Arrears blogging: May 31: Exhibit A for American

I guess Memorial Day weekend was American poetry weekend (and why not), so I might as well quote one of my favorite United Statesean lines that has the added benefit of being true. It's from William Carlos Williams:
The pure products of America
go crazy--
And we happen to have Exhibit A right here, Walt Whitman, writing a preface to Leaves of Grass that's so nutty you wonder how anyone ever went on to read the poems. But don't take my word for it -- not when you have Whitman's hundreds and hundreds of words:
The known universe has one complete lover and that is the greatest poet. He consumes an eternal passion and is indifferent which chance happens and which possible contingency of fortune or misfortune and persuades daily and hourly his delicious pay. What baulks or breaks others is fuel for his burning progress to contact and amorous joy.
The unusual thing is, not so much that these sentences are in the Harvard Classics, but that they're set in type at all -- generally you find them in tiny handwriting on the beginning of page three of the pamphlet.

But one of the big differences between Whitman and most crazy people is that Whitman doesn't have axes to grind -- as he said of himself, he contains multitudes. Whitman doesn't turn anyone away, and while (let's be honest) that is crazy, it's crazy in a holy fool kind of way, a there-but-for-the-lack-of-grace-of-God kind of way.

Plus he loves America; he's crazy about it, you could say:
the enormous diversity of temperature and agriculture and mines—the tribes of red aborigines—the weather-beaten vessels entering new ports or making landings on rocky coasts—the first settlements north or south—the rapid stature and muscle—the haughty defiance of ’76, and the war and peace and formation of the constitution … the Union always surrounded by blatherers and always calm and impregnable—the perpetual coming of immigrants—the wharf-hem’d cities and superior marine—the unsurveyed interior—the loghouses and clearings and wild animals and hunters and trappers … the free commerce—the fisheries and whaling and gold-digging—the endless gestation of new states—the convening of Congress every December, the members duly coming up from all climates and the uttermost parts … the noble character of the young mechanics and of all free American workmen and workwomen … the general ardor and friendliness and enterprise—the perfect equality of the female with the male … the large amativeness—the fluid movement of the population—the factories and mercantile life and laborsaving machinery...
I'm sorry that quote is so very long, but it's hard not to get caught up in the excitement, even if it is 150 years old. One likes to think this energy is still around today, just as the Union is still surrounded by blatherers.

Whitman doesn't count as a blatherer, though, for all his crazy talk. He breaks through somehow:
The greatest poet has less a marked style and is more the channel of thoughts and things without increase or diminution and is the free channel of himself. He swears to his art, I will not be meddlesome, I will not have in my writing any elegance or effect or originality to hang in the way between me and the rest like curtains. I will have nothing hang in the way not the richest curtains.
I don't think this is even true (Shakespeare, bitches!) and yet I love it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of when Roberto Benigni, at the Academy Awards, jumped over all the seats hugging and kissing everyone, and then got up on the stage and said he wanted to make love to the whole universe.