Archive for November, 2009
Aside from their alliterative “W” names, Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams have a lot in common. I’m surprised and slightly disappointed in myself for not seeing the heavy Whitmanic influence over Williams’ work before. Both WWs have held consistent spots in my “top 5” since high school, and now I feel an entirely new level of intimacy with these two poets as we enter into some kind of weird poetic-connection-triangle. After reading Higgins article, I read through some of Williams’ poems that I had read before and saw them differently than I did years ago (way back when Whitman was just a poet I liked and not a sea of multitudes in which I am completely and constantly submerged). It’s official, I am now equipped with Whitman-Tinted Glasses.
Poetically, both (1855-1860) Whitman and (1940s-1950s) Williams’ focus on the elemental self, the particulars, the details, the Romantic, and the beautiful. The reader looks through the poem as a microscope, narrowing in on individual blades of grass rather than an entire field or lawn:
“And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves” (Whitman 31).
“The file sharp grass… and a grasshopper of red basalt, boot-long” (Williams 277).
These lines, like many others, could be inserted interchangeably into Whitman’s or Williams’ poems without any break in poetic style, form, or content. Williams even riffs on Whitman’s parenthetical asides, inserting his own voice and creating the same intimacy that Whitman achieves in his poetry. Take for instance this side comment in Williams’ “The Delineaments of the Giants”:
“The river comes pouring in above the city
And crashes from the edge of the gorge
In a recoil of spray and rainbow mists—
(What common language to unravel?
. . combed into straight lines
from that rafter of a rock’s lip.)
A man like a city and a woman like a flower…” (262).
This follows typical Whitmanic formula. First, the depiction of beautiful and powerful nature—I don’t think I need to remind you of all the instances of the sea, ocean, and rivers in Whitman’s poetry. The parenthetical aside that follows questions the metaphysical underpinning and muses on the deeper meaning of the previous image (not to mention the classic 1855 Whitmanic ellipsis thrown in there as well). Lastly, Williams’ makes the move from natural world to humanity, equalizing the beauty of Man to that of the previous “rainbow mists.” If I didn’t already know this passage was from a Williams’ poem, I would have confidently identified Whitman as the author. If the similar structure and subject matter isn’t enough to confuse you, Whitman and Williams even make similar word choices in their poetry. Each combines fluid, aesthetic, and relatively simple words with a more sophisticated, Latinate vocabulary. Despite all these similarities in Williams’ work to Whitman’s, Williams’ is far from a copy cat.
The most significant parallelism between Whitman and Williams is how their rare and innovative existence within their own times. Both poets seem to come from nowhere, creating poetry the likes of which their contemporaries had never seen before. The 1855 Leaves of Grass was a non sequitur amongst mid-19th century poetry and planted the seed for poetic trends to follow, most importantly the use of free verse as the official “American” poetic style. Like Whitman, William Carlos Williams served as a poetic catalyst for the imagist movement in the early 20th century (see: “The Red Wheelbarrow”). He even invented what became known as the variable foot, which is based off the condensed and simplified linguistic trends Williams’ observed in American society, i.e. newspaper headlines and radio announcements. Like Whitman’s innovations, Williams’ stylistic influence can be seen decades later (See: Jane Hirshfield’s “Red Scarf”). Even though Whitman preceded Williams, both poets contribute their own unique layer to the ancient and ever-changing poetic palimpsest (shout out to Dr. Scanlon!).
With all that in mind, what I find more impressive about Whitman’s legacy as opposed to Williams’ is the sheer number of writers who mimicked Whitman in one way or another. In Higgins article, it’s almost like Whitman is more than one man. Whitman’s work contains such multitudes that he has produced several legacies. William Carlos Williams may mirror the individualistic Whitman, but Pablo Neruda channels Whitman’s idea of “en-masse,” and T.S. Eliot evokes Whitman by being the Anti-Whitman. This is perhaps the most impressive aspect of Whitman, that even post-mortem he contains multitudes.
*Wardrobe provided by the University of Mary Washington.
There has been a shift in the way I read and relate to Whitman. In the 1855 edition, Whitman felt like my pal; his messiness, his unbridled passion, his desire to explore everything and know everything, his embrace of his own egotism—all these things I relate to as a twenty-something. While reading the deathbed edition of Leaves, however, I couldn’t help the feeling that I had become Walt’s daughter / granddaughter, or student. Instead of focusing on mere aspects of life, Whitman reflects on life as whole. He bestows his “words of wisdom” to his readers in succinct, almost adage-like poems. With the 1891-1892 Leaves of Grass, I have found my Papa Walt.
I am beside myself with excitement to finally be able to discuss my favorite Walt Whitman poem of all time. O Me! O Life! is the perfect example of Papa Walt’s wisdom. Many of you might remember this scene from the movie Dead Poets Society, in which Robin Williams’ character uses this poem (abbreviated in the movie) to inspire teenage boys to study poetry. Papa Walt would have approved of this, because within the poem he presents a student/teacher dialogue.
The poem is divided into two parts with two different speakers: the first is spoken by the student/ the son / the youth, followed by a response by the answerer / the teacher / the father figure. The youth questions what is the “good” of life when it’s often filled with foolish and faithless people, and daily routines and struggles forever renewed; to which the older and wiser speaker responds calmly:
“That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse” (410).
The first speaker speaks from the thick of life, whereas the second speaker comes from a more objective point of view—as one “beyond” life. Not that the second speaker is a ghost, but rather someone who has experienced and come out the other side of what the first speaker recounts. Even though the answerer is older and wiser, they give value to the questioner. By responding with the direct address “you,” the second speaker emphasizes the first speaker’s importance in the large, consuming world.
This poem could also be read as Papa Walt’s address to his former, younger self. The first section mirrors his 1855 writing style with its many “O”s, exclamation and question marks, repeated line beginnings, and verbose detail; whereas the answer portion is short, “seriously” punctuated,” and makes a broader statement, all of which are tell-tale signs of the more mature Walt Whitman. While the younger Walt zeros in on specificities and uses many words to do so, Papa Walt squeezes more profundity into fewer words (notice how Walt’s shorter poems do not emerge until after 1855). Within this one poem, Whitman reflects on his current and former self, and many “verses” he has contributed.
Though there is a greater focus on death in the 1891-1892 edition of Leaves, which is, of course, sad, there is still a sense of optimism in Whitman’s writing. There is never death without the reflection on life. Even his most morbid poems like The Last Invocation, Life and Death, and Good-Bye my Fancy! include reflections on love, the soul, and life. Papa Walt inspires us in his old age to live a life as full and passionate as his own. And Papa Walt knows what’s best.
“O I see life is not short, but immeasurably long,
I henceforth tread the world chaste, temperate, an early riser, a steady grower,
Every hour the semen of centuries, and still of centuries.
I must follow up these continual lessons of the air, water, earth,
I perceive I have no time to lose” (380).