes and razors for foofoos… for me freckles and a

               bristling beard.”lollipop

    Aug 30 2009

    Sam (Protich) for Sept. 1

    Filed under: Uncategorized

    Among the innumerable paradoxes splayed out across the leaves—excuse me, pages—of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” the poet’s grand, world-eating generosity, the irrefutable hugeness of his spirit, must remain one of the least resolvable.  When poetry anthologies or semi-eulogizing literary historians take up the subject of the “Song,” they dutifully report the poet’s openhearted offering: “Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems, /  …You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me, / You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself” (28).  However, in keeping with his stated pursuit of contradiction and complexity, Whitman does not let all this giving go unanswered.  Those moments in which the poem’s speaker most empowers the reader, yielding up his own apparently infinite insight to any who might care to take it, also stand as precisely those moments in which the speaker most lavishly inflates himself.  Whitman can only give us everything, “the origin of all poems,” if he first insists that it is his to give.

                The audacity of Whitman’s claims can thus be measured in direct proportion to his avowed humility.  “I am not an earth nor and adjunct of an earth,” he says, “I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself; / They do not know how immortal, but I know” (33).  Through the advantage of this kind of divine awareness, an ability to “know how immortal,” Whitman seems to attain the immortality that, as a human being, he supposes he must always have had.  In Orwell’s formulation of almost a century later, Whitman thus renders himself, or at least his poetic self-projection, effectively “more equal than others”: while no man or woman can be “fathomed,” Whitman alone can fully see that immeasurability, and reveal it to his apostrophized “YOU” readership.

                Only by recognizing Whitman’s presumptuousness in this respect can we hope to truly benefit from his injunction to “listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.”  In order to more completely immerse the reader in his “Song,” Whitman actually complicates the act of reading in a way that forces us to listen to him before we can choose not to.  Occasionally he goes so far as to openly state the partial danger within his intentions.  “I am not,” he says, “the poet of goodness only… I do not decline to be the poet of wickedness also” (48).  In order for us to genuinely absorb input from all modes of living, Whitman implies, we must resist the temptation to interpret the “Song’s” long catalogues of people and occupations as an authentic representation of “all sides.”  Of course, those lists and his comments on, above and around them serve to anchor us within the poem thoroughly enough that we might forget to see outside it.  By recognizing the grandness of Whitman’s vision, we become responsible for looking ever further beyond it.

    Aug 25 2009


    Filed under: Uncategorized

    I'll take 'Swords' for 500!

    I'll take 'Swords' for 500!

    S-words: a reference to the eckshtrordnury Sean Connery, as first evoked in Brady Earnhardt’s “Whitman is not Bond” course introduction.