Tuesday, April 10, 2012

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd and Plumly's The Morning America Changed.

Both poems I have selected to write about were particularly arresting in the way they contextualised collective tragedy. Whitman's poem is an elegy for a fallen president, one who's ideology Whitman was intimately aligned with. Plumly's poem is a lament for the tragedy of 9/11, one which united America in a grotesque spectacle of destruction.
What is especially noteworthy then, is the detachment each poem seems to communicate. There is a sense of defamiliarisation from the event itself; the profundity of the tragedy is established through almost inappropriately modest imagery in each poem. Take Plumly's poem first. The poem lends a sense of trauma in it's inability to confront the tragedy with any clarity. It is set in the alps, and much of the poem's content is dedicated to illustrating the beauty of the surroundings rather than the collapse of the world trade centre. Indeed, it is only the contemporary audience's familiarity with 9/11 that may approximate the "pillars of fire" as being in reference to 9/11. The poem's inability to articulate any detail of the tragedy itself is a telling insight into the collective trauma inherited by a generation of Americans.
Whitman's poem is similar in it's obscurity over a very specific subject matter. When Lilacs is an elegy for Lincoln, yet does not mention the president once. As we saw with Plumly, the meaning of this poem may be lost on the contemporary reader, as the Lincoln assassination becomes more a part of America's history and less a part of the collective consciousness. Whitman's use of detached imagery is used somewhat differently to Plumly however. Where Plumly uses the alps as a symbol of isolation from the event, Whitman uses two incommensurable images as a means to depict the scale of the effect Lincoln's assassination has on everything, including nature itself:

Over the breast of the spring, the land, amid cities,
Amid lanes and through old woods, where lately the violets peep'd
         from the ground, spotting the gray debris,
Amid the grass in the fields each side of the lanes, passing the
         endless grass,
Passing the yellow-spear'd wheat, every grain from its shroud in
         the dark-brown fields uprisen,
Passing the apple-tree blows of white and pink in the orchards,
Carrying a corpse to where it shall rest in the grave,
Night and day journeys a coffin. 

Whitman's famous affinity for nature is renavigated here as a symbol of ubiquitous lament, rather than ubiquitous beauty. He elects to interpret the tragedy through recourse to the familiar, perhaps another insight into how the poet deals with this trauma.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

My Project.

I am interested in exploring the influence Whitman has on future generations of writers and artists. I think he is certainly traceable through a great deal of beat literature, and his poetic style resonates through much modernist writing, however I would like to establish a connection with writers to whom Walt may be less recognised as influencing. I don't know who this will include yet, but I think it will be fun finding out!
I want to present my ideas perhaps through a series of poems. I write kind of stupid childish poetry, which may lend itself quite well to the topic, but also raise questions over whether I have actually learned anything and instead just done some stupid poems. This is a dilemma I will have to negotiate.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Whitman Reviews III

"A Strange Blade." Punch Magazine  (26 April 1856)"

I found this article particularly interesting, because it revealed a trend which I have noticed in many contemporary magazines to have a larger tradition than i would have thought. I refer to persistent supercilious bitchiness which seems to be mistaken for a critically engaging denouncement of art and artifice. The author writes "We can only say that these Leaves of Grass are fully worthy to be put on a level with that heap of rubbish called Fern Leaves, by FANNY FERN, and similarly "green stuff." The fields of American literature want weeding dreadfully." Aside from the substandard punnery, the article does not engage with the poem in the slightest. It therefore comes across as very egotistical, that the author castigates the poem with no recourse to the poem itself. He says it is bad, not why it is bad, and therefore assumes the authority of his opinion. We have all encountered writing of this kind, normally in the pages of sensationalist tabloid magazines, so it is interesting to see it being applied to a canonical work of literature. Of course the author is entitled to his opinion, but it seems ill-informed, ill-thought out, ill-considered. 
Whitman Review II.

"Leaves of Grass." The Saturday Review 1 (15 March 1856)"

It is no exaggeration to reveal that this reviewer was not a fan of Leaves of Grass. Skip to the damning paragraph at the article's closure, and we gain a sense of how Whitman's poetry dwells in a much more hostile and conservative environment than ours today, "But the truth is, that after every five or six pages of matter such as we have quoted, Mr. Whitman suddenly becomes exceedingly intelligible, but exceedingly obscene. If the Leaves of Grass should come into anybodies possession, our advice is to throw them instantly behind the fire." If the article is to be considered a polemic, the writer has a strange way of advancing his argument. He includes a spectrum of other reviews from a number of established sources and literary figures, all of which express nothing but veneration for the poem. His conclusion is not befitting of the article's erstwhile praise of Whitman, and indeed the final paragraph seems hastily penned in obstinate disregard to these reviews.
We may glean from this that Whitman writes in an America going through transition. There is a tension between conservatism and incipient liberalism, in which Whitman creates a fence too sharp to sit on. This is to his credit. Art is perhaps the most important agent of transgression, and the breaking of boundaries remains to be one of its most important attributes.
Reviews of Whitman.

"'Leaves of Grass'—An Extraordinary Book." The Brooklyn Daily Eagle 15 (15 September 1855)

The writer of this short piece on Leaves of Grass lends us a sense of the artistic context Whitman resides in, and by extension the innovation that the poem exhibits. He writes, "It is one of the strangest compounds," continuing, "it is not an epic nor an ode, nor a lyric; nor does its verses move with the measured pace of poetical feet—of Iambic, Trochaic or Anapaestic, nor seek the aid of Amphibrach, of dactyl or Spondee, nor of final or cesural pause, except by accident." Ironically, in expressing how pioneering the poem is, the author adopts Whitman's cataloguing technique, suggesting perhaps a level of subconscious influence by the poem. The author's cataloguing also serves to establish how different the poem is; he defines it by what it is not, and in doing so further emphasises the poems individuality. The reviewer is reluctant to reveal whether he actually likes the poem. He seems to fluctuate between approval and disapproval at Walt's pioneering technique, thereby giving the impression that he is somewhat speechless.
What we the contemporary reader can take out of this review is a degree of insight into the context Whitman writes in, and therefore establish both his innovation and influence.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Song For Occupaations.

*this is a little bit late cos i deleted my first go by accident.

Song For Occupations continues in the same kind of linguistic choreography as the poem which precedes it. The narrator seems ordained with the same lyrical omniscience, engaging the reader with rhetoric which seems transcendant and insightful.
The poem is a call for the essentially American notion of egalitarianism, to be inherited and embraced by Walt's audience. He measures the great man alongside the common man, demanding that there be a unity of worthy between them. He writes:

Because you are greasy or pimpled—or that you was once drunk, or a thief, or
         diseased, or rheumatic, or a prostitute—or are so now—or from frivolity or
         impotence—or that you are no scholar, and never saw your name in print . . . .
         do you give in that you are any less immortal? 

This stanza uses the concept of mortality to illustrate the existential worth of every man. It serves to undermine the barriers that alienate people from one another; that a person's worth can be measured by achievement, or fame, or looks. Death unites us all regardless of status- nature connects the most noble with the most ignoble. Whitman's message therefore is to view the world on your own terms, to not compromise your existence by fear or jealousy, rather to live in the moment. My favourite section of the poem reads:

The earth is not an echo . . . . man and his life and all the things of his life are well-

You are not thrown to the winds . . you gather certainly and safely around yourself,
Yourself! Yourself! Yourself forever and ever! 

There is a militant call for existential enlightenment in the poem, and this section expresses it wonderfully. The direct use of the word 'you' is especially engaging for the reader, and the frantic anaphora directly governs one's attention. The section demands the abandonment of all things that cast us into subordination, 'the earth is not an echo' an especially engaging phrase to emphasise the philosophy of posative freedom enshrined in the text. Whitman really surpasses himself in this poem through his fervant language, and what appears to be a genuine affection for his readership. It is an inspiring discourse on the meaning of life, and how we measure our achievements and successes in relation to others. I had a very good time reading it.

Specimen Days- Female Nurses For Soldiers.

A great deal of the articles contained in specimen days are concerned with Whitman's first hand experiences with conflict. Here he composes a profile of the female nurses involved in the American civil war, celebrating their altruism and compassion. Walt seems deeply invested in the maternal nature of these nurses- on a few occasions aligning the medical care recieved from the soldiers, with the care of a mother for her child. This symbol is particularly arresting considering the intrinsically masculine framework Whitman is addressing. This establishes a somewhat antithetical narrative to the events recorded. The images of man and child are welded together, defamiliarising any preconcieved notions  of heroism or fraternity to the conflict, rather a bathetic picture of men abased to a state of infancy.