Tuesday, May 29, 2012

English 630 Post-Mortem

Thus begins my final post for English 630 (not to mention to the concluding post to my first and only blog). Sigh... But let's not get blogged down and get right to it: overall this was a great class, both in terms of subject matter as well as class format. We spent a whole semester on Whitman and I feel like we could have spent a semester more and there would be gargantuan amounts left untackled. The beautiful part is that I now feel prepared to tackle remaining questions on my own and I am certain that I will given how my interest in Whitman bloomed throughout the semester. In terms of class format, I enjoyed the blog initiated class discussions and, despite my general abhorrence for all things "social media," creating a blog and a twitter account was not all that bad in the end. The class did a nice job of making me come out of my comfort zone and be more creative about how I discussed and presented my learning of Whitman (the insanely boring "3-5 paper" being my typical comfort zone). So is there anything to be critical about? Not really, but in the interest of balanced commentary, let me offer the following knit pickings. While we hit most of the classics, there were a few others that I would have loved some to hear some class discussions on (Sleepers, I Sing the Body Electric, etc.). Maybe a "make-up" Tuesday in class meeting would have helped create a few more discussion hours to work with? In terms of grading, there's not much to go on since there were no periodic check +/-'s to go on (arbitrary as they may be). For an Open University quasi-student who doesn't care too much about his grade such as myself, this was easy to deal with, but I can imagine for others it might be more challenging! Overall though, I had a great time and learned a lot. I give this class an A.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

This Machine Kills Facists - Woody Guthrie and Whitman

Nice post on Guthrie.  I have had minimal exposure to Guthrie and enjoyed both passages in your prompt.  It seems to me that Guthrie, like Whitman, loves the “idea” (or potential) of America but is dismayed by the “execution” of America (by execution I mean the manner of performance, not putting to death).  Start with the Pastures of Plenty lyrics.  I feel a number of competing sentiments embedded within the song.  While Guthrie highlights the diversity and fecundity of the land, you feel a sense of him being controlled by the land, or by those that control the land.  In some ways, the song feels like a slave work song, particularly the opening lines.  The “you” in the lyrics seems to stretch beyond its initial meaning of America or individual states, and to individual owners of certain pieces of the land.  When Guthrie sings “We’ll work in this fight and we’ll fight till we win,” the target of this fight is nebulous but my sense is that Guthrie is lamenting the intermediation of the proverbial “man” in his association with the land of America.  Thus when he speaks of the freedom he is willing to fight for in the closing lines of the song, he is not referring to foreigners or other outside forces but those among us who look to disturb the natural connection between humanity and our desire to work.  This Land is Your Land works in a similar manner.  The song begins with an ode to the land of America and a celebration of our shared identity with the land, and ends by questioning the current status of that identity.  He again ends the song with a statement of defiance (“Nobody living can ever stop me”) as he looks to reestablish that which, in his mind, made the land of America great in the first place.

Friday, April 27, 2012

From Walt Whitman to Allen Ginsberg...

For our discussion of Allen Ginsberg, take a look at Howl Part I and A Supermarket in California (see links below for the text of each poem as well as readings by Ginsberg).  Howl is a little lengthy but very cool so get through as much as you can!  Focusing on these two poems, give us your take on some similarities as well as some noticeable differences between the two poets.  Start by considering the structure of the poems.  What influence by Whitman do you see in the structure of Ginsberg’s poetry?  Secondly, think about the themes and imagery of Ginsberg’s two poems and where we have seen some of these themes and images within Whitman’s poetry.  Some areas to think about include their views on the American dream and American institutions, themes of “interconnectedness,” and themes of sexuality.  Finally, we have discussed the evolving connection between Whitman “the man” and Whitman “the poet.”  How do you feel about this connection with Ginsberg when reading his poetry?

Be sure to check out the readings of each poem by Ginsberg as well.  They feel very different when heard as opposed to read.

Text of Howl - here
Reading of Howl - here

Text of A Supermarket in California - here
Reading of A Supermarket in California - here 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Carl Sandburg - Poet of the People

Very cool selections from Carl Sandburg! He certainly is the poet of the common person, the working man, our universal and shared experience. In the first section of The People, Yes, the poet speaks of the Tower of Babel from the book of Genesis. For those unfamiliar with this tale: a unified human race seeks to build a tower that reaches the heavens so that the people of the world will not be scattered across the earth and can be close to god. God comes down though and scatters the people of the world across the globe and confuses their communication by creating different languages. Sandburg’s poetry seems to be an effort to rebuild the unity of the human experience and return us (or at least provide glimpses) of the universal aspects of our existence. The role of nature is a good example of this theme. In the excerpts provided, Sandburg repeatedly returns to man’s co-existence with and subjugation to the whims of the weather and other natural phenomena (the lines in section 50 about the iceberg were reminiscent to me of Stephen Crane’s A Man Said to the Universe). In some ways, Sandburg seems to almost dismiss the experience of the individual in its entirety. He rails against personal credit for worldly successes, against the “boss” and other titles, against the effects of capitalism/advertising and its tendency to separate man from his true nature. And while the poem is certainly critical of specific aspects of the American spirit of Sandburg’s time, I believe Sandburg ends the poem on a hopeful note. Despite the dual nature of the human spirit as a “comic two face: hero and hoodlum,” Sandburg recognizes our ability as people to continually achieve renewal (by going back to “the nourishing earth for rootholds”) and our desire to reach “for lights beyond the prisms of the five senses.” It is through this process of reaching for universal understanding that we may better answer the poet’s final question: “where to? what next?”

Sandburg’s treatment of Lincoln in section 57 is fascinating in light of our recent discussion of Whitman’s Lilacs. Their treatment of Lincoln through the poetry is very different, but the admiration for their subject (implied in the case of Lilacs) is the same. While Lincoln is never specifically mentioned in Lilacs, I would venture to say that Whitman’s elegy is more personal than Sandburg’s. Whitman is seeking to assuage his own grief in light of the tragic national events of his time. Sandburg benefits from the clarifications of time and a clearer picture of Lincoln’s impact on the people of America. Sandburg begins section 57 with “Lincoln?,” making it clear from the start that the section is meant to contemplate Lincoln the man, the type of person he was, and his impact on others. Was Lincoln a poet, a historian, a gatherer of the American dream, a dreamer himself? Sandburg points out that he was likely all of these things, but I can’t help but notice the strong parallels between Lincoln’s role of American unifier and Sandburg’s view of the poet’s role as unifier of the human experience. Sandburg ends the section with a quote from Lincoln that, in my mind, outlines exactly the objective of the poet as Sandburg sees it:

“If we could first know where we are,
and whither we are tending,
we could better judge
what to do, and how to do it.”

Sandburg can see the benefits Lincoln’s mindset ultimately resulted in and he clearly seeks to apply this mindset to the challenges and miscommunications of his own time.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Tragedy Through Time

Lilacs functions as a journey, both for Lincoln’s funeral procession, and more importantly, for Whitman’s own emotional struggle to deal with Lincoln’s assassination, the horrifying violence of a civil war, and a damaged democratic ideal that, like so many of the young men of the country at the time, lay wounded and bleeding with uncertain prospects for survival. If great poetry is to create a “simulacrum of reality,” as Cleanth Brooks put it, Whitman succeeds beautifully. The psychological process of dealing with death and tragedy is complicated, chaotic, and oftentimes, completely illogical. Similar to Lilacs, there ultimately is no “solution” to this process and every time you feel that you are approaching a spot of stability, the emotional and spiritual ground beneath your feet shifts and your healing process must start again anew. Despite the frustration of this process, I believe Whitman ends Lilacs on a note of hope where he states that through confrontation and contemplation of tragedy you may achieve, if only temporarily, a moment of bliss, a moment where lilac and star and bird twine with the chant of your soul. It is these moments you strive for, and despite their inherently fleeting nature, it is these moments that carry you with hope to the blooms of the following spring.

As a resident of lower Manhattan during 2001, I feel a close personal connection with the events and aftermath of 9/11. It is through this lens and the lingering presence in my mind of Whitman’s Lilacs with which I read a number of the 9/11 poems contained on the Library of Congress’ website. Whitman’s presence in many of the poems is palpable. Some go so far as to quote Whitman directly, such as Galway Kinnell’s When the Towers Fell that uses lines both from Lilacs as well as City of Ships. While I found Kinnell’s poem to be most directly tied to Whitman’s Lilacs, I wanted to comment briefly on two other poems I enjoyed from the group: Billy Collins’ The Names and Martin Espada’s Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100. The Names recounts the poet’s experience with the actual names of those who perished in the towers. Similar to Lilacs, which begins with a description of “the black murk” of the night and Lincoln as the “great star”, The Names begins in “the palm of the night” as the poet lays awake in his bed visualizing the names of the dead which are “printed on the ceiling of the night.” Collins goes on to use a number of techniques reminiscent of Lilacs, including significant flower and tree imagery as well as the use of all of his senses in experiencing the personal impact of the names of the dead. The Names ends with the poet’s resignation regarding his ability to effectively deal with the tragic events of 9/11 questioning the “room on the walls of the heart” to appropriately pay homage to “so many names.” These final lines remind me of Whitman’s struggle to appropriately decorate Lincoln’s burial house: “O what shall I hang on these chamber walls?”

I also see Whitman (although mostly I just like the poem) in Espada’s Alabanza in which Espada seeks to provide praise for the 43 members of at the Windows of the World restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center who were mostly Latino immigrants, many of whom were undocumented. Unlike the names of others who died in the tragedy of 9/11, most of the names of these workers were unknown and never appropriately recognized in the aftermath of the events. Similar to Whitman’s ongoing focus on the working man, Alabanza seeks to recognize and praise these common workers and forgotten heroes of 9/11. Stylistically, Alabanza reads like a song or ritualistic chant which reminds me of the “song” or “carol” of the hermit thrush in Lilacs. Espada ends Alabanza referencing the “two constellations of smoke [of New York and Kabul]… mingling in the icy air” reminding us of the universal experience of death and tragedy that we as humans must deal with regardless of cultural background.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Expanded Project Proposal - Emerson and Whitman

After some further thought, and the conclusion that the scope of my initial proposal was too all encompassing, I have settled on the following topic for my expanded project proposal (all commentary is welcome!). I would like to focus on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s influence on Whitman and the themes of his poetry. Whitman has stated: “I was simmering, simmering, simmering, Emerson brought me to a boil.” Key questions for my project include: How aware of Emerson was Whitman and what specific writings of Emerson’s brought Whitman to a “boil”? What themes from Emerson’s key essays and speeches (Nature, The American Scholar, The Poet, others TBD) can we see reflected in the segments of Whitman’s poetry and prose that we have read? What key differences do I see between the two writers (thematic or otherwise)? In addition, I would also like to spend some time looking into Whitman and Emerson’s direct interactions and relationship following the initial publication of Leaves of Grass in 1855. My rationale for pursuing this topic is twofold. Firstly, I am interested in the various influences that contributed to the style and themes of Whitman’s poetry. Secondly, I have not read any Emerson (or any other of the Transcendentalists) and would like to use this project as an excuse to do so. In terms of the evidence of my learning, I would propose using a presentation style format that outlines some of the basic background to the questions I propose above and, more importantly, takes specific quotations from Whitman’s writings and ties them to specific quotations of Emerson’s writings in an effort to best illuminate overlapping themes by the two writers. This project will require me to read and analyze several of Emerson’s key works and to conduct research on Whitman’s literary and personal interactions with Emerson. The final presentation will allow me to outline a number of the key themes of Whitman’s poetry that we have discussed this semester and compare and contrast these themes to the writings of one of the most respected intellectual minds of Whitman’s time.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Peter Doyle

Peter Doyle was Whitman’s long-time friend and companion whom Whitman met while riding on a Washington horsecar after work in 1865. Doyle, an Irish American immigrant, was working in Washington as a conductor following his time in the confederate army where he had participated in some of the bloodiest battles in American history. While Whitman and Doyle were polar opposites, both in terms of their physical appearance as well as their backgrounds (intellectually and politically), they were immediately drawn to one another and would spend the greater part of their lives together until Whitman’s death, although the two never actually lived with one another. The difference in their appearance is striking – Whitman, 45 in 1865, was tall, paunchy and graying significantly by the time he met the boyish 21 year old Doyle who stood at a mere five-foot eight and had smallish features to boot (the two portraits of Whitman and Doyle are reminiscent of a child sitting on Santa’s lap). Doyle likely appealed to Whitman’s continued sense of himself as a working man and one of the “roughs,” despite his increasingly well known literary status. Doyle would be a source of inspiration for Whitman for some of the later Calamus poems. In addition, Doyle presence at Ford’s theater the night of Lincoln’s assassination makes him a likely source for some of the specifics of the event that Whitman outlines in his poetry as well as in Specimen Days. The use of fixed rhyme in meter in O Captain! My Captain! may have also been inspired by Doyle who was a lover of limericks given his Irish background.