Sunday, June 14, 2015

Walt Whitman in the Waikato

My dream about a jog through the Tongan jungle with Marshall Sahlins amused some anthropologists. Here's another dream poem. The title is pinched from a Wallace Stevens poem in which Whitman makes a guest appearance. 

Can All Men, Together, Avenge one of the Leaves that Have Fallen in Autumn? 

Walt Whitman was born in Huntly,
not Camden. 
His paddlesteamers and trains pushed
through the Waikato and the Taieri Gorge
not the Mississippi or the Midwest.

When his steamer snagged
on a taniwha-shaped shoal
just downwind from Mercer's sewage pipe
Whitman was below deck, composing the line
I am small, I contain solitudes.

Later, at Huntly, power station chimneys made
a tundra in the sky. 
On the riverbank Whitman inspected willows and oaks.
With their bare branches and twigs they reminded him
of X-rayed bodies.

Whitman's staff was not made of leaping flame 
but Boston mahogany. 
He swung it, knocking consciousness
into a trunk. 
On the other side of the Waikato
the lights of Huntly winked automatically. 

Whitman knelt and, with the sharp end of his cane, 
and began to carve a poem:
I sing the body electrocuted... 
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Blogger Richard said...

Is that from the title? Do you mean the nigger gravyard poem (I've always been troubled by that title but like a lot of Stevens, it is a great poem) That's a good poem by you though though: I like the reversal of Whitman. It is a great poem in its own way. A good reworking. With Huntly. The point is well made too. I saw your other post about Tonga. Congratulations for getting that in the Aussie mag.

I have been busy, actually doing a bit of writing and reading but other things so I missed your Blog posts recently. I like the way you have shifted the focus away from NY, as long as the proverbial baby doesn't get bath watered But good stuff.

1:36 am  
Blogger Richard said...

I meant your poetry is good considering it is "political" but you mix the mythic with the so-called real and you point to the local Even Morrissey used to put "cult" figures into the local landscape. He did some good poems along those lines in that great lit crit. The New Fiction. But you have kept the poem here more direct but without "downgrading it" so to speak.

Over and out for now!

1:39 am  
Blogger Richard said...

I see, I realised soon after I logged off last time. The title derives indirectly from a line in 'Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery' which is a great poem I recall you told me you liked a lot way back about 1996 or so, but the allusion is to Walt Whitman who with others such as Laforgue helped poets like T S Eliot and others to create, more or less the first waves of Modernism. So "I Sing the Body Electric" is a (long) part of Whitman's long poem (it could be said that all his work is one long poem) including 'Leaves of Grass' and his other works. Whitman broke the conventions of rhymed and metered verse.

Then Stevens alludes to him in the "nigger" poem with his flaming beard and staff about to burst into fire.

In some ways they are very different poets (and people) but both very great in their own ways.

Ginsberg also "rewrote" or he had Whitman walking around modern NY.

So you have quoted two great modernists, one who was mostly quite poor in his life (and worked with the wounded and dying soldiers of the Civil War as a nurse which is good); and was reputed even in his own day to be immoral, so his books were banned in the US itself for some time, but popular (under the table) in England and France etc (he was a homosexual as everyone knew, although he celebrates the vastness and vitality of the US and the world really, and while lauding muscular bodies of young men, also praises those of women but less enthusiastically), and Stevens who more or less disliked most people and was a millionnaire but a great poet!

So one man queer as a dog and a degenerate, the other a big shot and a racist. But both great poetic influences on modern poetry.

You transform it all into NZ and Huntly etc

10:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Richard Taylor appears unaware of the subtlety with which Wallace Stevens could use words.

11:47 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

Good to hear you've been doing some writing RT!

I don't trust myself as a judge of Stevens, but I shared 'Decorations' with Danyl McLaughlan, and he was impressed:

Was Whitman really a degenerate? Even though I find some of his poems hard to get through in full, I love some of his lines. I almost think of him as a miniaturist who strung together hundreds and thousands of short poems.

2:22 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

2:23 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I love Wallace Stevens but he is one of the many US modernists I like, although Stevens is I suppose an 'older Modernist' in that Whitman and such as Laforgue (and then Joyce, Eliot, Pound, HD, Woolf and the others such as Stein) is cited by Everdell in his book The First Modernists. The importance of both Whitman and Laforgue (who introduced satire and 'dissonance' into his writing. Everdell is unusual in bringing people from all disciplines I(The Sciences, Art, Music, Maths and Literature) and showing the connections between the ideas of say Boltzmann, Planc and Einstein, movies (Joyce especially influenced here) and showing the cross over.
I saw someone commenting on the racism inherent in the title of the poem linked to. But I think with you that Stevens' poetry is almost all good. However much subtlety I miss anonymous, I appreciate the beauty of Stevens' poetry. He was a good and well off businessman and disliked the company of people. It seemed he didn't like being with people very much. But that aside, he must have liked them enough to be friends with Williams Carlos Williams (another great, but quite different poet, for me) and to appreciate modern art and so on.

No, it was Whitman who was considered (not by me) but by the establishment, to be a "degenerate" but his poetry was liberating.

I am writing a bit more but still doing some stuff a la Kenneth Goldsmith, as well as more or less "original" poems.

I was concerned that your own ventures into politics and so on would dessicate your poetry and writing but I think it gives it an extra raison d'etre.

I sent poems to PNZ, and Percutio. Some are recent, others I don't think you have seen. One or two you might.

I meant also to say that the influence of Smithyman on you (and to a lesser extent myself) is a productive thing. So in his case it was more philosophy and various literatures, dreams, AND the 'real world' combining. Yours is similar, a little less abstruse, and with more of a politico-sociological aspect integrated with dreams and local events and reality, and history of course. Huntly, for years, has been a place I loved to stop at (as you know).

Another town I recall driving towards from the South, and this almost (Wordsworthian via the Prelude and the 'fearful sublime') was the sense that as my father drove toward Aroha, the mountain there always seemed to rise from the level and to loom over you as you approached, as if raising itself, of course it was the normal phenomenom of approaching something. Also it was always somehow quite beautiful. Something my father and I shared. Also Te Kuiti and around there has a beauty that is hard to define.

I also liked driving or walking off on dirt of stone roads in the country. Sometimes something quite mysterious to walk around such rolling roads in the late afternoon...

7:34 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

The Whitman poem above is good. But those poets who attended the lectures at the Royal Society (as did Shelley, Coleridge and possibly Keats) knew of Herschel's works. Coleridge coined he term 'science' for the new societies that such as Babbit wanted to be in. Keats is refering to Herschel's discovery of Uranus when he writes:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken,
Or like stout Cortez, who with eagle eyes,
Stared out at the Pacific, and all his men
Watched with a wild surmise.

(From memory: the 'swims into his ken' describes the way a planet appears to move when seen through a telescope given that the air moisture and magnification create that impression - this is what I gather from Richard Holmes excellent book 'The Age of Wonder']

But I like that repetition and that rolling style.

And indeed, Stevens' work seems almost one long work. He seems to have hardly written anything bad. It is almost as if we should be able to find something wrong but every poem seems full of wonderful expressions such as 'ambiguous undulations' and 'emporer's of ice cream', 'concupiscent curds', and much much more of course.

7:34 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

That ends (all from memory, no Wiki cheating here!) with:

Stared at each other with a wild surmise.

It wasn't Cortez, Keats had got that wrong, but he had been reading Chapman at a poetry, philosophic group he was in. It is in that book by Holmes which is great.

7:36 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

"Richard Taylor appears unaware of the subtlety with which Wallace Stevens could use words."

Anonymous, do you know the poem? I read it a long time ago and some of it last night from his daughter's collection 'Palm at the End of the Mind' (which you may know is also a great poem).

If you know the poem Scott is referring to, I would like to know more about it. I would be interested to see what I was missing. (I'm not being sarcastic or anything, I often use things such as 'Cliff's Notes' to explicate poetry or books and I am open to learning more about Stevens and other poets if you can help me.)

7:40 pm  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

Interesting: a 1940 letter to the Auckland Star presents Whitman as an antidote to decadence and degeneracy!

6:59 pm  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

'Decorations' is my favourite Stevens poem: some of its phrases have stayed in my head for decades. It seems a lot less pompous than much of his work. Here's a study I've just googled, which looks very interesting:

It's curious how we can enjoy a poem for many years without even asking ourselves what, exactly, said poem means! I guess Stevens did say that poetry should resist the imagination almost successfully!

9:54 pm  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

In December 1934, when Wallace Stevens sent "Like
Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery" to Poetry, he explained
that "the title refers to the litter one usually finds in a
nigger cemetery and is a phrase used by Judge Powell last
winter in Key West."' Despite this painfully clear gloss on
the title, neither the title nor the rest of the poem are so
easily explained. The offensive title and the stream of
fifty disjunctive epigrams make it a politically and
poetically challenging poem to critique. Therefore, I'd like
to begin by appealing to the sympathy and forbearance of my
readers, mostly for myself, but in part, also for Wallace
Three years ago, I began work on this poem with every
intention of producing the kind of linear, logical,
conventional critical treatment that everyone in the
scholarly community commonly expects. And without fail, the
poem baffled each attempt...

10:05 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Yes it is an amusing snap look at Auckland in those days. My father was in Auckland during some of the War. The rest in Hamilton I think. I was reading Seymour-Smith entry on Stevens today. His point (taken from some other writer) is that Stevens needed the distance that being an Insurance executive involved. His poems are often darker than they seem. His Emporer of Ice-Cream and the Sunday Morning poem are concerned or 'about' death and hence how to live. He is always interesting. I recall you recommending or being amazed by Seymour-Smith's large work. I think he tends to praise those who were his friends at one time or another. Hence I suspect he didn't get on with Eliot (who got on well with a surprisingly wide group of people). Stevens was perhaps not a misanthrope. Whitman attempted the first 'Infinite Poem' and it was and still is a great largeness that contains multitudes. Whether we think he was degenerate or not, the authorities in the US etc and probably the military 'hardliners' (the Kitchenerites?) weren't so keen on him. It seems that some degree of madness or even what we might call sexual deviancy (overenthusiasm a la Sullivan - of Gilbert and Sullivan - who had an endless and almost 24 hour string of "engagements" with women, in between composing music!) or whatever it is, is often associated with creative writers.

12:06 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Whitman, in anycase, seemed to want a huge and an all-inclusiveness. He has a great sense of the intensity of life and of the human body, of the excitment of a great nation, and of the world of people. He tried to move toward people I suppose. At least in his writing.

Interesting in any case these juxtapositions.

12:09 am  
Blogger Richard said...

"'Decorations' is my favourite Stevens poem: some of its phrases have stayed in my head for decades. It seems a lot less pompous than much of his work. Here's a study I've just googled, which looks very interesting:

It's curious how we can enjoy a poem for many years without even asking ourselves what, exactly, said poem means! I guess Stevens did say that poetry should resist the imagination almost successfully!"

I have read it, and like it, but I like most of Stevens. I don't find him pompous. I think he is a genius for sure. His mastery is language and thought although he is not really a philosopher.

I saw a bit of that but couldn't get the rest of that thesis but I agree. I have never really bothered trying to fathom what Stevens is saying. It might be imagination, or that death is the mother of beauty, or in fact...whatever. Seymour-Smith speaks of his indebtedness to a French poet called Fargue, influenced by Mallarme etc. Stevens is also symbolist but not totally absorbed into it. But that poem about the peacocks is very powerful. Of course his 13 Ways of Looking and the Blue Guitar. But as I say, for me, there is hardly a bad poem - it is like music for me - but when under the influence I wrote some poems that got out of hand, possibly. I once commented to Don Smith that I sensed that Alan Curnow's work owed a lot to Stevens. Smith agreed and pointed out that Curnow had pushed to teach only (or mostly) Stevens at one stage.

But Curnow also knew Dylan Thomas and his influence is there.

William Carlos Williams also wrote some of my favourite poems as did Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, James Merrill and others of that time. Of course Eliot and Pound go without question.

I have to concede less interest in the Beats although they fulfil a kind of bridge. In any case it is interesting to see Whitman appearing in Huntly etc! In his novel TOA, Vaughan Rapatahana has one Franz dropped off by some locals, and he walks into the landscape. It is clearly (well I thought it was) Kafka. That TOA I thought was an excellent, even in it's own way, a great and also a comic, novel. Amusing, and yet in some ways darkly surreal. Satirical. It was NZ but NZ is never mentioned called 'the skinny country'. Nor are Maori as such. They have another appellation, as do Pakeha. It mixes working people with mad philosophers and sex-crazed academics! Maori chants and pub brawls, sex and farting with deep introspective philosophising, and cinematic methods while 'Jake the Muss' makes an appearance! It seems to be an improved and shorter version of 'On the Road'...better in many ways. That method (of NOT naming groups as such) avoids certain clichaic reactions one might make...It was good to review that book.

12:35 am  
Blogger Richard said...

And Frost, Robert Frost. He is better than one might think. In some ways he was an American Browning.

12:37 am  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

When I first read 'Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery', twenty or so years ago, I assumed that the n word didn't have the same connotations for Stevens' America as it did today. Of course, I was wrong - very wrong. At the time, I don't think I could believe that a poet like Stevens, who was so clearly acquainted with the ideas and devices of modernism, could believe in anything as crude and absurd as a hierarchy of races. Naivety!

I'm turning up a lot of articles from the NZ papers of the 1860s and '70s which use the n word to describe some of the Melanesians brought to Australasia as indentured labourers.

9:06 am  
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