September 2, 2011

Max’s Musings

By Max Molleston

When poet Walt Whitman becomes the subject of discussions or conversations at a literary gathering, many of those listening can claim to not understand. Whitman, individual that he was, tossed some poets aside because they had not used American language, words used then and now as conversation and some writing. Poems were loosely structured as Whitman composed and recomposed them, aimed at, we think, a better understanding by his readers. The challenge was and is about readership and expectations, far more than working what had been, and that is and was rhyme and meter, expected and appreciated.

If the reader was or is open, evidence of the driving nature of the word forms stands out. In Whitman language, posting a beginning, a middle and a close to the wording is elusive. If I am considering Walt Whitman’s style, and I am, there is language with thoughts in what I will call “clumps,” that seem to serve the purpose or organization.

In 2009, the American Poetry Review undertook to print the text of Whitman’s imagemaker, Song of Myself. Think of a tabloid-style newspaper form as the format. This Song of Myself seems to be on newsprint, maybe a little more substantial. The American Poetry Review decided to publish an “explainer” with the tome, and utilize Robert Hass and Paul Ebenkamp to explain.

Research I did for an earlier muse on Walt Whitman recalls this idea. At the time of Songs of Myself, we were told about Americans beginning to learn to read. So, the initial telling from these special “tellers,” Hass and Ebenkamp, mentions the raffishness and playfulness of the diction. He appears to make the effort to create words and thoughts plain as possible. With this taking place, Walt Whitman was also bearing down on the message he pushed in those “clumps.” Page 26 in this effort on behalf of Whitman goes like this.

“In all the people I see myself, none more and not one a
barleycorn less,
And the good or bad I say of myself, I say of them.
And I know I am solid and sound,
To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow,
All are written to me and I must get what that writing means.”

Whitman wraps up this clump in this way.

“I exist as I am, that is enough,
If no other in the world be aware I sit content,
And if each and all are aware, I sit content.”

My thinking on Walt Whitman, known as Walter to his family, is that his stuff is hard to comprehend, but maybe not as hard to read, if that is what we are about in this column. The modern phrase about reading comprehension in these United States is “reading is fundamental.” It wasn’t in Whitman’s time, and though his carefully chosen words that power his looping phrases tend to be simpler and of that time, they aren’t all that way. So, Walt Whitman claimed to be as he wrote, “I exist as I am, that is enough.”

Let’s switch some gears, here. The poet Archibald MacLEISH delivered the principle eulogy at the memorial service for Carl Sandburg. Within these remarks, MacLEISH declared that no poet should be compared to another. Sandburg, who spent his early years as a Galesburg, Illinois native and youngster, moved on as an acclaimed biographer of Abraham Lincoln and poet of equal renown. As I have read and thought about the poetry of both of these literary benchmarks, I see areas of comparison. It is not unusual in the Arts to toil in graphic or literary pursuits for some time, perhaps decades, to reach a skill level and raise others’ attention levels of what had been accomplished. I have chosen Sandburg’s poem THEY WILL SAY as my comparison of Sandburg to Whitman in style and, as important, content.

Of my city the worst that men will ever say is this:
You took little children away from the sun and the dew,
And the glimmers that played in the grass under the great sky,
And the reckless rain; you put them between walls
To work, broken and smothered, for bread and wages,
To eat dust in their throats and die empty-hearted
For a little handful of pay on a few Saturday nights.

These two poets, and others maybe not so skilled or recognized, worked through the human condition successfully as any have, with what I would identify as straightforward language. The key to both or either in comparing them is their use of the American idiom. They knew it, and used it to the exclusion of some ideas of finer expressions of the day. Comparing as I have tried to do in this September effort might go on for some time, but for me and you, we are done. Can we join in October on these pages?