Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Whitman's "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” (Expoesis)

In his great poem, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” (1859), Walt Whitman constantly seeks a name for the kind of language he has invented for his complex, multi-voiced, multi-selved poem, resonating with echoes from the Bible (particularly the Psalms), from the highly theatrical opera of his day—the notion of the “aria” is central to the piece—even from the world of the newspaper, which was one of the places in which Whitman developed his understanding of writing. The term he chooses for this language, which is alive with the notion of performance, is not verse or poetry or prose or prose poetry—the term “free verse” was not available to him—but song. This notion of song was a redefinition of the possibilities of language in a specifically American context. In his extraordinary essay, “Projective Verse” (1950), Charles Olson extends Whitman’s insights into techniques partially gleaned from the French Symbolist movement, in which the silence and whiteness of the page is not neutral but an active element in the meaning of what the poet intends. In addition, breath—the breathing of syllables—becomes a central issue in the enunciation of the work. Together, Whitman and Olson—with, no doubt, some help from William Carlos Williams, among others—give living poets, and particularly American poets, a medium in which they can find their own erratic, imaginative way.


I don’t think there is another poem
More unique
And, simultaneously,
More representative of
What we may call the American spirit
Than this amazing
Presentation of the making of a poet
Of the transformation of anyone
From childhood to a condition of knowledge
How do we enter the world in a deep way
It is an aria, a performance
Something Whitman saw in the opera houses,
It is a multi-voiced, multi-selved poem in which
All sorts of styles and “voices” are brought together
(Including the hissing voice of the old crone, the sea, and the voice of the bird, “my dusky demon and brother,” “the lone singer wonderful”)
It is a poem about family (the he-bird, the she-bird)
It is a poem about the stunning fact of Death the Opener
And the great representation of the sea (Melville)
(The sea is the openness of consciousness)
It is a nature poem
In which the “outsetting bard” merges with what he sees
It includes Quakers (“Ninth-month midnight”)
And Native Americans (“Paumanok”)
It is Whitman giving himself over to the sheer possibilities of music
As world becomes word (“translating”)
It is an act of marvelous empathy and compassion in the literal sense, “feeling with”
It is a poem about the body and its transformation
Even as Whitman speaks of the soul
It is a poem in which the lorn bird and the transforming boy
Move us to what Wallace Stevens called
A new representation of reality.
This, camerados, is the great mythic moment of American letters
And it takes place not at a desk but outside,
Not as writing but as brilliant spontaneous unexpected utterance.
It ushers in (under the magical multivalent moon, in the presence of the vast, talkative sea)
Nothing less than the world as song.

~~Jack Foley

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