Whitman’s Challenge To Future Poets

It is my habit to read a chunk of Walt Whitman‘s poetry in the spring when the first warm days of summer allow me to sit in the yard in a comfortable chair and in typical Whitmanesque fashion “lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.”

For me, Whitman’s poetry should be read outside and, if possible, amid the banter and bang of everyday commerce. He once said, “I am nearly always successful with the reader in the open air.” I enjoy reading Whitman at sidewalk cafes on side streets without too many cars yet amid plenty of bustle. Outdoor food courts with lots of pedestrian traffic are wonderful. The only better locations involve the excited voices of ten or more children at play. In such places it seems easier to take in the breadth of Whitman’s long lines which brim with the boisterous American scenes. Add the sun’s heat and an occasional unruly breeze and Whitman’s sweet lines go down like sipped ice tea.

As the year ends, I’ve taken up Whitman again. Despite being practically cloistered indoors, I can see and hear his re-creation of the 19th century street scenes with its wide glance across a variegated human realm. On more than one occasion the thought crossed my mind that Whitman might have been some kind of alien probe sent from some far galaxy. How else to explain his radical turn in American poetry. He immortalized the street, the commoner, and the everyday.  They were as holy to him as the most glorious church or pious saint. How else to explain the gargantuan ego filled with tender solicitude for his fellow man? Whitman was a poet as big as the American landscape yet surprisingly he know well his limitations.

Early on he knew he could not complete his great poetic experiments. Early on Whitman floated the idea that his poetry was but a beginning and would later be finished by others. In the poem, “Poets To Come,” he speaks directly to the poets of the future. “But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than before known,//Arouse! For you must justify me.” “Leaving it to you to prove and define it,//Expecting the main things from you.”

I don’t see merely egotistical motives that Whitman sees future poets expanding and completing his work. I see this more magnanimously. Whitman had opened up the poetic landscape to include any and every subject. He was criticized and shunned by critics for this magnanimous vision. They said he was too sensual, too pedestrian, too crude, too inclusive, too romantic, too transcendental but they couldn’t put the genie he conjured back in the box. Whitman could not be contained (though he could be co-opted as this commercial did) but also he could only do what one man can do.

Other poets followed him and began to expand his work. Poets do this every time they write in a line longer than 10 metrical beats or write in free verse. They do it whenever they struggle to free themselves from formulaic boxes — whether metrical or thematic.  Whitman fought many poetic battles. He transcended the naysayers, both internal and external, by remaining true to himself. In, “Song of Myself,” he sings, “I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you,//And you must not be abased to the other.”

Are you one of Whitman’s future poets? Is the other you not at war with your Soul? Can we expect “the main things from you.”?

Let me know. Comment below.


Blogger, writer, protester

I am taking the lid off a few stray thoughts today. I hope you enjoy what is in my news drop box.

I see that a blogger is being persecuted, not prosecuted, for not being a “professional” journalist. Though the freedom of expression is protected under the law, instituted in part specifically to protect amateur colonial journalists, the judicial system likes to split hairs so as to create haves and have-nots. There is another story about a French teacher who became a writing sensation by writing on weekends. His novel is not only published but won a prestigious award. Then time magazine anoints “the protester” as the person of the year. The ubiquitous protester represents the spirit of rebellion both for freedom and against excesses in the financial sphere. There are curious similarities to all these stories. They also show the struggle and pitfalls, successes and failures as we live very public lives at the beginning of this, the century of the Information Age.

The persecuted blogger reminds me that judges make bad decisions based on loyalties to outmoded world views and corporate interests. (I’m being generous here.) The French novelist reminds me that perseverance, that of sitting hours laboring with your words, sometimes pays off and that, more than any Web popularity poll, this tenacity is the heart of being a writer. Time magazine’s person of the year tells me that a passion for social change begins small but can quickly sweep the world when it captures the imagination of people.

There is always something to learn in the stories we read. As bloggers we need to support each other in the legal sphere and work to reform laws, especially those selectively enforced and motivated to keep the lower classes in their place. Yes, bloggers, you are journalists. As writers we should be determined to put in the time both reading and writing so our stories resonate truth and beauty to our readers. As activist protesters we have the right and responsibility to push public attention away from trivialities and onto essential human rights issues. As bloggers, writers and protesters, we can make a substantial contribution. So get out your pen, your paper, your laptop, your walking (protest) shoes, your books, and your brains and show up ready for anything thrown at you on the page, in the courts or on the streets. We are bloggers, writers, and protesters and by our words we can not help but challenge this world.

The Drag and Battle

Another prose poem mined from my private journal.

Whatever happened to youthful forgetfulness, the blithe freedom of living in the now with no thought of the past or the accumulated baggage that we drag behind us like ball and chain? This was the gift of youth before we were cursed by our own gnawing wants which can never be fulfilled, no matter how many things we buy or people we irritate or dominate. We still glimpse our gift on occasion: a young girl in sun dress, arms elegantly raised above her head, twirling in a parking lot or we see it in the ruddy-cheeked boy with skinned knees, carrying a stick like a staff,  a soiled bandanna wrapped round a sweaty brow, fresh from a great campaign battling dragons and demons — the creatures that threaten his secret cave. Oh, that we could fight this battle dancing without thought of injury or what others might dismiss. Who said you were not Gilgamesh, a true conquer, a hero in this world. Only the man no longer listening to his dreams.

Questions at the mirror

Sometimes it is valuable to just write and leave the editing to a minimum. This is the idea behind the words below. They were in response to a prompt from Kellie Elmore. Her blog, Magic in the Backyard, offers a writing prompt each Friday. The task was to look in the mirror and write what you see. 

Your eyes squint almost shut and your hair, what happened to your hair? And the smile, where is the smile? It looks rather forced. Is there a snake oil salesman in this house? Did I just wake up and met a stranger? Does age move so fast? Or was I simply forgetful? Maybe I did not believe in time? Maybe I denied reality or believed in immortality? And why did I not grow up here inside? Face and hands, why did you go on ahead without me? Why leave me standing on youth’s threshold while you traveled the deserts of the world where the moisture is taken from the skin and the dirt in the cracks on this face appear as if someone was trying to sculpt a new face from the old? Is this the way the world takes back this body we borrow?  Mirror, is this what you mean by showing me this stranger? Is this the way the body keeps us alive and shows us that we need to find a new home before it’s too late? Maybe I can live in these words forever.

Rereading A Country Between Us

There is that old platitude about reading widely to expand your horizons, yet once in a while a book comes along that convinces the reader to retreat into a literary cocoon. Some reading is painful. I have a hunch this is why some people retreat into sentimental novels and saphappy poetry. This may be the case for some readers of Carolyn Forché’s, A Country Between Us. After reading it in the early 80’s I was unnerved by her personal bravery and riveted by her literary sophistication. Rereading more than three decades later, it still provokes and disturbs. More than this is directs our attention where it should always be, on the human cost of tyranny, injustice and war.

I like to think the best literature is timeless and wrestles beauty from an ugly world. A Country Between Us, Forché’s second book of poems, accomplished this feat with pluck and grace. Published in 1981it made me aware of horrors I didn’t want to know my country’s government implicitly and sometimes directly supported.  Through the lens of this women’s poignant lyric poetry, I was shown how tenacious hope lives amid those who would crush it. “As she walked through her village // the site of her opened its windows. // It was simple. She had come // to flesh out the memory of a poet // whose body was never found.” This was a poetry both biographic, historic and metapoetic. These poems re-sensitize us to the beauty of the human spirit in the pitch battle against cruelties inflicted on innocents in the name of democracy.

The book generated a barnstorm of critical literary reflection that continues to this day. It broke new literary ground by placing the political prominently into the personal poem. She was not the first or fortunately the last to do this but she did it with astonishing results. The Country Between Us spread across the American poetic landscape like a flash flood fertilizing sterile valleys. Her slim volume of poems won the Lamont Poetry Selection prize and even became a bestseller — an almost impossible feat in American poetry. Since then, Forché has become one of the most decorated of American poets, yet like all contemporary American poets, she is not a household name.

Poetically, The Country Between Us unveiled new possibilities for the poem. Up to this time, the poetry establishment (like the majority of Americans) ignored the messy, murky and arcane business of international politics. The support of dictators, despots and deadbeats (read Manuel Noriega, Papa Doc Duvalier, Myanmar Gaddafi) went under the radar of the general public and the mass media. With great skill she brought inside the poem horrific images, yet she did so without dulling our emotional responses with overwrought poetic effects or putting us off with didactic rants—never lecturing us on corrupt foreign policy. What she did do with unflinching aim was show us the enormous cruelties, both physical and emotional, inflicted on innocent people caught in the cross fire of  civil war. “…people who rescue physicists, lawyers and poets // lie in their beds at night with reports // of mice introduced into women, of men // whose testicles are crushed like eggs.”

The book reads somewhat like a lyrical travelogue exploring the themes of admiration and alienation. It addresses the tender and painful emotional distance between people – thus the country between us. “I am the women whose photograph // you will not recognize, whose face // emptied your eyes, whose eyes // were brief, like the smallest // of cities we slipped through.” Another explores the world of strangers she returns too: “…a woman who has so rubbed her bright grey eyes // during grief that all she has seen can be seen in them //the century, of which twenty years are left,  // several wars, a fire of black potatoes.” Yet another tells of a naïve young women being admonished by an older,  savvy woman: “Your problem is not your life as it is // in America, not that your hands, as you // tell me, are tied to do something. It is // that you were born to an island of greed// and grace where you have this sense // of yourself as apart from others.”  In addition to this unifying theme, these poems are memoirs of witness of regional wars which leave lasting personal scars and haunting memories.

Like many writers, Forché had the curious luck as a young writer of traveling in a country torn by war. She traveled with an Amnesty International group as an activist when the El Salvadoran civil war of 1978 began.  There she met activists and legendary figures of the leftist revolution, the beleaguered poor and a wealthy colonel who became the subject of what would become a well known prose poem (excerpted below). In her presence this  unnamed colonel becomes unglued and issues a terrifying rant because he mistakenly believes Forché and her companion were U.S. government operatives. This moment among others changed her forever and helped to shape one of America’s outstanding contemporary poets.

As you read this excerpt from The Colonel, you find yourself in the room, not merely as a fly on the wall but as a potential victim. As the narrative progresses the tension rises and terror and fear overtakes the room. This is a rare picture of an evil man capable of civility and hospitality or cruelties and mass murder. This prose poem reminds me of those circles of hell described by Dante, but in this hell there is the uninterrupted terror of unchecked abuse of authority and no sense of social or divine justice. This is a portrait of a man blinded by his rationalizations from which he can justify any murderous cruelty in the name of civil order.

This poem, like the book it appeared in, is useful in understanding contemporary literary history and revolutionary history of democratic movements at large. It also gives us some perspective on contemporary democracy movements not only in Central and South America but those of the Arab world. There seem to be no end of men willing to shed innocent blood in the name of order, progress or patriotism. We should remember too that our history is littered with the blood of people who ran afoul of the cruel arm of governmental authority and out of this blood freedom was hard won in but a few places.

Warning: though this excerpt is no more distasteful then what most people see in action films or nightly television, its impact and greater since it represents historic crimes and atrocities against once living and breathing human beings — atrocities that continue around the globe in the name of law and order, leadership and governance.

…On the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We had
dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for
calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of
bread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief
commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away….There was
some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot
said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed
himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say
nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries
home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like
dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one
of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water
glass. It came alive there…

You can read the entire poem and hear it read by the author hereThe Country Between Us, by Carolyn Forché, Copper Canyon Press, 1981.