Note: I am currently taking a course on Coursera.org called Modern and Contemporary American Poetry taught by Al Filreis of the University of Pennsylvania. I will be posting my thoughts on the course discussions here.
Before I begin, let me just state that the excerpt below is the payoff for reading Whitman.
An Excerpt from Song of Myself by Walt Whitman
The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab
and my loitering.
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow'd wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.
I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
Let me confess that I remember reading Walt Whitman in the past but I must have been selectively reading because when confronted with all fifty-two cantos I was about to throw in the towel. Below are some of my written comments while I was attempting to read the poem in one night:
- Grass, grass, everywhere. I can't take it. It's like a Facebook feed. It's overwhelming! There's no structure! (Did I just complain about the lack of structure?)
- Is Whitman taking a jibe at capitalists or was he describing a capitalist? (commonest, cheapest, nearest, easiest...spending for vast returns).
- I can only take so much. Even my daughter fell asleep listening to me!
- Canto 24: He even says his own name in his own poem!
- A madman's poem!
Snippets, here and there, saved me from rushing to the end. Canto 31: "I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars." Canto 8: "What living and buried speech is always vibrating here, what howls / restrain'd by decorum." Wow!
Actually, he could have written only canto 52 and I would have been satisfied. It really does blow the mind, though. It takes a revolutionary mind, I guess, a madman of sorts to break convention as he did. Well, I'm glad he did.
In the video discussion, there is a brief mention of the difference between Waltman and Dickinson: democratic, inclusive, sensory vs. complex, difficult, open-ended. For me, there's no contest. There is a place for both in poetry. As for the poetry that I personally prefer, I couldn't write an effusive, 12,756-word poem (that's a novella!) nor could I appreciate a poem of that length in its entirety. I like more distilled works. Well, that's just me.