#21: Starting from Paumanok

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Happy New Year, friends! (Even though we are already halfway through January – how is that possible?) I have been in the midsts of a busy tax season & new semester at school, so things have been hectic, to say the least. But I have been reading a lot and still have so many things I want to think about with you, so I thought the easiest way to ease back into writing regularly is with a Whitman Wednesday post. Today, we start on Book II of Leaves of Grass. The first poem here, “Starting from Paumanok” is really long, 19 pieces, so here’s just the first part.

Starting from fish-shape Paumanok where I was born,
  Well-begotten, and rais'd by a perfect mother,
  After roaming many lands, lover of populous pavements,
  Dweller in Mannahatta my city, or on southern savannas,
  Or a soldier camp'd or carrying my knapsack and gun, or a miner
      in California,
  Or rude in my home in Dakota's woods, my diet meat, my drink from
      the spring,
  Or withdrawn to muse and meditate in some deep recess,
  Far from the clank of crowds intervals passing rapt and happy,
  Aware of the fresh free giver the flowing Missouri, aware of
      mighty Niagara,
  Aware of the buffalo herds grazing the plains, the hirsute and
      strong-breasted bull,
  Of earth, rocks, Fifth-month flowers experienced, stars, rain, snow,
      my amaze,
  Having studied the mocking-bird's tones and the flight of the
      mountain-hawk,
  And heard at dawn the unrivall'd one, the hermit thrush from the
      swamp-cedars,
  Solitary, singing in the West, I strike up for a New World.

Do you remember discovering where Whitman was born? (He lived in Long Island, if you forgot!) Here, I think he’s venturing out of his fish-shaped home (do you think Long Island looks like a little fish attached to New York State?) and he’s discovering the rest of America, from Manhattan to North Dakota.

I think this is a great poem to think about as I start the new year. I have been in such a rush to meet deadlines at school and work, that I haven’t taken any time to withdraw “to muse and meditate in some deep recess” which is honestly all I want to do every December. I have been reading “White Trash” right now, which is a 400 year history of class in America, so I’ve found myself thinking a lot about what life was like in the 18th and 19th century. I have been questioning whether our current idea of growing up in a log cabin is actually quaint and completely false. But I digress. After an insane 2016, this poem has instilled in me a renewed sense of hope, exploration, and curiosity as we strike up for a New Year.

How about you? What are your New Year resolutions? What are you reading? Please tell me everything since we last spoke.

#20: I Hear America Singing

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Hi Friends, we are almost in December, can you believe it? This is the 20th Whitman Wednesday, marking five months of poetry! Today’s poem is “I Hear America Singing.”

  I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
  Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
  The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
  The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
  The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand
      singing on the steamboat deck,
  The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as
      he stands,
  The wood-cutter's song, the ploughboy's on his way in the morning,
      or at noon intermission or at sundown,
  The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work,
      or of the girl sewing or washing,
  Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
  The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young
      fellows, robust, friendly,
  Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

The more Whitman I read, the more I feel like poetry is a mirror. Poems often reflect their surroundings or the state of the reader more than anything else. It’s hard not to be political these days; it’s hard not to read in between the lines all of the time. It has been especially hard for me to read Whitman, that old patriotic bastard! In this poem, I see a really idealistic and beautiful version of America, the version that I think we all have in our minds. It is a really stark contrast to the news headlines today. I suppose Whitman has an outdated view of America – women do more than sew, sing, and wash these days (thankfully). I’ve been thinking a lot about the “forgotten” white voters who are nostalgic for the past. I hope Whitman’s America is what they are nostalgic for, and not for a pre-abolition, pre-women’s suffrage America. Because doesn’t Whitman’s description seem lovely?

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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!

Also, my friends and I are trying to start a little non-fiction book club to help us get informed and survive for the next four years. If you’re not afraid to get a little political, please let me know if you’d like to read along with us! Hopefully we’ll have some discussions on Goodreads and Facebook, in addition to real life meetings.

#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.”

Continue reading

#18: The Ship Starting

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“The Ship Starting”

Lo, the unbounded sea,
On its breast a ship starting, spreading all sails, carrying even
her moonsails.
The pennant is flying aloft as she speeds she speeds so stately—
below emulous waves press forward,
They surround the ship with shining curving motions and foam.

Vocabulary Word of the Day:
Emulous: seeking to emulate or imitate someone or something.

I think this poem has a nice cadence to it, so I would recommend reading it out loud. I like the repetitive use of “she speeds, she speeds.” We’ve seen a lot of water and sailing imagery so far in “Leaves of Grass,” whether Whitman is comparing his book to a boat – the lone bark cleaving the ether – or calling himself a river man. I think Whitman uses water in many way. Oceans are both frontiers to be crossed and part of the natural world that Whitman champions. Water nourishes us as well as separates us from one another creating boundaries and borders. I should compile a list of some of the water metaphors that Whitman has used so far – I’m excited to see what Whitman does next!

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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!

#17: Savantism

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Happy Wednesday! We are almost through Part I of Leaves of Grass, isn’t that neat?

  Thither as I look I see each result and glory retracing itself and
      nestling close, always obligated,
  Thither hours, months, years—thither trades, compacts,
      establishments, even the most minute,
  Thither every-day life, speech, utensils, politics, persons, estates;
  Thither we also, I with my leaves and songs, trustful, admirant,
  As a father to his father going takes his children along with him.

This week’s poem is called “Savantism.”

Vocabulary Word of the Day:
Savant: a learned person, especially a distinguished scientist.

This poem threw me off at first — I wasn’t sure what the poem is about. But slow and steady wins the race, right? The poem seems like a leaf, gently swaying and blowing in the breeze, landing here and there (or should I say thither). Hither and thither?

I’m not sure what the third line means, the every-day life, speech, utensils. Is Whitman saying these are the things that we carry with us everywhere we go? Is this a poem about baggage?

In the last two lines, I think the leaves and songs that Whitman refers to are his poems. His poems are savants, wise and trustful beings, that Whitman carries along with him much as a father takes his children on trips.

I’ve been really enjoying the nature imagery and the light-hearted spirituality of the most recent set of poems. When I read them, the pages glow bright green in my mind, as if I were walking through a bamboo forest.

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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!

#16: Me Imperturbe

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This week’s Whitman poem is called “Me Imperturbe.” I really liked this poem, so without further ado, let’s dive in.

  Me imperturbe, standing at ease in Nature,
  Master of all or mistress of all, aplomb in the midst of irrational things,
  Imbued as they, passive, receptive, silent as they,
  Finding my occupation, poverty, notoriety, foibles, crimes, less
      important than I thought,
  Me toward the Mexican sea, or in the Mannahattan or the Tennessee,
      or far north or inland,
  A river man, or a man of the woods or of any farm-life of these
      States or of the coast, or the lakes or Kanada,
  Me wherever my life is lived, O to be self-balanced for contingencies,
  To confront night, storms, hunger, ridicule, accidents, rebuffs, as
      the trees and animals do.

To me, this poem is exulting the Natural world. I imagine Whitman shedding his skin and floating down the Mississippi River rejoicing in nature. To Whitman, the man-made problems are entirely avoidable and useless products of our capitalist society, while the natural problems of storms and hunger are “true” issues that all flora and fauna face — we are all equal and in the same struggle in nature. I don’t think this poem is meant to be demeaning of very real issues in our lives (like poverty and crime rates, etc.). Instead, I think Whitman is gently reminding us to get outside of our own minds and look at the bigger picture. I found this poem both refreshing and freeing. This poem has inspired me to try to enjoy nature this week. Maybe I’ll take off my headphones while I walk through Central Park on my way home tonight.

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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!

 

 

 

#15: To a Certain Cantatrice

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Here we go again, another Wednesday, another Whitman poem!

To a Certain Cantatrice --   
  Here, take this gift,
  I was reserving it for some hero, speaker, or general,
  One who should serve the good old cause, the great idea, the
      progress and freedom of the race,
  Some brave confronter of despots, some daring rebel;
  But I see that what I was reserving belongs to you just as much as to any.

A cantatrice is a singer, usually an opera singer. However, the unnamed cantatrice isn’t the star of this poem. I think the focus of this poem is Whitman’s generosity with his “gift”. In this context, I think his gift is his poetry, his songs. In the same vein as “To Thee Old Cause,” Whitman doesn’t think poetry should be reserved for “the good old causes” or some Great idea. Instead, he believes in the democracy of poetry, that it should be accessible and open to all people, the Everyman, the every day unnamed singers out there.

I have been really enjoying the process of reading Leaves of Grass, because I know that I am part of Whitman’s target audience. Even though some of his poems have been a little obtuse to me (especially “Eidolons” — sheesh!) I have been able to persevere because I know that Whitman is trying to speak to me. His poetry isn’t going over my head intentionally, so it is a rather warm and welcoming feeling sinking into a new Whitman poem each week.

What other poets do you think are writing for the “Everyman”? Who are some of the most accessible and least pretentious poets that you admire? I’m already skipping a decade into the future and thinking about what other collections I should read.

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!