Whitman’s Cameos

B-Ball player with mad skills?

I love it when Walt Whitman makes a cameo in a poem. Reading about Whitman’s skills on the b-ball court in Sherman Alexie’s “Defending Walt Whitman” reminded me of Allen Ginsberg’s trip to the grocery store in “A Supermarket in California.” When I started thinking about what Whitman is doing in the frozen foods section of a 50s supermarket or playing pick-up basketball on a Native American reservation in the 90s, I found a really cool article by Cyrus R. K. Patell called “Representing Emergent Literatures.” Patell discusses the “predicament faced by all US writers who belong to emergent literary traditions,” that is “how to transform themselves from marginalized cultures, often regarded as “foreign” or “un-American,” into emergent cultures capable of challenging and reshaping the U.S. mainstream” (62). I would certainly say that “challenging and reshaping the U.S. mainstream” was something that Ginsberg was all about. And as far as emergent literary traditions are concerned, I definitely count Ginsberg and the Beats in that category. But more on Ginsberg’s Supermarket in a bit…

Sherman Alexie

In “Defending Walt Whitman,” Alexie challenges Whitman to a game of poetic basketball, in which, according to Patell, Alexie “is the underdog and Whitman the favorite,” because Whitman dominates the game of American poetry (61). In the poem, some of the NativeAmerican basketball players defend against Walt Whitman; perhaps the Whitman whoMaurice Kenny points out is “indifferent” to them. Others are on Whitman’s team, and they defend him against those opposing him. However, Whitman is out of place in this poem: his “beard is ludicrous on the reservation,” and he “cannot tell the difference between / offense and defense.”  Even so, Alexie reminds us at the end of the poem that “this game belongs to him.” What are we to make of that? Perhaps the “game belongs to him” because even though Whitman represents the dominant poet of American literature he is also a culturally emergent writer as well. Because he was what Patell calls “a gay man writing about sexuality,” Whitman too was trying to challenge and reshape the United States mainstream (68). Though Ginsberg feels “absurd” as he touches Whitman’s book and dreams about their “odyssey in the supermarket,” and Whitman seems “ludicrous[ly]” out of place on Alexie’s basketball court, both poets seem to recover from their crises of emergence in the reaffirmation of a culturally marginalized Whitman at the end of their poems. And it is so like Whitman to be able to represent both. After all, he is large and contains multitudes…

Works Cited
Patell, Cyrus R. K. “Representing Emergent Literatures.” American Literary History 15.1 (2003): 61-69. Project Muse. Web. 27 Oct 2010.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Whitman’s Cameos

  1. AVZ says:

    Great post, and your secondary source really sheds some light on Alexie’s poem. I’m always struck on rereading the poem how much it is a poem about not belonging in some deep sense. The mythic backdrop (the boy with the hair braided in patterns that “don’e measure anything”; the myth-vision at the end of stanza three) clashes with the boys with cropped hair returned from a foreign war (whose “bodies are still dominated /”) playing a quintessentially American game on a reservation. Whitman’s prophetic beard doesn’t belong, and he doesn’t get the game that yet somehow belongs to him. There’s some tension and sadness here.

    But then there’s this ecstasy of being and bodies and beauty: “God, there is beauty in every body… Walt Whitman smiles. / Walt Whitman Shakes.”

    As with most great poems, this one seems irresolvable, the poem itself containing multitudes, contradicting itself.

  2. Nicole Monforton says:

    I love Whitman’s cameos. Every cameo is so different because Whitman means something different to every poet. Whitman stands for so many different things that poets can use him flexibly to their liking. I love when Whitman is used as a cry for “what used to be”, a theme that is repeated with Whitman cameos such as Supermarket in California.

Comments are closed.