Hey all, so as so much of our focus has been on the Civil War Whitman, I decided to go back to the battlefield where the Civil War really started for Whitman. So here I am on the Fredericksburg battlefield.
November 17, 2009
November 15, 2009
Ok, ladies, gentleman, boys, girls, and Whitmaniacs of all ages, we have hit the point where I might just lose my cool and start fanboying out completely. See there are two poets that served as my gateway drug into poetry, and they are possibly still my two favorite poets. The first is T S Eliot, who we are obviously not talking about today, but the other is the infamous beat poet, Allan Ginsberg. See, this Whitman/Ginsberg connection started with me in high school, where I was in the poetry event in forensics with a paring of “I Hear America Singing” by Whitman, and “A Supermarket in California” by Ginsberg, and predictably, I completely flopped with it, mostly because I was not using a traditionally narrative poem. That being said, Ginsberg was my original pathway to Whitman, and this is the moment I’ve been waiting for patiently all semester.
Ok, now that that bit of personal history is out of the way, it is not surprising at all to see why Ginsberg felt such closeness with Uncle Walt. First, the were both writing out of periods of incredible redefinition of America, what it was as a country, and perhaps more so, what it was as an ideal. In the same way that Whitman claims that Leaves of Grass could not have existed without the Civil War, Ginsberg’s entire generation of writers could not have existed without World War II. The phrase “The Beat Generation” stems from the concept that the generation following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had received a ‘beat deal’ and it was a generation of those lost. Namely, how could one trust in an America that resorted to an act of such destruction to win a war? Where, though, we see Whitman lining up his idea for a new America with himself, as it’s grand high poet, Ginsberg is lost and searching. This might be why there is so much of the structure of Whitman’s poetry reinvented in Ginsberg’s work. Whitman had the answers, Ginsberg just has questions.
Likewise, they both were at the cutting edge for poetry in their time, coming out of New York with a new idea of how they wanted the world to function and how they could change the world with their work. Between this and Whitman as one of a handful of gay role models running around, it is not wonder Ginsberg gravitated towards his work. Here was someone for a young, gay poet to model himself after. This both shows up in the blatant sexuality of ‘Howl’, which functions as much as a ranting beast of a poem as “Song of Myself” in some spots, and how ‘Howl’ mimics this focus on the body as a mystic thing, a very Whitmanic turn of phrase. This closeness with Whitman, though is not more obvious anywhere else as it is in “A Supermarket in California” where Ginsberg describes a very odd date between himself and Whitman and uses it as a springboard to describe how Whitman’s America was so distant from the America that Ginsberg lives in that he cannot imagine it, thus the reference to Lethe, the river of forgetfulness in Greek mythology. I guess though, that seeing this is a blog post and not my personal soapbox to rant about the amazingness that results as a combination of these two poets, I will stop myself here, but anyone else who posts on Ginsberg beware, as I might be in the supermarket of your posts, eyeing your grocery boys.
November 10, 2009
The definitive Walt Whitman, or How to name a Kosmos.
Walt Whitman provides a wonderful complication when attempting to box him in to a specific anthology. One could almost say that he includes multitudes, that is if he did not already say it himself. We have spent the entire semester looking for Whitman, a sometimes daunting, sometimes frightening, although mostly entertaining venture that has led us the one question that was both bound to happen, and rather impossible to answer. Which Walt do we put down for the annals of history? Or we could even attempt to simplify the question and say, ‘which is the definitive edition of Leaves of Grass?’
The answer that immediately comes to mind for that question the Deathbed Edition. This version certainly has its merits. It is perhaps the most accessible of all the versions, as it lacks the breathlessness of the 1855 version or the stifling structure of the workbook edition, some how finding a happy medium between the two. Also, if academia is keeping with Whitman’s authorial intent, this was the final version, the last revisions of his living breathing on going work. Also it is the biggest revision to come out of the Civil War, which Whitman credits with giving him LoG. However, something strikes hollow with just looking at the Deathbed edition.
I think this hollowness stems from the fact that I am a bit biased towards the Deathbed edition for two reasons. First, it is the last version we are reading as a class, and because of this, it is the version I read with the best understanding of Whitman’s work. The 1855 (which in a vacuum is probably my favorite) hit me over the head like a brick the first time I read it, having not read much Uncle Walt before hand it was a daunting text. Now, having wrestled through so much more of Whitman’s writing, there is a sense of accomplishment at having made it this far. The second one walks hand in hand with the first, though, as we have seen Whitman expand and grow as a writer and the bias towards chronology says that his last version should be his magnum opus.
The problem with this though, is, as those of you who have been following my blog know, I am obsessed with the different faces of Whitman. The prophet, the witness, the disciple, the storyteller. With this eye then to the body of Whitman’s work, the voice of the story teller in the deathbed edition only functions so well because it is based off the other phases of Whitman’s voice. Whitman posits that he could not have had Leaves of Grass without the Civil War, which I can follow, but the deathbed edition could not have existed without the voice of the prophet in 1855, or the voice of the disciple of himself in 1867, or even without the voice of the mourner in the Lincoln poems. So, while I guess my vote on the definitive edition goes to the Deathbed edition, my real sense is that you can’t come close to touching the Kosmos without reading much much more of his work. That being said, I think the definitive edition should be the Bible edition, but that is most because I want the Whitman Bible.
November 2, 2009
Ok so since the beginning of the course, I have been searching for Uncle Walt. It has been a bit of an arduous journey. I’ve found Walt Whitman, the cocky eyed rambling prophet with the rakish tilt to his hat and the slightly expanded crotch of the 1855 edition. I’ve found the gospel according to Walt, the 1867 workshop edition, which is set up by chapter and verse. I’ve found the grieving Walt and the nurse Walt, the Good Grey Poet Walt and soldier-eyed Walt, the gay Walt and the ‘we swear that he is homosocial’ Walt. What has been missing though is the Walt Whitman referenced in the scene in ‘Dead Poets Society’ where Robin Williams makes the shy kid get up to write poetry. We have been missing our snaggletoothed mad man.
Thank you death-bed edition for finally finding Uncle Walt for me. While not my favorite version, of ‘Leaves’, that honor goes to the rambling chaos of the 1855 edition, I can see why this is the authoritative text that most scholars go to. This has the feeling of a more polished laid back Whitman. Where as the 1855 version takes the reader by the collar and drags him or her through the poem, kicking and screaming if necessary, and the 1867 version preaches from Whitmanic heights. The death-bed edition is one where the speaker Whitman is sitting in a rocking chair on a front porch somewhere telling a listener everything he has seen, and we know he’s seen it because the wrinkles in his face tell us so, and this is cosigned by the slight limp in the left side of his face from the stroke. He does not need to be prophet or witness or mourner, here I think we see some of a columniation of Whitman’s voice in Whitman the storyteller.
Now this is not to deny Whitman some of the boyish excitement that he had in the 1855 version, there is still plenty of that now; the cocky sparkle never quite left the eye. There is still the crazy listing and the deluge of exclamation marks. Also he has not abandoned all the control he grasped for in the workshop edition. There is still structure, but it is not near the extreme level seen there. The biggest change though is how I feel about the ego in the older Whitman. Whitman the young prophet wears his confidence a bit like locusts and honey; he is there, he is in your face, smirking, and there is a certain roguish charm in his arrogance. There is not the overbearing necessity to the voice that the workshop edition saw. Uncle Walt the Storyteller carries his arrogance at a nice middle, and although I tend to avoid reading to much of the author into his work, as I feel that if you don’t look at the work and the author separately in addition to as a unit, something can get missed (blame Professor Harding for that one), I am willing to give Walt his confidence based on age for this. He has lived his long life, and now nearing the end, this good grey old man sitting on a rocking chair is telling his story.