#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  Or withdrawn to muse and meditate in some deep recess,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.

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#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.”

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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!

A Pairing: Norman Rockwell + Langston Hughes

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Norman Rockwell, Undecided (1944)

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark? 
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free?  Not me?
Surely not me?  The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

Langston Hughes, Let America be America Again (1936)

#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!

A Pairing: Peter Beard + Mary Oliver

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Peter Beard, Maureen Gallagher and a Light Night Feeder

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

— “Wild Geese,” Mary Oliver