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.

 

 

 

 

 

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Fiction Roundup – May 2019

Here are some interesting-looking titles of fiction coming out this month.  Note: if you liked the movie “Arrival” (I loved it and watched it twice), Ted Chiang, the science fiction author whose novella “Story of Your Life” was the basis for the movie, has a new book out called Exhalation. To secure a copy of any of these books, just click on the title, and you’ll be taken to the catalog.

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The Behavior of Love by Virginia Reeves – Working to revitalize a crumbling hospital and start a family with his artistic wife, an ambitious behavioral psychiatrist becomes fatefully involved in the case of a wrongly institutionalized patient who has fallen in love with him.

How Not to Die Alone by Richard Roper – Telling a white lie that makes his coworkers believe he has a loving family at home, a lonely man stuck in a thankless public-health job falls in love with a new coworker who challenges his secrets.

Lanny by Max Porter – A follow-up to the prizewinning Grief Is the Thing with Feathers follows the awakening of a mythical being in a London village, where he observes the domestic dramas and creative energies surrounding a mischievous, ethereal young newcomer.

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Exhalation by Ted Chiang – A long-awaited latest collection by the Arrival-inspiring author of “The Story of Your Life” explores revelatory ideas and second chances in such tales as, “In the Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” “Exhalation” and “The Lifecycle of Software Objects.”

Light From Other Stars by Erika Swyler – Decades after her grieving father, a laid-off NASA scientist, triggers chaotic changes in his pursuit of life-extending technology, an astronaut confronts dangerous family secrets to stop a world-threatening crisis. By the author of The Book of Speculation.

Middlegame by Seanan McGuire – In an alternate-reality world under the shadow of a magical government bent on transmuting the fabric of reality, two alchemical twins, one skilled with language and the other with math, become catalysts in their creator’s grab for power.

 

 

 

Non-Fiction Roundup – May 2019

Happy May!  Here are some non-fiction titles to whet your readerly appetite, coming out this month.  One click on the title will take you to the catalog.  Happy reading!

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At Home with Muhammad Ali by Hana Ali – Muhammad Ali’s daughter presents a candid and intimate family memoir based on personal recordings he kept throughout his adult life, detailing the everyday adventures their family shared and their collective experiences with pain, laughter and love.

Becoming Dr. Seuss: Theodor Geisel and the Making of an American Imagination by Brian Jay Jones – A full-scale portrait of Theodor Geisel, best known as American icon Dr. Seuss, shares insights into his successful early career as a radical political cartoonist and the complicated genius that informed his beliefs on such subjects as empathy and environmentalism.

The Making of a Justice by Justice John Paul Stevens – One of the most prominent jurists of our time provides a personal account of life on the Supreme Court that offers a unique understanding of American history. By the author of Fire Chiefs.

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The Castle on Sunset: Life, Death, Love, Art and Scandal at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont by Shawn Levy – The best-selling author of Rat Pack Confidential presents a deeply researched history of the iconic Hollywood hotel that explores its storied role in wild celebrity revelries, scandalous liaisons and creative breakthroughs.

Comedy Sex God by Pete Holmes – The host of the You Made It Weird podcast and star of HBO’s Crashing describes how an ex’s infidelity transformed his evangelical Christian views, compelling him to embrace a model of faith that incorporates laughter and honest fulfillment.

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep – Documents the remarkable story of 1970s Alabama serial killer Willie Maxwell and the true-crime book on the Deep South’s racial politics and justice system that consumed Harper Lee in the years after To Kill a Mockingbird.

 

For the last day of National Poetry Month, here are three great poems

It’s the last day of National Poetry Month!  Does this mean anything?

In the grand scheme of things, I don’t really think so.  Poetry lives and breathes outside the schematics we impose on it, and National Poetry Month is just an excuse to celebrate something that cannot be contained in really any way.  But there is something – sad? significant? – about the ending of April and this month designated as poetry’s, if only because we need to say farewell to our intentional calendrical homage, and move out into May’s own vista, as poetry moves out of the national spotlight and back into the less-attention-getting situation of readers and writers (mundanely, extraordinarily) connecting.

To commemorate the ending of this poetry month, we should connect with some poems.  Here is a deservedly famous villanelle by American poet Elizabeth Bishop, titled “One Art.”

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
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Elizabeth Bishop

And here is African-American poet Robert Hayden‘s unforgettable “Those Winter Sundays”:

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

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Robert Hayden

And here, last but not least, is the profoundly wonderful “Adam’s Curse” by Irish poet William Butler Yeats.

 

We sat together at one summer’s end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.’
                                          And thereupon
That beautiful mild woman for whose sake
There’s many a one shall find out all heartache
On finding that her voice is sweet and low
Replied, ‘To be born woman is to know—
Although they do not talk of it at school—
That we must labour to be beautiful.’
I said, ‘It’s certain there is no fine thing
Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring.
There have been lovers who thought love should be
So much compounded of high courtesy
That they would sigh and quote with learned looks
Precedents out of beautiful old books;
Yet now it seems an idle trade enough.’
We sat grown quiet at the name of love;
We saw the last embers of daylight die,
And in the trembling blue-green of the sky
A moon, worn as if it had been a shell
Washed by time’s waters as they rose and fell
About the stars and broke in days and years.
I had a thought for no one’s but your ears:
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love;
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.
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William Butler Yeats

Dylan and Bloom; or, Why Yeats Was Wrong

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There is a quote from the great Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, from a poem called “The Choice,” which I have never really understood.  Here it is:

The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work

Why do we have to choose?  I was thinking about this quote, because recently Netflix has announced that they will be releasing a new documentary about that most protean and enigmatic of artists, the pseudonymously named and pretty much always astonishing Bob Dylan.  What was I thinking about?  I was remembering various times in my life when, listening to Dylan in my car, driving somewhere, I would compare various tracks from different Dylan albums, if only to instantiate in myself a kind of marveling cognitive dissonance.  In other words, I liked the shock of encountering an artist who didn’t sit still, who was rather scandalously and bravely growing: as an artist, of course, but also, in many ways (to my mind) as a person.  Because, when you really thought about it, (and here is where the Yeats quote comes in), how could one compose such variegated and beautiful songs, if they were not emerging from the conditions of a particular life – a life that made room for the songwriting to happen in the first place?

As I thought about Dylan, I reflected on other artists and thinkers who, it seemed to me, had never really settled – who, by some strange alchemical need, urgency, prompting, were constantly producing works that built in tacit or not-so-tacit ways on the previous work – but who also found ways to fearlessly branch out, to break out of the confines of their earlier suppositions, norms, conventions, assumptions, standards, and to therefore transcend (but also include) what came before in their own work.

The American literary critic Harold Bloom is a great example of this form of striving, and he also has a new book out (feel free to click on the image below to put a hold on a copy).  I have been a devoted follower of Bloom’s career since I read, in the early 2000s, his rather confidently titled, How to Read and Why.  I can’t say exactly what it was about that book that led me to a lifelong addiction to the Bloomian voice, except that I can say with certainty that his passion for literature was so encompassingly large, so supremely infectious, so utterly and undeniably alive with fetching thought and feeling, that I became irreparably hooked.  And to reflect on his career is, in many ways, to come across another phenomenon, a la Dylan, whereby a human being, absorbing and breathing out the vast tradition from which they came, (Dylan’s Chronicles is a great place to start to learn about his own influences; Bloom is endlessly alluding to his forebears, which include the 18th century literary critic and lexicographer Samuel Johnson, and the 19th century poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson), create from that tradition something fearlessly “revisionary,” to use a Bloomian term, i.e. they re-vision, they re-see, what came before them, and they then, from this creative interpretation, this vision, this feeling, produce something powerfully compelling.  If you merely glance at Bloom’s bibliography on Wikipedia, you can see a rather staggeringly deep arc in his work, from the Romantic poets, to the study of what poetic influence means, to Kabbalah and Sigmund Freud, to religious criticism (his meditations on Mormonism and Joseph Smith are utterly fascinating), to the Western Canon and Shakespeare (!), and onwards and outwards, towards and into meditations on Christianity, the God of the Hebrew Bible, various Shakespearean characters, the King James Bible, and into his now present work, which comes from a man in his late eighties who has refused to stagnate or stop developing spiritually in any way.

What can artists like Dylan and Bloom teach us, artists that can be easily found at most public libraries, including our very own Rocky River Public Library?  They show us, I think, that Yeats might have been too eager to assume that the life and the work are easily separable categories, mutually exclusive dimensions of existence where you have to sacrifice one for the other.  Bloom has taught at Yale University for more than sixty years, and Dylan has played live shows on what he calls a “Never Ending Tour” since 1988.  These two artists are, in a very large sense, role models for the rest of us.  The synergy of their lives and works form ballasts on which we can stand and look out and really think about what it means to lead a good and meaningful life.  Their superb examples, which cannot exactly be imitated, but can be learned from and incorporated into one’s own life, marshal forth endless opportunities for reflection on how and why we not only imbibe thought and art, but also attempt, in our own idiosyncratic ways, to become artists of life ourselves.

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National Poetry Month – Why and How Do Books Affect Us When We Put Them Down?

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Turner, night scene

I was scrolling through my Twitter feed this afternoon, and came across a very interesting tweet from a Ted Underwood, a professor of English at the University of Illinois, who wrote, “The way the book you’re reading seeps into the rest of life, tinging it with undefined narrative potential: something everyone knows but literary critics don’t discuss enough.”

I loved this tweet.  Why?  Because the books we read, novels, poems, essays, plays, non-fiction, they do not only work on us (as we work on them) while we are reading them, but instead percolate and germinate once we have put them down for a moment; and when we re-enter the stream of life and interact with others and the world, these percolations and germinations color our perceptions, just as they influence our thoughts.  In a sense, then, reading a book does something to our consciousness.  For a long time, literary critics have written about language, and the dynamics of language, but reading and writing also of course have to do with the consciousness of the person reading or writing.  So when we read, what exactly is happening?  And how and why are we able then to see the world differently, after we placed the book down upon the table?

Here is one way to think about this: Have you ever visited an art museum, and spent good and meaningful time looking at the various objects, engaging with them, thinking about them, letting their forms and shapes and colors and textures speak to you?  Just looking at them, noticing them, wondering about them.  And then – and this is a very interesting  part of the experience – you leave the art museum, and the world itself has become more vivid!  The sun behind the clouds is seen more clearly, you perhaps notice the cracks in the sidewalk, the sound of children playing in a park a block away, the movement of cars as they make their way across the street, the feel of the wind as it does acrobatics with your hair.  What is going on when that happens?  I think that it is a matter of consciousness – that you have spent time sharpening your mind on the art objects, honing your perception, polishing your vision, so that when you shift from art to world that sharpness, that polish, that hone, is there, still.  Art, in this sense, augments our consciousness (just like poetry, just like books).

There is a great poem by one of my favorite poets, Wallace Stevens, that talks about this phenomenon.  It is called “The Idea of Order at Key West,” and it is about a woman walking along a shore and singing.  Stevens, like any poet, imagines this song, this indescribable thing that he hears and listens to in his imagination, and then he wonders about it.  He says, “what is this thing I hear?  What does it mean?  Why does it move me?”  Maybe even, “Who hears the song?”  The poem is, then, his own strong and idiosyncratic and profound answer to these questions.

In the penultimate stanza of the poem, we come across something very interesting and strange.  Stevens writes,

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

What does this mean?  What has happened?  Stevens has been listening to the song of the woman on the shore.  Then the song ends (we put down our book, our novel, our play, our  non-fiction).  And what happens?  “Why, when the singing ended and we turned / Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights, / The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there, / As the night descended, tilting in the air, / Mastered the night and portioned out the sea, / Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles, / Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.”  Stevens’ consciousness has been augmented, enriched, deepened, transformed, by the singing of the woman on the shore.  When she is done singing, Stevens still, in a sense, hears it, for what he sees has been inflected with her song.  The night itself is no longer only night – it is something seen and felt intensely and vividly, a vision, let’s  say, that permits Stevens to take part  in it.  He has allowed his consciousness to be infused with the song, and so it takes on contours of a wider, deeper impression, which then informs his vision of the night.

We are nearing the end of National Poetry Month, but that does not mean we should stop reading poetry.  Poetry, in many ways, in a sacred transaction, in which we encounter a deeper way of seeing the world.  When we imbibe a poem, and then put the book down, we have been blessed with a gift – a gift that is utterly free and part of the boon of all art – which is that we can for a moment step beyond ourselves, shift out of our accustomed habits of seeing and thinking, and dwell in a louder and vivified world.

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Wallace Stevens
Link to “The Idea of Order at Key West:

Ohio Poet Stanley Plumly: 1939-2013

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Ever year, it is inevitable, we come across the news of the passing into elsewhere of our heroes.  We don’t know where they go, but we know that we felt blessed to have had them here when they were here.  That’s how I feel today, on hearing about the death of American poet Stanley Plumly.  He was a deep and strong and elegiac poet, who wrote remarkable poems about the natural world and the worlds of human beings who shaped him.  He was the first poet I ever came across, with the exception of Philip Levine, who wrote utterly brooding and moving poems about his parents, how they were who they were, how they danced across the vista of his life and influenced him indelibly.

Sometimes I feel very sad when a beloved poet dies.  There is something, to my mind, very holy about the art of poetry, of speaking and bringing into being one’s own deepest, most vital thoughts and feelings, expressed into a durable form (language) that somehow miraculously outlasts and transcends civilizations.  There is comfort, I think, in encountering these various voices of poetry, for they suggest that something does live on after death, something beautiful about the soul and the spirit, something rich and flowering and fresh and familiarly strange.

But enough of the talk.  I wanted mostly to share a poem by Plumly, who wrote many.  Here is one from Poets.org, called “At Night”:

When did I know that I’d have to carry it around
in order to have it when I need it, say in a pocket,

the dark itself not dark enough but needing to be
added to, handful by handful if necessary, until

the way my mother would sit all night in a room
without the lights, smoking, until she disappeared?

Where would she go, because I would go there.
In the morning, nothing but a blanket and all her

absence and the feeling in the air of happiness.
And so much loneliness, a kind of purity of being

and emptiness, no one you are or could ever be,
my mother like another me in another life, gone

where I will go, night now likely dark enough
I can be alone as I’ve never been alone before.

 

What is the “it” in the first line?  What does it mean to add to the dark?  What is the relationship between loneliness and “a kind of purity of being / and emptiness”?  And what does it mean to be alone in a different, new way, “as I’ve never been alone before”?  Plumly raises these important and fascinating questions, and the poem, in its own unfolding, gestures towards answers that are perfectly capable of being and living and answering themselves within the form and content of the poem, and therefore within us, its readers.  The writing of the poem, as Plumly knew, was an embodiment of the poet’s spirit seeking to understand itself through the weaving and conjuring of a shape adequate to its own great longing.  Plumly was able to convert this longing into a form that seems to understand and speak to and assuage our own longings.  He was a poet who deserves a wide audience.  He will be missed.