18 June 2010


Next week starts my graduate class on Walt Whitman.  Nothing genuinely imaginative in my approach:  using the David Reynolds' Whitman's America and the Norton Critical Edition of Leaves of Grass, which includes the 1855 and 1891-2 editions, as well as the usual contemporaneous reviews and whatnot, plus predictable selections of Whitman's prose and smatterings of Dickinson, Whittier, and Longfellow.  But it's only a six-week immersion, and so it'll be something of an intense, break-neck rush.

It's tempting to take Whitman out of his time and wonder what he might think of the present-day American and the situation of poetry (all of which has and hasn't changed all that much)--kind of the way constitutional originalists bring forth the corpses of the founding fathers and believe their views would somehow be unchanging, uniform, or decipherable.  To me, that kind of contemporizing (is that a word?) seems so much beside the point.  Oh, what I'm thinking of is how someone would say Whitman would spit at MFA programs, how no one can do what Whitman did back then, how Whitman would champion this poetry over that poetry, etc.

What I want to say, first, is read Whitman and take him on face value:  he is dead, mouldered, now a part of the grass, that has regenerated itself a 100 times over since his death, and he's something other than the grass, the dirt, the water, and the air, that the lives of the dead are always with us, impossible close and forever removed.  To take the dead, any of them, and prop them up and have them spout this or that political line for us . . . . it's just convenient, so very convenient.  And besides, isn't the poetry itself enough, certainly more than what uses we may put the dead to, what arguments we wish to bolster, to make ourselves even more firm and staunch and correct?

Always for me, this whole poetry and art thing, is about the possibilities of being changed, of that imaginative moment of being transformed--not into a permanent other, or any thing, but a simple accretion of light, wind, blood, and feather.  To be what we weren't, a moment ago.

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