[by Jen, Maria, Dana T, and James]
We began class this week with the task of defining “New World Poetry.” From June Jordan’s article “For the Sake of a People’s Poetry: Walt Whitman and the Rest of Us” we teased out a working definition of New World poets. A New World poet essentially means a non-European—and non New England—poet. A New World poet is politically invested, and sometimes suffers artistic consequences for this investment. For example, many New World poets, like Whitman himself, are forced at times to publish and distribute their own work, or seek small, independent presses.
Other essential qualities of New World poets and poetry are focused around a “new” and “democratic” state of mind. Old elitist ideas of the past were replaced with new, big ideas of an egalitarian mindset. New World poets, according to Jordan, write a more broadly accessible poetry—they write to be understood by the people. Despite this urge towards accessibility, we discussed in class how this poetry aroused (rawr!) a different sense of difficulty in the work being produced. Difficulty was no longer tied merely to high diction or dense allusions, but relied on honesty and directness in terms of its subject matter and the way different identities come to be embodied and performed.
Think, for example, of the way Neruda writes—his ability to just say things with such simplicity and force–in “I Explain Some Things.” The poem succeeds in discussing highly personal and political subjects (the Spanish civil war, his friend Lorca’s death, etc) without growing sentimental or didactic because of the way Neruda straightforwardly presents us the information: “I’ll tell you everything that’s happening with me,” he writes near the start of the poem, and he goes on to do just that. He does not embellish the information. Take, for example, his haunting yet simple description of the murdering of children: “…the blood of the children ran simply, like children’s blood.” Here, he seems to say it would be wrong to embellish such a tragedy, to make it into a mere poetic figure. And yet, through that very simplicity, he presents an extremely “difficult” image as the reader can’t help but think that it should be the children themselves—and not their blood—that runs so simply in the street. Dana Allen added to this concept with a reference from an article she’d read in a previous class on knowledge v. wisdom. Dana reflected that, “a wise person can say in three words what would take a knowledgeable person three hundred words to say.” She connected this to Neruda because of his concise poems that speak essential truths simply and clearly.
On Thursday, we began by reflecting how we’ve discussed Whitman as the quintessential poet of this tension and movement between crisis and recovery, estrangement and connection, alienation and identity, death and life. We see this drama replayed over and over in poems such as “As I Ebb’d” and “This Compost.” But we also saw many points where Whitman chose to remain in silence, in crisis, at the end of poem. Many poems from Drum-Taps do this, as do poems such as “Facing West” and “As I Sit and Look Out.” It’s important to remember that even Whitman was often unable–or he simply chose not–to turn his crisis into some grand recovery.
All the poems we read this week could be mapped onto this central Whitmanian drama: their triumphs are triumphs of recovery, of sustained faith. And the often more moving and interesting failures are so many shadows cast behind Whitman’s own doubts, his own difficulties, his own silences. Even in poems that move towards recovery with confidence, anxieties linger, just as they do in Whitman. We tried to keep this in mind as we worked through poem in class discussion. Neruda seems to enter this Whitmanian drama directly, for example, in “I Explain Some Things,” which directly echoes Whitman’s elegy, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” The poem begins with the lines: “You will ask: And where are the lilacs? / And the metaphysics laced with poppies?” We decided in class that the crisis Neruda is faced with in this poem is too big to resolve with the Whitmanian drive from crisis to recovery. No metaphysical thinking or romanticizing of death will aid us here.
Near the end of class, we talked about the ways, in retrospect, that Neruda’s love poem #20—“Tonight I can write the saddest verses”—might be read as a kind of love poem to Whitman himself, or to anything lost and distant. This observation helps us see more deeply how Whitman wasn’t a mere poetic influence on others. He was the source of some more significant relationship, he was a lover—but a lover often lost, often doubted, as poets find him increasingly difficult to revive in their own historical and political contexts. Martin Espada seems to validate this basic sense in his extraordinarily moving poem “Rain Without Rain.” There, those gathering to honor Neruda and The Disappeared also shout Whitman over the seas. Whitman, Neruda, and the deepest sense of crisis come together in the final words of the poem, words that Espada makes indelibly political, indelibly Whitmanian, indelibly about loss and influence and elegy and love and the endless process of forgetting. They are also Neruda’s words: “Tonight I can write the saddest verses.”
Core Concept: Transnational
This idea of New World poetry melded nicely with the Core Concept for this week: transnational poetry. Prof. VZ read in class quotes from an essay by Randolph Bourne that defined “Transnational America” against the prevailing notion of the “melting pot,” which threatens to reduce and assimilate diverse American identities into a limited notion of what it means to be an American. A vision of transnationality involves the coming together of many distinct national traditions into a space that fosters their individuality rather than forces conformity. Somewhat problematically, Bourne writes as though he believes that America is the only nation that has the opportunity to truly be transnational. Perhaps it is because we are a nation of immigrants, making America a metaphor for a collective “nation.” In any case, Bourne believes that as Americans we have a unique opportunity to speak beyond more limited national ideals. Borne’s notion of transnational America is problematic when held against June Jordan’s definition of New World poets. Bourne’s exaggeration of America’s exceptionalism and global influence discounts the discourse between the poetry of other cultures and America. It is this latter, more open sense of the transnational that we are tracing in this course.
Along these lines, we talked about how many of the poets we’ve studied cannot easily be contained in a single national tradition or national poetics. T.S. Eliot was born in American, by moved to England, and his poetry is full of references to Eastern and Western cultural and literary references. The Waste Land, in this sense, travels well beyond any limited Anglo-American identity. Langston Hughes offers another example, having written many of his major poems overseas—in Africa, Europe, Mexico, Russia and elsewhere. We also discussed how the idea of influence itself signals a certain kind of transnationalism. Poets exist within complex circuits of influence that span national boundaries. We noted that Neruda had a picture of Whitman on his writing desk, and that Neruda was good friends with Lorca, and both of them spent a good deal of time in Europe and Spain. Neruda also lived and worked in Cuba and Mexico. In this sense, though Neruda’s work is deeply informed by his own national context, it isn’t entirely contained by it. Admitting that we had been looking at Whitman in a very American context at first, we began to discuss how Whitman’s poems could be relevant outside of America. Marco brought up communist poets who appreciated Whitman singing the song of the working man. We looked at very international / cosmopolitan poems such as “Salut au Monde!” in which Whitman addressed the world at large. It’s important to note that for all his earnest American rhetoric, Whitman himself communicated at some length with various English poets and critics, taking great pride in the recognition he received overseas.
Though it is important to remain open to the transnational circuits that many poets operate within, we were struck, as a class, but the distinct difference in how poetry is looked on as a cultural force in the U.S. and the various countries in Latin America. In Latin America, poetry is received with much more ease, and relies heavily on oral tradition, whereas in America, poetry often makes an effort to remain autonomous with the belief that distance from politics allows the poet to see things more clearly and critique them in a less determined way. The popular political poetry of Latin America has a different tension within it. In line with this, Dana said that “it’s because our politics are less in our face, because people aren’t getting shot in the streets in front of us, that we still have a heavy amount of academic poetry as opposed to political poetry.” Latin American poets take on the role in their society as the speaker of the people and do not shy away from this responsibility. Thus, while poems and poets travel widely, breaking down national barriers, we must also think of how conceptions of nationality and national culture continue to make their own demands and offer their own constraints. In other words, thinking transnationally is not thinking post-nationally.
Quote and Tell—“Body of Woman”
Body of woman, white hills, white thighs
you look like the world in your attitude of giving.
My savage peasant body plows through you
and makes the son surge from the depths of the earth.
I went alone as a tunnel. Birds fled from me,
I was invaded by the power of the night.
To survive myself I forged you like a weapon,
like an arrow in my bow, like a stone in my sling.
“Body of a Woman” is remarkably Whitmanian—reminiscent of “I Sing the Body Electric”—but it functions as much more than a simple homage. Neruda seems to take many different Whitmanian techniques for writing love poems and then puts his own spin on it, in a way, advancing the art. He goes to great lengths to liken the woman’s body to nature, describing her as being made up of “white hills, white thighs,” and “of skin, of moss, of firm and thirsty milk.” At first, Neruda seems to take a typically masculine/aggressive approach that were already well worn in Neruda’s time: “My savage peasant plows through you,” he writes. But in the next Stanza, he seems to retreat from this more aggressive stance: “To survive myself I forged you like a weapon, / like an arrow in my bow, like a stone in my sling.” Here, the woman becomes the weapon, that which is projected, that which penetrates, and the poet himself is merely the container or holder. In this sense, he inventively reverses common trope of love poetry. We noted that Neruda’s approach to sexuality in his love poems was just as revolutionary in Latin America as Whitman’s franks treatment of sex and the body was in with North America.
The Beats! There’s much to talk about in Ginsberg, and we’ll have plenty of time to begin that conversation on Tuesday. Here’s a few questions to get us started. We’ve talked about Whitman’s lilacs—how they last and endure across his work. We’ve used these lilacs as a metaphor for Whitman’s own influence: what happens, we ask, when the symbolic monolith of Whitman himself lasts across the twentieth century and beyond. Love is so short, after all, and forgetting is so long. Though Ginsberg was thinking most explicitly of Blake in his “Sunflower Sutra,” I can’t help but sense the shadow of Whitman’s lilacs in that battered old sunflower in the poem. Be prepared to talk (and write) about what the sunflower represents in this poem, and how it becomes a key element in Ginsberg’s very Whitmanian drama of crisis and recovery. We saw how Neruda reinvented Whitman’s lilacs with his poppies. Is Ginsberg doing the same thing with his sunflower?
Along these lines more generally, I’d like for you to think about how each of Ginsberg’s poems we will be reading fits into this drama of crisis and recovery. What is the nature and depth of the crisis? And how does the response to this crisis achieve—or fail to achieve—recovery in certain instances?
Please use the comment box below to fill in any crucial missing details. What was most important and/or moving to you that I didn’t address above?