Archive for August, 2009

live, from new york…

            Days speed by, tasks and pleasures come and go, events and appointments and happenings happen— all is flashes and specks, as Whitman writes– but time must slow down to accommodate my deliberations over these weekly entries.   It’s simultaneously frustrating and freeing to give this ongoing adventure a sense of order and development…  always and ever the question, where to begin?  How far back do I need to go, patient reader, to make this narrative understandable and interesting to you? 

            Last week, I got stuck on the technicalities of setting up my first blog.  It is time to explain myself… let us stand up, Walt!  We’ll go back to the place we first met, and explain our blog title (or the first half, at least).

            New York City is my hometown, and the absolute center of my heart’s geography.   My love for Whitman and his work comes from many places, but most directly from our shared love of this one place (or several places, depending upon how you feel about Brooklyn’s “big mistake” to become a borough of NYC in 1898).  Both of us were “born” here (in the literary sense for Walt; in the literal sense of the word for myself), first sang on the (omni)buses and swam in its waters (no kidding); we both find the best of what civilization can accomplish on its streets—always and ever new identities meanings signs curiosities faces pageants smells visions fears hopes love.   Both of us, I think, found something spiritual in its raw and undeniable physicality.  And so when I teach a class on Whitman, I find that I must take my students out of the classroom and into New York to answer the big question:  how did Walter Whitman—second son of a carpenter, grammar school dropout and sometime penny daily hack writer—become Walt Whitman?   It’s my belief that “Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son” was indeed the product of his immediate environment and experience; and it is my aim to introduce my students to a real New Yorker in his beloved Brooklyn and Manhattan, and to have them see, hear, and sense the urban setting that transformed a sensitive young man into America’s greatest poet.  The open road of his poetry is, in fact, the city street—and we explore this idea through texts as well as walking tours.

            Consider, for example, some of the out-of-doors learning experiences shared by us in “American Literature and Culture: Whitman and New York”, a Columbia University summer class that I’ve taught for nine years running.  Summer ’09 in NYC has been blissfully cooler and less humid than we’re used to in the Big Apple, which may help account for how relaxed and comfortable we look here (at a good two hours into a three-hour tour).  After visiting the site of the Rome brothers’ printing shop (where Walt helped set up the type for the groundbreaking first edition of Leaves of Grass), we visited the Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims, the First Unitarian Church, and the Brooklyn Historical Society before taking in the spectacular view of the Brooklyn Heights Promenade.

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            “There may be finer views in the world, but I don’t believe it,” Abraham Lincoln said of this spot in 1864—and here’s my hearty second to this beloved scene!  It’s the best not just because these are my Whitmaniacs (and yes, you guys know that I think you’re the best), not just because of the view of Whitman’s Mannahatta, East River, Governor’s Island (Nutten Island to him), the Statue of Liberty, and the Brooklyn Bridge, but because this view is enabled and empowered by the community spirit Whitman himself represented here in Brooklyn.  In the 1940s, when Robert Moses proposed running the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway through this very spot, Brooklyn Heights residents opposed him… and won!  The highway now roars below the cantilevered promenade, while walkers, rollerbladers, and bikers take in this magnificent, car-free cityscape.  What’s more, the Brooklyn Ice Cream factory (another New York “best”) is a ten-minute stroll away, and thanks to the generosity of Columbia’s summer session staff (yo Richard!), we’re all about to be treated to a free cone. Read the rest of this entry →

10

08 2009

My avatar.

August 3, 2009:  “Change Avatar”, suggests the even-toned, congenial facilitator of “My Profile” right here on my very first blog.  Avatar?  This graceful and exotic word had recently caught my attention in “So Long!”, Whitman’s  farewell poem to readers of Leaves of Grass.  The poem first appeared (appropriately) as the last poem in the third edition of 1860; its final stanza supplies a startling moment of intimacy and attempts to break down, once and for all, the literary ‘fourth wall’: the page between writer and reader.

Dear friend, whoever you are, take this kiss,

I give it especially to you—Do not forget me,

I feel like one who has done his work—I progress on,

The unknown sphere, more real than I dreamed, more direct, darts awakening rays about me—So Long!

Remember my words—I love you—I depart from materials,

I am as one disembodied, triumphant, dead.

It’s a memorable goodbye, full of passion and demonstrations of genuine affection.  And Whitman comes as close as he ever did, to manifesting his love—to touching us physically, to breaking down old, assumed boundaries of time and place.  As we run our fingers over the lines of the third edition, the “kiss” of letter-pressed page 456 provides proof of the printer’s bodily contact (hey Walt, weren’t you overseeing the printing up there in Boston?  Might you have pressed those letters into the page, to reach us on the ‘other side’?).  And as we flip the last page, close the back cover, and take our hand off the book, Whitman comes as close as he ever will to being disembodied and dead to us.

These lines received only minor revisions through the next twenty years.  But in the 1881-82 edition of the Leaves—the sixth edition—Whitman added a completely new fourth line:

I receive now again of my many translations, from my avataras ascending, while others doubtless await me

Like many of Whitman’s late poems and revisions, this line adds a new spiritual dimension to the raw bigness of his exaltations and exhortations.  Though he might be changing the spelling (and gender?) of the original Hindu word, Whitman does seem to be thinking of avatar(a) as the incarnate, earthbound form of a deity.  Death is the only thing that’ll get this kosmos off the streets!  So then, Whitman’s avatar is holiness at street level, a manifestation of the divine that can be seen and touched by anybody.

Now (yikes), back to “Change Avatar.”  And I’m sure experienced bloggers and gamers are rolling their eyes at my complication of a simple idea:  a “graphic representation of a person or character in a computer-generated environment, esp. one which represents a user in an interactive game or setting, and which can move about in its surroundings and interact with other characters” (Oxford English Dictionary, Online Edition).  But for folks like me who actively love the poet right back, celebrate the revolution of his art and receive joy and satisfaction from teaching his message, choosing an avatar is a daunting task.

Too easy, I think, to put Whitman’s own beloved visage in the clipboard square.   Instead, I recall a favorite line from the first poem of the first edition, later entitled “Song of Myself”:

In all people I see myself—none more, and not one a barleycorn less

So, patient reader, I give you… me.

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Read the rest of this entry →

04

08 2009


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