Thursday, July 02nd, 2009 | Author:

When I read Brady’s comment on my last post, I felt a shock of (non) recognition.  The lines of WW’s that Brady quoted were absolutely perfect for that post (thank you, Brady!) and I wished like anything I’d thought of them myself.  But I couldn’t have, because I swear to god they weren’t in the poem any other time I read it.  What I mean is, every time I read Song, and not just in its various editions but I mean even just the 1855 or the Deathbed, I find lines there that I would go to my own deathbed testifying have never been there before.  This happens to me with other long poems too, like The Waste Land, which I’ve taught so many times I ought to be able to recite it entirely.

It obviously has something to do with my own shifting concerns or interests– or maybe with how open I am that day to being invaded by what I read and what I self-protectively shut out.  But it hits me with such surprise (delight/awe/fear) that I think the poem itself is the fluid and shifting being in the encounter, not me.

So I start thinking, is this one version of literary greatness?  I am ambivalent about that whole concept since it is too easy and important to argue that it has never existed in any non-political form.  But even as I reject the idea of timeless, transcendent, and universal art, I find a poem that is so alive I believe it is changing itself, rewriting itself.  And one that is possibly more about 2009 than 1855.

Well, here is a more ludicrous look at ways in which WW still speaks for you:

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  1. Brady says:

    I know what you mean about finding new stuff every time, Mara. To tell the truth, I didn’t quite remember the lines about jail either–found ’em by CTRL-F-ing the text of LG at the Archive. I totally agree with you about the fluidity of “Song”–how well it fits Pound’s definition “news that stays news”–but the other thing that occurs to me is that part of Whitman’s idea of American poetry must have been precisely that it should defeat the memory. The sheer bulk of so many of his poems goes along with his long horizon-like shaggy lines and rejection of rhyme. Anything we could memorize would lack the wildness and grandeur of the country itself.

  2. Mara says:

    Very cool point, Brady. And yet don’t you think Whitman would like this?– Claudia likes to cite a story by Tobias Wolfe in which the main character says he memorizes hundreds of poems so he can “give himself the shivers at will.” That seems to me like something Whitman might want to do also.

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