Expansive Poetics – 12 (Walt Whitman – 1)

Walt Whitman

AG: With (Walt) Whitman what I want to do is.. With Whitman I thought now we’re getting into the heart of the 20th Century expansion and expansiveness. So what I’ll do next – this class and the next class (is ) -a sequence of Whitman, followed by sons of Whitman or admirers of Whitman -heroic poets reflecting Whitman.  So it would be Fernando Pessoa in Portugal, 1904, writing an “Ode to Walt Whitman” (Saudação a Walt Whitman) and then (Federico) Garcia Lorca

Student: How do you spell that?

AG:  P-E-S-S-O-A – Fernando Pessoa. He’s the great 20thCentury poet of Portugal. And he’s a really funny poet, totally amazing. I never read any of his work until a couple of years ago, till a guy named Ray Ronci, (who teaches up at C(olorado) U(niversity) – (now at University of Missouri) gave me this book. Total enthusiasm and madness.

Then Lorca’s “Ode to Walt Whitman” and Hart Crane’s address to Whitman (in “The Bridge”  there’s a sequence). So, take Whitman as an inspirer and see what he inspired.

How many here have read Whitman? Everybody. How many here  have read a little Whitman, just a little. And how many have read Whitman extensively? Has anybody read all through Whitman ever? Or, let’s say, all through “Song of Myself”? – Yeah, it’s amazing how most people know him but I can’t figure out if people know him well or not, whether it’s ingrained.

His basic statement is a coming back to himself, returning to himself as the standard, returning to his own mind and his own body and his own speech as the standard from which to look at the world, rather than trying to live up to somebody else’s standard, or, examining the original data of his own senses

[tape ends here]  [tape continues with the next class (four days later)]

When we left off, we were on (Walt) Whitman…I was on Whitman and I want to go through a little bit more of Whitman, since most people haven’t read him complete (and probably very few here have read his old-age poetry either). But I want to just pick out a few lines that I like and have used myself.

He’s got a long section ((33)) in “Song of Myself”) where he has a visionary list poem of himself scaling mountains, walking paths, listening to quail whistling, riding on a half-burned brig in the ocean, wandering around the barnyard near the hayrick, following herds of buffalo, splashing with swimmers, and “Looking in at the shop-windows of Broadway the whole forenoon, flatting the flesh of my nose on the thick plate glass”. I think he’s the only one who ever noticed that. I mean, everybody’s seen that, done it themselves, done it in a mirror – flattening the flesh of their nose, well, okay. He put it aptly.

“I am an old artillerist – I tell of my fort’s bombardment,/I am there again. – This is in a series where he’s just empathizing with all sorts of roles in society and tragic and comic actions

And section 34 begins, after pages of this – “Now I tell what I knew in Texas in my early youth.” – Of course, he’s never been there.

Then section 35 begins “Would you hear of an old-fashion’d sea-fight?” – and he goes on through that.

Then, I think, the greatest line, the greatest unnoticed line in Whitman (which I used recently, to paraphrase, in a poem called “Ode to Failure”which I’ll read here (Naropa) tomorrow-night) is (from section 37) – “Not a mutineer walks handcuff’d to jail, but I am handcuff’d to him and walk by his side/(I am less the jolly one there, and more the silent one, with sweat on my twitching lips.)” – I think that’s a terrific piece of empathy. It’s his “Ode to Failure”, so to speak. In other words, he wasn’t afraid to empathize or imagine himself – to emphasize with a victim, or imagine himself.. with a loser. He wasn’t afraid to empathize with what (Bob) Dylan would call  a “local loser”. Remember, “his nurse, some local loser”. What song is that?

Student: “Desolation Row”

AG: “Desolation Row”. He’s not afraid to go out on Desolation Row and empathize with the “local loser”. And in this case, very accurately observed – “I am less the jolly one there, and more the silent one, with sweat on my twitching lips”

Well, a little mention of Buddha. “Magnifying and applying come I” – In Section 41 – “Magnifying and applying come I/Outbidding at the start the old cautious hucksters, /Taking myself the exact dimensions of Jehovah/Lithographing Kronos, Zeus his son, and Hercules his grandson/Buying drafts of Osiris, Isis, Belus, Brahma, Buddha/In my portfolio placing Manito loose, Allah on a leaf, the crucifix engraved,/With Odin, and the hideous-faced Mexitli, and ev’ry idol and image,/Taking them all for what they are worth and not a cent more” – That’s witty, I thought – “Lithographing Kronos”, “In my portfolio” – as if he were a banker of images – “In my portfolio placing (the American Indian God) Manito loose”

Then Section 42 – “This is the city and I am one of the citizens,/Whatever interests the rest interests me – politics, wars, markets, newspapers. schools/Benevolent societies, improvements, banks, tariffs, steamships, factories, stocks, stores,/ real estate and personal estate.” – He had asked for the muse to come into he kitchen, or into the brokerage house, or into the business man’s cubicle. So he brought him in.

And then follows that with answering a basic criticism that’s always leveled on him. “I know perfectly well my own egotism/I know my omnivorous lines, and will not write any less./And would fetch you, whoever you are, flush with myself” – Why not write any less? Anybody got any sense of the egotism here, or the afflatus, or the chutzpah doing that? – I like the line  “I know perfectly well my own egotism/Know my omnivorous lines” – which all these are – “omnivorous” – he’ll eat anything. He’ll be anything. He’ll empathize with anything, even a creepy prisoner with sweat dripping from his twitching lips.

[to be continued..]

[Audio for the above is available here, beginning at approximately four minutes in and concluding approximately ten minutes in] 

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