Summer 2016 Bulletin

The Poetry of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg

On March 30, 2016, the Academy hosted a program on “The Poetry of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg for Baritone and String Quartet” that featured a presentation by Bonnie Costello (Professor of English at Boston University) and a performance by David Kravitz, baritone, and the Arneis Quartet. The program served as the Academy’s 2035th Stated Meeting. Bonnie Costello’s remarks appear below.

Bonnie Costello

Bonnie Costello

Bonnie Costello is Professor of English at Boston University. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2004.

Walt Whitman would not have fit in at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Here’s a review of Whitman’s 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass written by the eminent Charles Eliot Norton, who a couple of years later, in 1860, would join the Academy’s membership:

–Our account of the last month’s literature would be incomplete without some notice of a curious and lawless collection of poems, called Leaves of Grass, issued in a thin quarto without the name of publisher or author. The poems, twelve in number, are neither in rhyme nor blank verse, but in a sort of excited prose broken into lines without any attempt at measure or regularity, and, as many readers will perhaps think, without any idea of sense or reason. The writer’s scorn for the wonted usages of good writing extends to the vocabulary he adopts; words usually banished from polite society are here employed without reserve and with perfect indifference to their effect on the reader’s mind; and not only is the book one not to be read aloud to a mixed audience, but the introduction of terms, never before heard or seen, and of slang expressions, often renders an otherwise striking passage altogether laughable.

And yet he is pulled in . . .

A fireman or omnibus driver, . . . , might have written this gross yet elevated, this superficial yet profound, this preposterous yet somehow fascinating book . . . , it is a mixture of Yankee transcendentalism and New York Rowdyism, and, what must be surprising to both these elements, they here seem to fuse and combine with the most perfect harmony.

Who was Walt Whitman in 1855? A thirty-seven-year-old autodidact, a sometime printer and newspaper man, listening at the theater and opera as often as walking the beat. Leaves of Grass was not quite anonymous since it included a full-page portrait of the open shirted young poet, and midway he announces he is “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos.” “I celebrate myself” began the yet uncelebrated Whitman in 1855, in a poem he would eventually title “Song of Myself.” A year later he added, “and sing myself.”

For Whitman, as for Homer and Virgil, the poet is a singer. This is not a bookish work; we experience it as performance. And if the poem is about him, it is also America’s great epic song. We immediately hear a voice full of Biblical cadences; the call and response of church litany without a definite creed; the rhapsodic sweep of great oratory and theatrical soliloquy, of opera, its arias and recitative. Its moods are various – oracular and self-amused; imperial and empathic; gross and elevated; subdued and ecstatic.

In discussing both the experience of performing and the experience of hearing Shubert’s Winterreise, a lyric song cycle, Ian Bostridge writes: “It is sometimes said that the measure of a great singer is that it feels as if he or she is singing to you alone; . . . the address to the individual as well as to the mass – is a crucial part of the aesthetic transaction.” He could have been describing Whitman. Here is a poet who addresses “crowds of men and women” not only in his own time, but in the future, “you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence”; and yet at other times he seems to be speaking in the most intimate tones: “closer yet I approach you” . . . “what is it then between us.” Whitman’s is the voice of the shuttle, at once expressive and receptive; he is, he says, “one of the centrifugal and centripetal gang”: “And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

Any reader of “Song of Myself” is immediately impressed by the sweep of American life that it takes in, especially through the poet’s famous catalogs, his “enumerations.” He makes long, even canto-long, lists, in sentences paced by syntactic repetition. These create a better sense of America’s unity in diversity than any generalization. “Song of Myself,” with fifty-two cantos that swerve from one mood, stance or topic to another, has an improvisatory feel, but builds on its internal dialogue with the soul, which has its own notes. We hear them in assonance and alliteration: “I believe in you my soul . . . loose the stop from your throat . . . Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the best, / Only the lull I like the hum of your valved voice.” He takes in external sounds too, not only the wild gander’s “Ya honk” but “The pure contralto” who “sings in the organ loft, / The carpenter [who] dresses his plank, the tongue of his foreplane whistles its wild ascending lisp.” But up to the passage we will hear tonight, which comes in the middle of this long poem, Whitman has been concerned most with visual display and declamation. “Speech is the twin of my vision.” But now he quiets his own speech and becomes a listener, registering the bustling everyday world around him. The passage seems like the aural equivalent of a Brueghel painting, moving from one focus to the next, never lingering but pulling all into his dizzying composition. What a challenge to a composer! But Whitman himself is integrating and orchestrating the distinct and diverse noises of the world. He starts with the sounds of nature, but already personified, the (“bravura of birds”), and moves on to the sounds of human activity. They are distinct, but run together – Whitman is the poet of connections, not of divisions. Indeed, he moves toward places of division and dissonance in order to incorporate them into his unifying song. Even “disjointed friendships” and the “judge’s death sentence” are part of the music. The inaudible is heard as well – the “young man’s heart’s complaint” becomes the “violincello.” The world of the streets becomes a chorus, an opera. This is even more explicit in the 1855 version of the passage where sounds are “tuned to their uses;” he hears the “Recitative of the fish-pedlar.” These sounds are unconnected in the world, but in the poet’s mind they become harmonized, and as music they “sail” him. Having composed the noise of the world, Whitman comes to a focus in a wonderful account of aesthetic experience. He tells us what it is like to be carried up into the power of music, with the changing movements of a symphony or scenes of an opera. And his own responsive breathing, his “windpipe,” joins in the performance. The poet is momentarily overwhelmed by the power of these effects, tossed in the sea of emotion, going under, losing himself, before coming up again into “Being.”

[Note: At this point in the program, David Kravitz, baritone, and the Arneis Quartet performed “Being Music” – text by Walt Whitman, arrangement by Charles Fussell.]

Allen Ginsberg’s early reception was similar to Whitman’s. Here is John Hollander, another Academy member, and a longtime Yale professor. Writing in Partisan Review in 1957 he complained of the “utter lack of decorum” in Ginsberg’s “dreadful little book”:

I believe that the title of the long poem, “Howl,” is meant to be a noun, but I can’t help taking it as an imperative. The poem itself is a confession of the poet’s faith, done into some 112 paragraph-like lines, in the ravings of a lunatic friend and in the irregularities in the lives of those of his friends who populate his rather disturbing pantheon.

Hollander would retract somewhat in 1984:

This review was written in my youth and in a sort of worked-up high dudgeon . . . I only regret now that I hadn’t given “In a Supermarket in California” time to register. I should have certainly commended it. As for not foreseeing that Allen Ginsberg would provide such hymnody and doctrine to the counterculture which was soon to emerge, I have no regrets, having no stake in prophecy.

Ginsberg was elected to the American Academy in 1992.

When he published Howl and Other Poems in 1956, one hundred years after the first appearance of Leaves of Grass, Allen Ginsberg was a thirty-year old son of a schizophrenic mother, a Columbia drop out, Buddhist and Beat poet living in San Francisco. Howl and Other Poems, which had been printed in London, was seized at customs for obscenity, though it was exonerated after a long trial. Ginsberg had fallen in love with Walt Whitman while a high school student in New Jersey, and seems to have taken literally Whitman’s closing remarks in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”: “Who knows, for all the distance, but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me,” as well as “What thought you have of me now, I had as much of you – I laid in my stores in advance.” Did Whitman’s word “stores” prompt Ginsberg’s ghostly “thoughts” of Walt Whitman in a supermarket in California? The ferry now, though, is crossing the river Styx.

Certainly Ginsberg is the closest we have to a modern Whitman. He borrowed the incantatory lines, the lists and litanies. Like Whitman, Ginsberg yokes the sacred and the profane. Ginsberg’s expansiveness, his transcendental defiance of space and time, link him to Whitman. But in Ginsberg, Whitman’s optimistic vision has been severely tested by contemporary American realities. The mood is one of alienation more than connection. Ginsberg’s America is like Dante’s hell or Blake’s London (Blake’s supernatural visions had a strong influence on Ginsberg). The unacknowledged madness of the postwar world is destroying the best minds of his generation. Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” is now a “howl” – an animal cry of pain. Whitman looked out on democratic vistas; Ginsberg on “the Western night.”

However, the scene of “A Supermarket in California” is not so hellish, even if it does reveal itself through neon lights and plastic wrapping. There are families in the supermarket and consumer capitalism is on abundant and colorful display. “A Supermarket in California” shares Whitman’s capacity for humor, though now the humor has an element of the absurd, the surreal – “wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes.” Ginsberg gives Whitman’s interrogatives a modern, comic incongruity: “who killed the pork chops? . . . Are you my Angel?” In the supermarket Whitman looks like a homeless man, but poetry, Ginsberg suggests, slips the surveillance.

The consequent emotions are mixed, then: comic and elegiac, celebratory and melancholy, reverent and parodic. Whitman’s sense of connection to everything in the American scene gives way to a profound sense of loneliness. Perhaps, Ginsberg hints, the poet is always an outsider, but Whitman is a “courage teacher.”

[Note: At this point in the program, David Kravitz, baritone, and the Arneis Quartet performed two versions of “A Supermarket in California” – text by Allen Ginsberg; one arrangement by Andy Vores and a second arrangement by Elena Ruehr.]

“Howl.” We might call it the anti-Song of Myself, with a Who in the place of an I; the Whitmanian imagination and style turned to convey a Cold War toxic Waste Land. Part I explodes into inane noun-noun phrases, wild juxtapositions, the “teahead joyride neon blinking traffic lights” and “hydrogen jukebox” later parodied by Tom Wolfe. “Howl,” an autobiographical work set in New York City (but increasingly cosmic in scope), is a protest on behalf of creative souls – dissolute and yet angelic friends and loved ones whose madness and suffering Ginsberg traces to a culture of repression and dehumanizing forces of industry. In part II Ginsberg names this monster; it is Moloch, the false god of the Old Testament associated with human sacrifice. The modern Moloch is the god of walls – not just a force outside that devours love and art – it is more insidious, burrowing inside, into all our institutions. Moloch is Mind itself – that aspect of mind that divides and negates our being. A Cartesian monster, a head without a body, a destroyer, not a creator, Moloch’s mark is ugliness, repression, surveillance. He is also Money, the reduction of human value to economics. Moloch is Materialism, including Time itself, in which the transcendental spirit suffers, and from which it flees.

Part II of Howl is, then, a kind of exorcism. What makes this passage exciting is the exclamatory, fantastical, grotesque aspect of the allegory. But the wild sublimity of Moloch is matched by history – by the vast, smoking industrial metropolis, and the Atomic Bomb looming over Cold War America.

After casting a wide gaze over the waste land of America, Howl in part III turns to address another kindred spirit, Carl Solomon, to whom the poem is dedicated. After the screaming chants against Moloch subside, the voice is quieter at first. The exclamations fall away after the first line, though the refrain “I’m with you in Rockland” creates a mantra like effect that has its own building intensity. A zany spirit enters the poem, perhaps echoing Solomon, a Dadaist poet and performer. Solomon, like Ginsberg’s mother, had been institutionalized. (He saw his eight months in the mental asylum as a Dadaist protest. He would later write about the experience, including his shock treatment.) The poem speaks from the side of sanity, but increasingly identifies with the madness, and indeed the second lines thicken and become more ranting (a sometimes exuberant, sometimes nightmarish rant) as they move toward an apocalyptic vision. “I’m with you,” chants Ginsberg. In the final verses he imagines a “we” – agonistic, yet triumphant and loving – that draws in the reader. The war turns inward against the spirit of Moloch; the castaway reaches the cottage, if only “in my dreams.”

[At this point in the program, David Kravitz, baritone, and the Arneis Quartet performed “Howl” (parts II and III) – text by Allen Ginsberg; arrangement by Lee Hyla.]

© 2016 by Bonnie Costello