Posts tagged ‘Walt Whitman’

December 16, 2013

“A Visit to Walt Whitman”

by Biblioklept

“A Visit to Walt Whitman”

From James Huneker’s Ivory Apes and Peacocks

My edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is dated 1867, the third, if I am not mistaken, the first appearing in 1855. Inside is pasted a card upon which is written in large, clumsy letters: “Walt Whitman, Camden, New Jersey, July, 1877.” I value this autograph, because Walt gave it to me; rather I paid him for it, the proceeds, two dollars (I think that was the amount), going to some asylum in Camden. In addition, the “good grey poet” was kind enough to add a woodcut of himself as he appeared in the 1855 volume, “hankering, gross, mystical, nude,” and another of his old mother, with her shrewd, kindly face. Walt is in his shirt-sleeves, a hand on his hip, the other in his pocket, his neck bare, the pose that of a nonchalant workman—though in actual practice he was always opposed to work of any sort; on his head is a slouch-hat, and you recall his line: “I wear my hat as I please, indoors or out.” The picture is characteristic, even to the sensual mouth and Bowery-boy pose. You almost hear him say: “I find no sweeter fat than sticks to my own bones.” Altogether a different man from the later bard, the heroic apparition of Broadway, Pennsylvania Avenue, and Chestnut Street. I had convalesced from a severe attack of Edgar Allan Poe only to fall desperately ill with Whitmania. Youth is ever in revolt, age alone brings resignation. My favourite reading was Shelley, my composer among composers, Wagner. Chopin came later. This was in 1876, when the Bayreuth apotheosis made Wagner’s name familiar to us, especially in Philadelphia, where his empty, sonorous Centennial March was first played by Theodore Thomas at the Exposition. The reading of a magazine article by Moncure D. Conway caused me to buy a copy, at an extravagant price for my purse, of The Leaves of Grass, and so uncritical was I that I wrote a parallel between Wagner and Whitman; between the most consciously artistic of men and the wildest among improvisators. But then it seemed to me that both had thrown off the “shackles of convention.” (What prison-like similes we are given to in the heady, generous impulses of green adolescence.) I was a boy, and seeing Walt on Market Street, as he came from the Camden Ferry, I resolved to visit him. It was some time after the Fourth of July, 1877, and I soon found his little house on Mickle Street. A policeman at the ferry-house directed me. I confess I was scared after I had given the bell one of those pulls that we tremblingly essay at a dentist’s door. To my amazement the old man soon stood before me, and cordially bade me enter.

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December 13, 2013

“A sublime murkiness and original pent fury” | Walt Whitman on Millet’s Paintings

by Biblioklept

The Diggers, Jean-Francois Millet

April 18.—Went out three or four miles to the house of Quincy Shaw, to see a collection of J. F. Millet’s pictures. Two rapt hours. Never before have I been so penetrated by this kind of expression. I stood long and long before “the Sower.” I believe what the picture-men designate “the first Sower,” as the artist executed a second copy, and a third, and, some think, improved in each. But I doubt it. There is something in this that could hardly be caught again—a sublime murkiness and original pent fury. Besides this masterpiece, there were many others, (I shall never forget the simple evening scene, “Watering the Cow,”) all inimitable, all perfect as pictures, works of mere art; and then it seem’d to me, with that last impalpable ethic purpose from the artist (most likely unconscious to himself) which I am always looking for. To me all of them told the full story of what went before and necessitated the great French revolution—the long precedent crushing of the masses of a heroic people into the earth, in abject poverty, hunger—every right denied, humanity attempted to be put back for generations—yet Nature’s force, titanic here, the stronger and hardier for that repression—waiting terribly to break forth, revengeful—the pressure on the dykes, and the bursting at last—the storming of the Bastile—the execution of the king and queen—the tempest of massacres and blood. Yet who can wonder?

Could we wish humanity different? Could we wish the people made of wood or stone? Or that there be no justice in destiny or time?

The true France, base of all the rest, is certainly in these pictures. I comprehend “Field-People Reposing,” “the Diggers,” and “the Angelus” in this opinion. Some folks always think of the French as a small race, five or five and a half feet high, and ever frivolous and smirking. Nothing of the sort. The bulk of the personnel of France, before the revolution, was large-sized, serious, industrious as now, and simple. The revolution and Napoleon’s wars dwarf’d the standard of human size, but it will come up again. If for nothing else, I should dwell on my brief Boston visit for opening to me the new world of Millet’s pictures. Will America ever have such an artist out of her own gestation, body, soul?

—From Walt Whitman’s journal of 1881

 

July 11, 2013

“Democratic Vistas” — Walt Whitman

by Biblioklept

“Democratic Vistas” by Walt Whitman

Political democracy, as it exists and practically works in America, with all its threatening evils, supplies a training school for making first-class men. It is life’s gymnasium, not of good only, but of all. We try often, though we fall back often. A brave delight, fit for freedom’s athletes, fills these arenas, and fully satisfies, out of the action in them, irrespective of success. Whatever we do not attain, we at any rate attain the experiences of the fight, the hardening of the strong campaign, and throb with currents of attempt at least. Time is ample. Let the victors come after us. Not for nothing does evil play its part among us. Judging from the main portions of the history of theworld, so far, justice is always in jeopardy, peace walks amid hourly pitfalls, and of slavery, misery, meanness, the craft of tyrants and the credulity of the populace, in some of the protean forms, no voice can at any time say, They are not. The clouds break a little, and the sun shines out-but soon and certain the lowering darkness falls again, as if to last forever. Yet is there an immortal courage and prophecy in every sane soul that cannot, must not, under any circumstances, capitulate. Vive, the attack–the perennial assault! Vive, the unpopular cause–the spirit that audacious]y aims–the never-abandoned efforts, pursued the same amid opposing proofs and precedents.

Once, before the war (alas! I dare not say how many times the mood has come!) I, too, was filled with doubt and gloom. A foreigner, an acute and good man, had impressively said to me, that day-putting in form, indeed, my own observations: “I have traveled much in the United States, and watched their politicians, and listened to the speeches of the candidates, and read the journals, and gone into the public-houses, and heard the unguarded talk of men. And I have found your vaunted America honeycombed from top to toe with infidelism, even to itself and its own program. I have marked the brazen hell-faces of secession and slavery gazing defiantly from all the windows and doorways. I have everywhere found, primarily, thieves and scalliwags arranging the nominations to offices, and sometimes filling the offices themselves. I have found the north just as full of bad stuff as the south. Of the holders of public office in the Nation or the States or their municipalities, I have found that not one in a hundred has been chosen by any spontaneous selection of the outsiders, the people, but all have been nominated and put through by little or large caucuses of the politicians, and have got in by corrupt rings and electioneering, not capacity or desert. I have noticed how the millions of sturdy farmers and mechanics are thus the helpless supple-jacks of comparatively few politicians. And I have noticed, more and more, the alarming spectacle of parties usurping the government, and openly and shamelessly wielding it for party purposes.

July 4, 2013

“I Hear America Singing” — Walt Whitman

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July 3, 2013

Walt Whitman’s Handwritten Drafts of “Come, said my Soul”

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(Via/about).

July 3, 2013

“On Journeys Through the States” — Walt Whitman

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July 2, 2013

“Sometimes With One I Love” — Walt Whitman

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June 8, 2013

“The Bible as Poetry” — Walt Whitman

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“The Bible as Poetry” by Walt Whitman

I suppose one cannot at this day say anything new, from a literary point of view, about those autochthonic bequests of Asia—the Hebrew Bible, the mighty Hindu epics, and a hundred lesser but typical works; (not now definitely including the Iliad—though that work was certainly of Asiatic genesis, as Homer himself was—considerations which seem curiously ignored.) But will there ever be a time or place—ever a student, however modern, of the grand art, to whom those compositions will not afford profounder lessons than all else of their kind in the garnerage of the past? Could there be any more opportune suggestion, to the current popular writer and reader of verse, what the office of poet was in primeval times—and is yet capable of being, anew, adjusted entirely to the modern?

All the poems of Orientalism, with the Old and New Testaments at the centre, tend to deep and wide, (I don’t know but the deepest and widest,) psychological development—with little, or nothing at all, of the mere esthetic, the principal verse-requirement of our day. Very late, but unerringly, comes to every capable student the perception that it is not in beauty, it is not in art, it is not even in science, that the profoundest laws of the case have their eternal sway and outcropping.

In his discourse on “Hebrew Poets” De Sola Mendes said: “The fundamental feature of Judaism, of the Hebrew nationality, was religion; its poetry was naturally religious. Its subjects, God and Providence, the covenants with Israel, God in Nature, and as reveal’d, God the Creator and Governor, Nature in her majesty and beauty, inspired hymns and odes to Nature’s God. And then the checker’d history of the nation furnish’d allusions, illustrations, and subjects for epic display—the glory of the sanctuary, the offerings, the splendid ritual, the Holy City, and lov’d Palestine with its pleasant valleys and wild tracts.” Dr. Mendes said “that rhyming was not a characteristic of Hebrew poetry at all. Metre was not a necessary mark of poetry. Great poets discarded it; the early Jewish poets knew it not.” Compared with the famed epics of Greece, and lesser ones since, the spinal supports of the Bible are simple and meagre. All its history, biography, narratives, &c., are as beads, strung on and indicating the eternal thread of the Deific purpose and power. Yet with only deepest faith for impetus, and such Deific purpose for palpable or impalpable theme, it often transcends the masterpieces of Hellas, and all masterpieces.

The metaphors daring beyond account, the lawless soul, extravagant by our standards, the glow of love and friendship, the fervent kiss—nothing in argument or logic, but unsurpass’d in proverbs, in religious ecstasy, in suggestions of common mortality and death, man’s great equalizers—the spirit everything, the ceremonies and forms of the churches nothing, faith limitless, its immense sensuousness immensely spiritual—an incredible, all-inclusive non-worldliness and dew-scented illiteracy (the antipodes of our Nineteenth Century business absorption and morbid refinement)—no hair-splitting doubts, no sickly sulking and sniffling, no “Hamlet,” no “Adonais,” no “Thanatopsis,” no “In Memoriam.”

The culminated proof of the poetry of a country is the quality of its personnel, which, in any race, can never be really superior without superior poems. The finest blending of individuality with universality (in my opinion nothing out of the galaxies of the “Iliad,” or Shakspere’s heroes, or from the Tennysonian “Idylls,” so lofty, devoted and starlike,) typified in the songs of those old Asiatic lands. Men and women as great columnar trees. Nowhere else the abnegation of self towering in such quaint sublimity; nowhere else the simplest human emotions conquering the gods of heaven, and fate itself. (The episode, for instance, toward the close of the “Mahabharata”—the journey of the wife Savitri with the god of death, Yama,

“One terrible to see—blood-red his garb,

His body huge and dark, bloodshot his eyes,

Which flamed like suns beneath his turban cloth,

Arm’d was he with a noose,”

who carries off the soul of the dead husband, the wife tenaciously following, and—by the resistless charm of perfect poetic recitation!—eventually redeeming her captive mate.)

I remember how enthusiastically William H. Seward, in his last days, once expatiated on these themes, from his travels in Turkey, Egypt, and Asia Minor, finding the oldest Biblical narratives exactly illustrated there to-day with apparently no break or change along three thousand years—the veil’d women, the costumes, the gravity and simplicity, all the manners just the same. The veteran Trelawney said he found the only real nobleman of the world in a good average specimen of the mid-aged or elderly Oriental. In the East the grand figure, always leading, is the old man, majestic, with flowing beard, paternal, &c. In Europe and America, it is, as we know, the young fellow—in novels, a handsome and interesting hero, more or less juvenile—in operas, a tenor with blooming cheeks, black mustache, superficial animation, and perhaps good lungs, but no more depth than skim-milk. But reading folks probably get their information of those Bible areas and current peoples, as depicted in print by English and French cads, the most shallow, impudent, supercilious brood on earth.

I have said nothing yet of the cumulus of associations (perfectly legitimate parts of its influence, and finally in many respects the dominant parts,) of the Bible as a poetic entity, and of every portion of it. Not the old edifice only—the congeries also of events and struggles and surroundings, of which it has been the scene and motive—even the horrors, dreads, deaths. How many ages and generations have brooded and wept and agonized over this book! What untellable joys and ecstasies—what support to martyrs at the stake—from it. (No really great song can ever attain full purport till long after the death of its singer—till it has accrued and incorporated the many passions, many joys and sorrows, it has itself arous’d.) To what myriads has it been the shore and rock of safety—the refuge from driving tempest and wreck! Translated in all languages, how it has united this diverse world! Of civilized lands to-day, whose of our retrospects has it not interwoven and link’d and permeated? Not only does it bring us what is clasp’d within its covers; nay, that is the least of what it brings. Of its thousands, there is not a verse, not a word, but is thick-studded with human emotions, successions of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, of our own antecedents, inseparable from that background of us, on which, phantasmal as it is, all that we are to-day inevitably depends—our ancestry, our past.

Strange, but true, that the principal factor in cohering the nations, eras and paradoxes of the globe, by giving them a common platform of two or three great ideas, a commonalty of origin, and projecting kosmic brotherhood, the dream of all hope, all time—that the long trains gestations, attempts and failures, resulting in the New World, and in modern solidarity and politics—are to be identified and resolv’d back into a collection of old poetic lore, which, more than any one thing else, has been the axis of civilization and history through thousands of years—and except for which this America of ours, with its polity and essentials, could not now be existing.

No true bard will ever contravene the Bible. If the time ever comes when iconoclasm does its extremest in one direction against the Books of the Bible in its present form, the collection must still survive in another, and dominate just as much as hitherto, or more than hitherto, through its divine and primal poetic structure. To me, that is the living and definite element-principle of the work, evolving everything else. Then the continuity; the oldest and newest Asiatic utterance and character, and all between, holding together, like the apparition of the sky, and coming to us the same. Even to our Nineteenth Century here are the fountain heads of song.

 

May 27, 2013

“Dirge for Two Veterans” — Walt Whitman

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April 12, 2013

“I do not ask any more delight” (Walt Whitman)

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April 12, 2013

“Walt Whitman” — Willa Cather

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“Walt Whitman” by Willa Cather

Speaking of monuments reminds one that there is more talk about a monument to Walt Whitman, “the good, gray poet.” Just why the adjective good is always applied to Whitman it is difficult to discover, probably because people who could not understand him at all took it for granted that he meant well. If ever there was a poet who had no literary ethics at all beyond those of nature, it was he. He was neither good nor bad, any more than are the animals he continually admired and envied. He was a poet without an exclusive sense of the poetic, a man without the finer discriminations, enjoying everything with the unreasoning enthusiasm of a boy. He was the poet of the dung hill as well as of the mountains, which is admirable in theory but excruciating in verse. In the same paragraph he informs you that, “The pure contralto sings in the organ loft,” and that “The malformed limbs are tied to the table, what is removed drop horribly into a pail.” No branch of surgery is poetic, and that hopelessly prosaic word “pail” would kill a whole volume of sonnets. Whitman’s poems are reckless rhapsodies over creation in general, some times sublime, some times ridiculous. He declares that the ocean with its “imperious waves, commanding” is beautiful, and that the fly-specks on the walls are also beautiful. Such catholic taste may go in science, but in poetry their results are sad. The poet’s task is usually to select the poetic. Whitman never bothers to do that, he takes everything in the universe from fly-specks to the fixed stars. His “Leaves of Grass” is a sort of dictionary of the English language, and in it is the name of everything in creation set down with great reverence but without any particular connection.

But however ridiculous Whitman may be there is a primitive elemental force about him. He is so full of hardiness and of the joy of life. He looks at all nature in the delighted, admiring way in which the old Greeks and the primitive poets did. He exults so in the red blood in his body and the strength in his arms. He has such a passion for the warmth and dignity of all that is natural. He has no code but to be  natural, a code that this complex world has so long outgrown. He is sensual, not after the manner of Swinbourne and Gautier, who are always seeking for perverted and bizarre effects on the senses, but in the frank fashion of the old barbarians who ate and slept and married and smacked their lips over the mead horn. He is rigidly limited to the physical, things that quicken his pulses, please his eyes or delight his nostrils. There is an element of poetry in all this, but it is by no means the highest. If a joyous elephant should break forth into song, his lay would probably be very much like Whitman’s famous “song of myself.” It would have just about as much delicacy and deftness and discriminations. He says:

“I think I could turn and live with the animals. They are so placid and self-contained, I stand and look at them long and long. They do not sweat and whine about their condition. They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins. They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God. Not one is dissatisfied nor not one is demented with the mania of many things. Not one kneels to another nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago. Not one is respectable or unhappy, over the whole earth.” And that is not irony on nature, he means just that, life meant no more to him. He accepted the world just as it is and glorified it, the seemly and unseemly, the good and the bad. He had no conception of a difference in people or in things. All men had bodies and were alike to him, one about as good as another. To live was to fulfil all natural laws and impulses. To be comfortable was to be happy. To be happy was the ultimatum. He did not realize the existence of a conscience or a responsibility. He had no more thought of good or evil than the folks in Kipling’s Jungle book.

And yet there is an undeniable charm about this optimistic vagabond who is made so happy by the warm sunshine and the smell of spring fields. A sort of good fellowship and whole-heartedness in every line he wrote. His veneration for things physical and material, for all that is in water or air or land, is so real that as you read him you think for the moment that you would rather like to live so if you could. For the time you half believe that a sound body and a strong arm are the greatest things in the world. Perhaps no book shows so much  as “Leaves of Grass” that keen senses do not make a poet. When you read it you realize how spirited a thing poetry really is and how great a part spiritual perceptions play in apparently sensuous verse, if only to select the beautiful from the gross.

Nebraska State Journal, January 19, 1896

 

March 25, 2013

Errors on Walt Whitman // Jorge Luis Borges

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March 23, 2013

“Samples of My Common-Place Book” — Walt Whitman

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“Samples of My Common-place Book” — Walt Whitman (from Specimen Days)

I ought not to offer a record of these days, interests, recuperations, without including a certain old, well-thumb’d common-place book,[18] filled with favorite excerpts, I carried in my pocket for three summers, and absorb’d over and over again, when the mood invited. I find so much in having a poem or fine suggestion sink into me (a little then goes a great ways) prepar’d by these vacant-sane and natural influences.

 Samples of my common-place book down at the creek:

I have—says old Pindar—many swift arrows in my quiver which speak to the wise, though they need an interpreter to the thoughtless. Such a man as it takes ages to make, and ages to understand. H. D. Thoreau.

If you hate a man, don’t kill him, but let him live.—Buddhistic.
Famous swords are made of refuse scraps, thought worthless.

Poetry is the only verity—the expression of a sound mind speaking after the ideal—and not after the apparent.—Emerson.

The form of oath among the Shoshone Indians is, “The earth hears me.
The sun hears me. Shall I lie?”

The true test of civilization is not the census, nor the size of cities, nor the crops—no, but the kind of a man the country turns out.—Emerson.

    The whole wide ether is the eagle’s sway:
The whole earth is a brave man’s fatherland.—Euripides.

    Spices crush’d, their pungence yield,
Trodden scents their sweets respire;
Would you have its strength reveal’d?
Cast the incense in the fire.

Matthew Arnold speaks of “the huge Mississippi of falsehood called
History.”

    The wind blows north, the wind blows south,
The wind blows east and west;
No matter how the free wind blows,
Some ship will find it best.

Preach not to others what they should eat, but eat as becomes you, and be silent.—Epictetus.

Victor Hugo makes a donkey meditate and apostrophize thus:

    My brother, man, if you would know the truth,
We both are by the same dull walls shut in;
The gate is massive and the dungeon strong.
But you look through the key-hole out beyond,
And call this knowledge; yet have not at hand
The key wherein to turn the fatal lock.

“William Cullen Bryant surprised me once,” relates a writer in a New York paper, “by saying that prose was the natural language of composition, and he wonder’d how anybody came to write poetry.”

    Farewell! I did not know thy worth;
But thou art gone, and now ’tis prized:
So angels walk’d unknown on earth,
But when they flew were recognized.—Hood.

John Burroughs, writing of Thoreau, says: “He improves with age—in fact requires age to take off a little of his asperity, and fully ripen him. The world likes a good hater and refuser almost as well as it likes a good lover and accepter—only it likes him farther off.”

Louise Michel at the burial of Blanqui, (1881.)

Blanqui drill’d his body to subjection to his grand conscience and his noble passions, and commencing as a young man, broke with all that is sybaritish in modern civilization. Without the power to sacrifice self, great ideas will never bear fruit.

    Out of the leaping furnace flame
A mass of molten silver came;
Then, beaten into pieces three,
Went forth to meet its destiny.
The first a crucifix was made,
Within a soldier’s knapsack laid;
The second was a locket fair,
Where a mother kept her dead child’s hair;
The third—a bangle, bright and warm,
Around a faithless woman’s arm.

    A mighty pain to love it is,
And’tis a pain that pain to miss;
But of all pain the greatest pain,
It is to love, but love in vain.

Maurice F. Egan on De Guerin.

    A pagan heart, a Christian soul had he,
He followed Christ, yet for dead Pan he sigh’d,
Till earth and heaven met within his breast:
As if Theocritus in Sicily
Had come upon the Figure crucified,
And lost his gods in deep, Christ-given rest.

    And if I pray, the only prayer
That moves my lips for me,
Is, leave the mind that now I bear,
And give me Liberty.—Emily Bronte.

    I travel on not knowing,
I would not if I might;
I would rather walk with God in the dark,
Than go alone in the light;
I would rather walk with Him by faith
Than pick my way by sight

 

March 16, 2013

“Darwinism” — Walt Whitman

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“Darwinism” by Walt Whitman

Running through prehistoric ages—coming down from them into the daybreak of our records, founding theology, suffusing literature, and so brought onward—(a sort of verteber and marrow to all the antique races and lands, Egypt, India, Greece, Rome, the Chinese, the Jews, &c., and giving cast and complexion to their art, poems, and their politics as well as ecclesiasticism, all of which we more or less inherit,) appear those venerable claims to origin from God himself, or from gods and goddesses—ancestry from divine beings of vaster beauty, size, and power than ours. But in current and latest times, the theory of human origin that seems to have most made its mark, (curiously reversing the antique,) is that we have come on, originated, developt, from monkeys, baboons—a theory more significant perhaps in its indirections, or what it necessitates, than it is even in itself. (Of the twain, far apart as they seem, and angrily as their conflicting advocates to-day oppose each other, are not both theories to be possibly reconcil’d, and even blended? Can we, indeed, spare either of them? Better still, out of them is not a third theory, the real one, or suggesting the real one, to arise?)

Of this old theory, evolution, as broach’d anew, trebled, with indeed all-devouring claims, by Darwin, it has so much in it, and is so needed as a counterpoise to yet widely prevailing and unspeakably tenacious, enfeebling superstitions—is fused, by the new man, into such grand, modest, truly scientific accompaniments—that the world of erudition, both moral and physical, cannot but be eventually better’d and broaden’d in its speculations, from the advent of Darwinism. Nevertheless, the problem of origins, human and other, is not the least whit nearer its solution. In due time the Evolution theory will have to abate its vehemence, cannot be allow’d to dominate every thing else, and will have to take its place as a segment of the circle, the cluster—as but one of many theories, many thoughts, of profoundest value—and re-adjusting and differentiating much, yet leaving the divine secrets just as inexplicable and unreachable as before—maybe more so.

Then furthermore—What is finally to be done by priest or poet—and by priest or poet only—amid all the stupendous and dazzling novelties of our century, with the advent of America, and of science and democracy—remains just as indispensable, after all the work of the grand astronomers, chemists, linguists, historians, and explorers of the last hundred years—and the wondrous German and other metaphysicians of that time—and will continue to remain, needed, America and here, just the same as in the world of Europe, or Asia, of a hundred, or a thousand, or several thousand years ago. I think indeed more needed, to furnish statements from the present points, the added arriere, and the unspeakably immenser vistas of to-day. Only, the priests and poets of the modern, at least as exalted as any in the past, fully absorbing and appreciating the results of the past, in the commonalty of all humanity, all time, (the main results already, for there is perhaps nothing more, or at any rate not much, strictly new, only more important modern combinations, and new relative adjustments,) must indeed recast the old metal, the already achiev’d material, into and through new moulds, current forms.

Meantime, the highest and subtlest and broadest truths of modern science wait for their true assignment and last vivid flashes of light—as Democracy waits for it’s—through first-class metaphysicians and speculative philosophs—laying the basements and foundations for those new, more expanded, more harmonious, more melodious, freer American poems.

February 23, 2013

Dickens’ Children // Whitman’s Brothers — David Markson

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January 22, 2013

The Worst Poetry I Have Ever Read

by Edwin Turner

At the home of some good friends this past weekend, reclined nicely in a warm armchair, the warmth of various ales coursing through me, I picked off the shelf by my right hand a crumbling first edition of Modern Library’s A Comprehensive Anthology of Modern Poetry, edited by Conrad Aiken. I opened at random and found a small and perhaps undue joy that my stochastic flipping led to sections 10 and 11 of Song of Myself—maybe my favorite parts of Walt Whitman’s longassed poem.

Do you recall these bits? The trapper’s wedding? The runaway slave? The twenty-eight bathers and the woman who spies on them? I read them aloud to the room, ostensibly to the people in the room, but maybe just to myself. Walt Whitman’s storytelling is at its best when he moves most away from himself, when he puts on different hats, wears different ears, strolls around America a bit. I love his free verse in spite of—or even maybe because of—its swollen scope, its tendency toward bombast or even hamminess. O Walt! Get over yourself!—but not really, never change! Song of Myself is one of my favorite novels, or one of my favorite epics, or one of my favorite monologues—whatever it is, it’s one of my favorites (especially taken with doses of Emily Dickinson’s strange potions).

I don’t really know a lot about poetry, despite teaching the study of it in certain literature survey classes.

But hang on, it seems I was telling a story, or at least teasing out an anecdote, or at least going somewhere with all this: So, after riffling through the anthology a bit more, my friend says, Hey, if you want to read some really terrible poetry, check out that book to your right. Here is the book:

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I had never heard of Walter Benton or his (unintentionally) hilarious volume This Is My Beloved until that moment. So what is it? Combining the worst elements of Whitmanesque free verse with a downright silly conceit that these are diary entries, This Is My Beloved attempts to be the erotic record of a passionate love affair. Benton tries to keep his language sultry, sexy, and sensuous without veering into pornography, but the results are bizarre and grotesque. Here’s an entire page as evidence:

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“Your breasts are snub like children’s faces”?!

“…your lips match your teats beautifully”?!

And my favorite: “The hair of your arm’s hollow and where your thighs meet / agree completely, being brown and soft to look at like a nest of field mice.” A nest of field mice! Women love to be complimented on their matching pits and pubes, followed by a simile comparing said regions to a rodent’s hovel.

Indeed, Benton loves animal similes for his lady—later he writes: “Yes, your body makes eyes at me from every salient, / promises warm, lavish promises— / curved, colored . . . finished in a warm velvet like baby rabbits.”

But it’s not just the rabbits and mice that are gross. Lines like “We had loved hard—it’s all over your throat and hair” are simply queasy, bad writing. Or this nugget: “The white full moon like a great beautiful whore / solicits over the city, eggs the lovers on / the haves . . . walking in twos to their beds and to their mating. / I walk alone. Slowly. No hurry. Nobody’s waiting.”

Or this snippet:

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It’s just really, really bad—I mean, at least when Henry Miller is gross, he’s deeply, earnestly gross, abject even, depraved perhaps (recall the famous lines: “I have set the shores a little wider. I have ironed out the wrinkles. After me you can take on stallions, bulls, rams, drakes, St. Bernards. You can stuff toads, bats, lizards up your rectum. You can shit arpeggios if you like, or string a zither across your navel”).

So, to return to my little story, we read most of Benton’s book aloud, doubling over laughing at times at just how wonderfully awful it is. And, wiping the tears from my eyes, I went to my trusty dusty iPhone to do a little background research—surely the world knew of this awful, awful poetry? Surely folks were getting the same giggly fun as happy we from poor Benton’s lurid verse?

And here, really, comes the occasion for this post, the real reason I write: It turns out that folks love this book—in a sincere, earnest, serious way. No fewer than four audio recordings were made of the book, all set to music (the most famous seems to be by Arthur Psyrock); the book has near-perfect five star review averages on both Amazon and Goodreads; and, perhaps most shocking of all, the book has been continuously in print since it was first published in 1949—it’s in its 34th edition (prestigious hardback with prestigious deckle edges, by the way). And of course you can buy an ebook version! (Unlike, say, Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual). Even worse, hack crooner Rod McKuen cites Benton as a major influence, so we have that to thank him for as well.

I don’t know. Am I wrong? Is Benton’s stuff actually good? I mean, I’ll concede that I enjoyed reading the book, but only inasmuch as it made me laugh so much. I don’t know. I already admitted I don’t know much about poetry. (As I write this, I pause to watch and listen to Richard Blanco read his inauguration poem “One Day”; I have no idea if it’s good or not). Benton’s verse seems so hammy, clumsy, indelicate; too earnest, too priapic, tripping over its own boners. It reads like a bad cribbing of Whitman and Miller, with an occasional lift from Hemingway. Even worse, it strikes me as amateurish, as the sort of thing that a teen might scrawl in his Moleskine only to cringe at later before hiding it somewhere. I just can’t believe that this book has been in continual publication from a major house (Knopf) for more than a half-century.

But maybe I’m misreading. Maybe I’m cynical. Maybe the poem is beautiful and profound and not icky solipsistic dreck. But I doubt it.

January 4, 2013

“Edgar Poe’s Significance” — Walt Whitman

by Biblioklept

“Edgar Poe’s Significance” by Walt Whitman. From Specimen Days.

Jan. 1, ’80.—In diagnosing this disease called humanity—to assume for the nonce what seems a chief mood of the personality and writings of my subject—I have thought that poets, somewhere or other on the list, present the most mark’d indications. Comprehending artists in a mass, musicians, painters, actors, and so on, and considering each and all of them as radiations or flanges of that furious whirling wheel, poetry, the centre and axis of the whole, where else indeed may we so well investigate the causes, growths, tally-marks of the time—the age’s matter and malady?

By common consent there is nothing better for man or woman than a perfect and noble life, morally without flaw, happily balanced in activity, physically sound and pure, giving its due proportion, and no more, to the sympathetic, the human emotional element—a life, in all these, unhasting, unresting, untiring to the end. And yet there is another shape of personality dearer far to the artist-sense, (which likes the play of strongest lights and shades,) where the perfect character, the good, the heroic, although never attain’d, is never lost sight of, but through failures, sorrows, temporary downfalls, is return’d to again and again, and while often violated, is passionately adhered to as long as mind, muscles, voice, obey the power we call volition. This sort of personality we see more or less in Burns, Byron, Schiller, and George Sand. But we do not see it in Edgar Poe. (All this is the result of reading at intervals the last three days a new volume of his poems—I took it on my rambles down by the pond, and by degrees read it all through there.) While to the character first outlined the service Poe renders is certainly that entire contrast and contradiction which is next best to fully exemplifying it.

Almost without the first sign of moral principle, or of the concrete or its heroisms, or the simpler affections of the heart, Poe’s verses illustrate an intense faculty for technical and abstract beauty, with the rhyming art to excess, an incorrigible propensity toward nocturnal themes, a demoniac undertone behind every page—and, by final judgment, probably belong among the electric lights of imaginative literature, brilliant and dazzling, but with no heat. There is an indescribable magnetism about the poet’s life and reminiscences, as well as the poems. To one who could work out their subtle retracing and retrospect, the latter would make a close tally no doubt between the author’s birth and antecedents, his childhood and youth, his physique, his so-call’d education, his studies and associates, the literary and social Baltimore, Richmond, Philadelphia and New York, of those times—not only the places and circumstances in themselves, but often, very often, in a strange spurning of, and reaction from them all.

The following from a report in the Washington “Star” of November 16, 1875, may afford those who care for it something further of my point of view toward this interesting figure and influence of our era. There occurr’d about that date in Baltimore a public reburial of Poe’s remains, and dedication of a monument over the grave:

“Being in Washington on a visit at the time, ‘the old gray’ went over to Baltimore, and though ill from paralysis, consented to hobble up and silently take a seat on the platform, but refused to make any speech, saying, ‘I have felt a strong impulse to come over and be here to-day myself in memory of Poe, which I have obey’d, but not the slightest impulse to make a speech, which, my dear friends, must also be obeyed.’ In an informal circle, however, in conversation after the ceremonies, Whitman said: ‘For a long while, and until lately, I had a distaste for Poe’s writings. I wanted, and still want for poetry, the clear sun shining, and fresh air blowing—the strength and power of health, not of delirium, even amid the stormiest passions—with always the background of the eternal moralities. Non-complying with these requirements, Poe’s genius has yet conquer’d a special recognition for itself, and I too have come to fully admit it, and appreciate it and him.

“‘In a dream I once had, I saw a vessel on the sea, at midnight, in a storm. It was no great full-rigg’d ship, nor majestic steamer, steering firmly through the gale, but seem’d one of those superb little schooner yachts I had often seen lying anchor’d, rocking so jauntily, in the waters around New York, or up Long Island sound—now flying uncontroll’d with torn sails and broken spars through the wild sleet and winds and waves of the night. On the deck was a slender, slight, beautiful figure, a dim man, apparently enjoying all the terror, the murk, and the dislocation of which he was the centre and the victim. That figure of my lurid dream might stand for Edgar Poe, his spirit, his fortunes, and his poems—themselves all lurid dreams.’”

Much more may be said, but I most desired to exploit the idea put at the beginning. By its popular poets the calibres of an age, the weak spots of its embankments, its sub-currents, (often more significant than the biggest surface ones,) are unerringly indicated. The lush and the weird that have taken such extraordinary possession of Nineteenth century verse-lovers—what mean they? The inevitable tendency of poetic culture to morbidity, abnormal beauty—the sickliness of all technical thought or refinement in itself—the abnegation of the perennial and democratic concretes at first hand, the body, the earth and sea, sex and the like—and the substitution of something for them at second or third hand—what bearings have they on current pathological study?

January 1, 2013

“Birds and Birds and Birds” — Walt Whitman

by Biblioklept

A little later—bright weather.—An unusual melodiousness, these days, (last of April and first of May) from the blackbirds; indeed all sorts of birds, darting, whistling, hopping or perch’d on trees. Never before have I seen, heard, or been in the midst of, and got so flooded and saturated with them and their performances, as this current month. Such oceans, such successions of them. Let me make a list of those I find here:

Black birds (plenty,) Meadow-larks (plenty,)
Ring doves, Cat-birds (plenty,)
Owls, Cuckoos,
Woodpeckers, Pond snipes (plenty,)
King-birds, Cheewinks,
Crows (plenty,) Quawks,
Wrens, Ground robins,
Kingfishers, Ravens,
Quails, Gray snipes,
Turkey-buzzards, Eagles,
Hen-hawks, High-holes,
Yellow birds, Herons,
Thrushes, Tits,
Reed birds, Woodpigeons.

Early came the

Blue birds, Meadow-lark,
Killdeer, White-bellied swallow,
Plover, Sandpiper,
Robin, Wilson’s thrush,
Woodcock, Flicker.

From Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days.

 

December 27, 2012

“Literary Indecencies” — H.L. Mencken

by Biblioklept

The low, graceless humor of names! On my shelf of poetry, arranged by the alphabet, Coleridge and J. Gordon Cooglar are next-door neighbors! Mrs. Hemans is beside Laurence Hope! Walt Whitman rubs elbows with Ella Wheeler Wilcox; Robert Browning with Richard Burton; Rossetti with Cale Young Rice; Shelly with Clinton Scollard; Wordsworth with George E. Woodberry; John Keats with Herbert Kaufman!

Ibsen, on the shelf of dramatists, is between Victor Hugo and Jerome K. Jerome. Sudermann follows Harriet Beecher Stowe. Maeterlinck shoulders Percy Mackaye. Shakespeare is between Sardou and Shaw. Euripides and Clyde Fitch! Upton Sinclair and Sophocles! Aeschylus and F. Anstey! D’Annunzio and Richard Harding Davis! Augustus Thomas and Tolstoi!

More alphabetical humor. Gerhart Hauptmann and Robert Hichens; Voltaire and Henry Van Dyke; Flaubert and John Fox, Jr.; Balzac and John Kendrick Bangs; Ostrovsky and E. Phillips Oppenheim; Elinor Glyn and Théophile Gautier; Joseph Conrad and Robert W. Chambers; Zola and Zangwill!…

Midway on my scant shelf of novels, between George Moore and Frank Norris, there is just room enough for the two volumes of “Derringforth,” by Frank A. Munsey.

“Literary Indecencies,” a chapter from H.L. Mencken’s collection Damn!

 

November 25, 2012

Walt Whitman: American Experience (Full Documentary)

by Biblioklept
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