Walt Whitman

American poetry and political defeat

IN THE first election year that mattered to me, 1968, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, my country killed hundreds of thousands of people in Southeast Asia, and Richard Nixon was elected president. In the decades that followed, I have always been unhappy with the leadership and direction of this country, usually very unhappy. 

 

Michael Ruby

 I was born a believer in peace. I say fight for the right.
Be a martyr and live. Be a coward and die.

— Susan B. Anthony speaking
in Gertrude Stein’s
“The Mother of Us All”

Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt, / Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd

Just as you are refreshed by the gladness of the river, and the bright flow, I was refreshed

I went for a walk to the banks of the Hudson, where 225 years ago George Washington bid a hasty nighttime retreat over these waters after the stunning upset in the Battle of Brooklyn.

We have our own Battle of Brooklyn now. And a battle for America.

I was heartened to see the Bridge, in all its glory, Mannahatta rising up behind, and in the distance (we're not there yet) the Statue of Liberty.

I thought of Hart Crane (of course!):

Under thy shadow by the piers I waited
in darkness is thy shadow clear.
The City’s fiery parcels all undone

The poetry of a New York hour

A thousand singers on a mile-long stage

Mile-Long Opera along the High Line in New York City, October 2018. Photo by Iwan Baan.

For six evenings in October 2018, the Mile-Long Opera was performed for free on the High Line, starting at 7:00 p.m. That time is significant: the opera was billed as “a biography of 7:00 p.m.” because the libretto and accompanying texts were based on interviews with hundreds of New Yorkers about the meaning of the hour when day gives way to night.

“No we don’t talk, but people get to know each other just by walking past each other all the time.”

The drift of it

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1872. Library of Congress.

The study of how poems travel —  and how they change —  calls for some discussion of the relationship between author and reader. How do poets themselves define or at least imagine this relationship? What do they do to ensure that their work reaches their audience? And what happens then?

Few poets have paid more attention to their audience than Walt Whitman. Matt Cohen’s book Whitman’s Drift: Imagining Literary Distribution, published earlier this year by the University of Iowa Press, explores the topic from the combined perspective of reception studies, media studies, and book history. The “drift” in the title refers to the pattern of distribution of Whitman’s work in his lifetime and after — something not easy to capture empirically or to grasp conceptually. For Cohen, the word implies uncontrolled, unsystematic, but not entirely haphazard movement, “the nexus of the textual-formal and distributional form in his work, coupling a range of methods of dissemination with poetic technique and the physical design of books.” As his study shows, distribution as much as production was central to Whitman’s desire to connect with his readers.

Paradise now

On Evan Kennedy's 'The Sissies'

Photo of Evan Kennedy (left) by Peter Hochschild.

An alien man-boy, Evan Kennedy. Already starting his poetic career with two pretty good books, then with a giant leap comes the third, Terra Firmament. Now another — this time a mega-leap on all fronts — a book he calls The Sissies.

'The government of love'

A review of Elizabeth Willis's 'Alive'

Image of Elizabeth Willis (left) courtesy of Kelly Writers House.

The speaker of “Survey,” a long poem among the “New and Uncollected” of Elizabeth Willis’s Alive: New and Selected Poems, illustrates public interest and personal exposure combining to make an American lyric. 

The speaker of “Survey,” a long poem among the “New and Uncollected” of Elizabeth Willis’s Alive: New and Selected Poems, illustrates public interest and personal exposure combining to make an American lyric. As the title suggests, the poem responds to an easily imagined questionnaire ranking priorities and concerns with a list of wishes and worries, two of perhaps the most private and maligned categories of our Just Do It culture in which both wishes and worries are judged as failures of will.

The family circuits

Uninterrupted tissue and interspecies continuum

Bio-poetics is an art form not interested in some Modernist purification of the tribal dialect but instead in a creative mongrelization of the planetary genome. In Grammatical Man, Jeremy Campbell refers to “basic resemblances between genes and language that are beyond dispute” — also beyond dispute are the resemblances between living organisms at the level of their molecular components.

Ed Begley Sr. performs Whitman

Here is a one-minute clip from the recording of Ed Begley Sr.’s performance of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: MP3.

Some takes on Whitman's importance to contemporary poets

In this 5-minute video excerpt from the recording of a 90-minute live “ModPo” webcast on aleatory poetry, Amaris Cuchanski, Emily Harnett, Max McKenna, erica kaufman and Lily Applebaum each take a turn discussing the Whitmanian mode as it can be discerned in contemporary poetry. To view the entire video, click here.

Word up (PoemTalk #74)

Whitman's 'Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking' as performed by Basil Bunting

LISTEN TO THE SHOW

Amy King, Julia Bloch, and Tom Pickard — before a live audience — joined Al Filreis to discuss Basil Bunting’s 1977 performance of Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” On that occasion, a reading at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Bunting read poems by Thomas Wyatt, Ezra Pound (Cantos I and II), Edmund Spenser, and Louis Zukofsky, as well as this poem by Whitman. The full reading of “Out of the Cradle” runs some nineteen minutes.

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