Bob Schwartz

Tag: Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

Who wishes to walk with me?

May 31 was the bicentennial of the birth of Walt Whitman (1819–1892).

You cannot love America if you don’t love Walt Whitman. You cannot love poetry if you don’t. You cannot love American poetry if you don’t.

If you find people among America’s most benighted leaders and talkers who don’t love him, maybe because of his unbridled exuberance for people and sexuality and life and freedom and America and Americans, and all the inherent unresolved contradictions and challenges, question their understanding and love of America (which you might already).

We would still be America without Walt Whitman. But we would be missing our most perfect and poetic narrator.


From Song of Myself (1892 version)

1

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.

Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.

16

I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuff’d with the stuff that is coarse and stuff’d with the stuff that is fine,
One of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the largest the same,
A Southerner soon as a Northerner, a planter nonchalant and hospitable down by the Oconee I live,
A Yankee bound my own way ready for trade, my joints the limberest joints on earth and the sternest joints on earth,
A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deer-skin leggings, a Louisianian or Georgian,
A boatman over lakes or bays or along coasts, a Hoosier, Badger, Buckeye;
At home on Kanadian snow-shoes or up in the bush, or with fishermen off Newfoundland,
At home in the fleet of ice-boats, sailing with the rest and tacking,
At home on the hills of Vermont or in the woods of Maine, or the Texan ranch,
Comrade of Californians, comrade of free North-Westerners, (loving their big proportions,)
Comrade of raftsmen and coalmen, comrade of all who shake hands and welcome to drink and meat,
A learner with the simplest, a teacher of the thoughtfullest,
A novice beginning yet experient of myriads of seasons,
Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion,
A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker,
Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest.

I resist any thing better than my own diversity,
Breathe the air but leave plenty after me,
And am not stuck up, and am in my place.

(The moth and the fish-eggs are in their place,
The bright suns I see and the dark suns I cannot see are in their place,
The palpable is in its place and the impalpable is in its place.)

51

The past and present wilt—I have fill’d them, emptied them,
And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.

Listener up there! what have you to confide to me?
Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening,
(Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute longer.)

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

I concentrate toward them that are nigh, I wait on the door-slab.

Who has done his day’s work? who will soonest be through with his supper?
Who wishes to walk with me?

Will you speak before I am gone? will you prove already too late?

The Poetry of Citizenry

“You are Whitman, you are Poe, you are Mark Twain, you are Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, you are Neruda and Mayakovsky and Pasolini, you are an American or a non-American, you can conquer the conquerors with words.”
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Poetry as Insurgent Art

“There is a strong underground tradition of the poetry of engagement, which we might also call the poetry of citizenzry.”
Edward Hirsch, A Poet’s Glossary

“Poetry, an act of the imagination, is subject to historical forces, but it also talks back to history. The idea of witnessing should be widened to go beyond the documentary response to events. ‘I am the man . . . I suffered . . . I was there,’ Walt Whitman declared. A broad imaginative sympathy was part of his lived experience.”
Edward Hirsch, A Poet’s Glossary

I’ve written before about poetry as insurgent art, a term used by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Here I add to the conversation with three entries from A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch—an essential book for those who read write study or teach poetry.

It is no surprise to regular readers that I think these are extraordinary times. And that I think people in all quarters should consider the ways they can help right the ship and steer it in a different direction. That is, all hands on deck, including poets.

How well that works, or whether it works at all, is to be determined. But as the student Sophie Scholl said of her tiny but morally mighty White Rose resistance movement in Nazi Germany, which boldly distributed simple leaflets, “Somebody, after all, had to make a start.” As well poets as anyone else.


From A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch:

political poetry

Poetry of social concern and conscience, politically engaged poetry. The feeling often runs high in the social poetry of engagement, especially when it is partisan. Poets write on both sides of any given war, defend the State, attack it. All patriotic and nationalistic poetry is by definition political. Political poetry, ancient and modern, good and bad, frequently responds vehemently to social injustice. Thus the poet is Jeremiah crying out to the assembly to witness the folly, unprecedented in both West (Cyprus) and East (Kedar), of a people who have forsaken the fountain of living waters for the stagnant water at the bottom of a leaky cistern. The Lamentations of Jeremiah, a series of poems mourning the desolation of Jerusalem and the sufferings of her people after the siege and destruction of the city and the burning of theTemple by the Babylonians, is also a political poem.

Strabo came up with the label stasiotika (“stasis-poems”) for Alcaeus’s partisan songs, political poems, which are propagandistic poems of civil war and exile, accounts of his political commitments. The premise of political poetry is that poetry carries “news” or information crucial to the populace. Political poetry is a poetry self-consciously written inside of history, of politics. It responds to external events. “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry,” W. H. Auden famously decreed in his elegy for W. B. Yeats, and so, too, we might say that the madness of any country’s brutality has often wounded its poets into a political response in poetry. “I stand as a witness to the common lot, / survivor of that time, that place,” Anna Akhmatova wrote in 1961. Behind the poem in quest of justice, these lines from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (1623): “our size of sorrow, / Proportion’d to our cause, must be as great / As that which makes it.”

There is an ephemeral quality to a lot of political poetry—most of it dies with the events it responds to—but a political poem need not be a didactic poem. It can be a poem of testimony and memory. For the best political poems of the twentieth century, I think of Vahan Tekeyan’s poems of the Armenian genocide; of the Spanish Civil War poet Miguel Hernandez’s haunting prison poems, especially “Lullaby of the Onion” (1939); and the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet’s equally poignant prison poems, especially “On Living” (1948) and “Some Advice to Those Who Will Spend Time in Prison” (1949); of Bertolt Brecht’s World War II poems and Nelly Sachs’s Holocaust poems. I think of the Italian poet Cesare Pavese’s testimonies to ordinary people in trouble, Hard Labor (Lavorare stanca, 1936), and Pablo Neruda’s epic testament, Canto General (1950). I think of the many poems of indictment and summons, of land and liberty, collected in the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka’s breakthrough anthology, Poems of Black Africa (1975).

There is a strong tradition in England of political poems. Edmund Spenser’s Complaints (1591) takes aim at social and political targets. John Milton wrote a series of pro-Cromwellian short poems in the 1640s and ’50s. Some of John Dryden’s greatest poetry was written in response to events, such as his two-part political satire Absalom and Achitophel (1681, 1682). William Wordsworth’s political poems are among his best, such as his sonnet “To Toussaint L’Ouverture” (1803), though a few of his late patriotic poems are also among his worst. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy (1819), which was “Written on the Occasion of the Massacre at Manchester” (“I met Murder on the way—/ He had a mask like Castlereagh”), is a frankly political poem that always gives me a chill. Elizabeth Barrett Browning published two striking books of political poetry during her Italian sojourn, Casa Guidi Windows (1850) and Poems Before Congress (1860). The most popular Victorian poet, Alfred, Lord Tennsyon, never distinguished between the personal and the political, the private and the public.

Political poetry has always seemed somewhat suspect in American literary history. “Our wise men and wise institutions assure us that national political events are beyond the reach of ordinary, or even extraordinary, literary sensitivity,” Robert Bly writes. Yet there is a strong underground tradition of the poetry of engagement, which we might also call the poetry of citizenzry. This runs from Walt Whitman’s political poems of the 1850s, which prefigure Leaves of Grass, and John Greenleaf Whittier’s Anti-Slavery Poems (1832–1887), to leftist poets of the 1930s (Kenneth Fearing, Edwin Rolfe, Muriel Rukeyser). The civil rights movement and the Vietnam War enraged poets, and, as Bly points out, some of the most inward poets, such as Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, and Galway Kinnell, wrote some of the best poems against the Vietnam War. Most poetry of the 1940s and ’50s shunned politics, but Thomas McGrath (“Ode for the American Dead in Korea,” retitled in the early 1970s “Ode for the American Dead in Asia”) and Kenneth Rexroth (“A Christmas Note for Geraldine Udell,” 1949) bucked the trend. For forty years, Adrienne Rich was one of the most outspoken political poets in late twentieth-century American poetry, a model for a generation of political and activist poets. She went through several phases in relationship to polemics. She proposed a position that resists didacticism in “Power and Danger: Works of a Common Woman” (1978), her introduction to a collection of poems by Judy Grahn:

No true political poetry can be written with propaganda as an aim, to persuade others “out there” of some atrocity or injustice (hence the failure, as poetry, of so much anti-Vietnam poetry of the sixties). As poetry, it can come only from the poet’s need to identify her relationship to atrocities and injustice, the sources of her pain, fear, and anger, the meaning of her resistance.

protest poetry 

Poetry of dissent, of social criticism. It protests the status quo and tries to undermine established values and ideals. The protest poet is a rebellious citizen, speaking out, expressing disapproval of a political policy or social action. Protest poetry, the most earnest of genres, is timely, oppositional, reactive, urgent. It is an activist type of political poetry born from outrage and linked to social action. It turns poetry into a medium for polemics.

The reprehensible policy of apartheid in South Africa, which legislated racism, also stimulated a powerful tradition of protest poetry. The Zulu poet Herbert I. E. Dhlomo’s long poem Valley of a Thousand Hills (1941) is the most extended work of South African protest poetry. One thinks of the contributions of Dennis Brutus (1924–2009), whose work is brought together in Poetry and Protest: A Dennis Brutus Reader (2006); Arthur Nortje (1942–1970), whose work is published posthumously in Dead Roots (1973) and Lonely Against the Light (1973); and Mazisi Kunene (1930–2006), who first sounded his aggressive, telegraphic note in Zulu Poems (1970). The New Black poetry of the 1970s, or Soweto poetry, was a protest poetry of black consciousness. In the United States, there is also a strong tradition of African American poetry that protests racism. It extends from the Harlem renaissance to the Black Arts movement. Most antiwar poetry is protest poetry. The combatant antiwar poetry of Wilfred Owen (1893–1918) and Siegfried Sassoon (1886–1967) protested the technological horrors of modern warfare. The Spanish Civil War generated both local and global protest poetry. The Vietnam War galvanized a tremendous amount of protest poetry by such poets as Robert Lowell, Allen Ginsberg, Adrienne Rich, and Robert Bly. These poets felt a cultural imperative to speak out against the war. The repression and disintegration of the American imagination is one of the persistent themes of Vietnam-era protest poetry. Much of the feminist poetry of the 1960s and ’70s is protest poetry. “A patriot is not a weapon,” Adrienne Rich writes in her long poem An Atlas of the Difficult World (1981). “A patriot is one who wrestles for the soul of her country / as she wrestles for her own being.” Sam Hamill’s anthology Poets Against the War (2003) was a hastily gathered book of protest poems against the war in Iraq. The strength of protest poetry is its sense of immediacy and outrage. However, most of these politically motivated poems, which are often made in outrage against a specific atrocity, don’t outlive their historical moment.

witness of poetry, poetry of witness 

Poetry of testimony. In the early 1990s, Carolyn Forché transformed the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz’s phrase the witness of poetry (taken from the book of the same name, 1983) into “the poetry of witness.” Her anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (1993) gathers together the work of 145 poets “who endured conditions of historical and social extremity during the twentieth century—through exile, state censorship, political censorship, house arrest, torture, imprisonment, military occupation, warfare, and assignation. Many poets did not survive, but their works remain with us as poetic witness to the dark times in which they lived.” Poetry, an act of the imagination, is subject to historical forces, but it also talks back to history. The idea of witnessing should be widened to go beyond the documentary response to events. “I am the man . . . I suffered . . . I was there,” Walt Whitman declared. A broad imaginative sympathy was part of his lived experience.

In 1944, the Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti wrote four harrowing “Postcard” poems in the midst of a forced march westward across Hungary. Radnóti was one of twenty-two prisoners murdered and tossed into a collective grave. After the war, his widow had his body exhumed and these poems were found in his field jacket, written in pencil in a small Serbian exercise book. Thus his poems nearly literally rise up from a mass grave. They inscribe a suffering unimaginably intense, a consciousness of death nearly unbearable. They are purposefully entitled “Postcards.” Here the informality of the postcard (dashed off, superficial) is belied by the scrupulousness with which Radnóti describes and re-creates the scene of his impending death. The postcard is a message directed to another person. It has a particular reader in mind, but its openness also suggests that it can be read by anyone. Thus the poem in the guise of a postcard is a testimony back to life, a signal that Radnóti had pushed back the silence long enough to embody a final experience. His poems of witness display the classical brevity and poise of an Orphic art that comes back from the underworld to give testimony.

Walt Whitman – Song of Myself

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, LI

Song of Myself, I

I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this
air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their
parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.

Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy

Note: Not much to say about Walt Whitman that isn’t already said. Above is a picture of the Walt Whitman Bridge, connecting Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Camden, New Jersey across the Delaware River. Besides bridges, Whitman also inspired modern poetry and pieces of modern life. The Body Electric that he sung is what he lived, envisioned and wrote, and is still more than we understand. Please read Walt Whitman.

Walt Whitman Helps Launch Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas

Walt Whitman
First it was Abraham Lincoln in the new television campaign for the Lincoln Motor Company (the founder of that firm was a fan of the president, back when the company was started in 1917).

Lincoln Motor Company

Now Walt Whitman, the father of modern American poetry and, coincidentally, a big fan of Lincoln himself, is helping to launch this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas (January 8-11).

Whitman will probably not be seen emerging from a mysterious fog as Lincoln does in the commercial, although that would be unspeakably cool.

Instead, Whitman’s most famous line of poetry is quoted (without attribution) in the official description of the very first CES SuperSession

The Digital Health Revolution: Body, Mind and Soul
January 8, 2013, 9:30-10:30 a.m.

“I sing the body electric” takes on new meaning in our brave new digital world, where devices let us monitor everything from our stress levels to our genetic sequences, and devices with 100 real-time biosensors loom on the horizon. Join moderator Arianna Huffington as she leads four digital health leaders in conversation — on the latest innovations in the field, how those innovations have the potential to change lives, and what the digital revolution means for the body, mind, and soul.

The literarily perspicacious will notice that the first line of copy includes allusions to two groundbreaking writers—not just Whitman, but also Aldous Huxley. Huxley’s Brave New World vision is actually much closer to what is going on at CES than Whitman’s. Unfortunately, Huxley will not be coming out of the mist either, though the thought of his joining up with Whitman in Las Vegas to look at the latest gadgets is mind-blowing—even without Huxley’s Soma or LSD. Add Lincoln, and it is the stuff that dream movies are made of (Steven Spielberg, are you listening?).

Back to Whitman, I Sing The Body Electric is included in his Leaves of Grass (1855). Whitman’s work was a sensation, in part because of his unabashed celebration of the splendor and wonder of the human body and sexuality. The poem is just such a celebration, a spiritual anatomy lesson that is like a painting, whose message is: be not ashamed.

It isn’t clear that is what the CES copywriter had in mind, though writers generally deserve much more credit than they get. If the point is that digital pioneers plan to touch every part of our bodies, that works too.

Meanwhile, Whitman—whose use of the term “electric” was itself quite pioneering—would probably be happy to see his poem alive and well in the context of keeping and making people healthy, head to toe, organ to organ. See you in Vegas, Walt.

For the digiterati and literati, here is the closing section of the poem:

O my body! I dare not desert the likes of you in other men and women, nor the likes of the parts of you,
I believe the likes of you are to stand or fall with the likes of the soul, (and that they are the soul,)
I believe the likes of you shall stand or fall with my poems, and that they are my poems,
Man’s, woman’s, child’s, youth’s, wife’s, husband’s, mother’s, father’s, young man’s, young woman’s poems,
Head, neck, hair, ears, drop and tympan of the ears,
Eyes, eye-fringes, iris of the eye, eyebrows, and the waking or sleeping of the lids,
Mouth, tongue, lips, teeth, roof of the mouth, jaws, and the jaw-hinges,
Nose, nostrils of the nose, and the partition,
Cheeks, temples, forehead, chin, throat, back of the neck, neck-slue,
Strong shoulders, manly beard, scapula, hind-shoulders, and the ample side-round of the chest,
Upper-arm, armpit, elbow-socket, lower-arm, arm-sinews, arm-bones,
Wrist and wrist-joints, hand, palm, knuckles, thumb, forefinger, finger-joints, finger-nails,
Broad breast-front, curling hair of the breast, breast-bone, breast-side,
Ribs, belly, backbone, joints of the backbone,
Hips, hip-sockets, hip-strength, inward and outward round, man-balls, man-root,
Strong set of thighs, well carrying the trunk above,
Leg fibres, knee, knee-pan, upper-leg, under-leg,
Ankles, instep, foot-ball, toes, toe-joints, the heel;
All attitudes, all the shapeliness, all the belongings of my or your body or of any one’s body, male or female,
The lung-sponges, the stomach-sac, the bowels sweet and clean,
The brain in its folds inside the skull-frame,
Sympathies, heart-valves, palate-valves, sexuality, maternity,
Womanhood, and all that is a woman, and the man that comes from woman,
The womb, the teats, nipples, breast-milk, tears, laughter, weeping, love-looks, love-perturbations and risings,
The voice, articulation, language, whispering, shouting aloud,
Food, drink, pulse, digestion, sweat, sleep, walking, swimming,
Poise on the hips, leaping, reclining, embracing, arm-curving and tightening,
The continual changes of the flex of the mouth, and around the eyes,
The skin, the sunburnt shade, freckles, hair,
The curious sympathy one feels when feeling with the hand the naked meat of the body,
The circling rivers the breath, and breathing it in and out,
The beauty of the waist, and thence of the hips, and thence downward toward the knees,
The thin red jellies within you or within me, the bones and the marrow in the bones,
The exquisite realization of health;
O I say these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul,
O I say now these are the soul!

The Body Electric: Mitt Romney and Walt Whitman


Those who love America and poetry should love Walt Whitman. So should Mitt Romney.

Just as the Civil War was a dividing line in our history, Whitman was the line in poetry and culture. His lyrical innovation and his exuberant celebration of all things human and exciting—including sex and beautiful bodies—limited appreciation by nineteenth century readers. If Whitman seemed out of place then, he is right at home now:

Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power,
Cheerful—for freest action form’d, under the laws divine,
The Modern Man I sing.

Why should Mitt Romney care about Walt Whitman?

Whitman was more than just an expert on being himself and singing about himself. He recognized that constancy and consistency is not a part of the artist’s makeup. And so he wrote the mantra for all those who stand so accused:

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.

Romney should also care as a student of the Presidency. The most memorable poems about an American President (and there are surprisingly few) were written by Whitman. On the death of Abraham Lincoln, he wrote not one but two famous elegies that are still read and recited today.

From O Captain My Captain:

O CAPTAIN! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

From When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d:

WHEN lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d—and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

O ever-returning spring! trinity sure to me you bring;
Lilac blooming perennial, and drooping star in the west,             5
And thought of him I love.

Finally, while Mitt Romney may have never read the poem I Sing the Body Electric, there is an extraordinary scene in the third verse. It is a pastoral picture of a tall older man—fifteen years older than Romney—standing with his five grown sons. He is deeply beloved for who he is and what he has done. It is not just the way that Mitt Romney wants to be seen; it may be the way he is seen by those who do know and love him:

I know a man, a common farmer—the father of five sons;
And in them were the fathers of sons—and in them were the fathers of sons.

This man was of wonderful vigor, calmness, beauty of person;
The shape of his head, the pale yellow and white of his hair and beard, and the immeasurable meaning of his black eyes—the richness and breadth of his manners,
These I used to go and visit him to see—he was wise also;
He was six feet tall, he was over eighty years old—his sons were massive, clean, bearded, tan-faced, handsome;
They and his daughters loved him—all who saw him loved him;
They did not love him by allowance—they loved him with personal love;
He drank water only—the blood show’d like scarlet through the clear-brown skin of his face;
He was a frequent gunner and fisher—he sail’d his boat himself—he had a fine one presented to him by a ship-joiner—he had fowling-pieces, presented to him by men that loved him;
When he went with his five sons and many grand-sons to hunt or fish, you would pick him out as the most beautiful and vigorous of the gang.

You would wish long and long to be with him—you would wish to sit by him in the boat, that you and he might touch each other.