We started off with a new week and brand new authors, focusing on the Native American response to Whitman on Tuesday, and women’s response to the Bard on Thursday. The readings for both days—which involved a mixture of critical essays, non-fiction, and poetry—were intended to model the kinds research projects we might pursued in the final weeks of the course.
On Tuesday, we placed three prose reflections—including both criticism and non-fiction by James Nolan, Maurice Kenny, and Joseph Bruchac—in conversation with the poetry of Simon Ortiz and Sherman Alexie. Together, these five authors represent varied reactions to the complex question of Whitman’s relation to Native American literature and history.
We began by working in groups—with each assigned an essay or poem and asked to answer a central questions: Is Whitman ultimately an enabling or disabling figure for the author under consideration. Prof. VZ asked us to come up with a basic thesis or argument that would identify where our assigned figure landed between the two extremes identified in the question. Here’s a rough summary of what emerged from those discussions.
In the first part of James Nolan’s Introduction to his book Poet-Chief, he offers a broad argument about the relevance of Native American poetry and poetics to Whitman and Neruda. He cites other critics who argue that Whitman’s works create a myth for the myth-less America, and argument Nolan extends by noting that this mythic origin is grounded in Native American tradition itself. Honoring the Native American contribution to American letters, Nolan pointedly argues that Walt Whitman didn’t invent American poetry any more than Columbus discovered America. In terms of one of the course’s primary themes—transnationalism—Nolan’s argument becomes particularly important. He casts Native American poetry and poetics as the transnational ground not only of Whitman’s poetry, but of Neruda’s as well, arguing for a grounding tradition that transcends and predates the imposition of national boundaries in the Americas. Though it is an inventive argument, it’s unclear what really unites Whitman with Native American poetry aside from some deep experience of America itself—it’s land and nature and people.
Joseph Bruchac, in his brief essay “To Love the Earth: Some Thoughts on Walt Whitman,” echoes the connection that Nolan draws between Whitman and Native American poetry and poetics. He describes how it is the very “rhythm of the continent” that Whitman embraces and channels in his work. Though there are no direct influences between Whitman and Native American poetry, Bruchac concedes, they are connected through this mythic ground. For Bruchac, Whitman shares with Native American’s a philosophy of being in the world, and not just observing it.
We noted as a class how these connections between Whitman and Native American poetry and poetics felt a bit loose, a bit too metaphorical. And for the Mohawk poet Maurice Kenny, these looser connections fail to convince. In his polemical piece called “Whitman’s Indifference to the Indians,” Kenny argues strongly that Walt Whitman is a disabling voice for Native American poets. He points out that Whitman was aware of the massacres involving the horrific slaughter of the Native Americans, though he chose to ignore it in his writing, thus displaying an attitude of indifference. In spite of Whitman being a boundary-breaking poet, Kenny feels his works are entrenched in racism, a romanticization of Native Americans, and a reluctance to recognize what is happening historically in his own moment.
Given these divergent accounts of Whitman, we talked about how these imperfections make Whitman more complex and problematic—but no less interesting. Ed and Peter mentioned Whitman’s pragmatic tendencies, in that he certainly had a great hope for generating positive political change with his poetry, but maybe didn’t feel he could tackle or address every problem individually. Kit described something similar when she noted Whitman’s apparent objectivity at times. In this light, we recalled the passage from Whitman’s Preface to Leaves of Grass where he writes that the poet judges not as the judge judges, but as the sun falling around a helpless thing. This offers a sense of Whitman’s equanimity, but also his lack of commitment to any single thing. While this doesn’t justify Whitman’s specific silence when it comes to the plight of Native Americans, it does show how his poetics were not necessarily aimed at that level of commitment and engagement, even if his work inspires that kind of commitment in his later readers and writers. Though he contained and reflected so many of the cultural blind spots of his own time, he also wrote poetry that seems so often to break down cultural norms. He offered an inclusive vision that has enabled so many voices across the twentieth century and beyond.
While we didn’t have time to discuss the excerpts from Simon Ortiz’s From Sand Creek in class, we spent a good deal of time discussing Sherman Alexie’s “Defending Walt Whitman.” The poem describes a simple game of basketball on an Indian reservation in which Whitman magically takes part. While the poem describe a literal game of basketball—spiked here and there with mythic interludes—it is clear that the game is also a metaphor for American poetry (a game that Alexie engages in) and, more broadly, the game of being and belonging as an American.
In our discussion, we kept going back and forth as to whether Whitman is cast as an enabling or disabling presence. Though there’s a humor and warmth in the poem, there’s also a sadness and a lack of belonging. A mythic warrior tale seems to clash with the basketball game even as it blends seamlessly with it; the boy with braids no pattern could measure seems ethereal next to the boys with short cropped hair just returned from the war, their bodies still dominated.
Whitman himself doesn’t seem to belong, though he seems too aloof to care. His beard is ridiculous on the reservation—a point Alexie repeatedly emphasizes. We recalled how important the metaphor of the beard was for Ginsberg and Neruda and Lorca, and how it was always associated with Whitman’s prophetic potential. The fact that the beard renders Whitman absurd and out of place perhaps in the context of the Reservation reflects the degree to which Whitman is not necessarily an enabling figure for the Native American boys he admires and plays with. The game, as the poem concludes, belongs to Whitman—not the Indian boys. Thinking back to what this game represents more broadly (the game of American poetry and American national belonging), we get a better sense of the displacement and exclusion reflected in the poem. In the end, it is impossible to say whether Alexie casts Whitman as an enabling or disabling figure. The poem’s power, rather, resides in the way it finely draws out this tension, leaving the reader ultimately to figure it out for herself.
On Thursday we talked about Pollack’s critical essay, “ In Loftiest Spheres’: Whitman’s Visionary Feminism.” Following other critics, she claims that Whitman continuously pigeonholes women as merely beings who give birth. Whitman, she writes, “tends to collapse the many possibilities contained in the word “Woman” to a single word “Mother,” and then to extol the preeminence of the maternal work in contradistinction to the other contributions that women might make to culture.” Pollack rejects the argument that Whitman freed stereotypically feminine virtues from their domestic bindings, allowing them to function profoundly in culture at large. For her, his inability to transcend his very limited sense of gender roles tempers his otherwise revolutionary rhetoric that would seem to break bounds of gender, sexuality, class and race. Rather than view Whitman as entirely revolutionary, Pollack notes that it is in grasping the contradiction between Whitman’s revolutionary poetics and their often retrograde cultural assumptions that Whitman becomes a more complex, textured, and interesting figure.
In the context of Pollak’s critique, Sharon Olds’s “Nurse Whitman” proved extremely interesting. The poem’s movement from an “I” to a “You” to a “We” seemed very Whitmanian, as did its explicitly bodily / sexual imagery. But Olds’s poem doesn’t map easily onto Pollak’s argument. Rather than reject stereotypically feminine roles, she instead feminizes Whitman himself in the role of caretaker. As often happens, the poetry seems to complicate the much cleaner critical arguments that we read. These poems are illumined by the critical voices we surveyed, but rarely can the be contained by them.
Next week will look slightly different from other weeks. Because we have an exam coming up on Tuesday, November 9, I want to spend a good part of this coming Thursday reviewing what we’ve learned and accomplished in the course so far. Thus, on Thursday, I’ll go over some sample exam questions to give you a sense of what to expect, and also offer a few prompts for the longer essay questions that will appear on the exam.
This is all to say that I hope to discuss all of Juliana Spahr’s This Connection of Everyone with Lungs on Tuesday, which means it is particularly important that you have read and thought about it thoroughly by Tuesday’s class. When you read, please consider the following questions:
- Why is this an important and relevant book for a course on Whitman?
- Where do its Whitmanian energies lie—in terms of form, content, and the kind of poetic vision it offers?
- How does it extend, endorse, refute or problematize Whitman’s poetic vision?
- Can you highlight any specific moments of “Song of Myself” that you feel might be relevant to our discussion?
One reviewer has written that “it is difficult to read Juliana Spahr’s this connection of everyone with lungs without thinking of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: they are both expansive, prosaic, deeply moving monuments to their times.” In “Song of Myself,” you recall, Whitman famously writes that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Needless to say, Spahr both endorses and complicates this core Whitmanian ideal.
As you might have guessed, some version of the above questions will appear on Tuesday’s quiz, so give it some thought and bring your Whitman as we’ll certainly be turning to key moments in “Song of Myself.”