Ballads of Walt Whitman

Reading the portion of Crane’s “The Bridge” entitled “IV. Cape Hatteras” strangely reminded me of a song I heard again recently.  This soulful jam is the late, great Odetta’s cover of one of Bob Dylan’s early folk classics.  To me, it exemplifies the tenacity with which so many young African-American women (Odetta, Aretha, Nina, Etta) sought to emulate their white male counterparts (Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Woody Guthrie) in the tradition of totally wailing on the acoustic folk ballad.  This practice of borrowing certainly extends in the reverse, future and past.  Odetta sings Dylan, so the album is called.  But Dylan was singing Woody Guthrie, and Woody Guthrie was singing the ballad of the boundless American spirit, and Walt Whitman was singing the body electric!

In this sense, Crane and Eliot were singing Whitman, and in some cases to him specifically: “Walt, tell me, Walt Whitman, if infinity / Be still the same as when you walked the beach / Near Paumanok[…]” (lines 48-50).  “Cape Hatteras” responds to Whitman’s own experience at Paumanok.  “The Bridge” and “The Waste Land” respond to Whitman’s idealistic, idyllic themes, often with disappointment and despair; they respond in his language of dense vocabulary, frequent use of alliteration, occasional rhyme, and irregular meter.  The’ electric body’ has respectively become “an engine in a cloud” for Crane (line 46) and “the human engine” for Eliot (line 216).  The bigger, better, faster future has become the grim, nostalgia-inducing present.  The myth, in all its complex fury, is transferred from one articulation to the next.

Perhaps this allows for the more recent implications of a ballad as a love song or homage.  It seems impossible to participate in an ongoing cultural dialogue without addressing the artists, writers, singers, movers and shakers who precede us. Odetta and Hart do this directly, purposefully, and with overwhelming sincerity.

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2 Responses to Ballads of Walt Whitman

  1. Dana Thieringer says:

    I appreciated and enjoyed your post, I made a note in my notebook in class the other day to think more about Nina in relation to Whitman, to see if I can see any influence there. I haven’t thought much about it yet, but your post reminded me. Thanks!

  2. AVZ says:

    Really lovely post, Anna Kate. Your striking idea of “the body electric” in connection with Crane’s plan and Eliot’s human engine really helps me see connections between these poets differently. An earlier post discussed how when we read these later poets, we shouldn’t just read the Whitman in them; we should also go back and unearth their own energies in Whitman himself. Whenever I read “the body electric,” it will be branded with the after-echoes, indelibly marked by what Whitman would call “poets to come.”

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