#19: When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer

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Hi Friends, if you’re just tuning in, every Wednesday, we talk Whitman! We are still trekking our way through the first section of Leaves of Grass, but I thought I’d mix things up a bit today. I was reading The New Yorker on the couch this Sunday, when I spotted a reference to a familiar face in this article: Ishion Hutchinson, Post-Post Colonial Poet, a review on Hutchinson’s second book of poetry, House of Lords and Commons.

But poets don’t want to be fodder for panels and colloquia, and Hutchinson’s poems are oppositional and disruptive, sometimes tauntingly so. “The Orator,” like Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” is a poem about poetry itself, its immediate purchase on the sublime, so much more powerful than classroom circumlocution. A lecture on “Caribbean Culture” is delivered by a “bore” who “was harping in dead metaphor / the horror of colonial heritage.” Suddenly, a thunderstorm knocks out the lights, and the lecturer now stands helpless in the dark

So I thought it would be fun to pull up Whitman’s poem next to Ishion’s. First up, Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much
applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

This poem is so quintessentially Whitman to me – shunning higher education institutions for the power of poetry and nature. Next up, Hutchinson’s “The Orator.”

“The Orator,” Ishion Hutchinson

Amid a racheted, alloyed ghost,
I returned stares in the blackout
that clogged the podium where a bore
was harping in dead metaphor
the horror of colonial heritage.
I sank in the dark, hemorrhaged.
There I remembered the peninsula
of my sea, the breeze opening the water
to no book but dust; no electricity,
just stars pulsing over shanties,
and later, an extinguishable moon,
invisible in this dark NYC room,
a tweeded rodent scholar lectured
on his authority of “Caribbean Culture,”
phosphorous Caliban, switching dialectics
in a single line, praising and cussing metrics:
Rhodesia now, Zimbabwe after;
he real cool, a true, heretical dapper,
but in the surprised blackness,
his soup exposed, the facade recessed,
I saw the face that curried Pelops
in the Antilles to straddle the ivory laps
of liberal,money-giving chaps
with an itch for the unscripted Folk
and Oral Tradition, a hot spoke
in his spinning radius unveiling
the veil of the shroud of the curtain,
and with spectroscopic effect, he has dazzled
all and proven to be ebony solid.
His mouth soured winter, his neck
hung with silk and not a speck
of truth, that I almost shouted, Please,
be honest with your lies, disease,

but only stared at this wine-for-rum,
lectern-for-veranda, brilliant scum
who shook when thunder shocked
away Edison’s filaments: a dead watt.
Inarticulate at the dark lectern,
he stood grasping what he had learned
in all the colleges, but went hollow
and I heard his breath in shallow
bursts the way a firefly’s ticks amplify
a lonely room, each tick signified
his mother back home, who still,
after many years, her only skill,
cleans uptown houses to knuckle
out a living; another tick, his supple,
ever-ready sister, breeding at the first attention
by a name-brand looker, diamond-
single-earring rude boy, hoping
for foreign, like him in the dark, hiding
behind his varnished gibbet,
he who had stretched out his hand to let
me shake it, smiled, said, “Friend,”
when before he gibbered, “Nemesis; vermin”
to his tail-gawking, maggot rabble.
Confounded, silent in his Babel,
power returned and dragged off
the dark and showed his face aught
in a childhood glare, where the kerosene
shielded flame, the only light to be seen
in his world, enchanted his shadow
on a wall, proof he was two in tow;
jackal and man, duel umbrage,
scavenging years have taken to forge
into one chain; yes, Christ, chain,
he is chatteled within them again.
“Applaud the fluorescence!” he cried.
I couldn’t, those bulbs hurt my eyes.

I thought this poem had a very similar set up to Whitman’s. Both start with a man standing at a lectern, lecturing on astronomy in the former, Caribbean Culture in the latter. Understandably, Hutchinson’s poem is a lot more modern than Whitman’s, and a little more playful. I like the use of rhyme, “bores” and “dead metaphors,” for one. I also see a nod to both Whitman and Gwendolyn Brook’s “We Real Cool.”

I also see a similar vein of disdain for higher institutions in Hutchinson’s poem, “he stood grasping what he had learned/ in all the colleges, but went hollow.” There is only so much we can learn from colleges, and for the rest, we must turn to real world experiences.


That’s all I have for today! Do you see similarities or differences in these poems? Would one have reminded you of the other?

As always, I invite you to join me. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or send me a link to your own #WhitmanWednesday posts and I’ll share them as well! Have a Happy Thanksgiving, my friends!

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