Whitman and the Ultracontemporary

Roy Harvey Pearce once has suggested that the history of American poetry could be written as the continuing discovery and rediscovery of Whitman. More recently, Ed Folsom has described this process of rediscovery as a collective talking back to the bard. Both critics emphasize a sense of intentionality on the part of the later poet: one discovers via retrospect; one talks explicitly to the literary past in order to give it new life in the present. Two recent anthologies–Visiting Walt (2004) and the dual-language Walt Whitman: Hom(m)age (2008)–testify to this diverse and well-advertised engagement.

Rather than reflect upon these more pronounced responses to the bard, the panelists here seek to sound out the deeper strains of Whitman’s presence in contemporary poetry–a presence beyond mere influence, beyond homage or parody, beyond what would typically go by the necessarily restrictive designation Whitmanian. That is, we are less interested in how Whitman has been used than in the ways that Whitman continues to use us, how aspects of his personality, politics, and poetics that have been lost or misrecognized or elided continue to animate American poetry in surprising ways. Such an approach requires a critical ear in tune with the uniquely saturating presence anticipated by Ezra Pound nearly a century ago when he famously conceded that “Whitman is America.” Whitman has become not simply a major poet, but the nodal core of an imagined poetic community where national guilt and triumph, complicity and critique, tradition and innovation, converge. Even as literary studies embraces trans- and post-national approaches, and even as Whitman’s poetic experiments might appear tame after a century of intense aesthetic experimentation, he remains–in a most profound ideologically and aesthetically complex way–America.

Anton Vander Zee begins by turning to these ideological complexities. Whitman resides, Vander Zee argues, where elegy and utopia meet. So much poetry after Whitman arrives in the form of what Langston Hughes would call a montage of a dream deferred. Indeed, it is our perceived distance from Whitman’s profoundly enabling vision that dulls his effect on contemporary poetry. Vander Zee turns to the late work of Barbara Guest (1920-2006) along with the contemporary poet Juliana Sparh to explore what the former, in a subtly Whitmanian lyric “Burst of Leaves,” describes as the need for “a new orientation” that might break through this chronic poetic and political melancholia. Learning from Guest’s own late work, Vander Zee argues that it is not to Whitman’s early work, but to his very late, very strange, and largely ignored work, that we should turn to provide a model for the kind of progressive, informed and actionable melancholia that is beginning to emerge in contemporary poets such as Spahr, whose work shows a poet striving to discover a Whitmanian presence that offers not the loss of promise, but the promise of loss.

Where Vander Zee recovers Whitman’s charged lateness to revive and political present, Matt Miller turns to the very early Whitman in the years before he published Leaves of Grass (1855). Miller works to recover certain facets of Whitmans early aesthetic practice as he argues for the continuing centrality of Whitman to our understanding emergent twenty-first century experimental poetics. Miller does this by looking not to Whitman’s influence, but to his precedence. Extending the archival discoveries from his recent book, Collage of Myself: Walt Whitman and the Making of Leaves of Grass (2010), Miller demonstrates how long before Picasso pioneered the use of found objects in visual art–and poets such as Eliot and Moore developed similar practices in literature–Whitman both practiced and theorized the creative techniques today known variously as collage and montage, practices that continue to animate the diverse poetics of the present. Whitman, crucially, preceded these innovations in his poetry and poetic theory, and although Emily Dickinson, the objectivists, and the early twentieth-century European avant-gardes (futurism, surrealism, dada) have attracted more acclaim, Whitman anticipated them all, paving the way for the most exciting poetic practices of the twenty-first century.

Also turning to the archives to uncover new intensities of a distinct presence of the younger Whitman in contemporary poetry, Matt Sandler revisits the bard in New Orleans where we find him in 1848 as he works to recover the energies of New Orleans both for Whitman and for contemporary poetry. It is often noted that while in New Orleans, Whitman rethought his sexuality, encountered southern slavery up close, and incorporated a kind of mutability into his Romantic conception of the United States. Looking to Whitman’s early letters and journalism from this period, along with the poems that emerged from his New Orleans experience, Sandler revises the received account of Whitman’s early and na├»ve nationalism by viewing his work in the context of new post-national American studies, recent research on the culture of the Black Atlantic, and the renewed cultural interest in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina. In doing so, Sandler argues, Whitman becomes a powerful precursor for two of the most accomplished poetic responses to Katrina–David Brinks’s Caveat Onus and Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler, both of which re-inhabit and revise Whitman’s prophetic stance: a poet in crisis raging towards recovery.

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