The Uses of Whitman

October 23, 2009 § Leave a comment

Whitman appeared in the news recently, as he does every once and again. A statue of Whitman at a university in Moscow was dedicated by Secretary of State Clinton. Gay activists in Russia were upset that no mention was made of Whitman’s homosexuality nor of repression of gays in Russia. It is interesting to see how Whitman is viewed and used by those outside of the academy–and whether we might agree with assertions made for and on behalf of Whitman.

The link is: Russian Gays Express Disappointment

Whitman has also been appearing recently in a commercial for jeans; in one case, his actual voice, recorded on wax late in his life, reading a fragment from the poem “America.” [thanks to Emmy and Kevin for pointing me to this] I presume that Whitman would find this revenance, living on in America (and popular culture, no less), stirring.

You might also consider how poets since Whitman have used him and talked back, answered him or challenged him. In other words, not only been influenced by him, but made the influence explicit or the subject of a poem. Here is what searching for “Whitman” at the Poetry Foundation will get you.

You can also find there our own Mark Nowak (Lit House Director) writing about Whitman and the poetics of work and class as viewed through a contemporary Cambodian poet, U Sam Oeur. Professor Nowak will be speaking with us about this poet and Whitman in an upcoming class.

One of the ways Whitman is being used and explored by people outside of the academy, as well as within, is through the Whitman Archive. We will be looking at it in class; I suggest you begin to browse through it. You will find there the letter Emerson writes to Whitman in response to his reading of the 1855 Leaves of Grass; also, what Whitman does with that letter. We see that poets and writers have been talking back to Whitman–and Whitman talking to them, and to us–from the very beginning.

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