Re-Scripting Walt Whitman

October 19, 2011 § 8 Comments

Some excerpts from Folsom and Price, Re-Scripting Walt Whitman; once you identify the version of Whitman’s LG you want to focus around for your project, I recommend you take a look at the full chapter that corresponds to the period.

  • Introduction (on the metonymic relations between Whitman’s book and his writer’s and printer’s life)
    • [on Whitman’s poetics of revision] This continual deferral of the ideal was Whitman’s style; he set in process a history and a literature that would struggle toward democracy, even if they would never fully attain it. His poetry was written to initiate response, revision, process, and his own compositional techniques emphasized his refusal to reach conclusion. Whitman was the ultimate reviser, continually reopening his poems and books to endless shuffling, retitling, editing, and reconceptualizing. Leaves of Grass was Whitman’s title for a process more than a product: every change in his life and in his nation made him reopen his book to revision.
    • Our book pursues the metonymic relation that Whitman famously employed between himself and his work (“this is no book, / Who touches this touches a man” [LG, 505]). We weave together an account of Whitman’s life and an account of his works, especially his evolving masterpiece Leaves of Grass. In a sense, we follow Justin Kaplan’s notion that “the irreducible reality of literary lives” is not the “naked self” but the “sum of a writer’s public verbal acts and ecstasies with language” (Kaplan 1979, 55). Once we begin to think about Whitman through the lens provided by digital resources, new questions become accessible and new problems emerge. Certainly some of the inadequacy of older models of criticism becomes clear. Many of us still talk about “Song of Myself” as if it were a single, stable entity. Yet this poem took various forms and had various titles in the six different editions of Leaves of Grass from 1855 to 1881, and it had a complex pre-history in manuscripts and early notebooks. Our discussion highlights Whitman’s evolving work—including the material production of the books themselves—in the context of his life. Many aspects of books that Whitman typically controlled—including typeface, margins, ornamentation, and the like—communicate in subtle but powerful ways to readers, and in ways that have been for the most part ignored
  • Chapter 1: (on Whitman’s informal schooling)
    • By the age of 11, Whitman was done with his formal education (by this time he had far more schooling than either of his parents had received), and he began his life as a laborer, working first as an office boy for some prominent Brooklyn lawyers, who gave him a subscription to a circulating library, where his self-education began. Always an autodidact, Whitman absorbed an eclectic but wide-ranging education through his visits to museums, his nonstop reading, and his penchant for engaging everyone he met in conversation and debate. While most other major writers of his time enjoyed highly structured, classical educations at private institutions, Whitman forged his own rough and informal curriculum of literature, theater, history, geography, music, and archeology out of the developing public resources of America’s fastest-growing city.
  • Chapter 2: (on the mysterious manuscript origins of the 1855 Leaves of Grass–and its proto-word processing)
    • Virtually every line of this early version of a section of “Song of Myself,” then, gets used somewhere in the poem or elsewhere in Leaves. But the section itself is entirely dismantled and scattered; it ceases to exist as a unit. We recall Whitman’s comment that his early drafts of Leaves were “recast, outcast, taken apart, put together.” It’s as if he mined early drafts for lines much like some sort of proto-word-processing system, lifting and moving lines and juxtaposing them with others, dissolving entire sections into other newly forming sections. This evidence strongly suggests that for Whitman the line was the basic unit of his poetry, since he seems always to move entire lines. This habit of composition may well have derived from Whitman’s experience as a typesetter, where lines of text were separate, moveable units assembled into galleys. For Whitman, then, passages emerge from the juxtaposition and accretion of lines, and those lines can be recast and put together in different combinations to form different but equally coherent larger units.
  • Chapter 3 (on “The Sleepers” and Whitman’s intimate/democratic you)
    • Sleep for Whitman, then, is a democratic condition. Throughout the first edition of Leaves, he seeks those experiences that cross the boundaries of class, gender, and race: all humans live in bodies and apprehend the world through the five senses and breathe the same air. His emphasis on the body and on sensuality grows out of his belief that such an appeal to physical experience breaks down hierarchies and discriminations among his readers. To represent those experiences that we all share is to create a democratic poetry, a poetry accessible to everyone, a poetry that invites all readers to assume the role of Whitman’s “you.” Sleep is another of those democratic experiences. Not only do we all sleep, we all know and have felt the “breakdown” of “sleep-chasings,” the way that falling asleep gives us the experience of losing control, the ways that dreams allow us to undergo shape-shifting, to wander worlds beyond our own waking experiences. Sleep, Whitman indicates in this poem, allows us finally to move into deeper and deeper levels of common psychic territory, where we all descend at night to plumb the depths of human emotion.
  • Chapter 4
    • Intensification of affectional bonds became a foundation for Whitman’s poetry and for his vision of a perfected democracy, and so sexual expressions of affection had to be broken loose from American Puritanical notions that sex was only for procreation: sexual desire, Whitman realized, was a powerful force for love across all kinds of boundaries and had to be more openly expressed in America’s literature than it had been before.
  • Chapter 5 (on the Civil War writing of Whitman)
    • With the nation now locked in an extended war, all of Whitman’s deepest concerns and beliefs were under attack. Leaves of Grass had been built on a faith in union, wholeness, the ability of a self and a nation to contain contradictions and absorb diversity; now the United States had come apart, and Whitman’s very project was in danger of becoming an anachronism as the Southern states sought to divide the country in two. Leaves had been built, too, on a belief in the power of affection to overcome division and competition; his “Calamus” vision, as we have seen, was of a “continent indissoluble” with “inseparable cities” all joined by “the life-long love of comrades” (LG, 117). But now the young men of America were killing each other in bloody battles; fathers were killing sons, sons fathers, brothers brothers. Whitman’s prospects for his “new Bible” that would bind a nation, build an affectionate democracy, and guide a citizenry to celebrate its unified diversity were shattered in the fratricidal conflict that engulfed America.
  • Chapter 6 (on Reconstruction Era writing, including Democratic Vistas)
    • Democracy always remained for Whitman an ideal goal, “resid[ing] altogether in the future” (PW, 2:390), and never a realized practice. The history of America, so he hoped, would eventually define the word for the first time, because in his own day, he believed, democracy was only “in its embryo condition” (PW, 2:392). Crucial to his program for strengthening democracy are what he calls “personalism” (a form of individualism in which every person develops uniquely but always remains aware of his or her interconnectedness with the larger social body) and the nurturance of an appropriate “New World literature” that would demand more aggressive reading habits, literature that would awaken the populace and make them argue with the author instead of lull them to sleep and have them passively accept whatever the author professed.
  • chapter 7 (Whitman into the 1880s)
    • poems objected to in 1881 edition (obscenity laws): The offending passages appeared in “Song of Myself,” “From Pent-up Aching Rivers,” “A Woman Waits for Me,” “I Sing the Body Electric,” “Spontaneous Me,” “The Dalliance of the Eagles,” “Native Moments,” “By Blue Ontario’s Shore,” “To a Common Prostitute,” “Unfolded Out of the Folds,” “The Sleepers,” and “Faces.” For most poems, only particular passages or words were at issue, but the district attorney insisted that “A Woman Waits for Me” and “To a Common Prostitute” had to be removed entirely. Intriguingly, the “Calamus” section and other poems treating male-male love raised no concern, perhaps because the male-male poems infrequently venture beyond handholding and hugging while the male-female poems are frank about copulation.
  • Appendix (editing Whitman, the digital archive)
    • Unlike the Collected Writings, the Walt Whitman Archive has not chosen to privilege one particular edition of Leaves of Grass. Instead, the editors of the Whitman Archive value and seek to present all versions, including all six distinct American editions, the British editions that Whitman contributed to in his lifetime, corrected page proofs, and the famous “Blue Book”—Whitman’s copy of the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass with handwritten corrections and with material tipped in. Whitman authorized every published edition of Leaves of Grass. Any one of his editions could be vital for a researcher, depending on the questions to be pursued. A student concerned with the poet’s reaction to the prospect of black suffrage, for example, might well find the often-neglected 1867 Leaves to be crucial. Whitman called for future reprintings based on the “deathbed” edition, saying that it should supersede all the previous editions. To follow his advice would be problematic in numerous ways, especially since it would occlude some of his finest achievements, and it would trust that his judgment of his own work was sharpest in the final year of his life as his health was failing. In the last analysis, we are not editing Whitman for Whitman but for ourselves and for all those interested in him in our historical moment.
    • shifting focus from singularity of authorship (I hear echoes with RWE on Shakespeare and the social labour behind his work):
      • as a range of theorists and textual scholars have variously demonstrated, the idea of an individual, autonomous author is open to significant challenge, and the term author, if we are to use it now, might be best understood as a convenient shorthand marker for the many agents—a writer or writers, editors, typesetters, proofreaders, and others—who typically contribute to the production of a text. Whitman himself recognized that texts are rarely the product of a single individual. After the publication of the 1881-2 Leaves of Grass, he commented on the importance of his proof-reader’s work: All this is not only to show my obligation to Henry Clark, but in some sort to all proof-readers everywhere, as sort of a tribute to a class of men, seldom mentioned, but to whom all the hundreds of writers, and all the millions of readers, are unspeakably indebted. More than one literary reputation, if not made is certainly saved by no less a person than a good proof-reader. The public that sees these neat and con-secutive, fair-printed books on the centre-tables, little knows the mass of chaos, bad spelling and grammar, frightful (corrected) excesses or balks, and frequent masses of illegibility and tautology of which they have been extricated. (DBN, 1:256) No one would claim that Henry Clark was the equal of Whitman in the making of Leaves of Grass, but he contributed to the social production of his text.
    • An electronic edition, unlike a print edition, is typically issued as work in progress rather than as a finished product. As it is made public, its readers become active agents in its continuing creation—pointing out omissions, suggesting improvements, challenging transcriptions. TheArchive is revised and expanded virtually every day, and newly discovered documents can be seamlessly folded into the existing structures so that the edition is always up to date. It is the perfect medium for an author who was always revising and reordering and rethinking his work.

The Poet Whom Emerson Describes

September 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

Toward the end of “The Poet,” Emerson writes, famously: “I look in vain fro the poet whom I describe.” Famous, in large part, because it sounds like he is describing the kind of poetry we will get, in the next decade, with Whitman and Leaves of Grass. Many have imagined Whitman reading these lines and answering the call. When we get to Whitman, we will certainly get back to Emerson’s conception of the poet and see if it does indeed make sense to think of Whitman’s poetry as Emersonian.

But I also want to open a larger door on this question and suggest that we continue to think about the kind of poet/poetry–and more broadly, poetics–that Emerson describes: and to ask where we do or don’t find this in American culture today, or in more recent years. In terms of finding Emerson’s poet in the form of poetry, one American poet from late 20th century that is often thought of as Emersonian is 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
totally its apparent self:

I look for the forms
things want to come as

from what black wells of possibility,
how a thing will

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.

Where else might we look for Emerson’s poet–outside of poetry, or at least, outside of places we traditionally think of as poetry?  We will see that Emerson reiterates, particularly in “Poetry and Imagination,” that poetry is found in the low and common and familiar, in the street–and thus, he argues, people say they hate poetry and are in fact, in their everyday lives, poetic. In that sense, do we have in more recent years, or at any point in the last 100 years, an Emersonian poet of the everyday? Whom would you suggest?

If we follow Emerson’s thinking (the kind we see in the “Shakspeare” essay, for example, from Representative Men), this latter-day Emersonian poet would show more than a line of “influence” from Emerson. He or she (or it, given that I suppose it could be some sort of intelligent machine, these days) would at some level be more Emerson than Emerson, by showing/revealing the “Emerson” we share with him.

The editors of the Norton edition of Emerson’s Prose suggest (in footnote to “The Poet,” p. 192) that Emily Dickinson’s “inebriate of air” is inspired by Emerson’s discussion of the “intellect inebriated,” the poet who gets drunk on nature and genius, drinking God’s wine. See what you think; here is Dickinson (in a 1924 edited version of the poem):

I TASTE a liquor never brewed,
From tankards scooped in pearl;
Not all the vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an alcohol!
Inebriate of air am I, 5
And debauchee of dew,
Reeling, through endless summer days,
From inns of molten blue.
When landlords turn the drunken bee
Out of the foxglove’s door, 10
When butterflies renounce their drams,
I shall but drink the more!
Till seraphs swing their snowy hats,
And saints to windows run,
To see the little tippler 15
Leaning against the sun!

In our discussion of “Circles,” I began to list some keywords from the essay that I read as markers of Emerson’s philosophy of writing; that is to say, ideas and language that speak to Emerson’s ideas, but also are related implicitly to his writing: transition, series, circulation, proximity, surprise, experiment, enthusiasm, thinking, abandonment. Look for variations on these in “The Poet,” particularly around a keyword in that essay: metamorphosis. There is also this line from “Circles” that relates to writing in its focus on Emerson’s primary means of thinking the world and its metamorphic relations, words: The simplest words,–we do not know what they mean, except when we love and aspire. Difficult to fully comprehend what that means, but I would suggest it may be an Emersonian definition of what poets are doing with words. It makes me think, for sure, of Whitman and Dickinson. So in your reading of Emerson’s “Poet” and his poetics this week (and later with Whitman and Dickinson), look for love and aspiration in relation to words.

One final point. Whitman attends a lecture version of Emerson’s “The Poet” in New York City in 1842, and reports on it for a newspaper. The lecture has some differences from the published essay.

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