Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Woody Guthrie

The first thing that comes to mind is that Guthrie and Whitman's work has been twisted and misinterpreted to fit advertising. Like using Whitman to sell jeans or using Born in The USA and Springsteen to sell a Republican Campaign, Guthrie's song has been used to “sell America.” “This Land Is Your Land” is taken as a very patriotic song(played at probably every July 4th celebration) and I would argue that it is (dissent is patriotic), but as familiar as I am with the tune and words I had no idea that it included the lines, “In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people, 
By the relief office I seen my people; 
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking 
Is this land made for you and me?Guthrie is questioning the values of America. Not of the people who he champions, but of the system.

Here is another verse that I think has been obscured:

As I was walkin' - I saw a sign there
And that sign said - no tress passin'
But on the other side .... it didn't say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!

Interesting that these are the two verses that no one ever sings or recollects.

A big difference between Whitman and Guthrie is their circumstances in life and how that may have shaped their political views. Whitman rambles and wanders because he can. The persona that Guthrie presents rambles because he has to; from job to job, for survival. A tid bit from his bio:

The Great Depression hit the Guthrie family hard and when the drought-stricken Great Plains transformed into the infamous Dust Bowl, Guthrie left his family in 1935 to join the thousands of "Okies" who were migrating West in search of work. Like many other "Dust Bowl refugees," Guthrie spent his time hitchhiking, riding freight trains, and when he could, quite literally singing for his supper. With his guitar and harmonica he sang in the hobo and migrant camps, developing into a musical spokesman for labor and other left-wing causes. These hardscrabble experiences would provide the bedrock for Guthrie's songs and stories, as well as fodder for his future autobiography, "Bound for Glory." It was also during these years that Guthrie developed a taste for the road that would never quite leave him.

There is definitely a relationship between art and politics. Many use their art to express their political views. Whitman was so radical, he got fired from the Daily Eagle. Democracy and freedom are at the core of their work, though Guthrie's had a more critical view. He was incensed by the capitalist machine and what it did to the average American. He had been accused of being a Communist, which definitely surprised me considering the fact that up until about 10 minutes ago I thought “This Land had been a 'Yay America!” song. History has erased the radical(both the man and within the song); the protest is wiped clean from “This Land” and it has been transformed into almost a second American national anthem. Isn't Leaves of Grass kind of a type of anthem? Isn't part of what Whitman set out to do; to create a new American poetry?

Unfortunately, I do not think that we as Americans could be called unified at all. The division in this country is at an extreme and only getting wider. 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Book of the Dead"

The "you" functions very differently in Rukeyser's "Book of the Dead" versus Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." Whitman only uses the word "you" once in the first 14 stanzas and when he does in the second stanza he is addressing "spring" as "you."  When he uses "you" again it isn't until section seven, stanza 15 and in this case "you" is "death." Later in the poem the "you" is used to refer to both the star and the bird. This is unlike Rukeyser's poem where the "you" is used in the first line and refers to the reader. The "you" in her poem pulls the reader right in and in a way holds them partially accountable for the tragedy. A main difference of the mourning in this poem versus Lilacs is that this tragedy was absolutely avoidable (The inspectors wore gas masks when they came to the construction site for short visits yet the men working there every day went without any protection. It wasn't a matter of ignorance to the danger; it was a matter of apathy.) While Whitman's poem is very personal, it is more personal to his own grief rather than inclusive of everyone's. He does write about the Nation mourning in section six, but largely the feel of the poem is of his own grief. Rukeyser's poem shies away from the sentimental and has an angrier tone. She takes the tragedy of of the Hawk's Nest Incident and uses it as a springboard to accuse America of it's "Nothing will stand in the way of progress" mentality. And rightly so in my humble opinion.

Obviously both poems are elegiac in tone and I can't help but wonder if Rukeyser had Whitman in mind when she wrote this. It not only reminds me of "Lilacs", but her style, the long sentences, the repetition, the painting a picture of America(albeit in a more negative light than Whitman,) reminds me a lot of other poems in "Leaves of Grass."

Whitman ends on a tone of honoring the fallen president though not naming him. His grief will go on, but he is able to manage it. There is transformation, but not a call to change. If he was attempting to do what Rukeyser did, then maybe there would be some mention of Booth, or a tone of anger that this terrible event wasn't thwarted somehow. Rather he focuses on the management of grief; finding a way to cope. By the end of the poem, "Book of the Dead"as dark as it is, there is a bit of hope in it as Rukeyser aims  to expose the lie of America, the "land myths of identity" and call for change. At least change is possible. She writes, "and you young, you who finishing the poem/wish new perfection and begin to make." 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

National Tragedy

The themes that presented themselves to me after reading the 9/11 poems were time, and the people who are left/how we go on.

Time and our relation to it seems to always become so important in the face of a tragedy. In the poem “September Twelfth, 2001” by X.J. Kennedy the actual time is featured in the title and the last lines evoke not only emotion, but the sense that time is fleeting; not simply being whisked away on the wind, but violently disintegrating: “Alive we open our eyelids on our pitiful share of time,/ we bubbles rising and bursting in a boiling pot.”

These things that happen in the particle of time we have to be alive,” is a striking line from “War” a poem by C.K. Williams which tries to deal with tragedy by relating to human tragedy throughout the ages. Thinking about our history as a speck of time raises the question of how important or unimportant we are. This poem is ambitious and remarkable; it is hard to describe how the poet intertwines our “complicity, contrition, grief.”

Of all the poems I read, Szymborska's moved me the most. The attempt at suspending time for the victims plunging to their death was a noble elegy. The last lines were very beautiful and powerful,

I can only do two things for them-
describe this flight
and not add a last line”

However I think the most similar to Whitman's “When Lilacs Last in The Dooryard Bloom'd” is the poem “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” by Adam Zagajewski. Reading this I assumed that this poet wrote this with “Lilacs” in mind He writes of the “thrush,” he writes of “praising” the mutilated world, just as Whitman wrote of praising the universe and all it contains which includes death. Of “joyously sing[ing] the dead.” Zagajewski even writes of the “gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.” Just as the “western star” keeps returning to “hold” whitman, the grief unrelenting as the passage of time, the light in this poem functions the same way.

Zagajewski's poem also attempts to encompass more than just New York. Whereas many of the 9/11 poems in this online collection are presented as a snapshot, (perhaps because of the nature of the tragedy, the shock that set in would maybe allow for a narrow focus), Zagajewski's poem spans time and seasons. He is never specific in pointing toward New York as the subject, but the poem is one of loss which all people can relate to. Just as Whitman never mentions Lincoln, he attempts to heal with a more universal stroke of the pen.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


I have been reconsidering my project and I don't think I really want to explore the theme of death in Whitman's poetry. Even though he does have a more zen approach I think spending that much time on that topic would be morbid and not too fun for me. The other blog that I had the most fun with besides the motifs one was "Whitman in pop culture." I would like to explore how Whitman is represented in the modern day. From all of the examples that the class shared the modern layperson would probably have a skewed view on what he was all about.

Specifically, I think it could be interesting to see if I can find anything more in pop culture relating to Whitman and his sexuality because two of the shows in the '90s that featured him heavily used Whitman as a springboard to highlight equality issues.

I think that comparing society's take/interest in Whitman's sexuality in our generation with that of his own generation and how it was examined and received would be interesting and would also allow an entry point into his poetry (i.e. where critics and public 1st saw homoerotic lines and passages.)

I am not sure how I want to present this project. Maybe in a multi media presentation including clips from Whitman in pop culture and writings from the past. Any ideas? :)

My other idea is quite different, but I think might be very inspiring. I loved finding favorite lines from Whitman and it was difficult to narrow them down to a favorite. I find this particularly interesting because (and with no offense) Whitman is definitely not my favorite poet, yet there are lines that are just so amazing they can take your breath away. I do think these can stand out on their own as well. I am curious about exploring a project based on writing a series of poems taking these as inspiration. For instance I could make a found poem using these favorite lines, and could write another poem using one line as a springboard, I could see if a majority of the favorite lines share a theme and write on that, or track if it's the certain images in the chosen favorite lines that seem to inspire me and write on that. This would be a particularly satisfying project for me because while immersing myself and learning more about Whitman's poetry, I would also be gaining valuable writing practice and perhaps, hopefully create a good poem or two. Since I'm working on my M.A/M.F.A in creative writing, and exercises based on response to other works/authors has always been an excellent method for me to generate ideas, I think this project may suit me well.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

I really enjoyed mapping the motif of speech in "Song of Myself"and I think would like to explore other motifs in Whitman's work. Death is a big motif featured in his poems and he has a unique viewpoint on the matter.  Death isn't presented as dark, finite and horrible like we generally view it. He has a much more zen approach to the subject that I find interesting, refreshing and hopeful.

How does the theme of death in "Song of Myself" compare with the theme of death in "Calalmus"

Does Whitman contradict himself in writing about the idea of death?

Peter Doyle

Peter Doyle was Whitman's longtime lover and some historians would say he was his muse as well. He certainly influenced some of Whitman's work, however it was Fred Vaughn (another of Whitman's lovers) that inspired “Calamus” and not Doyle. Doyle was born in Ireland and came to the United States as a small child. He served in the Confederate Army which was a surprising discovery since Whitman was obviously very pro Union. He was working class and supported his mother and younger siblings which, for some reason, made it impossible to live with Whitman, which Whitman wanted. Who knows if thats the reason, but that's what is cited in many articles. They were “out” to their families and friends as it seems that everyone knew the nature of their relationship. Very progressive for the time!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


I am starting to think that Whitman might be a little bit of a stalker. After reading the Abraham Lincoln journal entry in Specimen Days I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, but now reading "The White House by Moonlight" it's becoming clear that he is a little obsessed. He ends the entry with a line that made me laugh out loud, "sentries at the gates, and by the portico, silent, pacing there in blue overcoats -- stopping you not at all, but eyeing you with sharp eyes, whichever way you move." Of course they're eyeing you Walt. They think you are stalking Honest Abe!

On a completely different note, I also liked reading this because it infuses the journal with the imagery of purity and potential, none of which I can see when looking at the White House and what it symbolizes, not for over a decade now. Whitman is very poetic in this journal entry, it is once again, not just a jotting down of thought. For example, he writes, "...the White House of future poems, and of dreams and dramas, there in the soft and copious moon..." Beautiful.  I envy his outlook on the White House and the Presidency, of America and what it stands for.