Sunday, November 21, 2004


What I'm saying here has been remarked plenty of times before, but maybe because some recent reading has smacked it once again into my face, it seems to bear repeating: if there's anything that is truly distinctive about American poetry as compared to that of other nations, if there is anything that truly distinguishes it, it can be summed up in one word: Whitman. (If you feel you've heard and read just about enough about Papa Walt, please feel free to click on to something else…) Sure, there are other currents- even at his time Dickinson and Poe provided very different poetics - but these seem like little eddies compared to the grand stream that followed Whitman's wake ("wake", by the way, in any sense you like it). Think of the poets who bear his mark, that expanded line, that relaxed diction, that joyful (even if anguished) cataloguing of everything: Pound ("Let there be commerce between us" - A Pact), Hart Crane (well, quite different in language sensibility, but yes--), Sandburg, the Beats (I think particularly of Ginsburg), Frank O'Hara, Ashbery, A.R. Ammons, Olson, Duncan, the langpo people like Bernstein, Hejinian, Silliman… am I missing anybody important?

John Ciardi had some perceptive things to say, in the 1987 edition of How Does a Poem Mean, which I've been reading with great delight these last few weeks. After citing Song of Myself, #26, he writes,

Whitman fathered a large pretence that his catalogues were all inclusive, that every sort of detail was equally welcome to his mind. Obviously, however, certain kinds of images were more welcome to his sensibilities than were others. Whitman tended to welcome without reserve, all images of industrial expansion, of fruitful nature, of the brotherhood of man, of astronomy, of the bustle of urban life, and of physical strength, for example, but one will not find anywhere in his catalogues such satanic images as one may find in Poe or in Baudelaire. One only has to turn to "Prufrock" or to "Dirge" (Kenneth Fearing) to see two categories of properties that would never occur in Whitman, despite his pretence to all-inclusiveness.

There is, that is to say, some principle of selection at work. One can see certain kinds of images that occurred readily to Whitman's mind and were welcomed into his poems. And one can locate other sorts of images that not only were pushed away from the poems, but that probably never occurred to the poet's mind. (p. 245)

Only America could have fathered Whitman (and it's funny how the word father keeps coming up in reference to Whitman… Pound again: "I come to you as a grown child/Who has had a pig-headed father"), and only at the time it did. Now as America sullies itself, the world, and indeed the planet, poets who follow his lead have been forced to admit images into their oeuvre that Whitman was able to happily screen out. The challenge for those poets is to catalogue everything and still maintain that feisty affirmativeness - in other words, to throw away the pretence, and still celebrate - or at least not throw themselves off a boat or bridge as Hart Crane or Berryman did. A tall order.

Of course, we Canadians have no Whitman, nor anyone who occupies such a central place in our poetry. What I'm doing here is what most Canadians do: live as far south as our citizenship permits, and observe from the sidelines. That 49th parallel cuts us out of that enterprising American spirit as conclusively as any Berlin Wall. What I observe is that the out-and-out materialism/imperialism of America, which created Whitman, now produces a series of hollow political parodies, the latest and most egregious being George W. Bush. Culturally speaking, Bush is to Whitman what Hitler was to Beethoven. And what I do as a writer is what many of the powerless do in America: absorb influences from everywhere I can, and out of my limitations, speak anguish, speak joy, speak out of a kind of loneliness.

1 comment:

Brian Campbell said...

On second thought, the Whitman current is perhaps more like a gulf stream on a vast sea of many whirling eddies and other, smaller currents. Odd to comment on one's own blog -- I think of the Freddy the Freeloader skit where he gives himself a "surprise" Christmas present, and then proceeds to act surprised...