8.11.2010

The shapes arise!


Democracy! Idealistic-materialism! Mannahatta! The ocean! Tan/bearded faces! Egalitarianism! Subjective realism! All things! Contrary together! Everywhere! Always! Over and over with big words and scummy words! Ahhhhhhh!
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Walt Whitman is exhausting!

I picked up Leaves of Grass partly because of the pretty, weathered impressiveness of its roan-colored cover and papyrus-edged pages. Mostly it was because I knew a bit of him from Vaughan Williams' "Sea Symphony" and Hindemith's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd". I also feel somewhat cheated in my early education for never memorizing "Captain, O my Captain". That last poem is the only one from the entire collection which rhymes. All the rest flows in uneven, exclamatory, pensive, brooding, free-flowing sentences. He calls it "chanting" and that would actually be the best description I could come up with. It creates a powerful flow of inertia... for some 560 pages! Challenging and wonderful juxtaposition of word function with sentences with only verbs, or nouns used as verbs, or only nouns, or adjective verbs or an onomatopoeia of drum and fife words. 
I read somewhere that Whitman was attempting to write a modern epic of the same power as Homer and Virgil and Milton. Rather than deal with a single character, an archetype, he chooses as his hero all of America, the People, Democratic, unified, diverse, accepting. Since it doesn't cover one person, the poem doesn't even need a storyline, or cohesion. It rests solely on the strong shoulders of this chanting Poet who deifies everything and everyone he describes and names and touches. Again, exhausting.

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It's interesting to compare it to William Wordsworth's The Prelude. Once again we have a poet of post-Enlightenment attempting to sum up, if not all life and meaning and philosophy (which Wordsworth never did get around to), than his individual self, though a sort of autobiographical epic. Wordsworth emphasizes the disconnect between himself and nature. Unless he can overcome this void, he cannot honestly write an epic in the same way that Milton did. Modern man is too complicated and has given up too much of something.

Whitman is trying to piece together this disconnect. In the beautiful promises of American Democracy he sees a new stage in humanity. Everyone is a Poet with their own multifarious and even contradictory epics to proclaim. The Poet translates the messages of the rain and the lament of the marsh birds and the grumbling of the ocean. Each translation may be different, but they are all valid. It's a very interesting solution to the epic problem.
What mainly saddened me from this poem is my own sense of cynicism. Shostakovich said his memoir that artists die if they become cynical, yet I feel as though it's a deeply ingrained part of our culture. America's railways and telephone lines, her ships and factories, her immigrants and prosperity, exalted to such a high degree in Whitman seem to me a dross, a mask, a cancer. Again, Shosy wondered at the amazing inventions of his time, and the shocking inability of any of it to help people love each other better. How much more in my time.

Not to sign off on a truly despairing note I thought it was hilarious that Walt Whitman couldn't time his death to the end of his book. So ends the initial (?) 1855 version:

                                                   So, long!
Remember my words, I may again return,
I love you, I depart from materials,
I am as one disembodied, triumphant, dead.


But then he just couldn't leave it alone and had to append an annex in 1889 (?) which endeth thusly:

Farewells, messages lessening - dimmer the forthgoer's visage and form,
Soon to be lost for aye in the darkness - loth, O so loth to depart!
Garrulous to the very last.


Cue "I am not dead yet" a la Spamalot! Another annex in 1891 finally puts the cap on it all with:

May-be we'll be better off and blither, and learn something,
May-be it is yourself now really ushering me to the true songs, (who knows?)
May-be it is you the mortal knob really undoing, turning - so now finally,
Good-bye - and hail! my Fancy.
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The End.
My favorites of the expansive collection would include There Was a Child Went Forth, Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking, and When Last the Lilacs in the Dooryard Bloom'd. All in all an uneven experience, but very interesting.

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