The OF Blog

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Walt Whitman, Poetry and Prose

1 

I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth
     them,
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond
     to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the
     charge of the soul.

Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own
     bodies conceal themselves?
And if those who defile the living are as bad as they
     who defile the dead?
And if the body does not do full as much as the soul?
And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?

– opening section of "I Sing the Body Electric" (p. 250, Library of America edition)

Every so often, there comes along a literary genius who makes a genre sui generis.  Shakespeare, talented as he was, was in his lifetime merely one of several gifted English playwrights.  Goethe was a master of many trades, yet his impact on prose, drama, and poetry, while profound, did not mark as much of a break with German literary tradition as did the singular work of a 19th century American poet, Walt Whitman.  What Whitman accomplished over the course of thirty-six years of revisions of his seminal Leaves of Grass is truly remarkable.  Although there were other, earlier American poets, such as Edgar Allan Poe, who created memorable poems, there were none who captured the collective ethos of the burgeoning American republic to the depth and breadth of Whitman.

Reading Leaves of Grass is more of an experience than a passive activity.  It does not follow older poetic traditions of metre and rhyme; it often contains clashes of styles and insights within its verses (not for nothing does Whitman state in section 51 of "Song of Myself" the following:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.) (p. 246))
 Yet there is something within this occasionally bombastic collection that makes such poetic conventions seem restrictive, if not outmoded.  Whitman's poems are at once personal and epic, yet without an over-reliance upon Greco-Roman or English historical themes.  One example of this can be found in "O Captain!  My Captain!," which dealt with the assassination of President Lincoln.  The opening stanza is full of metaphors for his leadership during the American Civil War, yet there is nothing that immediately rises to the grandiose:

O Captain!  my Captain!  our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
                 But O heart!  heart!  heart!
                     O the bleeding drops of red,
                        Where on the deck my Captain lies,
                            Fallen cold and dead. (p. 467)

In reading this poem, at first I saw not a myth, not an Olympian figure that might be found in the Romantic poetry of the 19th century, but a man, one chained by duty to something that afflicts him.  Lincoln's conduct of the war, this "vessel grim and daring," guided by his steady, unrelenting demeanor, is presented in a vivid, yet grounded fashion; Lincoln is merely a worker, albeit one who has achieved greatness not due so much to any preternatural gifts but because of a steadiness to him that reflects the character of the young, divided nation that he helped guide through the turmoils of the War of Secession. 

Yet as moving of an elegy as "O Captain! My Captain" is (and certainly it has been referenced frequently in the following 150 years), I think it is an outlier compared to the other poems that appeared in the various editions of Leaves of Grass.  It (and by extension, the other poems in the section "Memories of President Lincoln") is more somber, less full of the joie de vivre found in earlier sections, such as the more erotic Calamus poems.  Those, such as "We Two Boys Together Clinging," in content and form presage the works of the Beat Generation a century later:

We two boys together clinging,
One the other never leaving,
Up and down the roads going, North and South excursions making,
Power enjoying, elbows stretching, fingers clutching,
Arm'd and fearless, eating, drinking, sleeping, loving,
No law less than ourselves owning, sailing, soldiering, thieving, threatening,
Misers, menials, priests alarming, air breathing, water drinking, on the
     turf or the sea-beach dancing,
Cities wrenching, ease scorning, statutes mocking, feebleness chasing,
Fulfilling our foray. (p. 282)
This perhaps is not one of Whitman's more famous poems, but within this litany of rakish acts I sensed a spirit of raw newness, something that isn't shaped by societal conventions or past models as much as it is testing those bounds, yearning to burst free and to live and by so living create experiences different from those that came before.  This yearning quality in Whitman's poetry does not always work (there are several poems that feel more like sketches of great works than anything substantial), but I would argue that even these relative "failures" make Leaves of Grass a staggering work, precisely because we can see the poet's work not as a polished work but instead as something whose flaws and virtues have blended together to create something that feels almost alive, replete with its own literary warts and scars.

The second half of Poetry and Prose, Whitman's numerous essays, letters, and various ruminations on contemporary events and the experiences that he distilled later into his poetry, is a fascinating read in its own light.  Whitman does not shy away from making strong comments about other writers (see his comment on Edgar Allan Poe in "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads):

Toward the last I had among much else look'd over Edgar Poe's poems – of which I was not an admirer, tho' I always saw that beyond their limited range of melody (like perpetual chimes of music bells, ringing from lower b flat up to g) they were melodious expressions, and perhaps never excell'd ones, of certain pronounc'd phases of human morbidity. (The Poetic area is very spacious – has room for all – has so many mansions!)  But I was repaid in Poe's prose by the idea that (at any rate for our occasions, our day) there can be no such thing as a long poem.  The same thought had been haunting my mind before, but Poe's argument, though short, work'd the sum out and proved it to me. (p. 665)

But more so than his literary commentaries Whitman's diary of his time as a nurse during the Civil War makes his prose works a worthy read in their own right.  He notes several conversations with wounded soldiers from both sides of the conflict, with several entries presenting in just a few lines deep insights into these soldiers' lives and their world-views.  Almost the entirety of Specimen Days is fascinating to read and consider at length.

Poetry and Prose is ultimately one of those works that is virtually impossible to review in depth in a single article under 2000 words.  There are so many poems that are worthy of deeper investigation than was possible in a short review such as this.  In composing this post, I decided that perhaps it would be better to just quote a few snippets of works that intrigued me and to discuss briefly things within them that I liked.  Hopefully those who have not read Whitman's poetry (or at least not beyond the usual suspects reproduced in literature survey anthologies) will find themselves wanting to read more.  Those who have read and enjoyed his works but who have not yet read his prose (such as myself before earlier this year) will want now to investigate those as well.  Whitman certainly is an American literary treasure, one who consciously refused to follow contemporary literary conventions.  In breaking with the literary past, Whitman ended up creating works that differed significantly from those of his peers and his influence on American poets over the past 160 years has been immeasurable.  Poetry and Prose is an excellent one-volume collection of his literary output, as it is an edition that presents the entire breadth and depth of Whitman's writing without overwhelming readers with too many citations and footnotes.  It certainly is worth the time and money spent.




Sunday, May 29, 2016

Received an ARC copy of The Big Book of Science Fiction recently


Because I don't care to give away everything, since it's a flash fiction that I translated for The Big Book of Science Fiction (edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer), let's just say that there's something within the introduction that's an added bonus for readers.  The book will be released in the US on July 12th.  This is my third translation to be published.  More on this story and the anthology at a later date.

Monday, May 23, 2016

A brief update

Was busier than expected the past couple of weeks, with some times of frustration mixed in that left me with little time (or mood) to blog.  Going to be busy again this week, as I have my fourth 5K race of the year on Saturday and I have a few long runs to do (going to run a 10K by autumn).  Plus I still am trying to get some things in order to finalize my add-on certification for Special Education (the state changed some of the rules after I had registered for the Praxis tests last September, so there's been a delay in processing everything, but I will have some sort of certification in the next month or two) so I can apply for a multitude of teaching positions, but the delay might mean I'll end up having to wait a few months more before I can work again in the classroom in a full-time capacity.

However, after Memorial Day, I do have hopes of completing a few articles.  Among those will be the long-delayed review of Elizabeth McKenzie's The Portable Veblen; Carla Guelfenbein's 2015 Premio Alfaguara-winning Contigo en la distancia; and an article for another site.  I have been reading a bit more this month and I hope in a month or so to have also written commentaries on the Library of America volumes on Walt Whitman and Harriet Beecher Stowe's works included in those two volumes.  Just started re-reading Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and I am still as amused by it as I was when I first read it nearly 30 years ago in 7th grade.

But as Opus said in this past Sunday's Bloom County strip, things didn't go as planned, but that's okay.  It certainly is a comforting thought after dealing with red tape these past couple of weeks.  Now it's time to sleep, perchance to dream.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Here's some of the music I'm listening to while reading this weekend

I've never really discussed it much here, but music is very important to me.  I listen to it during nearly hour-long commutes, when I go running on the streets or treadmill (but never when trail running, as there is natural music there for me to take in), or when I'm reading late at night.  I listen to a wide variety of 20th/21st century music.  Sometimes I listen to Bob Dylan for weeks on end.  Maybe 70s hard rock another time.  Lately, it's been 80s post-punk/darkwave music.  This music is both familiar and fresh to me, as I was a preteen for much of this time, so I might have at best heard snippets while growing up (I started college in 1992 when a different yet also fascinating form of alt-rock was exploding, so my interests then were in then-current music), but it was never overplayed for me then.

Here are some of these songs, taken from a playlist I created yesterday.  Not all of these are "classics," but the overall mood fits mine and it seems to be driving me to read more than I have in recent months:

Clan of Xymox, "A Day"

Death in June, "The Calling (Mk II)"

Big Black, "Kerosene"

Love and Rockets, "Rain Bird"

Revolting Cocks, "Crackin' Up"

Bauhaus, "The Spy in the Cab"

Siouxsie & The Banshees, "Spellbound"

The Church, "Under the Milky Way"

The Jesus and Mary Chain, "The Living End"

Theatre of Hate, "Do you Believe in the Westerworld"

The Cure, "World in My Eyes"

Front Line Assembly, "Provision"

Bauhaus, "Ziggy Stardust"

Screams for Tina, "Eleven Eleven"

The Sisters of Mercy, "Detonation Boulevard"

The Teardrop Explodes, "Treason"


If there are songs in a similar vein that you think I might enjoy, please list them below.

Friday, May 06, 2016

So it seems the sky has been falling since I last wrote a blog entry

In nearly two months, it would seem for some people, a lot of important things have happened.  Something about some puppies trying to get people mad while ultimately getting pounded in the butt by a butt, I think.  Something else about sites closing after a dozen years or more, leaving some to fret about "independent" book reviewing and the decline and fall of a generation of literary/genre online reviewers.

Yes, things are changing, perhaps not to the liking of many people.  Writing out thoughts takes a lot of time and energy (so says the guy writing at 3 AM on 4.5 hours sleep, 28 hours away from running his third 5K).  So easy to want a steady euphony of thoughts on certain books, so easy to confuse conformity with clarity of insight into literary works.  Does it really matter if I were to write 150 reviews in a year (which I have done before) or if I (using myself only as one minuscule example) were to write none here?  Do people really want to hear my thoughts on matters or is it more a hope or desire that I express something in conformity with their own inclinations?

Before I began training for distance walking (and after January, running) last year, my mind was often a chaotic mix of thoughts on fictions read and opinions inflicted upon me whenever I checked social media.  Sure, there is an excitement involved in coming in contact with new people and unfamiliar ideas, but after a while, it becomes tedious to encounter the same tired opinions expressed in trite fashion.  Running became an escape for me from all of this, or rather it allowed me to clear my thoughts in order to experience things in a different light.

A week ago, I ran a 14km/8.7 mile mountain bike/running trail before going to work.  Hot, humid day (it rained an hour after I finished).  Runs (later, mostly walks as my legs grew tired) along a creek bank, the only human there for a square mile or more.  Hearing a woodpecker hammering at an oak off to my right as I struggled to run up a steep, rock-strewn stretch.  Smelling blooming plants, including the heavy perfume of a honeysuckle out of my sight.  There was a sense of being enveloped here, being a panting, sweaty part of something much greater than me.

And yet words will fail to describe the totality of this.  Sure, I can use the 128 colors in my Crayola box of literary expressions to create a simulacrum, but ultimately experiencing the Sublime defeats all attempts to describe it.  Yet as I slowed down as I encountered 6.5% climbs in rapid succession, as I saw squirrels scurrying around me as I plodded on (my personal exercise trainers?), my mind became increasingly clear and focused.  One more running step forward.  One more sprint up a twisting hilly path before slowing down to brace for the steep descents.  Then it didn't matter how much or how little I had read, what I might encounter at work shortly, what I needed to do in the future.  Right then, right there, I was living within a moment that was more than the sum of myself.

Realizations like that make it hard to sit down at night to jot them down as though they were just impersonal opinions to be shared frequently.  I haven't blogged much recently not so much due to having little to say but rather in feeling that it is almost impossible to share these sorts of experiences without coming across as insincere and garrulous.  But maybe I've been looking at it from a weaker position.  Perhaps through clearing my thoughts via exercise reading itself might become something more enjoyable, as it can be another part of experiential growth.  Later this weekend or early next week, I am going to write a review of Elizabeth McKenzie's The Portable Veblen.  It is an outstanding work of mediation on relationships, between humans and between the animals who live among us.  I took over a month to read it, not because I didn't have time to read it over the course of a night, but rather because I wanted to reflect in piecemeal fashion on some of the things it had to say about how wantonly we live our lives, often at a detriment to other living creatures.  Reflecting on this while running through neighborhoods where the scent of southern pines is strong, while hearing chirps and barks and the occasional hiss, made these scenes come to life for me.

All of this is just a long-winded way of saying that it doesn't matter so much what others are saying about works or whether or not you should be following trends or taking recommendations.  As Saint-Exupéry said in The Little Prince:

"And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye." 
This holds true when it comes to writing commentaries on blogs such as this.  What I have to say may matter little to you, but I try to show that something mattered enough for me to write down thoughts for it, even if none of these pertain at all to you.  Writers and critics come and go, but the earth still abides and we abide within it, creatures mucking our ways around, possibly toward something greater than anything we can fathom. 

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Personal news and an upcoming book review you never knew you wanted me to review

I've been busy the past couple of weeks training for my first 5K race, which was this morning.  Although I didn't break my personal best due to the cooler temps and being unaccustomed to running uphill (I usually run on a relatively flat track, since it's been too damp for me to run on trails), I did finish 23rd overall and 3rd for men 40-49 (I think there were slightly over 100 runners) at 33:17 (I walked about 1.5K out of the 5 due to the somewhat steep hills).  Won a free meal at Arby's for placing third, plus I won a door prize.  Somehow, I don't see myself using the free 30 minute massage session, but oh well.

My next scheduled race is in two weeks and is a much bigger race, so if I finish in the top third again, I'll be ecstatic.  It has been a fun journey to this point.  A year ago at this point, I could barely walk 3.1 miles/5K within an hour due to being grossly out-of-shape and with a very overweight body made much worse by my August 2014 back injury that led me to gaining almost 50 pounds (or slightly over 20 kg).  A few days ago, I stepped on the scales and saw that I had lost 101 pounds since January 12, 2015.  I am now the lightest I have been since 2008 and hopefully by the end of the year, I'll be weighing less than what I did when I was in college.

However, all of this training and weight loss has taken a toll on my reading time.  I have only finished four books this year (granted, three of them are massive Library of America volumes that contain 3-4 novels' worth of writing inside), but I am hopeful that I'll have a new review ready by Easter weekend.  Even better, this is the sort of title that long-time readers (if such exist still!) of this blog will want me to review.  After all, look at this cover:


If that gorgeous cover (squirrel!) of Elizabeth McKenzie's The Portable Veblen doesn't mesmerize you enough into buying/reading it, then maybe Jeff VanderMeer's review of it, appearing in the Los Angeles Times, will convince you.  This is the book that my reading squirrels have been clamoring for me to have finished already, so hopefully I'll have the energy/time this weekend to finish reading it.  Such a good book so far.

Hopefully I'll be more regular in my blogging after my April 2nd race, but until then, you have a squirrel-centric novel review to look forward to.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

A few thoughts on the passings of Harper Lee and Umberto Eco

This past Friday saw the passing of two of my favorite writers, Harper Lee and Umberto Eco.  For very different reasons, each has influenced me as a reader.  At the risk of writing treacly tripe, I just wanted to share a bit about what I enjoyed about their works.

I first encountered Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird as part of my college prep junior English summer reading list.  Although there were several other "worthy" books there that I also enjoyed (Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon being one of them), there was something special about Lee's book that took me years to understand.  Perhaps it was a shared affinity for our hometowns, despite the ugliness that underlay local society.  Perhaps it was just the games of youth created before the age of internet and advanced video games that captivated me.  Or maybe it was this nascent, barely self-aware, sense of outrage at the world's cruelties that fascinated me.  But I suspect, in addition to these possibilities suggested to me through my experiences as an adult, what I really enjoyed about To Kill a Mockingbird was that it was a story of juvenile growth that did not dismiss the worries and concerns of childhood, but instead it was a story of humaneness in the midst of casual injustice.

Lee's interest in exploring Scout's growing awareness of the social hypocrisies around her is seen even further in the pre-Mockingbird draft, Go Set a Watchman, that was published last year.  Despite the controversies surrounding its publication and some of the character arcs, I found that novel exploring certain intriguing avenues (such as Jean Louise's clashes with her father and uncle) that the later To Kill a Mockingbird obfuscated due to its switch in focus to Scout's formative years.  As a Southerner who has conflicted views about his native region, I found Lee's exploration of similar concerns to be comforting, as her characters worked through certain doubts and conflicts in a fashion that enabled me to work through my own issues as a teenager.

But if Lee's works sparked an emotional response to matters of society and racism (and the hypocrisies that exist at their merging bounds), then Umberto Eco's works, fiction and non-fiction alike, stimulated a more intellectual response to human conflicts and the desire to understand collected knowledge.  I remember first discovering Eco by accident a little over twenty years ago, when I was outside looking through the free bin at the Knoxville McKay's used book and music store when I discovered a battered paperback, missing the front cover.  The blurb about a medieval mystery intrigued me, so I kept it for Christmas Break reading a few weeks later. 

Having taken courses in medieval intellectual history and Latin provided me with some insights into what Eco's characters were discussing and what really fascinated me was how easily he mixed the arcane with the familiar, the secular with the religious.  There was a very palpable narrative tension (William Weaver did an outstanding job with the translation; the original Italian was only slightly smoother in shifting between the erudite discussions in Latin and the vernacular) throughout the novel, yet the source of this tension was something I had never really encountered in fiction before.  Over the next few years, I read his latter novels (reading the last three soon upon their publications, the last two in Italian before the English translation was published) and found myself mesmerized by how he could mix in conspiracy theories, legenda, and humor to create engrossing tales.

Yet the more I read Eco, the more curious I became about his non-fiction.  I knew something of semiotics from grad school, but reading translations of Serendipities, Kant and the Platypus, and Mouse or Rat?, not to mention his illustrated books on beauty, ugliness, and lists, deepened my appreciation for him as a thinker.  Reading Eco is not best for more passive readers.  He wants the reader to engage with the texts, both as if they were veritable scriptures and as if they were elaborate forgeries that had to be cracked.  He "lies" to us, or perhaps reveals our possible self-deceptions through his examination of texts.  As he states in the opening chapter, "The Force of Falsity," to Serendipities regarding historical forgeries:

And yet each of these stories had a virtue:  as narratives, they seemed plausible, more than everyday or historical reality, which is far more complex and less credible.  The stories seemed to explain something that was otherwise hard to understand. (p. 17)
This "falsification" of the inexplicable in order to create coherency (albeit not a truthful one) is something he explores in multiple fashions across his works.  It is, as he said in the introduction to his book Dire Quasi la Stessa Cosa (Saying Almost the Same Thing):

Ecco il senso dei capitoli che seguono:  cercare di capire come, pur sapendo che non si dice mai la stessa cosa, si possa dire quasi la stessa cosa.  A questo punto ciò che fa problema non è più tanto l'idea della stessa cosa, né quella della stessa cosa, bensì l'idea di quel quasi. (p. 10)
This is the meaning of the following chapters: trying to understand how, despite knowing that although one never says the same thing, you can say almost the same thing. At this point the problem arises is not so much the idea of the same thing, nor that of the same thing, but the idea of that almost.

As my Italian reading comprehension is weaker than my Spanish or Portuguese, the translation is likely "rough," but yet that roughness and imprecision serves to underscore Eco's point.  It is never about saying the exact thing, providing the exact truth, but rather it's more about those almost truths from which we construct our understandings of the world and our perceived realities.  Embedded within this are our semantic memories (a topic he explores within his relatively underrated The Flame of Queen Loana), the fount from which our world views arise.

In reading Eco, especially his non-fiction, I found my interpretations of reality to be tested.  Certain narratives were rejected in favor of other, perhaps equally "false" but still more plausible, ones.  Sometimes it felt as though I were slowly being let in on a grand joke, albeit one in which I was partially the punchline.  In re-reading some of his works these past two days, I cannot help but feel we have lost a great thinker and forger of plausible lies.  Coupled with the emotional resonance I found in Lee's work, these two now-departed writers perhaps, more than most, if not all other writers, have helped mold me as a reader.  But while in certain senses the Authors are Dead, their texts still live on.  Now to free up some time to delve back into them and see how I shall be touched again on a re-read and how I might still be transformed as a reader.


 
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