Spontaneous Poetics – (Whitman – 1)

Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

Allen’s July 26, 1976 Naropa lecture (Spontaneous and Improvised Poetics) continues.

Today, he moves the subject on to Walt Whitman

AG: But I was getting up to what happens to the bard when.. or, what happened to the bard. You still had a bardic function, even in the 19th century, with Walt Whitman.

So I want to jump now from Blues Come All Ye’s to Walt Whitman, or from Australian Aborigine Songmen, up through Blues, to Walt Whitman. We began..Philip was..Philip (Whalen) in the first sessions, was talking about the sacred function, original functions, and the communal functions, of poetry (and) so I’m still somewhat following that theme..

(Yeah, let’s take a look at Whitman). So here’s Walt Whitman’s version of a “Come All Ye” [Allen proceeds to recite Whitman’s “Poets To Come”] – “Poets to come! orators, singers, musicians to come!/Not to-day is to justify me and answer what I am for,/ But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than/ before known/ Arouse! for you must justify me./ I myself write one or two indicative words for the future/ I but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back in the/darkness/ I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping, turns a casual look upon you and then averts his face,/ Leaving it to you to prove and define it,/ Expecting the main things from you.” – That’s followed by.. These are among his early poems in Leaves of Grass, among the “Inscriptions”, as they are called. (Next), a little two-line poem, breaking through the formality of manners and formality of poetic manners, (as he did when he said “Who touches this (book) touches a man“, which was a totally erotic statement, actually – that’s the intention of it (actually) – “Who touches this, touches a man”) – “Stranger, if you passing meet me and desire to speak to me, why should/ you not speak to me?/ And why should I not speak to you?” – a very funny clear little statement. Why he can make the statement (is) because he had come to a situation of empathy, or sympathy, where he realized that his own secret nature, his own private self, his non-public recollection, was probably no different from anybody else’s home-made recollection of sense of self, desires, and gaps between desires (in his case, mostly desire). So he wanted to get close to people, and in the America that was developing in his time it was more and more difficult for men to get close to each other, citizens to get close to each other, and, in some respects, for men and women, to approach each other honestly. So the only evidence he had for what was emotional reality or psychological reality was the evidence of his own senses, how he felt himself, how he saw himself, and what he wanted from others. He couldn’t take it from any standard given, because his own senses were much more longing and fulsome and desirous, so the bardic news that he had to announce was how he really felt, or what was the nature of the self and what were the movements of self. So he begins with “Song of Myself“, which, though it’s sort of a subjective title, Song of Myself, on the other hand, is completely objective (because the “self”, also, in there, is the real thing, and he’s accurately notating what passes through his mind-body, what are the evidences, or data, of his senses and his feelings), and he’s turning reality inside-out by making the public, private (somewhat as Charles Olson later said – or as I paraphrase what he later said – “Private is public and public is how we behave“). Public is how we behave, how we actually behave, (as distinct from how we’re “supposed to behave”, in “public”). So there’s an element of bardic announcement of public behavior, or an ideal public behavior, reflecting subjective, private, in a completely clear and objective way (objective, because, after all, it’s real feelings he’s talking about, real in the sense that he experienced them, and therefore can rely on them to be as objective, when he describes them, as a description of a tree or a wind).

I want to read through a little Whitman and see what that sounds like here, now. [Allen begins by reading, consecutively, the first five sections of “Song of Myself” (followed by
Sections 7, 11, 16, 17, 21, 24, 25, 31, 38, 44 and, (“I’ll go to the end”), 50, 51 and 52.]

Leaves of Grass, 1855 first edition (later issue) – courtesy University of Delaware, Special Collections

Well, what does all that boil down to, or what does that love boil down to?  Is this an authentic record of a natural perception (such as might belong to any man or any woman in any clime, or any of us)? Now, obviously it does tally with our own imaginations of ourselves, because everybody has felt, at one time or another, like this. Everybody (has) identified, as Whitman has identified, with the whole creation, and found himself identifying with the prisoner on the line waiting for food (not the handsome strong prisoner, but the cowardly one with the moustache and a droop of sweat coming from the moustache, or, as Frank O’Hara identified (it), [the citation is from Whitman] – “looking in at the shop-windows of Broadway the whole forenoon, flatting the flesh of my nose on the thick plate glass”… )  So there’s that much universal self that’s recognizable in Whitman’s statement, but the question that (a)rises, to anybody, grown more old and experienced than (some) youthful pantheistic identification with the entire cosmos, is, (is) this an attitude, or an empathy, or a movement of feeling, that would be appropriate on, (say) the cancer death-bed? Would you still feel so confident and sure that your self is immortalized and (all-inclusive and) granite.

(So), if you turn to his later life, actually, and in (the) late, late poems, you’ll find out how he felt when he died (or when he was so old that some of the ebullience and insistency of the early enthusiasm and emotional passion and large self-hood were beginning to be dissolved by a veritable cosmos of diseases). There’s a funny little poem by Jonathan Williams describing Walt Whitman, literally, as a cosmos, because, (during) his autoposy it was found that he had problems with a cancer, an enlarged prostate, and kidney trouble, and emphysema, and nodules in his lungs, and innumerable lists of Whitmanic diseases

(Here’s late Whitman) – “As I sit writing here” – “As I sit writing here sick and grown old/Not my least burden is that dulness of the years, querilities,/Ungracious glooms, aches, lethargy, constipation, whimpering, ennui/ May filter into my daily songs” – Not my least burden is that dulness…may filter into my daily songs” – he’s worried – [Allen continues reading (late Whitman) – “Queries to My Seventieth Year” – “Approaching, nearing curious,/ Thou dim, uncertain spectre – bringest thou life or death?/ Strength, weakness, blindness, more paralysis and heavier?/ Or placid skies and sun? Wilt stir the waters yet?/ Or haply cut me short for good? Or leave me here as now,/Dull, parrot-like and old, with crack’d voice harping, screeching?”  – What time is it?

Student: It’s ten past.

AG: Oh, I’m sorry, I’ve run on, Okay, I’ll answer questions as to whether Whitman’s psychological cosmos is a viable one or not, (in the next few days),  in several days….

[Audio for the above may be found here – the reading from “Song of Myself” beginning at approximately six minutes in, and running through to approximately forty minutes in]   

to be continued..

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