#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.”

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#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!

 

 

#14: On Journeys Through the States

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You know the drill by now — week by week, I’m going through another Walt Whitman poem. Even though this is the 14th poem (3.5 months in!), we are only on the 8th page of the book! Phew, at this rate, we really do have another 130 months to go.

This one is called “On Journeys Through the States.” If you recall, the preceding poem was called “To the States” which sparked some debate about whether or not Whitman was racist.

  On journeys through the States we start,
  (Ay through the world, urged by these songs,
  Sailing henceforth to every land, to every sea,)
  We willing learners of all, teachers of all, and lovers of all.

  We have watch'd the seasons dispensing themselves and passing on,
  And have said, Why should not a man or woman do as much as the
      seasons, and effuse as much?

  We dwell a while in every city and town,
  We pass through Kanada, the North-east, the vast valley of the
      Mississippi, and the Southern States,
  We confer on equal terms with each of the States,
  We make trial of ourselves and invite men and women to hear,
  We say to ourselves, Remember, fear not, be candid, promulge the
      body and the soul,
  Dwell a while and pass on, be copious, temperate, chaste, magnetic,
  And what you effuse may then return as the seasons return,
  And may be just as much as the seasons.

Poetry Vocabulary Word of the Day:

Promulge (verb): an archaic variant of promulgate. Promulgate means to promote or make widely known.

So, here we are, still journeying through the States. I don’t have much to say about the poem this week. Whitman is travelling to all corners of the United States spreading the word of.. what? I think he’s spreading the news that the body is as important. He’s still sailing around on his book of a boat, singing these songs that are in Leaves of Grass. I like his advice to “be copious” — what a great turn of phrase! The last two lines of the poem end on such a nice idea of karma returning to us just like the seasons return.

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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! I think I’ll start to kick it up a notch with either a few poems a week, or I may start skipping some of the ones that aren’t very exciting to discuss (to me, at least!)

 

#12-13: Beginners & To The States

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I was sick last week so I missed a Whitman Wednesday, but don’t fret! I’ll make up for lost time by discussing two poems today. The first one is titled “Beginners.”

  How they are provided for upon the earth, (appearing at intervals,)
  How dear and dreadful they are to the earth,
  How they inure to themselves as much as to any—what a paradox
      appears their age,
  How people respond to them, yet know them not,
  How there is something relentless in their fate all times,
  How all times mischoose the objects of their adulation and reward,
  And how the same inexorable price must still be paid for the same
      great purchase.

Poetry Vocabulary Word of the Day:

Inure (verb): to accustom (someone) to something, especially something unpleasant.

What is this, amateur hour? Whitman’s poem seems to be addressing all of the aspects of being a beginner or beginning something (such as a self-published self-referential book, perhaps?) I read this as  acknowledging the sweat and tears that go into mastering an art. There will be mis-steps and mis-choosing hobbies and passion projects along the way, and we all suffer, in a way, for our “art” of choice.

Again, Whitman is writing “democratically” and speaking for all the people, instead of for himself personally. I find this a much more approachable when reading a new poem, because I know going into the poem that it’s meant for me. It’s not an obtuse personal poem that only those with an in-depth knowledge of the poet’s biography will understand.

The next poem in Leaves of Grass is “To the States.”

  To the States or any one of them, or any city of the States, Resist
      much, obey little,
  Once unquestioning obedience, once fully enslaved,
  Once fully enslaved, no nation, state, city of this earth, ever
      afterward resumes its liberty.

This poem is pretty short and feisty! This is a warning to the United States as well as to any city or state in the World. I think Whitman would also extend this warning to people.

However, if reading this as a warning to people, how would Whitman apply this poem to African-Americans who were currently enslaved, does he see them as a lost cause, never again resuming their own liberty? There has been much debate about whether or not Whitman was sympathetic to the Abolitionist movement leading to the Civil War.

Whitman’s portrayal of slaves could serve his political purposes, especially his opposition to the Fugitive Slave Law, which was based, in fact, not on sympathy for slaves but on what he felt was the unwarranted intrusion of federal authority in a local matter.

The idea that Whitman opposed slavery and the Fugitive Slave Law on the grounds of intrusion of federal authority rather than on the grounds that fugitive slaves (and all slaves) deserved to be free is a little disappointing to me. I will be certain to keep an eye out for future hints to his political beliefs in his poems.

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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!  Leaves of Grass is available for free from Project Gutenberg, so you really have no excuse!