Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

Walt Whitman establishes in his work a unique understanding of the relationship between the poet, the physical, and the metaphysical. Rather than the strictly hierarchical vision that Emerson describes, “Words are signs of natural facts. The use of natural history is to give us aid in supernatural history” (Emerson 20), Whitman has a decidedly more lateral understanding of humanity’s connection to the Universe. Using the poems, “Song of the Answerer”, “The Sleeper”, and “When the Full-grown Poet Came”, the following will attempt to analyze the role of the poet, the importance of the physical connectedness of man and the Universe, and finally how art can supplant established religion as the means by which humanity converses with the Universal.
For Whitman, the role of the poet may never be more clearly stated than in the opening lines of “Song of the Answerer”. Herein, the poet takes on a prophetic voice that is reminiscent of the first chapter of the book of Mark and it’s description of the roll of John the Baptist.

A young man comes to me bearing a message from his brother,
How shall the young man know the whether and when of his
Tell him to send me the signs. (Whitman 141)

In these lines Whitman establishes the poet as not only the teller of the Answerer’s signs, but the conduit through which the young man can come to a true understanding of his brother’s message. Similarly, in “When the Full-grown Poet Came” the narrator controls the prophetic tone by expressing the poet, claimed by both Nature and man, as having mediated the interchange, “The full-grown poet stood between the two, and took each by the hand”. Here Nature looks upon the poet, in whom She is well pleased, saying, “He is mine,” while the “proud, jealous and unreconciled,” Soul of man says, “Nay, he is mine alone” (Whitman 461). Whitman invests the poet with the task of blending Nature and that “unreconciled” soul. This is not to suggest that Whitman uses Christian overtones in support of religion as an institution, but neither is it the explicit promotion of the liberal utopia of a purely civic religion proposed by Richard Rorty. Rather, Whitman’s prophetic voice is perhaps as much a reflection of his upbringing in a society that is culturally Christian as it is a conscious decision to use the most efficacious language available. The relationship between the poet prophet and those to whom are given the Answerer’s signs is more tangibly explored in “The Sleepers”. In the previous poems the metaphysical has been represented as the Answerer then as Nature, but here the more encompassing image of Darkness is used. The wandering narrator hovers over the sleepers and observes, eventually merging with, their dreams. The poet as intermediary and guide is perhaps challenged here, “I reckon I am their boss and they make me a pet besides, And surround me and lead me and run ahead when I walk” (Whitman 358), however, the poet is conjoined with his “gang of blackguards” in the engulfing grip of Darkness which devolves the constructs of leader and led into the formlessness wherein the speaker fades away. Here, in a much more fluid way, the task of the poet is to be the lover of both man and the universe, and it is through that congress that all will be blended into a higher level of connectedness.
This amalgam of poet, audience, and darkness-personified universe is a prime example of the importance of the physical connection between man and nature. In these poems the natural is not simply a means by which to observe the metaphysical Universe, but very much a part of that Universe. As the narrator begins to explore the dreams of the Sleepers the poet’s own distinctiveness begins to fade away. Furthermore, there is a special emphasis on the tactile connection of holding hands in both “When the Full-grown Poet Came” and “Song of the Answerer”. In the latter, the scene depicted is in many ways reminiscent of a wedding ceremony being presided over by the poem’s “Answerer”.

And I stand before the young man face to face, and take his
right hand in my left hand and his left hand in my right
And I answer for his brother and for men, and I answer for
Him that answers for all, and send these signs (Whitman 141)

Again the Christian paradigm is echoed in this construction as the poem illustrates how the poet, the young man, and the Answerer are immersed in the Universal by means of a physical connection. Whitman does not appear to wish this connection to be a purely philosophical or symbolic one, but an integral and tangible part of the experience of the Universal Soul. Though the narrator of the above remains vague, it could very well be the connected hands that are being established as an example and sent out as “signs”. John Irwin explores the lateral nature of this relationship as, rather than a one-way street leading from nature to the metaphysical, he writes that, “the metaphysical is a radically different way of experiencing the physical” (Irwin 865). This in turn illuminates a symbiotic relationship between the physical and metaphysical where both are needed in equal parts to be truly connected to the Universal Soul. If the previous poems are matrimonial in their physicality, “The Sleepers” represents a consummation of that relationship. Therein the narrator urges the Darkness to, “Double yourself and receive me Receive me and my lover too, he will not let me go without him” (Whitman 358). Here again however the reading becomes problematic as the poet prophet seems to become disconnected from the lover he had sought to unite with the Darkness. The following lines seem to distance the narrator from his lover in favor of his relationship with the Universal supporting what Christopher Loots has described as Whitman’s penchant for being the, “poet of oneness” (Loot).

He whom I call answers me and takes the place of my lover,
He rises with me silently from the bed.
Darkness, you are gentler than my lover,

This would suggest an abandonment of humanity and its connection to the Universal in favor of the narrator’s private individual connection were it not for the poem’s concluding lines,

I thought my lover had gone, else darkness and he are one,
I hear the heart-beat, I follow, I fade away(Whitman 358)

Instead of being alone in the dark Universal the poet finds that the visual distinction between his lover and the Darkness is gone and they have become physically one entity, and it is the poet prophet’s turn to follow the “heart-beat” into that borderless collective.
Ultimately, this collective suggests that the poet and his art will introduce new forms of religion to replace the institutions that have thus far defined the means by which humanity has communicated with the Universal. Whitman, like Emerson, puts forward the poet as the prophet of the new understanding who will give voice to the new forms. The Poet, “announces that which no man foretold. He is the true and only doctor” (Emerson 450). This messianic language is not unique to Emerson as in “To Him That Was Crucified” Whitman annexes Christian language to present an innovative theology, “We walk silent among disputes and assertions, but reject not the disputers nor anything that is asserted” (Whitman 323). Whitman abandons the notion that the Earth is a temporal prison to which original sin doomed humanity and elevates it to a co-equal part of the Universal whole. This elevation, poet to messiah and poem to scripture, is a means by which Whitman could couch a foreign ideology in a familiar framework, as was the habit of many religions before it. Whitman even goes so far as to suggest that each person will eventually become a prophet unto themselves and be lead by the artist to the Whole, “You shall not look through my eyes either, not take things from me, you shall listen to all sides and filter them for your self” (Whitman 27). In this way the poet and the poem become the Answerer’s “sign”, Nature’s “blender”, and the Darkness’ “lover”.
The poems, “Song of the Answerer”, “The Sleepers”, and “When the Full-grown Poet Came”, are an illuminating lens when examining the role of the poet, the importance of a physical connection with nature, and succession of art as religion. First, they construct the poet prophet image wherein the poet is the intermediary between humanity and the Universal self. Secondly, they demonstrate that the physical is not merely a symbolic tool with which one can contemplate the metaphysical, but an intrinsically valuable part of the Whole. Lastly, they establish a framework through which the individual religious experience can be freed from the antique modes and allowed to adopt the fluidity and individuality that will lead to an undreamt of interconnectedness between all people and things. While, “Whitman’s confidence in his own poetic capacity to supersense and thereafter translate such sublimity into language is indefatigable”(Loot), it’s his versatility of phrase that allows for the infinite paths that are required for the individual exploration of the Universal whole.

Works Cited

Emerson, Ralph Waldo, and Joel Porte. Essays & Lectures. New York: Literary Classics of the U.S., 1983. Print.

Irwin, John. “Whitman: Hieroglyphic Bibles and Phallic Songs.” Leaves of Grass and Other Writings. Ed. Michael Moon. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company. 2002. Print.

Loots, Christopher ““That Inscrutable Thing”: Holography, Nonlocality, and Identity in American Romanticism.” Configurations 24.1 (2016): 71-108. Project MUSE. Web. 28 Jun. 2016.

Rorty, Richard. Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-century America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1998. Print.

Whitman, Walt. “The Sleepers.” Leaves of Grass and Other Writings. Ed. Michael Moon. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company. 2002. Print

Whitman, Walt. “Song of the Answerer.” Leaves of Grass and Other Writings. Ed. Michael Moon. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company. 2002. Print

Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” Leaves of Grass and Other Writings. Ed. Michael Moon. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company. 2002. Print

Whitman, Walt. “To Him That Was Crucified.” Leaves of Grass and Other Writings. Ed. Michael Moon. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company. 2002. Print

Whitman, Walt. “When the Full-grown Poet Came.” Leaves of Grass and Other Writings. Ed. Michael Moon. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company. 2002. Print

It is difficult to disassociate the sense of self in the works of Emily Dickinson from the biographical and sociological elements that would have been present during their composition. Neither can it be wholly divorced from the idea of American exceptionalism, thought of as a particular byproduct of American individualism, or the transcendental and autonomous selfhood of Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”. The latter of these influences could not but have had an impact as, however obliquely, Dickinson was a literary descendant of transcendental thought. Ultimately though, it is perhaps this very disassociation that Dickinson seeks through the opaqueness of her lyric, the experimentation of her form, and the repetition of her theme. Her work veers away from the Emersonian self in its purest form by introducing the limitations of human experience. As Shira Wolosky puts it, Dickinson’s work, “…that seems to assert the power, completeness, and sufficiency of self also questions, exposes, and subverts such assertions.” (Wolosky 134) Dickinson searches through the construct of individuality by means of two of its more oppressive implications, those of loneliness and doubt. What follows is a close reading of three poems, without consideration for their composition date, as essays in Emily Dickinson’s understanding of her own individuality and that of individuality as a concept. While she appears to walk the path laid down by the transcendentalists, she is less willing to adopt the idealized self-reliant self and finds problems with the construct throughout her explorations. Being unable to bar the biographical from the gates even to the length of an introductory paragraph, it is hard to overlook the freedom Dickinson’s search is afforded by her reclusive habits. The humility that led her to ask Thomas Wentworth Higginson if her poems were worth publication and her lifelong distaste for attention will be mirrored in her honest doubt which is, and must be, the first step in the search for self.
Wolosky shows that “On a Cloumnar Self” is a valuable place to start any investigation of Dickinson’s views on self-reliance, and, hazarding a slight retreading of ground, there will be no exception found here. However, where Wolosky focuses on the cost of selfhood as a, “…downward metamorphosis…into inorganic stone.”(Wolosky 135) there is also an implied contradiction in the column as a symbol for the individual self. Dickinson’s column is at least as important in the elements that go unmentioned as they are in those that are voiced. It is perhaps easier to look at the word, and conjure the image, of “columnar” then it is to pair it with its siblings, society and use. A column rarely stands alone and is never built by a single person. Armed in this manner a reader might find the inherent contradiction in the idea of being truly self-reliant in that one’s individuality would necessarily be a construct of people rather than person. This in turn implies that the individual, as a product of a collective, is also intended for some end that justifies or inspires its construction. Columns are used commonly in concert and in the effort of bearing a load no structure could on its own. However, this form of identification comes with its own problems, particularly those of the need for some form of exterior affirmation. At first subtlety in, “Though none be on our side” and more explicitly with, “Suffice Us”(Fr740) Dickinson invites the condemnation or validation of an unseen third party as a constituent part of that individuality’s construction. Herein lies the first doubtful and lonely steps that will sound out Dickinson’s problematic individuality in the upcoming poems. If, rather than a consciously engineered and self-determined identity, one is the construction of elements beyond that identity’s control, how isolated would it feel when it inevitably wonders what it’s meant to be holding up?
It is this questioning that would eventually lead to the attempt to disassociate with the idea of a community of individuals holding up a single structure in which that very individuality has now become suspect. A natural response for this train of thought is Dickinson’s poem, “I tried to think a lonelier Thing.” Upon the realization that the column of individuality is only indestructible and commandable once it has been completed, the recourse of this discourse is to seek out that “lonelier Thing” and find that construct which is devoid of community influence in its genesis. Dickinson’s first effort is the thought of being alone in the polar wilderness followed closely by the contemplation of the nearness of death. The second stanza,

I probed Retrieveless things
My Duplicate- to borrow –
A Haggard comfort springs (Fr 570)

is interesting in that not only is it truncated, but it also hints that being alone is the individual broken down to its absolute smallest part. In essence to be truly individual one must be truly alone. Even here the narrator finds his or her “Haggard comfort” in the person of their “Duplicate”. This extreme limit to even the thought of loneliness belies the boundaries of human perception and by proxy individuality. Not only is the speaker not alone in that loneliest of places, but finds in fact her doppelganger. In this context, that mirrored self could be another “columnar” self expressing how limited the narrator’s individuality is even when it comes to the processes of the mind, or a mental barrier conjured by the narrator’s physical inability to comprehend loneliness to its furthest degree. The small comfort that is felt in this discovery seems to be in the narrator’s inability to find that atomic particle of self, but therein also lies the frustration for the questioner. Unfortunately, this leaves the once certain and columnar self incapable of even accurately fathoming loneliness much less able to see it realized. In the absence of that ideal individuality which loneliness personifies, comes the second axiom of that construct undiscovered, doubt.
Katie Peterson argues that, “Dickinson constructs poetic authority by focusing on her own anonymity and invisibility…” (Peterson 76), and though not specifically addressing the auditory in “The Loneliness One dare not sound” it is that anonymity to which she strives in contemplating that which is perhaps beyond the borders of human understanding. By refraining from using a personal pronoun for as long as is tenable, the narrator chooses to use the more general term “One” that they might strip away all vestiges of self. However, there is a clear warning to this mode of exploration in the poem’s second stanza,

The Loneliness whose worst alarm
is lest itself should see-
And perish from before itself
For just a scrutiny-(Fr877)

In this warning there is an eerie echo of the narrator’s previous failure to grasp onto that loneliness which in turn would see itself and be gone. The episode of the “Duplicate” revisited. Despite the speaker’s supreme effort to hold on to that amorphous and truly independent thought he or she submits on the brink and returns to the dialogue of the poem, “I fear me this- is Loneliness” and, as though it were a thing just on the verge of comprehension, humbly leaves it there and fearfully wonders if it is the “Maker of the soul.”
In the end the search for the individual can be paradoxical. Which parts of self contribute most to oneness? Is the intrinsic worth more than the inherited? Are we only capable of defining our identity though being conscious of being observed? In this humblest of readings, Emily Dickinson was followed from her “Columnar Self” on a path she may have shared for a few steps with Ralph Waldo Emerson. But, having shared those first few steps, his road went upward, and hers went inward. Seeking the solitude of pure individuality, Dickinson conjures the limit of that individuality, or perhaps merely the perception thereof. Where Emerson’s self-reliance and autonomy are vessels for congress with the transcendental and interconnected Soul, here Dickinson seems to seek solitude from a connectedness it cannot escape. If limitation is the only sin, is doubt the only certainty? Where Emerson might see a veil, the natural world in which a person needs be enmeshed to see through to the great Self beyond, Dickinson portrays a curtain that can be felt giving shape to something that is otherwise beyond comprehension. Ultimately the paradox returns and this self, which Dickinson attempts to shed in “The Loneliness” as the last barrier to understanding, is it not only indivisible, but indispensable? And is there enough humility to allow for there being no answer? Perhaps, as an individual it depends on whether what is seen is the curtain or the veil.

Dickinson, Emily. “I tried to think a lonelier Thing.” Franklin 570 The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Edited by R.W. Franklin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2005. Print.

Dickinson, Emily. “The Loneliness One dare not sound.” Franklin 877 The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Edited by R.W. Franklin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2005. Print.

Dickinson, Emily. “On a Clumnar Self.” Franklin 740 The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Edited by R.W. Franklin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2005. Print.

Peterson, Katie. “Surround Sound: Dickinson’s Self And The Hearable.” Emily Dickinson Journal 14.2 (2005): 76-88. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 22 June 2016.

Wolosky, Shira. “Dickinson’s Emerson: A Critique Of American Identity.” Emily Dickinson Journal 9.2 (2000): 134-141. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 22 June 2016.

A wink toward the pin-prick lights
Hanging in the dark
A self convincing nearness
A finger’s breadth apart

The silver light that paints the grass
Is shadowed by my hand
A comforting delusion
This galaxy of span

But when winking turns to blinking
That nearness then retreats
And from the flares of midnight
I can feel no heat

(Included in a letter to L.W. 5 July 2016)


on April 28, 2015 in Poetry | No Comments »

There is paint beneath my fingernails
and scratches on my door
put there whilst I was dreaming
frantic screaming
I had clawed the walls and floor

I am haunted from the corner
where the midnight shadows fall
in my bed I hear his chatter
manic laughter
distant voices in the hall

His are stares and smiles
and cold unblinking eyes
a nightmare oft recurring
most disturbing
and black ill omened skies

He guards the gate to waking
in the corner by the door
to wrest from me while sleeping
daylights keeping
he vows to walk once more

He hates me for his prison
this dream wherein he’s hid
a malice unrelenting
thrice resenting
my life is his not lived

I dare not let him wander
I dare not let him out
for my face he wears when walking
terror stalking
there’s a stranger here about

So he and I will wrestle
at the door and at the gate
as we have done ever
til forever
it is he or I that wakes

Should he lock the door behind him
and take away the key
then he’d become the dreamer
and I’d become the dream.

Breathless, voiceless, strideless,
o’er the rumble of the train
for two hours Eastward travel
in the Oestereicher rain

and as the long slow stretch of tree line
begins to wander in the dark
the home fires are blinking signals
of the infant winter’s start

slowing, stalling, stopping
as the hiss of piston marks the platform labeled Linz
a moments hesitation
and Wien, by vale, begins

The horizon has gone hiding
in the disappearing light
and again the Sun has vanished
pretending it is night

The slowly blurring windows
are now all painted black
and the countryside has faded
just reflections staring back

Now a city looms the nearer
for a simple childlike rhyme
and in a last imagined castle
I will while away the time

The twenty year fortress is heavy today
the wastepaper walls and typewriter halls
have shrunk to lay upon me
and stick like the threads of spiders.

It cannot be lifted,
but is never so oppressive than when I am tired

The footprints of my younger self
are etched upon the floors
just as all my fingerprints
are carved upon the doors

My shadow’s stained the sidewalk
the streetlights know my name
and should I go a dying
that memory I’d remain

Can I bring myself to crawl from out beneath the tower?
The tower is heavier than usual today.

The doors are neither locked
nor the windows barred
but on the heaviest of days
the future seldom reaches beyond the yard

Am I to ever haunt this place
though all my friends are gone
from Marius’ empty table
a chair for me to sit upon

The fortress it is aging
and dragging me along
to make that weight the heavier
shades of darkness, greyer dawns

How can you pick your feet up
When there’s nowhere for them to land
Silence, broken futures,
and a weight that’s far to grand

Push, Push, Push
If an Everprince I’d be
Before the falling tower
Finally buries me

But how can I abandon
What will lately fall behind?

What if any of the fortresses foundation am I?
And dare I seek to learn.

I am tired, today is heavy
It is time I put it down.

My empty room is crowded
With things no longer here
Where is the cloth balloon?
the paper crayons?
the tapping at my window?

They all had voices these childhood things
But they are silent now
The ceiling fan lost an arm
In a battle no one now remembers
And the only light still lightning
Is drowning in its last mournful and incessant hum.

And what will keep us company when at last her breath gives out to spill a new born dark on the room of strange neighbors?

They cleaned the broken glass
And stole away the shards
Covered the charcoal pencil door,
broke its handle
it had a glass handle
it never opened anyway

I hid the Never mural when the clothes again were hung, but there’s still blood in the finger-painted walls. I traced my shadow freely for proof that it was there that the laughing corner faces would have someone keep them company.
But these are not the things of childhood
They are awake
long shadows from small doorways
a whistled reassurance down the lonely hall
paper over paper
and solid armor words
can neither resurrect the room I can remember but no longer see nor can they protect me from the shell it left behind

my empty room is quiet
where the silent sounds are loudest
I can still see the metal hook
Where the cloth balloon was hung
And perhaps the room remembers
My room
My empty room remembers

It was a Sunday,
the fourth of August
nineteen ninety-one,
not that I remember the day

what is tile…
then was linoleum
what is wood was carpet
the front door had been blue
but only the pictures can be sure

I am there and I am seven
Or rather he,
he is there, he is seven

that boy still owns the hallways
and I am just the borrower.
If I lay my head beside him
when his bedtime nightly comes
can we close such a distance no smaller than an age? Can I shed my mind of the hurling of the world through vastness and void
and just share that space with that boy?

I have nothing to tell him
There’s nothing I could teach that he will not learn in time, but rather I’d beg him to refund me the price the years have charged

I’d ask him why we cried atop a Massachusetts stair and told our Mother we’d forgotten how to fly.

I cannot ask him, myself so young, I’ve forgotten where he lives. But maybe on the fourth, of a Sunday in nineteen ninety-one he yet remembers.

I want to see that boy at seven even with my waking eyes if only to conquer a bit of time and unite two brief instants of a life that is by those ticking seconds divided until I become indivisible
And die.

In the house that stands before me
Nine windows have gone dark and aged to quiet sleeping.

They had steadily winked as sentries for longer than could ever have been rightly asked, to preside over the cracking paint and crumbling foundation to which time condemns the things we label home.

The warmth is now departing
It’s seeping through the panes
like the last exhausted breath of dying that is pushing me away

How far can that wind take me?
With only my pockets left for sails
To that so near strip of gravel
That separates the familiar and the foreign?
Not hardly so far as that.

The light no longer scapes the dark
Nine windows hint no flame
It’s the gravity of the collapse that holds it there and pulls me back again

With the home fires slowly burning out
before me and behind me not but blackness all about
where I’m going
what I’m leaving
rain, and fire, and doubt

but there’s yet on lighted window
in that dying house’s face
a flicker from a small room
abandoned while its marking time
that unforgiving empty space

If I turn my back upon it
the candle will cease to shout
then there will be no looking in
through the light not looking out

and at once I turned myself from it
on my shoulders felt no heat
the light behind subsided
ten windows now asleep.


on May 29, 2013 in Poetry | No Comments »

There was a lad of ten or twelve
with a rusty heart of stone and wood
and he waited for that pretty girl
as his love told him he should

But when she heard that he would wait
no matter how she hid
to test his promise she made him wait
and wait he ever did