Thursday, April 26, 2012

Rukeyser: Book of the Dead

The addressing of a reader by the author/narrator is obviously very important to Walt Whitman. Typically, Whitman addresses a specific "you", being a lover, reader, or other general human being. In "Lilacs", however, he mostly addresses natural (not human) things, such as the star, springtime, a bird, and death itself. Rarely does Whitman address an actual human in "Lilacs", which, for me, creates some distance between myself and Walt. In "Song of Myself", I felt every bit as close to him as he tried to create a feeling for. But "Lilacs" made me think "Oh, wait...he's not even talking to me. I'll just walk away now and pretend I didn't believe Walt was trying to get close to me...again."

Murial Rukeyser does something a bit similar, but I still ended up feeling a sort of personal relationship being established with the reader. In "The Book of the Dead", Rukeyser is addressing both those who died in the Hawk's Nest Incident, and those who are unappreciative of their labor and sacrifice. The "you", I feel, never directly addresses the reader; but I still feel a larger sense of a push for personal mourning. Almost as if Rukeyser herself is saying "Hey! Reader! Do you hear what I'm telling these other people? Don't forget! Don't keep silent! Don't stand alone!" The difference here between Rukeyser and Whitman are the pushiness toward the reader. I feel like Rukeyser, by addressing humans who are NOT the reader, is addressing the reader vicariously, giving both parties the same message. Whitman's message only tells me "Oh yeah, by the way, I walked with death the other day. Both deaths, actually. And I got to hear a bird sing. And I was in mourning, then suddenly I was like 'OMG. I don't fear death anymore!' And now I'm not so sad" :) Good for you, Walt. But Muriel never directly addresses herself, so I feel like it's less about her and more about us. What happened to us, Walt?!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Lilacs vs. 9-11

The first 9-11 poem I looked at was Bidart's "Curse", and I was, in a word, surprised. I expected to find something as elegiac, mournful, and peaceful as "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd". Instead, "Curse" is vengeful and strangely passive-aggressive. The tones of sadness in "Lilacs" and "Curse" are completely different; where "Lilacs" is melancholy, "Curse" is quietly, covertly malicious. Although both poems are free verse, the different approaches to loss cause the poems to appear as if they're in different styles. When read side-by-side, "Curse" makes the nature content and metaphorical language of "Lilacs" stand out, and "Lilacs" highlights the fact that "Curse" seems like some vengeful witch, laying in wait and whispering a secret spell to bring eternal doom to the wrong-doers. Actually, now that I think about it, "Curse" kind of makes me think of the witches in Macbeth. Is that too farfetched?

The other poem I felt was particularly successful was Brown's "The Old Neighborhood". This one feels a lot closer to Whitman's "Lilacs" in its melancholy tone. Brown's poem is a true lament, and uses detailed images to provoke feelings of loss and remembrance in the reader, just as Whitman does in "Lilacs". Although the two poems differ in the types of imagery ("Lilacs" is full of nature; "Neighborhood" visualizes a concrete jungle and the people in it), they both contain thought-provoking concepts (although "Lilacs" contains many concepts, mostly metaphorical, and "Neighborhood" contains only one overt concept, that being the continuance of life for one survivor contemplating those whose lives once did, but can no longer, exist in tandem).

All three of these poems expose different sides of dealing with a collective loss/national tragedy. I chose those two particular 9-11 poems because of their subjects and how the subjects can be compared to Whitman's subject. "Lilacs" mourns only one person, and focuses on one tragic death. "Curse" also only focuses on one person, though the event in question killed thousands of people. The difference between the subjects of "Lilacs" and "Curse" is that in "Lilacs" the subject was a victim of the event (Lincoln's death) and in "Curse" the subject is responsible for the event (9-11). Though both poems focus on only a single person, the subjects are at opposing ends of a national tragedy. In contrast to both "Lilacs" and "Curse", "The Old Neighborhood" focuses on many different people. But, like "Lilacs", the subjects are victims of the event.
In the treatment of their subjects, the poems reveal the different ways of dealing with loss. "Lilacs" is a melancholy elegy that displays longing for the dead and being trapped in one's own mourning (of someone who was closely and dearly loved). "Curse", of course, displays the anger and desire for vengeance that accompanies loss. "Neighborhood" displays remembrance of the dead, but not necessarily longing or excessive mourning, and doesn't discuss a dear, lost loved one, but rather friendly acquaintances whose names were unknown.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Expanded Project: Pop Culture

A couple weeks ago, we all researched Walt Whitman's appearances in pop culture/modern mass media. That was one of the most interesting thing's I've ever learned concerning Whitman. Not only is the amount of references astounding, but the fact that most of his modern appearances twist and misrepresent his image. The things that Whitman represented during his lifetime have altered since his death, especially in mass media culture. I'd like to explore WHY this happened, and WHY marketers tend to pick Walt Whitman, of all people, just to misrepresent him. I'd also like to analyze the types of things he appears in (what kinds of advertisements/tv shows/etc.) and how that builds a modern image of Whitman.
Doing this project and further exploring the questions I have presented will teach me what Walt Whitman means to America today, and why we still consider him to be so important and worthy of pop culture references. In comparing the image of 1800's Walt to modern Walt, I'll also learn more about who he was back then, and thus gain a better understanding of the ideals he represented in his own time.
To present this project, I thought about making a video-plus-slideshow, in which I would present images of Walt Whitman in post-1900 mass culture, and after each image or two, I would analyze the use of Walt's image to get the media's point across. At the end, I would relate my analyses back to 1800's Walt and what he represented then. I feel like a video would be way more interesting than a regular slideshow, because in a video, I could just be explaining the images in a nifty voice-over, and have the option to include my face if I needed to use hand gestures or something.

In a somewhat unrelated note, last week I had a dream about Walt. It was incredibly surreal and enlightening. I was sitting in a field of grass in Nowheresville, and Walt just sat down beside me and started chatting. The first thing he said was "You don't like me very much, do you?" and I responded honestly "It's not that I don't like you, I just don't understand you. But you're most certainly not my favorite." He smiled at that. Then he hugged me (in his big bear-ness) and said "I'm sure you'll come to realize me in time." And he left. And I sat there in my dreamy field of grass for a long time, just watching things. Loafing. And when I woke up, I liked Walt a little more.

Peter Doyle Hearts Walt Whitman

I'll just start off by saying that I support the theory that Peter Doyle was probably Walt's gay lover, and that's just dandy. They were probably a darling couple :)

But in all seriousness, Doyle was on of Walt's largest inspirations and probably his biggest emotional support. What a great guy!

Doyle was an Irishmen with a mysterious birth date. He came to America with (most of) his family when he was 8 years old, and from then on did quite a bit of stuff. He joined the Fayette Artillery as a barrel maker; then, one week later, he joined the Confederate Army when the Civil War broke out. All that time he was just a short distance away from Walt's brother George, who was a member of the 51st New York Volunteers. Then, Doyle wanted out. He falsified (just slightly) some personal information to get a discharge from the military, and that was granted to him in November of 1862 (he had fought in the war for 17 months). After his Civil War experience, there are some notes about Doyle being held prisoner in the Old Capital complex for about a month. From what I researched, people assume he was a prisoner of war or something, but I couldn't find any details about that in the notes and journal entries by Doyle or Whitman.

After escaping from prison (that's right; that bad-ass escaped, apparently), Doyle worked two jobs: one in a Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., and the other as a horsecar conductor, which looks like this:

I posted that, in case someone else didn't know what a horsecar was. I certainly didn't.

In 1865, during his time as a conductor, Doyle met good ol' Walt. They would have been an interesting pair to observe, I think. Walt was already middle-aged by then, while Doyle was still a young man of 22. Walt was tall, perhaps over 6 feet; Doyle was supposedly 5'8". Walt was an intellectual self-learned man; Doyle had a very modest education. Nevertheless, they obviously got along quite well (maybe really well, if you know what I mean), together probably right up until Walt died. Peter Doyle was Walt Whitman's muse, and there are many notes written by Walt that praise Doyle.

And now, these two photos:

This one is on the main blog site, but I found a note about this particular photo. Walt asked a friend what the picture (specifically Walt's expression) suggested; the friend said "Fondness, and Doyle should be a girl."

And this one, where Walt is obviously sitting. They're so cute! ^.^

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Specimen Days: Death of President Lincoln

This entry caught my attention at first because of its title. I figured Walt would have a word or two to say about the death of Lincoln. However, it was lacking in the "Celebrate Abe" department. Instead, this entry celebrates the indestructibility of the Nation. Whitman personifies War and the Nation beautifully, and he makes obvious his belief that America as a united nation will survive the Civil War. He acknowledges death in war as not only inevitable, but also as some sort of necessary labor that keeps the rest of the nation pressing forward. Wonderful imagery of Death and a united, powerful Nation.

Whitman doesn't skip over Lincoln entirely. He does indeed praise him, as expected, but it is this praising of the late president that leads him into his celebration of Nation, because "[Lincoln was assassinated -- but the Union was not assassinated". The words Whitman uses to describe Lincoln's personality (in his opinion) are, in my opinion, not as poetic as he usually is. "Greatest" AND "best"? Really, Walt? Moral, I understand. But I'm not sure what he means by "most characteristic" and "artistic". When I think of Abe Lincoln, "artistic" is hardly a word that comes to mind. And characteristic of what?

Another small detail that made me do a triple-take was the inclusion of "├ža ira!" It's a French phrase, meaning "It'll be fine" with a sort of passive "Oh, don't worry about it" attitude. I found it strange that Whitman included an exclamation point after it, which changes the mood of the phrase a bit. And the fact that it follows his statement made about how, even though the president was assassinated, the Union is still alive. "Oh, it'll be fine!" Such faith, Walt.

Tweet of the Week: Martin F. Tupper

Martin F. Tupper was a less-than-famous writer of rather intrinsic and obvious moral advice. I hope that summary of his life's work wasn't too harsh. I browsed through some of his bits of verse and proverbial wisdom, and I wasn't impressed outright (in both senses of the word). But the phrase that stuck with me was “A good book is the best of friends, the same today and for ever.” That one hit home for this literature major.

But how does this passionate proverb pedant relate to whimsical Walt Whitman? That answer came to me faster than I thought it might. When I first looked up Tupper's work, I thought "What the hell? He's not like Whitman at all!" And I feel like that's exactly the point. The men are contemporaries of each other, writing at almost the exact same time. Tupper's Proverbial Philosophy was published just 4 years before the first edition of Leaves of Grass. However, as Whitman was busy celebrating nakedness in nature and being as physically close as possible with everything in the world, Tupper was trying to scold the world for its apparent lack of virtue.

Whitman doesn't seem to be too interested in throwing his beliefs in others' faces. Sure, he talks a lot about the things he loves and celebrates, but he's not commanding the world to obey any proverbs he's written down. With these two men side-by-side, they seem like extreme ends of the spectrum. Walt is so laid back and one with nature, and Tupper seems like a hard-ass who needs to lighten up a bit. It's no wonder that, by the 1860's, Tupper's name gained a bit of a negative connotation in the literary world. For a literary work to be "tupperish" was...well...bad, I guess. I'm also not surprised that I had never heard of him before. The world of the 1850's and beyond obviously enjoyed Whitman's work better, because ol' Martin F. Tupper seems to have fallen out of renown.

What's really crazy about Tupper and Whitman, though, is that they actually have something in common. Woah. It has nothing to do with their social or political beliefs (which, of course, they differed on). But they both wrote in free/blank verse. I found out that Whitman (possibly...haven't confirmed it yet) owned Proverbial Philosophy, and probably liked Tupper's form quite a bit. What's even more interesting to me is how free verse seems to fit nicely with the themes of Whitman's poetry, but doesn't really represent the religious, moral, structured themes of Tupper's works.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Whitman Breaks Into the Twentieth Century

"Blades of Grass" Cigars: Late in the 19th century and very early in the 20th century, Camden's Grocers' Exchange created a series of "Walt Whitman products", including cigars, cigarettes, medicine, pencils, insurance, and ice cream. All of the products featured a portrait of an aged Walt Whitman, and many featured the slogan "Ask your grocer for Walt Whitman products." As a specific example, the cigars were advertised as "a poetic comfort", and not only promoted the loafing, laid-back image that Whitman embodied, but also promoted Leaves of Grass as the perfect reading companion. Here is the image that was featured on the top of the Blades of Grass "Whitman Cigars":

As a side note, I find it interesting that the Camden company used the name "Blades of Grass" for the cigars, instead of Leaves of Grass. Perhaps a copyright issue? Also, the reason why the Camden company used Whitman's image so prevalently is because Camden, NJ (where the company was based) was the town where Whitman spent his retirement.


The Twilight Zone ("I Sing the Body Electric", Season 3, episode 35):

This episode of The Twilight Zone directly quotes from Whitman's "I Sing the Body Electric". The episode obviously borrows the title of the poem, but also uses the second line "The armies of those I love engirth me, and I engirth them." The episode also mimics Whitman's listing of various body parts (in section 9 of the poem) when listing choice options for building the robot.

I found it interesting how, in the poem, especially in section 2, Whitman reflects on the beauty of the bodily expression of humans, and the descriptions of bodily movements makes humans seem very fluid and natural. In contrast, The Twilight Zone episode is about a robot who appears human. But nothing can hide the fact that she's a robot (especially the fact that she's virtually indestructible and defies death), so it's really ironic and funny that they cited a poem about the natural human body in an episode about a machine.

Also: at 8:25 in the YouTube video, I laughed so hard at the voice options when they all recited lines from "I Sing the Body Electric" and "Song of Myself". The creepy guy who runs the shop even directly cites if all the other clues weren't enough for the audience to figure it out.


Borders Bookshop: In the 1990's, the espresso bar of a Borders store in Minnetonka, Minnesota altered the image of Whitman with a butterfly to have him holding a cup of coffee instead.

Original image:

Borders image:

The use of this image was interesting to me, mostly when considering why Borders chose this specific image. Whitman is leaning back on something with one hand in his pocket, in a fairly relaxed position, but he is also gazing at what's in his hand with...I suppose "approval" is a good word. Holding the butterfly up (in the original image) looks as though he's holding up the very idea of nature. He is able to loaf and experience a bit of nature on the tip of his finger. This idea carries over to the altered image used at Borders. Whitman is still relaxed and loafing, but now he's enjoying a good cup of espresso, raising it up as if to toast nature and say "Well done! Thank you for this coffee!"