Tag Archives: Walt Whitman

“Walt Whitman wrote ‘Leaves of Grass,’ which was…”

I think this is going to be another one of those sentences that begin all right, go on all right, and then go on a little too far and become ridiculous. And I know it’s coming because although it does begin all right, it doesn’t begin with much elegance or focus. “Walt Whitman wrote ‘Leaves of Grass'” is a fairly flat beginning. “Yeah, so?” asks the reader. The opening has no promise: my student was merely pushing a pawn, so to speak, as a rather unimaginative rhetorical gambit. Statement of fact.

And the adjective clause that follows offers merely to define the noun just introduced. So, fact followed by definition. (Oh, I know you’re thinking that “which was” could launch an observation rather than a definition: “which was revolutionary in form as well as content”; “which was the first truly American poem”; “which was arguably the most influential poetic work of the American nineteenth century”; and so on. But that’s not what my student had in mind; she wanted a definition, and definition she gave.)

“Walt Whitman wrote ‘Leaves of Grass,’ which was a collection of poems that…” she goes on. The “that” may be launching a definition of the collection or the poems—in other words, a definition of something in the current definition. Or of course she may NOW be about to make an observation or judgment (“that shook the literary establishment,” “that together defined Whitman and his world,” “that he sent to Ralph Waldo Emerson in response to Emerson’s call for a truly American voice”…).

But, at least up to the “that,” she is on solid ground, if not very interesting ground. Put a period in there, my dear, and move quickly to engage your reader with the next sentence!

Here’s what she did:

“Walt Whitman wrote ‘Leaves of Grass,’ which was a collection of poems that he wrote in his lifetime.”

You see? She really didn’t have anything in mind when she began the sentence, but she kept going in hopes that light would dawn. For that, I guess she didn’t go on long enough. But evidently to her the sentence had acquired some necessary gravitas, or sonority, or importance, and was enough. Where the essay went from there I do not recall. Where could it go from there?

This student is not the only one fascinated by the fact that poets tend to write while they are alive. Or perhaps I should say Whitman was not the only poet who wrote while alive: Dante did too, for example.

I honestly don’t know of any poet who wrote before birth, or after death. I once wrote something I had dreamed (Ah, Coleridge, you too?), but I don’t think any dead poets were dictating.

But certainly there are many poets whose work lives on.

Mourning the loss today of Seamus Heaney, whose lyric poems are breathtaking, alive, moving—and whose translation of Beowulf reveals all the vigor of its Old English original as well as the story and its characters. Most distinct in his work is its life. You can’t achieve that if you’re not alive yourself.


“The Deceleration of Independence”

Maybe AutoCorrect is to blame, and maybe not. It can’t be a sounding-out phenomenon: who would say “deck-ell-eration”? For whatever reason, I got this from TWO students. I do decelere. (Or is it “I do decelerate”?)

Considering our more-or-less trusty spelling conventions, the “c” is usually pronounced like “s” if it’s followed by an e or i. Perhaps this “Deceleration” thing is about a child’s refusal to join the family in eating celery?

On its face, this phrase is referring to a slowing-down of independence. Reading comments on news sites and political sites and general Facebook pronouncements, I see that a lot of people do seem to have slowed down their independence in favor of parroting rumors they don’t bother to fact-check or think through for themselves. Listening to the loudest of the politicians, I gather that a lot of people (other people? same people?) want to bring social, scientific, cultural, and all other change to a screeching halt, or even turn back the hands of time (as the old rock song had it), not decelerating progress so much as longing for the 1880s. (Amazingly, just as with people who have their “past lives” read, none of them would be a peasant, a laborer, one of the vast number of the underclass; in past lives and the fantasized Gilded Age, everybody’s a Tudor or a Rockefeller…or Cleopatra.)

I once met Art Carney in an airport. He was waiting for his rental car; I was waiting for relatives to arrive on a plane. My Uncle Joe thought I was mistaken and took me across the room to share the joke with the man I “thought” was Art Carney. The joke was on Uncle Joe. Mr. Carney talked with us for a good fifteen minutes, and most of the conversation, believe it or not, was NOT about The Honeymooners, or his fame; it was about the weather, his hopes about the rental car, my school, where my relatives were from, what was fun about traveling. How likely is such a meeting today? How likely is any meeting? Perhaps the deceleration of independence is due to how much time we spend on our personal computers and other “devices,” how many movies we watch in the solitude of our own homes, how much of our shopping is done online, how few houses have front porches, how infrequently we walk anywhere, and (a natural consequence of our solitude?) how frightened we are of strangers, of one another. How much of our fear of change is rooted in our fear of the unknown; and how much larger is the “unknown” because we don’t leave home to experience it? Last Sunday I was waiting for the train to New York when a group of five teenagers or early-twentiesers came up onto the platform. They stood together in a little semicircle as they too waited for the train; but every one of them had his or her eyes on an iPhone or Android or whatever, and no one spoke. On the train there was a little conversation in the air, but what predominated was people on cellphones and children watching cartoons on their own little computers. Across from us we had mother and child: mother on phone, child on computer. When I arrive at a classroom I find silence rather than the friendly hubbub that used to spill into the hall: everyone is doing something-or-other on a personal device. At the end of class, nobody turns to anyone else to talk on the way out; everyone whips out that personal device and plunges into cyberchat or Angry Birds.

What would Walt Whitman say? Who hears America singing? Who looks at his fellows and says “I am you, my brother”?

But I was talking about the Declaration of Independence, and by association about the Constitution. Those gentleman activists of the Enlightenment had some noble ideas that they were able to elaborate into a plan of action and then into a governmental structure designed to serve a whole nation (not just themselves) and flexible enough to change as the world changed. Their ideas, and others’ articulations and interpretations of them, continue to inspire everyone who actually reads and thinks about them. They galvanized individuals committed to the common good to devote their lives to serving that common good, or lay down their lives to achieve or maintain that common good: the freedom to build their own lives in a society where all had that same freedom and where all had access to the rewards of the society they were building together; where childhood was about hope, youth was about preparation, adulthood was about achievement, and all human life was about dignity. The Constitution refers to building “a more perfect union,” implying that the work goes ever on.

Let us not decelerate our work toward independence, dignity, and the commonwealth. Declare allegiance to it (the idea, that is). If you attend a parade today, notice that the procession, and the flag, moves always forward.