Happy 200th Birth Anniversary, Walt Whitman!

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Today, May 31, 2019,  marks the 200th (!) birth anniversary of the poetic genius Walt Whitman, who in many ways invented American poetry – which is another way of saying that, if one is writing poetry today, in America or elsewhere, Whitman is utterly inescapable, and seems to hover over any poem whatsoever as a guiding and tutelary spirit.  Whitman’s poetry, in its long rolling lines and cadences, its oceanic rhythms, its “plain” (I say “plain” in quotes because Whitman’s praised plainness is kind of deceiving; it’s really more subtle, even more hermetic, than “plain” suggests), and earthy and robust manner of addressing himself and the world – there was nothing like this before him, though afterwards and up until today his imitators (including this librarian) have been legion.  Read some poetry by Ralph Waldo Emerson, another inventor of American thought and literature, and a great influence on Whitman – these poems might be moving and/or intelligent, subtle and/or intricate; you might find the rhymes or the spiritual insights surprising or interesting; but it (Emerson’s poems – his essays are another matter) really does not touch the achievement of Whitman, who was somehow able to embed within his poems the literary DNA of a large soul, a large person, Walt Whitman, one of the roughs, barbaric yawper, containing multitudes.

I wonder today, because of this birthday, how many people out there have actually read Whitman, as opposed to hearing of him, (or perhaps not even hearing of him, alas).  These particular persons might say or think, “Okay, you’ve got my attention.  Where do I start?  What should I read?”

I am not a Whitman scholar, but the best thing about Whitman is that he speaks to all of us, and one does not have to be a scholar of literature to read and appreciate Whitman.  Here is one of my favorite Whitman quotes, from “Song of Myself,” pertaining to this:

Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d the earth much?
Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

 

So, if I was asked what to read, I would suggest the 1855 “Song of Myself,” and the 1865 “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” both of which are utter masterpieces.  Here are links to both of them:

https://web.archive.org/web/20110213065239/http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=Whi55LG.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/parsed&tag=public&part=1&division=div1

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45480/when-lilacs-last-in-the-dooryard-bloomd

One of my favorite parts of the Whitman mythos is the aura that surrounds his trip to New Orleans in 1848, seven years before he self-published (and we need to think about this as well – Whitman self-published (?!) the 1855 Leaves of Grass) the first edition of his great work in 1855.  Whitman left New York as “Walter Whitman,” a hack journalist, but when he came back from New Orleans, he was different, he was “Walt.”  What happened to Whitman in New Orleans?  Some scholars have speculated that he had a transformative love affair with a man; others have argued he had some kind of life-changing spiritual experience.  We’ll probably never know what happened exactly, but there is a clear and real qualitative difference between the articles and fiction he wrote earlier in his career (Whitman wrote a serialized novel that was a potboiler about temperance; he also wrote at least around 1200 articles for many different newspapers, many about social and political issues), and the later radical experimental poetry he would dedicate his life to.  One of the most fascinating and amazing products of Whitman scholarship is the digitized manuscript drafts of some parts of the poem, where we can actually see decisions and revisions Whitman made during the process of composition (the actual original manuscript for the 1855 Leaves of Grass is lost; Whitman claimed it had been mistakenly used for a fire and burned by his printer).  Take a look at his early notebooks:

http://bailiwick.lib.uiowa.edu/whitman/index.html

My other favorite aspect of Whitman’s biography is the fact that, once the Civil War started, Whitman spent three years tending to soldiers, really like some kind of saint.  Here is an excerpt from an article about Whitman’s life during the Civil War (link to whole article is below the excerpt):

“Whitman’s routine was to rest after his office work, bathe, dress in fresh clothes, eat a good meal, and put in four to five hours touring the hospitals. He would often pack a knapsack with fruit, tobacco, paper, envelopes, and the like for individual distribution to the soldiers—materials chiefly paid for with money raised from relatives and friends. He entered the hospitals well-rested, sweet-scented, and cheerful in appearance. Though he might often break down hours after a visit, he took care to steel himself to the agonies he witnessed for as long as he was in the presence of the soldiers, to keep his spirits high. He was not so much a “wound-dresser,” as his poem of that title suggests, as a healer of the spirit, an affectionate comrade or “uncle,” whose curative abilities were nonetheless deeply respected at a time when doctor’s interventions often did more harm than good. Whitman never read his poetry to the men—in fact, he apparently never told them he was a poet—but he would recite Shakespeare or passages from the Bible. He would also hold the men’s hands, kiss them, write letters for them. Some of Whitman’s most admirable prose can be found in letters informing parents, with exquisite tact, of the exact circumstances and manner of the death of a son.”

https://whitmanarchive.org/criticism/current/encyclopedia/entry_8.html

I once read a famous critic claim that Whitman’s service during the Civil War killed him as a poet.  While I am not in a position to evaluate this contention, I think it’s fair to acknowledge that Whitman’s service during that time took its toll.  But what does that even mean?  The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, “ethics and aesthetics are one.”  When I think about Whitman, I think about this apothegm, and I feel that Walt Whitman, more than any American poet in our storied history, really embodied this truth in his work and his life.  Today, on his 200th birth anniversary, let’s remember this great poet’s contribution to our ongoing lives, to our democracy, to our ways of thinking and feeling and imagining, to our hope, to our literature, to our dreams, and to our future.

Image result for 1855 leaves of grassWhitman’s name weirdly and mysteriously did not appear on the title page of the self-published first edition.

 

 

 

 

 

US

Jordan Peele was known for his comedic nature until recent years. Then in 2017 critics and box offices were taken by storm by the horror hit Get Out. Now he’s made his horror follow-up with Us, a horror movie where it’s revealed that different versions of people are out to get them. I’d also like to state that I’m not a big fan of horror as a genre. I like movies that make you think or creative concepts, but I’m not into slashers or being scared. I had to be convinced to see Get Out and that’s what convinced me to see Us.

We start off in 1986 with a girl (Madison Curry) watching a television and some odd scenes of rabbits in cages. The girl, Adelaide, and her family go to a carnival where they enjoy time together and the father gets overly enthusiastic about winning some games. The girl wanders away and into a house of mirrors. She gets progressively more scared as the power goes out and she hears a noise. She tries whistling to calm herself, someone whistles back. She starts running bumping into a mirror that she though led her to the exit. Adelaide eventually finds another girl standing still. Adelaide turns around and it looks just like the other girl, and Adelaide screams.

After the incident we see that Adelaide had to go through some therapy for the incident and she wasn’t speaking after it. Then we cut to modern day with a family traveling in a car, the mother a grown-up Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o). They share a scene bonding over the music. We see them interacting in their summer house where the father, Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke), reveals he bought a boat. They end up going to the beach the next day despite Adelaide initially objecting. The son, Jason Wilson (Evan Alex) gets lost. Adelaide starts to panic as her son is lost at the beach and she looks around and eventually finds him.

They end up going to the summer house from the beach and Adelaide expresses that she wants to go home. She feels like something is wrong and shares her childhood experience of seeing herself to her disbelieving husband. He agrees and they all get ready for bed. Soon after they see a family standing outside in the driveway. The husband is calm at first, but Adelaide immediately asks to call 911. Adelaide tells her daughter, Zora Wilson (Shahadi Wright Joseph) to get her running shoes on. Eventually the family approaches the house and it’s revealed that they all look like the family.

This movie has an interesting premise for sure. The characters all have their own struggles to overcome which make them much more interesting at the start. There’s likely a deeper meaning to the struggles of the characters, but I don’t want to spoil too much with speculation. To me, this was more frightening than Get Out but not as intriguing. It’s a movie that’s worth talking about after seeing, but it’s not as an enthusiastic recommendation to me. There are still some comedic moments in this one that help break up the dark atmosphere. Rated R.

Ryan

What we’re reading now….

Secret Historian by Justin Spring

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This the biography of Samuel Steward, a man who would go by many other names in his life. Born in Southeast Ohio, Steward would attend Ohio State University, work as a university English professor, befriend Alfred Kinsey and Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and Thornton Wilder, collaborate and contribute to the work of the Kinsey Institute, begin working as a tattoo artist, be ousted from his university job, move to California, and write gay pulp novels. The story of his career is intertwined with his identity as a homosexual man and his intimate personal life. This book uses the treasure trove of personal letters and personal effects to give a frank depiction. An exploration of Pre-Stonewall and gay liberation that gives the reader a glimpse into this man’s world and life.  Greg

Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

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Daisy is a girl coming of age in the late sixties.  She is a free spirited, beautiful young woman with a fantastic voice.  The Six is a band led by the  brooding Billy Dunne.  Daisy and Billy eventually cross paths in the world of music, and a producer realizes that the key to massive success is to put the two together.  What happens next is the story of rock legends.    Mary

Chapters in the Course of My Life by Rudolf Steiner

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Steiner was a 19th century Austrian philosopher and “Anthroposophist” – anthroposophy is a spiritual movement Steiner founded, that believed there was a spiritual world accessible to human experience.  Steiner was also the founder of Waldorf education, which focuses on the child as a holistic being, with an emphasis on imagination and creativity. His autobiography is absolutely fascinating, both as a chronicle of his own intellectual and spiritual development, as well as a record of the amazing thinkers, poets, and artists that Steiner associated with and learned from. Andrew

Normal People by Sally Rooney

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This book, often touted as a very Millennial love story, follows Connell and Marianne and their shifting relationship as they transition from adolescence to adulthood.  During high school, Connell is a star athlete, popular and well liked while Marianne is an aloof loner.  They begin to grow closer during the times Connell picks up his mother from her work as Marianne’s family’s housekeeper, eventually starting a secret relationship.  As time passes, so does the nature of their relationship and personal circumstances.  Both Connell and Marianne are relatable, though at times, unlikable characters, leading them to make upsettingly poor choices.   A quick read with a lasting impact. Trent

Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls

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In 2017 much was being written about the rediscovered classic Mrs. Caliban. That was the year Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water featured a similar story of love between a woman and an amphibious creature. Earlier this year the author died and I decided to add this to my reading list for something a little different. This novella moves along at a fast clip. Despite the character Dorothy’s unhappy marriage and humdrum domesticity in the suburbs, Ingalls writes with a droll voice. The creature goes by the human name Larry although the news reports warn people that he is a dangerous monster. I’ve read analysis that Larry could just be a figment of Dorothy’s imagination, a representation of an exciting liberation from her mundane mechanical life. I tend to think of Larry as real, but until I reach the end I have yet to fully make that determination. What do you think? Byron

Weight of a Piano by Chris Cander

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This is the Russian story of Katya who inherits an old Bluthner piano in 1962. She loves music and her piano. Katya marries Mikhail, who becomes a violent drunk, and eventually settles in California. Sadly, the piano is gone. Years later Clara receives a Bluthner piano from her father on her 12th birthday. At 26 years old Clara, suddenly homeless, leases her piano to photographer Greg Zeldin who uses it for a photo series in Death Valley. Greg travels to places he remembers visiting with his mother. Clara follows the adventure ultimately making a connection with Greg, his mother, her father and the piano. This is a beautiful story with lots of attention to detail. Emma

Crimson Lake  by Candice Fox

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Set in a small town in Australia, this series opener stars a disgraced former cop trying to hide from his past and start over.  On the advice of his lawyer he seeks out a local PI who has her own dark past. They make for an odd couple, but they are soon teamed up to work a case involving a missing author. As they work the case Ted and Amanda each start poking around the other’s past. One odd couple, three cases, and a box of geese all make for a fantastic series opener. Megan

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

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This book is a fictional depiction of the very real, very heinous Tennessee Children’s Home Society.   Through alternating timelines we learn about one politically powerful family’s ties to this heartbreaking institution and how so many lives would forever be changed.  Beth

American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson

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Marie Mitchell is working for the FBI during the 1980s Cold War when she’s recruited to travel to Burkina Faso as a spy to take-down their revolutionary leader, Thomas Sankara. Black, female, French-speaking and repeatedly snubbed in her FBI career, she’s the ideal candidate for the job. Marie chose to be an FBI agent to pay tribute to her recently deceased sister, who died mysteriously. Now, still grieving, she’s heading to Africa, knowing she’d been chosen for her looks, not her talent, and questioning whether Thomas Sankara is as destructive as the U.S. claims him to be. Told as a letter she’s writing to her two young sons, American Spy is a fascinating look at espionage, the Cold War, African politics, race, gender and imperialism, with a dose of romance and suspense thrown in for good measure. Bahni Turpin does an incredible job narrating the audiobook! Dori

I Know You Know by Gilly Macmillan

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Cody Swift is doing a podcast with his girlfriend in an attempt to re-open an investigation into the deaths of his two best friends which occurred twenty years ago when the boys were only eleven years old. As Cody interviews old detectives, parents and witnesses, he frightens someone into threatening his and his girlfriend’s safety. It seems that no one told the whole truth about everything that happened that night. Told in the present, and also through the eyes of 11-year-old Cody in flashbacks, the book is an engaging, page turning read. I felt that the ending had a good twist to it that I did not anticipate, but it was a bit too rushed which made it somewhat anticlimactic. I still would recommend it. Sara