Set 14, 2012

Whitman Thread

—Encompassing, I agree!  Not just the whole poem, but I think also its atoms. For example, that word "assume." It's positively electric for me when he says "What I assume, you shall assume," how it activates all the meanings of that word, the mental process of pure persuasion, the physical cycles of death and rebirth, how he enters through your nose, how we are Whitman now, whether we like it or not, and just because he says so! And while it comes from a grand and overwhelming pride—that forceful Self of his!—it also seems like a matter-of-fact partaking, how we are companions because we both eat earth and shall be eaten by earth.

—Neruda's poetry (as with much of Latin Am poetry and prose) was excited by Whitman. His Canto General and Ode to Common Things seem to me impossible without a Whitmanian sense of scope, a love for particulars. Two other favorites share in his poetic lineage: Borges and Pessoa.

—Pessoa was a Portuguese poet who took Whitman's lines ("I contain multitudes") to a whole new level by splitting himself into many poets, each with a different biography and writing style (eg: Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, Alvaro de Campos, etc). These poets of Pessoa are called his heteronyms. A good place to start for me would be "I've never kept sheep..." by Caeiro. But his Alvaro de Campos is the one who's truly Whitmanian. He is an engineer by profession, has seen much of the world, and writes in sprawling free verse. From this one, I recommend "Time's Passage," a great Whitmanian denouement. Oh and I'm glad you've also read Borges. He mentions Whitman in his poetry, fiction, and essays.

Thank you for mentioning Muriel Rukeyser. I will try to read more of her. As for Borges, I would venture that his strange catalogues, his romance with the infinite, and—maybe most significantly—his invention of "Borges" the character was directly inspired by Walter Whitman's "Walt Whitman" who claims with such power that he is us and we are him. Perhaps it best to let Borges explain for himself? Here is an excerpt from the prologue that Borges wrote for his Spanish translation of Leaves of Grass: "Whitman was already plural; the author resolved that he would be infinite. He made the hero of Leaves of Grass a trinity; he added to him a third personage, the reader, the changing and successive reader. The reader has always tended to identify with the protagonist of the work; to read Macbeth is in some way to be Macbeth; a book by Hugo is entitled Victor Hugo Narrated by a Witness to His Life; Walt Whitman, as far as we know, was the first to exploit to its interminable and complex extreme, this momentary identification."