Mind, Mouth and Page – (Whitman’s Song of the Exposition)

Allen Ginsberg’s 1975 ¬†NAROPA lectures (Mind, Mouth and Page), principally on the poetry of William Carlos Williams, continues from here

AG: I want to take a break from Williams now and go back to some other sources similar to his – Whitman again. I did a little Whitman before, but, there’s a very funny poem called “The Song of the Exposition” , in which it’s his statement, pre-figuring Williams, about the need for the invention of a completely native art for the United States. So this was for “the Exposition” (what Exposition, I don’t know, actually – there’s probably a note – probably the Chicago Exposition of 1868, or (18)72, or whatever World’s Fair they were having at that (time) [editorial note –¬†actually, it was for the 1871 National Industrial Exposition of the American Institute, and was revived in 1876 on the occasion of the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia]. What is the date on this anyway?

Student: Montreal?

AG: No, not Montreal in (19)67! – no, this is Whitman in the 19th Century! – It’s one of his worst poems, because of its ridiculous combination of Biblical rhetoric and hortatory bombastic… well, it’s like a speech for a country-fair, (or a speech for a World‘s Fair), and, at the same time, it’s so awkward that it’s funny and imaginative and very beautiful. What he says is great and he says something that nobody would have dared say before, and said it just in time, when his contemporaries were writing a kind of perfumed verse – a library, bookish verse – that he comments upon here. So dig the parallel between the way Whitman approached the bad poetry of his time, imitative of Europe, and Williams approached the bad poetry of his time, imitative of European and English style. [Allen reads from “Song of the Exposition”, beginning with section 2, and 3 – “Come Muse migrate from Greece and Ionia..”] – You know he’s talking about the muse here. You all know that, I guess, because it begins, “Come Muse migrate from Greece and Ionia..” (but then) (the last line of section 2) – “But that she’s left them all – and here?” – [Allen goes on, reading through the whole of the rest of the poem] – “To you, you reverent sane sisters” – the Muses – “I raise a voice for far superber themes for poets and for art,/ To exalt the present and the real/ To teach the averageman his daily walk and trade…”I say I bring thee Muse today and here..”…”This earth all spann’d with iron rails, with lines of steamships threading/ every sea/ Our own rondure, the current globe I bring” – Well, that was Whitman’s call for a very similar theme.

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