Wednesday, April 26, 2017

April showers bring "Leaves of Grass" #NPM17

It's cold (35℉), wet, dreary, but the ice storm line is well North of us, thank heavens. The male bluebird I saw this morning was puffed up and looking as disgusted as I feel. On the other hand, we need the rain, leaves are growing and there's basically no temptation to go out and play in this weather, although there's been a frantic level of coming and going at the feeders this morning. Even a warm rain might lure me into a rain jacket, but that seems weeks (months?) away. So, I took advantage of the weather to "Read Allen Ginsberg’s classic essay about Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” That's suggestion 26 of 30 ways to celebrate National Poetry Month.

bluebird of happiness?
bluebird of happiness?
Photo by J. Harrington

To be honest, I had come across Ginsberg's essay some time ago and kept meaning - to get around - to reading it. You know what they say about the road to hell being paved with good intentions? Well, this morning I repaved that road with action. I've now read the essay in its entirety. Ginsberg includes a number of extended quotations from Whitman's "Leaves." I struggle with what I read as Whitman's ornate style. Ted Kooser, Gary Snyder, Joy Harjo, and Mary Oliver are more to my liking. But, I also feel guilty, because of his stature among American poets, about not having read hardly any of Whitman, other than for school assignments years ago. Last Christmas I was given a copy of Leaves of Grass (The Death-bed Edition). This Summer I intend (there's that word again) to read all 700+ pages, if we get enough warm, dry weather to enable me to sit on the screen porch and enjoy some peace and quiet. Ginsberg's essay helps frame what has seemed a too daunting undertaking into a more coherent read. Seeing more and more similarities between many of the Beat writer's works, especially Ginsberg's Howl and Kerouac's On the Road, and Whitman's style is helping to ease my transition back through time to Whitman's own stream of consciousness.

oak leave clusters with rain
oak leave clusters with rain
Photo by J. Harrington

I know I'm not the only one troubled by Whitman's style. Several years ago, in a writing class at the Loft Literary Center, a classmate became quite irate during a discussion of Whitman's work, with the phrasing of:
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
My classmate read the "assume" line as being dictatorially offensive, since he believed readers should be entitled each to his or her own assumptions about what a poem means. I may have done Mr. Whitman an equal disservice by equating his elegy for Lincoln, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd, especially stanza 6, with Robert Kennedy's funeral train. Much of Whitman's poetry seems to foretell the trials and tribulations democracy continues to face. It also portrays the resilience with which both democracy and life continue. Don't just take my word for it. Go, read Ginsberg's essay. Even better, read Whitman yourself. Maybe we can compare notes after this Summer.

To the Oracle at Delphi



Great Oracle, why are you staring at me,
do I baffle you, do I make you despair?
I, Americus, the American,
wrought from the dark in my mother long ago,
from the dark of ancient Europa--
Why are you staring at me now
in the dusk of our civilization--
Why are you staring at me
as if I were America itself
the new Empire
vaster than any in ancient days
with its electronic highways
carrying its corporate monoculture
around the world
And English the Latin of our days--

Great Oracle, sleeping through the centuries, 
Awaken now at last
And tell us how to save us from ourselves
and how to survive our own rulers 
who would make a plutocracy of our democracy 
in the Great Divide
between the rich and the poor
in whom Walt Whitman heard America singing

O long-silent Sybil, 
you of the winged dreams, 
Speak out from your temple of light 
as the serious constellations 
with Greek names
still stare down on us 
as a lighthouse moves its megaphone 
over the sea
Speak out and shine upon us 
the sea-light of Greece 
the diamond light of Greece

Far-seeing Sybil, forever hidden, 
Come out of your cave at last 
And speak to us in the poet’s voice 
the voice of the fourth person singular 
the voice of the inscrutable future 
the voice of the people mixed
with a wild soft laughter--
And give us new dreams to dream, 
Give us new myths to live by!

Read at Delphi, Greece, on March 21, 2001 at the UNESCO World Poetry Day


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