Whitman’s Gymnastic Reading

October 15, 2015 § Leave a comment

Where does Whitman leave us as readers? Once we put his book down, where are we? I think for Whitman, the answer is that we are never far from that book, even if we are meant to leave the book behind. Think of the various images Whitman presents for the metonymic relation he desires and asserts between his writing and his reader.

The closing lines of “Song of Myself”: “if you want me again look for me under your boot-soles/… I stop somewhere waiting for you”

The closing  lines from “So Long!” that Whitman adds in 1860 to close Leaves of Grass:

This is no book,
Who touches this, touches a man,
(Is it night? Are we here alone?)
It is I you hold, and who holds you,
I spring from the pages into your arms—decease
calls me forth.

Whitman’s notion of gymnastic reading, described toward the end of Democratic Vistas (a long essay he writes in the late 1860s) suggests why he is hesitant to define things:

Prospecting thus the coming unsped days, and that new order in them — marking the endless train of exercise, development, unwind, in nation as in man, which life is for — we see, fore-indicated, amid these prospects and hopes, new law-forces of spoken and written language — not merely the pedagogue-forms, correct, regular, familiar with precedents, made for matters of outside propriety, fine words, thoughts definitely told out — but a language fann’d by the breath of Nature, which leaps overhead, cares mostly for impetus and effects, and for what it plants and invigorates to grow — tallies life and character, and seldomer tells a thing than suggests or necessitates it. In fact, a new theory of literary composition for imaginative works of the very first class, and especially for highest poems, is the sole course open to these States. Books are to be call’d for, and supplied, on the assumption that the process of reading is not a half sleep, but, in highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle; that the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay — the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or frame-work. Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does. That were to make a nation of supple and athletic minds, well-train’d, intuitive, used to depend on themselves, and not on a few coteries of writers.

And, it might not surprise you, the ways that Whitman, late in his life, recounts his relation to Emerson and what he calls “Emersonianism.” Whitman presents the relation as a resistance. This is from an 1880 essay titled “Emerson’s Books (The Shadows of Them)” which concludes:

The reminiscence that years ago I began like most youngsters to have a touch (though it came late, and was only on the surface) of Emerson-on-the-brain—that I read his writings reverently, and address’d him in print as “Master,” and for a month or so thought of him as such—I retain not only with composure, but positive satisfaction. I have noticed that most young people of eager minds pass through this stage of exercise.    6
  The best part of Emersonianism is, it breeds the giant that destroys itself. Who wants to be any man’s mere follower? lurks behind every page. No teacher ever taught, that has so provided for his pupil’s setting up independently—no truer evolutionist.

What makes these lines and words “metonymic,” or an element of Whitman’s metonymic poetics? It is the relation, the “touch,” asserted (and desired) between the various elements of the poet (writing, words, books, pages, ideas. language, voice) and the persons receiving that touch, the audience, the reader (his or her hands, holding the book, eyes reading the pages). Metonymy, recall, is the figure of contextual and contiguous (near, touching) relationship: the part that tells a larger story of a larger whole to which it relates. The writing–and by extension for Whitman, the writer–is condensed into the language, thereby making it communicable to a reader, making it available for travel across the gulf of great differences and distances (“distance avails not”). And, this condensation of meaning, even as it enables translation to a reader, demands of that reader an active role in the process of translation. The reader has to uncompress what has been compressed. The reader, as Whitman assumes, has to finish the book.

Where do we see this in Whitman’s poetry?

How does this relate to Emerson’s poetics–his theory of poetry?

Do we see something different with Dickinson, whose shorter poems would seem to rely more on the incredible force of metaphor?

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Whitman’s poetic grammar: attending to process

October 13, 2015 § 1 Comment

“Poem of the Singers, and of The Words Of Poems” 1856 Leaves of Grass

With the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman sends to Emerson a poetry that would seem to be a direct response to his call (in “The Poet”) for a “metre-making argument.” Such is a poetry that moves beyond the conventional forms and metres of poety: a poetry that finds its source in the very forms of America (a poem in our eyes). In his letter back to Emerson, included in the 1856 edition (standing in for the preface, perhaps) Whitman addresses this notion that his poetry, or America’s poetry, is to be “commensurate” with the people he goes among in the city:

These are to be attended to; I am myself more drawn here than to those authors, publishers, importations, reprints, and so forth. [639]

So creating a poetry that attends to the people is one way to describe the “argument” of Leaves of Grass: the poetry derives from the people and finds its audience there as well.

What becomes Section 15 of “Song of Myself” (page 23, beginning with “The pure contralto sings”) provides a good example of this sort of attending. This is the place where the poem turns headlong into its first catalog of people and occupations (as though Whitman is walking with us through the city), attending to them in each line, and in the end, deriving or “weaving” the lines of this very “song of myself” from them, with them. This section is a good example of the significance of metonymy in Whitman. It speaks to the argument that Ed Folsom makes in “Transcendental Poetics”: that Whitman would seem to take Emerson’s notion of the poet’s use of metaphor and emblem and extend it more toward metonymy, “generat[ing] an ecological set of connections that renders as metonym what we previously thought of as metaphor: We are not like these things in nature; we are these things, given time and space enough” [270]. And we could extend this to the insight Professor Folsom offers on the Whitman documentary–that Whitman discovers his poetics in walking the city, seeing various people and realizing his relation to them: that could be me; I could be you.

So metonymy is a more specific poetic characteristic of Whitman–a key figure in his poetics, his poetic grammar, so to speak. Think back to the ways we have encountered Emerson’s own interest in metonymy (as he names it in “Poetry and Imagination”); and then consider Whitman as though he is putting this theory of organic or democratic or pragmatic poetics (as I argued in my post on Emerson’s poetics of convertibility) into the practice of his lines. This may make Whitman more or less Emersonian, depending on the lines you have in mind. What other examples of Whitman’s metonymy would you focus on as significant?

I hear it in this moment from “Poem of the Singers, and of the Words of Poems.” Whitman recalls Emerson’s argument from “The Poet” that all people are poets in their interest in song, but the poet has a “finer ear” for receiving and making something of the primal songs. Whitman recalls this, then fulfills it in the lines that emerge, the poem he creates out of the various names for poets and their poems. Notice how his use of repetition, the repeated term “singer” attached to each of the words, itself makes a poetry, a continual rhyme. He makes a poem out of the words of poems. This, too, is metonymy.

The singers are welcomed, understood, appear
often enough—but rare has the day been,
likewise the spot, of the birth of the maker
of poems,
Not every century, or every five centuries, has
contained such a day, for all its names.

 

The singers of successive hours of centuries may
have ostensible names, but the name of each
of them is one of the singers,
The name of each is, a heart-singer, eye-singer,
hymn-singer, law-singer, ear-singer, head-
singer, sweet-singer, wise-singer, droll-
singer, thrift-singer, sea-singer, wit-singer,
echo-singer, parlor-singer, love-singer, pas-
sion-singer, mystic-singer, weeping-singer,
fable-singer, item-singer, or something else.

 

All this time, and at all times, wait the words of
poems; [1856, p. 263]

The vision of attending to the people, and generating a poetry for them, and of them, or from them, is thus richly metonymic. To echo Emerson from “Experience,” I (and this book, these lines) am a fragment and these are a fragment of me. That line evokes another element of Whitman’s poetic grammar, one explored by Angus Fletcher in A New Theory for American Poetry: Democracy, the Environment, and the Future of Imagination. Fletcher identifies as a key aspect of Whitman’s poetics the grammatical characteristic of middle voice. In short, this is a voice between active and passive–one English doesn’t really have. Fletcher hears it in Whitman’s characteristic use of intransitive verbs and reflexive phrases, in phrasings that “remain perpetually intransitive, like the vast majority of his middle-voicing verbs, his verbs of sensation, perception, and cognition.”  Fletcher goes on to extend this interest in “middle-voicing verbs,” to Whitman’s use of the present participle: “the phrase of the pure verb, the verb before it is locked down into predication” (109). Fletcher also identifies metonymy as crucial to the poetics Whitman invents (with some help from Emerson) for American poetry. This mixture of metonymy and middle voice creates something Fletcher names the “environment-poem” in which the focus of the poetry shifts from conventional categories of substance or product to process.

For in any environment substance is only known and functions only as (and in) process–precisely the subject matter of the new science of Complexity Theory, with its concern for emergent adaptations. The reader is asked to join in the formal experience of evolving with the environment created by the ever-expanding book. [173]

So: metonymy, middle voice, anaphora, present participles…. What other elements of Whitman’s poetic grammar do we notice in this evolving environment of Leaves of Grass?

Whitman: epic beyond epic

October 11, 2015 § Leave a comment

In the 1855 “Preface,” Whitman argues for an American poetry that will be “transcendent and new”: “It is to be indirect and not direct or descriptive or epic. Its quality is to go through these to much more” (619).

So, Whitman has in mind something epic but also that is more than epic, transcends the epic. In the beginning of “Song of Myself” Whitman invokes the tradition of the epic. And at the same time, he seems to rewrite it into something more commonly associated with the lyric. Perhaps this is what he means by “through these to much more.”

One traditional version of the epic is Paradise Lost–or more accurately, a version that rewrites the classical tradition and applies it to an unconventional arena; here are the opening lines:

1: Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
2: Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
3: Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
4: With loss of EDEN, till one greater Man
5: Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
6: Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
7: Of OREB, or of SINAI, didst inspire
8: That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
9: In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
10: Rose out of CHAOS: Or if SION Hill
11: Delight thee more, and SILOA’S Brook that flow’d
12: Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
13: Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
14: That with no middle flight intends to soar


15: Above th’ AONIAN Mount, while it pursues
16: Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.
17: And chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer
18: Before all Temples th’ upright heart and pure,
19: Instruct me, for Thou know’st; Thou from the first
20: Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
21: Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
22: And mad’st it pregnant: What in me is dark
23: Illumine, what is low raise and support;
24: That to the highth of this great Argument
25: I may assert th’ Eternal Providence,
26: And justifie the wayes of God to men.

Whitman’s version turns epic into lyric; but he also suggests that the lyrical–the individual, the story of the I and what I experiences, assumes–is also epic in America: what you assume; remember that “you” (the second person pronoun in English) can be both singular and plural, as well as formal and intimate. There is another interesting implication to consider by way of Milton’s argument, his rewriting of the Bible. Whitman, too, is interested in a Bible rewritten for America. Take a look at his notes to his edition of the 1860 Leaves of Grass, where he clearly wants to create in his book a text that will rival the heft of the Bible.

Which returns me to my original question about our sense of this beginning of Leaves of Grass: what’s the project? what’s the “argument”? what is being introduced to us in July of 1855–and then expanded upon in the 1856 edition, and again in 1860? Once introduced, whatever that poetry is (epic, lyrical, biblical), why does it need to be revised?

For some thoughts on the emergence of Leaves of Grass in Whitman’s experience in the city, listen to this 2008 Whitman documentary; at 19.30 you will hear a discussion by the Whitman scholar, Ed Folsom, that illuminates Whitman’s growing interest in the relation between I and you.

A final note on three rhetorical terms that are associated with Biblical syntax and apply to Whitman’s poetic grammar:

Emerson reading Whitman reading Emerson

October 10, 2015 § Leave a comment

Whitman, frontispiece portrait 1855 Leaves of Grass

Emerson writes of “creative reading” in “American Scholar”; he calls the scholar or poet (his Man Thinking) to engage with books, with nature, with the world, creatively: the book becoming luminous with manifold allusion. Perhaps one of the greatest examples of someone reading Emerson creatively comes from Whitman.

In July of 1855, Whitman publishes his first edition of Leaves of Grass; he sends Emerson a copy. Emerson writes enthusiastically in response. Whitman then responds to that response quite creatively in the second edition of Leaves in 1856. For some of the imagery of this creative reading, see this slide show I created; for digital scans of the book, what Emerson would have been holding in his hand, visit the Whitman Archive.  As we begin Whitman, begin his incomparable and strange book, some questions we should consider, imagine: What does Emerson see in this book in July 1855? What do we see in our initial reading? In other words, what’s our sense (or Emerson’s sense) of the project that Whitman has undertaken? Opening this book, where do we find ourseleves?

DEAR SIR–I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of “LEAVES OF GRASS.” I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. It meets the demand I am always making of what seemed the sterile and stingy nature, as if too much handiwork, or too much lymph in the temperament, were making our western wits fat and mean.

I give you joy of your free and brave thought. I have great joy in it. I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of treatment which so delights us, and which large perception only can inspire.
I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little, to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely, of fortifying and encouraging.

I did not know until I last night saw the book advertised in newspaper that I could trust the name as real and available for a post-office. I wish to see my benefactor, and have felt much like striking my tasks, and visiting New York to pay you my respects.

R.W. EMERSON

Concord, Massachusetts, 21 July, 1855

Whitman’s creative reading of American poetry in Leaves of Grass begins, I would argue, before you get to the famous opening lines: I celebrate myself. It begins with the cover, and then with the first text within, the frontispiece image of Whitman.

For more on the history of revision and “recomposition” (Emerson’s word recall from “Quotation and Originality”) that Whitman weaves into Leaves of Grass, including the second edition (1856) that we are reading, I highly recommend Ed Folsom’s “Whitman Making Books/Books Making Whitman.”

 

Emersonian Poetics

October 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

In his chapter on “Emersonian Poetics,” Buell advances a fascinating claim: that Emerson’s poetry, which has long been viewed as weaker than his essays, which have long been viewed as the place where Emerson’s poetic sensibility shines–that the poems in some way are meant to fail. Buell argues from an understanding of what he calls an “aesthetics of unfinished business” and an “aesthetics of incompletion” that is part of a “Romantic Fragment Aesthetics” (109).

Does this make sense: given Emerson’s philosophy (as we have seen it in his essays, such as “Experience” and “Circles”)? given Emerson’s aesthetic philosophy proposed in “The Poet”? given his actual poetry? What of the implication, therefore, that Emerson has to fail as a poet in order to be a good Emersonian poet?

For some further thinking on this interesting problem/potential of Emerson’s poetics, we can turn to Joel Porte’s argument from “The Problem of Emerson” (included in our Norton edition). Porte contends that Emerson doesn’t fail as a writer, but that he has never, until more recently, been fully and appropriately read by critics as a writer, in terms of his writing.

The Emerson we now see, I am convinced, has always existed; indeed it is the same Emerson whom William James was moved to praise as an artist. This Emerson’s interest and appeal reside in the imaginative materials and structures of his writing–in his tropes and topoi, his metaphor and verbal wit, in the remarkable consistencies of his conceiving mind and executing hand. [684]

Here is an insight from Dan Chiasson’s recent New Yorker essay on Emerson’s poetics, and the difference between the essays and the poems:

Emerson’s essays are like wonder handbooks: they tell you where to find it, how to use it, what to do when it fails you. “Nature,” “The Poet,” “Self-Reliance,” “Circles,” “Experience”: you can use these essays to become enchanted; many dejected secular people have gone to them regularly to see the world in renewed and refreshed terms of beauty. They outfit you for a walk in the woods or an ordinary morning. They are modular: you can remember bits of one, bits of another, mess up the order, mix and match. Their authority comes not from the Church or the ministry but from the power of their prose. Emerson must have realized that half of the people in church were there to hear language electrified by the preacher; his essays are, as Harold Bloom put it, “interior oratory,” free-range sermons that make their own occasions.

Chiasson argues a thesis that compares to what Buell will pose in his chapter “Emersonian Poetics”: the argument of poems overwhelms the form. This makes the poetry fail to some extent in the poem, but succeed to a related extent in the failure–given the poetic theory of forms Emerson proposes. But Chiasson takes the argument a step further in suggesting the ways that Emerson’s poetics matter for his two most important, though different, “disciples” (Whitman and Dickinson). Here is his provocative conclusion: “If Emerson’s poems had been just a little better than they were, we might not have American literature as we know it. Our greatest writers, seeing their own visions usurped, might have been content to remain his readers.”

Talk about complication and conflict–very useful as the basis for our next writing project. Would you argue at this point, therefore, that Mary Oliver’s “Snow Geese” is a better or more faithful Emersonian poem than the poetry Emerson produced? Or A.R. Ammons? You can see from this description from the Poetry Foundation that he is viewed as Emerson’s “progeny.” Here is an example, his poem “Poetics”:

I look for the way
things will turn
out spiralling from a center,
the shape
things will take to come forth in

so that the birch tree white
touched black at branches
will stand out
wind-glittering
totally its apparent self:

I look for the forms
things want to come as

from what black wells of possibility,
how a thing will
unfold:

not the shape on paper — though
that, too — but the
uninterfering means on paper:

not so much looking for the shape
as being available
to any shape that may be
summoning itself
through me
from the self not mine but ours.

Is it too much to see this problem reiterated in the contemporary poetics of conceptual poetry, in the work of someone like Kenneth Goldsmith? I note, at least, the echoes back to “Quotation and Originality.”

Emerson’s Poet: The Convertible

October 4, 2015 § 3 Comments

No, Emerson’s convertible is not a car–though given Emerson’s interest in “the highway” (a phrase he will use in “Experience”) and in the ways the Emersonian spirit is taken up by artists of the road (Whitman, Kerouac, Springsteen), it is not too much of a stretch. Emerson’s “convertible” has come up often in his writing; this key word appears in “Poetry and Imagination,” for example:

Your condition, your employment, is the fable of you. The world is thoroughly anthropomorphized, as if it had passed through the body and mind of man…. We are advertised that there is nothing to which man is not related; that every thing is convertible into every other. [Norton edition, 302]

Emerson goes on to refer to this convertibility as “this metonymy.” I thus identify in Emerson’s interest in the convertibility and conditions of life that poetry highlights, or should, four related characteristics or (to use his term) “conditions” of Emerson’s poetics.

Art is the path of the creator to his work. The paths, or methods, are ideal and enternal, though few men ever see them, not the artist himself for years, or for a lifetime, unless he come into the conditions. [“The Poet,” 196]

I would argue that these four conditions of Emerson’s vision of writing and the writer are crucial to American literature but also in need of remembering. We don’t think of these much when we think of the words: poet, poetry, writer, literature. Convertibility means that poetry (like the Poet) is…

  1. democratic: the focus is on the “daily” (and its transubstantiation) and the social, the common and even the low; sounds most like Whitman in these references. He views Shakespeare’s genius along these lines as well.
  2. pragmatic: the focus is on “use” and the uses of poetry and nature; think William Carlos Williams (no ideas but in things); think William James; think of the end of “Experience”: the transformation of genius into practical power.
  3. metonymic: the focus is on relation and contiguity (the proximities) as well as contingency (accident, surprise); what lies near; the near explains the far–and the fact that language is the means or medium of this convertibility, as well as one of its best examples. I referred to metonymy initially in our reading of Emerson’s Nature (his understanding of relation, of parts related to an unseen whole. For further thinking on the poetics of metonymy and its difference from metaphor, read this post from my blog on The Essay.
  4. organic: the focus is on living forms. “Rightly, poetry is organic. We cannot know things by words and writing, but only by taking a central position in the universe and living it its forms. We sink to rise” [309]

Think how this last point and principle–sinking to rise–reiterates the previous three. Convertibility thus relates the local to the global, the near to the far. And it unsettles (to use the word from “Circles) or de-centers the individual at the very same time that it relates her or him to something larger–but something other. Think of this line from “The Transcendentalist” where Emerson has in mind the “manifold” symbolic nature of the world–and think of the poetic implications for this concept, the sort of writing that such a vision of relational thought would create.

His thought,–that is the Universe. His experience inclines him to behold the procession of facts you call the world, as flowing perpetually outward from an invisible, unsounded centre in himself, centre alike of him and of them, and necessitating him to regard all things as having a subjective or relative existence, relative to that aforesaid Unknown Centre of him. [95]

As a way to grasp the poetics (the writing) of this passage, not just its concept, is it too much to see and hear in Emerson’s first sentence, the transition marked by the dash, Whitman’s ellipses or Dickinson’s dashes? We will have to wait and see. This is suggests that as we turn a corner in the course to focus on Emersonian Poetics, on his interest in the Poet, and his influence in American poetry, particularly by way of poets such as Whitman, Dickinson, Stevens, Frost, are into new territory? Or are we continuing to think about Emerson’s philosophy of intellect, of the scholar, of experience?

Here is a recent reading of Emerson’s essay “The Poet” by the contemporary essayist Sven Birkerts. This suggests that there is a familiar problem that we encounter in Emerson’s conception of poetry and the poet’s stance, or argument. One word for that familiar problem: soul.

[The image is from Robert Frank’s The Americans, the book by the photographer I would offer as an Emersonian artist/poet; I think of photography in metonymic terms–the way it represents the “conditions” of its subject]

Rereading and Revising Emerson: Strategies

September 27, 2015 § Leave a comment

Here are some “recomposition” strategies for reading and revising Emerson this week for the first Writing Project on the challenge and problem of Emerson’s philosophical relations. (Recall that “recomposition” is the last word of the essay “Quotation and Originality”).

How best to read Emerson and the challenges, as we have both seen and heard from critics, of how he provokes and performs thinking that is dynamic, wave-like, contradictory, fluctuating?

One answer, as I understand Dillard: devote your whole life to it; become a nun, or better yet, become a moth and burn for Emerson.

But short of that, since getting burned will get in the way of the work you need to do in other places, since both Emerson and Dillard argue for the world in which we live, for experience of the days, for transforming genius into practical power, there are some ways to approach a creative reading of Emerson and his relations that will be more rhetorically effective for the project–even if that project will need to remain, in some form, unfinished in order to be truly Emersonian.

Re/composition Strategy 1: What’s working here? Use the OED. Recognize that Emerson uses language, every word, with an understanding of its historical and symbolic complexities. Recall his discussion from the “Language” chapter of Nature. Select words from passages that you have in mind, put into the OED and see what’s in the archive. You can use this to generate analysis and interpretation as well as go back to a draft and rethink that interpretation. What’s working here, in the word, in the passage, that you can expand upon, given this history. What else might you say–or what might you need to revise or counter–given a more complicated reading nested in the connotations of the language?

A further way to elaborate what’s working, what’s at work in a passage or in the essay is to make the critical connection to Buell. Use that to authorize and extend the interpretation you are pursuing.

Re/composition Strategy 2:  What else might be said here, or is being said here, or somewhere else? Use Voyant Tools to track Emerson’s words across a text, or across several texts. In addition to digging into a word, with Emerson we also need to move across an essay, and across a series of essays, looking for both repetition (of words and their images and ideas) and resistance, contradiction. Remember the difficult lesson of “pulses” in “Experience,” or the necessity of being “misunderstood” as expressed in “Self-Reliance.” We talked about counterargument as a crucial philosophical and rhetorical perspective that Emerson has in mind and puts to work.  You can do the same by asking, and having peer readers ask: what else might be said, or is being said, in this very word or phrase (for example: “understanding”)  that seems to say something different later in the essay, or in another essay? Look for ways to counter your argument, and then use that to strengthen your argument–or move on to a better one. We need to be consistent (in the end) to produce an effective argument; a foolish consistency (“I’m sticking with the argument I started with regardless”) is highly ineffective.

This sort of potential for countering perspective can also be done with the relation you pursue with Dillard or James

Re/composition strategy #3: What’s the larger project? Think about what aspects of this initial project don’t fit here, and will need more time and space. Realize that this is an incomplete project to the extent that you have an opportunity, and most likely the necessity (if you are reading Emerson effectively), to return to this thought later: develop upon it in some way for the final project, for a senior thesis project, or maybe for that essay or book you will someday write while living as a sort of pilgrim in a cabin on the Puget Sound. At the same time, getting a better grasp on the larger project (and its implications) can provide you with good material for a conclusion that your argument works toward, larger implications that are opened up at the end, even as you close your initial argument and reinforce its claims.