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Archive for September, 2009

Brian for September 29 – Calamus, Ulysses, etc.

In an article for “The Chronicle Review,” published by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Prof. Steven G. Kellman addresses the legacy of James Joyce’s Ulysses. A couple points from his article made me think I was reading a review of the Life and Writing of Walt Whitman:

Joyce’s Ulysses, named the best English-language novel of the 20th Century by the Modern Library, is a “book more venerated than read,” which I thought was a good description of Whitman’s general body of works: Other than knowing “O Captain! My Captain!” [my favorite Whitman poem] from the movie Dead Poets Society, and perhaps the lines “I celebrate myself” and “I sing the body electric” from Leaves of Grass, most laypersons would likely not be able to quote or claim to have read any of the “Poet of Democracy.”

Kellman’s other main point which resonated strongly with our current Whitman readings is the way Ulysses successfully elevates the banal and ordinary to the level of high art in what Northrop Frye calls “the mimetic mode.” We have already seen in “Song of Myself” how the ordinary becomes the extraordinary in Whitman’s celebration of humanity. But in “Calamus,” Whitman goes further, elevating the profane to the highest level.

As elucidated by Prof. Tyler Hoffman in an introductory lecture on Whitman [Rutgers University – Camden graduate course, 03 September 2009], Whitman chose carefully the image of calamus in naming his poems on “manly love,” with the phallic-shaped plants serving as an overt central symbol of Whitman’s beloved penis-fest.

Likewise, although not cited by Kellman, Joyce in Ulysses elevates the obscene to artistic in the episode “Nausicaä,” in which a pornographic image of main character Leopold Bloom masturbating to the sight of Gerty MacDowell’s underpants is described as [and alongside] the most magnificent fireworks shooting into the sky and exploding all over Dublin.

This brings up another point – that both Whitman and Joyce, despite having written their respective works long ago [nearly a century now for Joyce], are still considered pornographic to a certain degree even by today’s much more liberal standards.

In any case, Joyce was certainly a follower of Whitman as a celebrator of ordinary life in his [Joyce’s] aesthetic masterpiece.

Brian for September 22 — An[other] Observation on “Biography”

Sam Krieg, in his post this week, discusses [well] how lines from When I Read the Book relate to the idea of biography: Whitman “mocks the traditional form of biography in the opening lines”:

When I read the book, the biography famous;

And is this, then, (said I,) what the author calls a

man’s life?

And so will some one, when I am dead and gone,

write my life? (268)

What I would like to point out is that Whitman first publishes these lines concurrently with the publication of the ultimate biography of George Washington, written by the famed Washington Irving. How aware Whitman was of Irving’s work in this instance, I am not sure; but the Washington biography was to make a lasting impression as it would become the primary source on Washington’s life for near a century.

I should also like to point out that Whitman follows by about 70 years Dr. Johnson’s “Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets,” a prime source for literary theory of the time. Whitman’s lines make clear that he is not interested in having the future knowledge of his poetry limited to what someone else writes about his life; instead, Whitman wants to create his own story, both of his work and his life.

Brian for September 22

“[T]he genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures…but always most in the common people.
“[T]he President’s taking off his hat to them not they to him – these too are unrhymed poetry. It awaits the gigantic and generous treatment worthy of it.”

-from Leaves of Grass

This contemporary scene would have been pure poetry to Whitman:Please enable Javascript and Flash to view this Flash video.

Fulfilling Whitman’s analysis (and prophecy), it is the American President who shakes hands with the common man; while the non-American premier does not stoop to the level of the common man.

Brian for September 15 — Walt Whitipedia: Spinning

“The spinning-girl retreats and advances to the hum of the big wheel”
-from “Song of Myself” – Canto 15

In Canto 12, Whitman writes that he enjoys the butcher-boy’s “shuffle and break-down:” In this instance, he describes the butcher-boy’s ordinary work and movement as a kind of dance.

Much as in Canto 12, Whitman in Canto 15 relates mundane tasks to a song-and-dance imagery. The wheel’s hum is the foundation for the spinning-girl’s movements: She responds to the wheel’s melody in dance.

Spinning was the means by which a woman or girl would make yarn for fabric out of fibers. Dating back thousands of years, spinning experienced a great advancement with the invention of the spinning wheel  by the late-13th Century, with some accounts indicating it may have been in use as early as the 11th Century or before.

A veteran spinner would have a fast and steady rhythm while she spun. So it would not have been a stretch to see a spinner’s movements toward and away from the spinning wheel as a kind of dance – the spinner’s movements a rhythm complementary to the hum of the wheel. In the bigger picture, “Song of Myself” as a whole, the image of a spinner’s movements as a snapshot metaphor of an aesthetic act [dance] is yet another example of how Whitman elevates ordinary life [whether simple footfalls, nature, or the work of common folk] to the level of divine, turning the most mundane aspects of life into high art.

Wanna see how a spinning wheel works?Please enable Javascript and Flash to view this Flash video.

Why I selected these Whitman lines for the Song of [Life of] Brian:

In the lines I have selected, Whitman shifts from extolling the virtues of women to those of men [in fact, the words immediately preceding the line with which I chose to begin are “In woman”]. In the photo, not only am I juggling fruit, but I am also about to get married [as the reader may have guessed, this photo of me in a tux was taken on my day of nuptials], and so will [perhaps someday] taste the fruit of immortality through my wife bearing our offspring. In addition, one hears of “enjoying the fruits of marriage,” which I am close to doing in the photo; although the literal fruit presents a different kind of challenge in the moment captured.

There is something comical about Whitman’s lines praising the male mixed with a picture of me performing the silly insignificant task [of juggling apples] on a day of such great importance [namely, my wedding]. That my qualities, action and power are in full display in the image is quite absurd, though this sentiment captures my silly/ironic/satiric/enter-other-adjective-here sense of humor and far-from-serious disposition.

As for the well-dated expression of “striking soundings,” the only striking I am doing is letting the apples crash in horrid fashion to the ground [the juggling routine did not last a second beyond the captured action].

Something could also be said about the irony of the phrase, “the great fruit which is immorality” together with a picture of apples — apples being the fruit associated with the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil [in church tradition and the Septuagint] that effectively ended immortality for humanity and would bring about great pain in childbearing in the Genesis account…but that is perhaps carrying a bit too far my reasons for selecting the photo and LoG lines.

Song of [Life of] Brian


I see the bearer of the great fruit which is immortality
the good thereof is not tasted by roues, and never can be.

The male is not less the soul, nor more.  He too is in
his place,
He too is all qualities.  He is of action and power.
The flush of the known universe is in him.

Where else does he strike soundings except here?

Whitman found.

I found him.

He was behind the pyramid on the right.

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