Friday, May 18, 2012

Final Project: A Conversation about Leaves of Grass

A Conversation about Leaves of Grass

For my project, I am building upon Whitman's reviewers and ideas on what poetry meant to people during the time. Instead of writing a long essay on the reviews, I decided to create a panel discussion based on popular strands of thought about Whitman's poems and have them discuss and debate amongst one another.

A - A pretentious elderly man with a bright red complexion who is a scholar of classical poetry.
B - A thin, scrawny, and bookish looking man who is stylishly dressed.
C - A homely but wholesome man who is very well dressed but the clothes are evidently well worn by now.
W - Walt Whitman incognito.
MC - The MC who facilitates discussion and does his best to mediate between the guest speakers.

Setting: The guest speakers all sit on chairs propped up on an elevated stage in front of an audience.

MC: Welcome to our discussion. Today we will be talking about a mysterious volume of poems titled Leaves of Grass that has been circulating amongst literary circles for some time now. Instead of talking about it myself, why don’t we let our guests talk instead?

A: First off, what in God’s name is this poet getting at? There is no name or publisher mentioned. There’s only this-this ridiculous self-portrait.

B: (pushes up spectacles) A ridiculous portrait indeed. I believe ah-Mr. Walt Whitman was it-is quite right when he described himself as “one of the roughs”. This is certainly no portrait of a poet. But perhaps Mr. Whitman is just demonstrating for us what a real natural poet looks like.

C: He looks exactly as he describes himself: a loafer. That carefree stance, hand in pocket, no proper coat or vest, and that casual hat he is wearing, truly the picture of a loafer. Although, if I may say, he looks very amiable to me. A hearty character.

W: That’s exactly it! Why should a poet look a certain way? If a rowdy, tough, and manly looking man wants to write poetry, who says he can’t?

D: I completely agree. A poet should be judged based on poetry and not appearances.

A: Certainly, but you must admit, it’s queer.

B: It’s fitting for the content of the work I dare say.

W: Walt Whitman is an American poet. This is what an American looks like! (gestures towards portrait) He is a man who writes like he has never before read anything of the great works.

A: (sarcastic) I would have to agree with you there. I haven’t a clue what Emerson was prattling on about when he gave it such high reviews.

W: What I mean is that he is a pioneer, an original!

A: It’s only original in that this Whitman character is trying to pass off the utterances of Tupper as poetry!

W: Why I-!

[Short intermission]

MC: I’m sorry we had to cut that segment short because of some heated differences in opinion. Let us get back to Leaves of Grass. Now that we’ve spoken more than enough about the poet’s illustration, let us move on to the contents of this volume.

A: Laughable. I sincerely applaud him for the attempt though. Truly, he is a man with one of the largest egos I have ever encountered. “I celebrate myself, And what I assume you shall assume.”

B: I believe he calls himself a “kosmos”.

A: Now what in the world does he mean by that kosmos? I honestly can’t make head or tails out of any of it.

W: Allow me to explain on behalf of the poet. Leaves of Grass is not a poem to be simply tasted and then cast aside. In order to fully appreciate and understand it, you must chew on the cud of the language and slowly let it digest in your stomach as it slowly releases new life into you. Of course it is difficult to comprehend at first! We are all so used to the old style of poetry, the imported European polite parlor poetry that we are at first, blinded by a poetry that is written for the everyday lives of what is in front of us! Leaves of Grass is all encompassing. It is hard to comprehend because European poetry is often so pointed and direct. It is hard to understand because it is the first of its kind! An American poet for America! This isn’t poetry written by gentility as they sip their fashionable tea out of their china porcelain cups. Whitman is an American bard! He is rough, hungry, bestial, affectionate, always eating, drinking, and breeding. He is the great outdoors. He loves men, he loves women, he particularly loves young men. The working man is his friend, everyone is his lover. He is not interested in the great monarchs, of kings or queens or of Homer and Virgil. He is interested in America down to her smallest spear of grass.

A: ...Exactly why I can’t make head or tails of it.

C: I do like his explanation. I found it quite illuminating. Certainly there is something naive about Mr. Whitman’s poetry, but also something quite poignant and honest about it. I do feel it is American. Like America, the poem is still in its infancy. There is much room for improvement. There are some remarkable lines in the poem, but also some that are simply downright foolish and misguided. It is a great beginning, but hardly comparable to the great European poets. Truly though, I see Mr. Whitman’s poetry as a mix between the New England Transcendentalist school of thought as well as New York Rowdy. It is a very interesting combination and produces startling effects that are beyond anyone’s ability to truly critique.

B: But you cannot argue that it is not crude or suitable for mixed audiences.

C: I would definitely not recommend any out loud readings to an audience. Although I find Mr. Whitman’s poetry to be quite refreshing, the subject matter and language is inappropriate.

A: How can you call it poetry if you can’t even properly present it to any civilized and educated individual? The language is primitive and the subject is primitive. It is not a poetry for America, it is a poetry for beasts!

W: Beasts? We are all beasts! At least it’s not catering and feeding our sick reliance on European poetry! I’d rather be a beast if that’s what it means to be American than some stunted effeminate child crippled by a European fetishism.

A: THIS BOOK DESERVES TO BE BURNED! (starts tearing out pages)


[Short intermission]

MC: I apologize once again for another intermission. Something as astounding and controversial as Leaves of Grass tends to bring out the more argumentative sides in our guests. Although we may not all share the same opinions on the poems, we are all at least in consensus that it is provocative. We are all literary people and are quite passionate about what we think poetry is or is not. So, before we conclude this very lively discussion, I would like to asks our guests what they truly think of Leaves of Grass as a poem.

A: It is not a poem. At least, I see nothing about it that suggests it is a poem except for the occasionally vivid description of some aspect of nature. There is no structure, no rhyme, and meter. An American bard? I beg to differ! They are not words that would come from a poet’s mouth, instead they are the ravings of some lunatic or a drunkard that one would hold their breath at while passing on the street. It is not poetry, it is merely spectacle and intrigue like that Barnum museum they have over in New York. An oddity meant to be gawked at by the uneducated commoner that knows nothing of real poetry. If Martin F. Tupper were to live in the backwoods of America reading Emerson and Carlyle day in and day out, perhaps he could recreate this monstrosity known as Leaves of Grass. Is there any merit to this book? I dare say there is not! The only significant thing about the existence of this work is to prove the point that Americans are nowhere near our European counterparts when it comes to literary pursuits if we think such trash as this could be considered poetry worthy of study.

B: As for me, I do agree with many of the points that Mr. A has brought up. Although I do see it being poetry, it is of the more oracular strain from one of those new schools of thought that the more bohemian generation enjoy experimenting with, but it is hardly what I would consider good poetry. It is simply too vulgar and obscene. What is the use of having poetry that one cannot dare to read out loud to an audience without being offensive? If one cannot share such poetry or converse with colleagues and acquaintances over it, what is the point of it? It may as well just be side-table decoration.

C: A truly fascinating volume of poetry. I believe it is too harshly judged for what it is not rather than for what it is. However, judging it for what it is is nearly impossible because it is the first of its kind and we do not have the sufficient tools to make any fair criticisms. I commend Mr. Whitman for being daring enough to try to carve way for an American poetic tradition. I do agree with Mr. B that it is simply too obscene and vulgar, but I will have to disagree with Mr. A in that it lacks all merit. Some of these scenes are quite brilliant and astute in feeling, emotion and beauty. Although much of the poem is reminiscent of an auctioneer listing as many items as he can as fast as he can, there are the occasionally bright gems in this volume that are worth noting and that provide profound insights. I do not recommend the poems to casual readers, but for those who, like myself, are always willing to consider things new and intriguing. Many will be offended by the poems, but there will also be those who will thoroughly enjoy what Mr. Whitman has to offer.

W: A poem for the American people written by the American people. This is a poem for the mechanics, the boatsman, the miners, the train conductors, the fisherman, the adventurer scaling the wilderness of the untamable America! This is not a poem for the snivelling effeminate men who hide behind their dusty books with their pale fragile knees under their antique desks. Poetry should reflect the people, it should be a record of their lives. Nature is beautiful and people are beautiful when they are at their most natural state. A poet does not choose sides. He is a lover and sympathizer of all. For the poet, there should be no difference, no discrimination and separation of the Northerner or the Southerner, the black and white, the man and woman, adult and child, the President or the citizens. People should not salute poetry, poetry should salute them! Rules and regulations should not confine American poetry. American poetry is about freedom, liberty, love, the intertwining of bodies, the growth of cities, birth and rebirth, the woods, nature, and the grass that is the root of us all.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Guthrie and Whitman

Is there a distinct relationship between art and politics?

Yes, there is a relationship between art and politics.

How do Whitman and Guthrie convey this relationship and what role do you think they believe the artist has in politics?

In Whitman's case, art creates culture and culture creates art. His poems were meant to uplift the common man, revealing certain social injustices and the limiting and oppressive practices of the elite. Guthrie as well, uses art to reveal the ironies of American life.

How do they each address/promote the idea of equality amongst American people?

Guthrie uses folk music, music of the people, to satirize the land. "This land was made for you and me" is the name of the song and is often repeated throughout, however, one can imagine as this was performed during the Great Depression that there was a caustic sense of humor in the lyrics. The land does not belong to "you and me".

Whitman uses poetry, as mentioned earlier, to uplift the common man and to equalize him with those deemed "superior" by society.

“Why what have you thought of yourself?
Is it you then that thought yourself less?
Is it that you thought the President greater than you?
or the rich better off than you?
or the educated wiser than you?"

How does Guthrie's approach to the turmoil of his time, and his attitude toward working-class people, compare to Whitman's?

-Both are putting emphasis and importance on the working and laboring class.

As a medium for inspiration and organization, how does music compare to poetry?

-Poetry is aimed at the literate who actually has time to go about reading and analyzing poetry. Music is for everyone. You don't need to read or be well edcuated to enjoy music.

How strong is the legacy of such artists today?
-Both are strong. I recall having to learn and sing  "This Land is Your Land" in elementary school. Though I believe, both of them are often misinterpreted. Guthrie's song is often accused of exactly the opposite message he is trying to portray and Whitman is often labelled a transcendentalist who writes a lot of pretty words.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Levine and Whitman

1) How would you describe the speaker's tone in these two poems?  How would you describe the tone of the speaker in Whitman's poems?
-The speaker in the two Levine poems are evidently of the laboring and working class. I would describe his tone as somewhat ironic. The speaker is a bit humorous (during "The Grave" he speaks of the son that quit collecting bottle caps, but not beer). A little judgmental but also understanding in his own way. At times the speaker is wallowing in his own misery, at others, he is analyzing the misery of others. Either way, misery for the masses who work. When comparing the tone/voice to Whitman's "A Song for Occupations" Whitman is not exactly placed among the working class as vividly as Levine is. Whitman chants and rallies in order to up heave the hierarchy and value of certain occupations while Levine appears be merely commenting.
2) While reflecting on the Whitman poems that we've read, and looking at these two Levine poems, are there any similar/different themes or issues that you can point out? 
-For one, Whitman's focus is uniting the binaries. In order to unite, he has to represent all. Levine takes a more personal stance in his poetry, preferring to focus on more immediate subjects, such as himself. However, in Levine's "My Graveyard" poem, he draws similar images of the wild, naked, and untamed man that Whitman invokes in his "Song of Myself". 
3) What do you think are some of the conclusions/final sentiments that the speakers in Levine and Whitman's poems come to in the end?
-Whitman seems to be trying to carve an American identity through poetry while Levine is proposing acknowledgement for the innumerable masses that are swept under the rug of labor. 
4) What direction(s) do you feel Whitman and Levine look towards (past, present, future)?  Why?
-For Levine, the future is bleak. Whitman is more optimistic.
5) What image of America do you get from the poems of Levine and Whitman?

-They both prefer to speak for the common working man. For Levine, there is a necessity for the American man to do labor, not only to live, but also to understand what it means to be American. For Whitman, an American is an American and each American has the right to belong to the poetry for America.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Project Evidence

For my Whitman project, I am revising and building upon my post on Whitman's reviewers. Check the previous post for what I want to do specifically with it.

Anyway, the evidence of learning that I'm considering presenting will probably take the form of a Socratic dialogue between different reviewers arguing and sharing their opinions on Whitman's work. The reason I want to make it a dialogue is because that way it's more like a conversation and there is a negotiating process between the reviewers (and perhaps Whitman might be there incognito) on what good poetry is supposed to be.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Project Development

I would like to develop my blog post about Whitman's reviewers.

A few things I want to do:
-Take a closer look at all the other reviews, particularly the ones written by Whitman.
-Find out why so many reviewers felt the need to talk about him.
-Filter out what it is about Whitman's poetry that is being focused on and what is being mentioned the most.
-Take note of the passages that the reviewers choose to represent his poetry and evaluate its accurateness.
-Further develop how the reviewers interpret Whitman.
-Fully answer what the reviewers believe to be poetry and why Whitman's divergence has made him the so-called father of American poetry. And then answer as to the purpose of poetry in carving out identity and social distinctions.

Tweet-a-week: Peter Doyle

Peter Doyle was Walt Whitman's lover.

But before we get into that, there should be some mention of Whitman's sexuality. It is generally accepted that Whitman was homosexual or at the very least bisexual. Oscar Wilde seems to think so and I'm sure he knows what he's talking about. However, Whitman himself has never commented on his sexuality or openly admitted to anything. All instances or evidence of his sexuality are only related through second hand sources.

Peter Doyle is undeniably Whitman's intimate friend who is assumed to have also been his lover. The two met in 1865 on a streetcar in Washington DC. At the time Whitman was 45 years old while Doyle was 21. Doyle was conducting the streetcar while Whitman was the only passenger seated. During that moment, the two became "the biggest of friends". The two were inseparable and openly affectionate towards each other. Friends and family knew of their intimate relationship and Doyle was often invited over to have dinner with Whitman and his family. As much as Whitman wanted it, the two never managed to live together since Doyle needed to stay at home to care of his widowed mother and siblings. Doyle was influential on Whitman's poems, particularly "O Captain! My Captain!" since Doyle was actually present during Lincoln's assassination.

16.4 was Whitman's nickname for Doyle, the numbers corresponding to the letters of the alphabet, 16 being P and 4 being D. Occasionally Whitman talked of Doyle in this manner in his journal. Later in his life, the pronoun for 16.4 changed from "him" to "her", suggesting that Whitman could never fully accept the public sphere knowing that he may have a more than friendly relationship with another man. Although this isn't too surprising due to his career and the times he was living in. Doyle and Whitman remained close till Whitman's death.

Sunday, March 11, 2012


Martin F. Tupper (1810-1889) was an English writer and poet. He had a rather distinguished and religious upbringing and was a scholarly type of man. Throughout his life he wrote and published many works of prose and poetry and was rather well-known in his day. Although he wasn't always thought of fondly (to be considered "Tupperish" by a reviewer was never good). However, if one were to mention his name, not many people would even have an inkling as to who he was, but he was influential in his own right.

Tupper was also Whitman's British contemporary and unsurprisingly, the two were inevitably compared as Matt Cohen points out in his article "Martin Tupper, Walt Whitman, and the Early Reviews of Leaves of Grass". A reviewer in 1856 basically says that if Tupper was banished to the middle of nowhere and was stuck reading Emerson and Carlyle until he lost his mind to the point hhe thought he was the "American Shakespeare", he would've written "a book exactly like Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass.


Although the reviewers seem to want to make the connection between Whitman and Tupper, they are quite different. What in the world could a upper-class Oxford man have to do with Whitman the b'hoy? Well, Cohen thinks that Whitman's poetry was shaped by Tupper's wonderfully quotable Proverbial Philosophy, a series of didactic writing any and every topic worth philosophizing about.

it is suggested that they had never met. Their ideologies are quite different (since Tupper was more of the upper aristocratic class while Whitman is a b'hoy). However, as pointed out by Cohen, there are similar properties between "Song of Myself" and Proverbial Philosophy. These are the two examples

I am untamed, a spirit free and fleet,
That cannot brook the studious yoke, nor be
Like some dull grazing ox without a soul,
But feeling racer's shoes upon my feet
Before my teacher starts, I touch the goal.
-"Are you a Great Reader?"
Oxen that rattle the yoke and chain or halt in the leafy shade, what is that you express in your eyes?
It seems to me more than all the print I have read in my life.
-"Song of Myself"
Cohen writes that that it would be quite interesting to consider that Whitman, the b'hoy, was influenced and shaped by Tupper. Although, even if Whitman was influenced by Tupper, it's not exactly wrong. After all, Whitman is supposed to be all encompassing in his poetry.