Whitman Throw-Down and “Form” Misunderstood

Last night’s marathon reading of “Song of Myself” at Composition Gallery was well worth the time. Rupert Fike asked about 25 readers, representing a wide range of poetry in Atlanta, to read a section or two. Some readers asked whether they’d been assigned particular sections because of the resonances they’d discovered within the poem. Supposedly, though, all Rupert did was divvy it up, not in any particular order–which indicates how important Whitman’s poem is to Americans who see themselves in it “as good as” Walt, to paraphrase the master.

Cleo and I were trying to remember when “Song of Myself” was published. In a fog of late-night exhaustion, I dredged up 1860, which was technically correct. However, “Song of Myself” appeared in several different versions in the six different publications of Leaves of Grass: you can compare notes at the online Whitman Archive: 1855, 1856, 1860, 1867, 1871-2, 1881-2, and the 1891-2 “deathbed” or seventh edition or ninth impression.

The Whitman Archive makes it possible for anyone to compare the actual texts of the poem as it developed and changed over Whitman’s career. It’s always helpful to see how a poet cut, added, expanded upon, or tweaked a poem through its various drafts.

www.whitmanarchive.org also offers links to useful bibliographic information. For example, the curious may be tempted by synopses on these two articles about Whitman’s scansion–yes, indeed, he does scan; he doesn’t just slap emotings into breath-length lines–but he scans like modern jazz, not like Renaissance poetry).

Under the current draconian funding cutbacks, getting copies of the actual articles to read requires the time and expense of interlibrary loan requests. I’ve put in said requests.

I will be happy to go further down the road on Whitman and, ahem, “form” (or scansion or other related but not equivalent terms), with any interested parties. Too often, people hear the word “form” and lock immediately into a preconceived notion of, ironically, preconceived notions. But poetic craft is less restrictive when allegiances to this or that aesthetic can be transformed into choices to expand one’s own repertoire and to see how allegedly oppositional “schools” of poetic thought can actually feed each other instead of eating away at each other. For starters, “form” is not “formalism” and “scansion” is not necessarily the sole province of formalist poetics. Scanning #41 and #42 more than once made these sections not only easy but enormously fun to read. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. 🙂

Interested? I strongly recommend H.T. Kirby-Smith’s The Origins of Free Verse and Annie FInch’s The Ghost of Meter: Culture and Prosody in American Free Verse.

Yours for the propagation of the art, and ever-vigilant against false aesthetic dichotomies, I remain,

Your Humble Correspondent.


2 thoughts on “Whitman Throw-Down and “Form” Misunderstood

  1. Rupert says:

    yes to all that in the above – prob ole Walt had the gift of speaking in lines, like he was a conduit or somepin – it’s also like music for sure, and sometimes i feel like the white guy that can’t hit the one and the three lol

  2. Rupert says:

    nice post! We all appreciated the flow of his lines the other night – they fit our voices – and i suppose that means his lines *scan* – my opinion being he didn’t have to work too much on each line – like music to a composer, his words kinda *came* to him – what is NOT the case w me lol – but I do try and think/write in 10 syllable bursts – Phil Levine’s recent work in the NYorker was like 40 plus lines almost every one w 10 hits to it (not stresses but syllables) – I wanted to ask Jason at the reading about that – (he just finished his mfa at NYU w Levine) – thanks for your thoughtful take on Whitman . . .

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