Poem of the week

Today, a couple of cautious dips into the surging torrents of Walt Whitman's verse. Come on in

Carol Rumens

The New York Times

December 10, 2007 whitman276.jpg

Massive and tidal ... Walt Whitman. Photograph: Corbis

When Walt Whitman (1819-1892) was living at home with his family in Brooklyn in the 1850s, he "had no business", said his mother, Louisa Van Velsor, "but going out and coming in to eat, drink, write and sleep". That description, the critic RWB Lewis remarks in his essay, Always Going Out and Coming In, provides "a nice maternal formula to the recurring pattern in Whitman's career - the foray into the world and the retreat back into himself and into a creative communication with his genius". It also catches the tidal quality of the rhythms within much of the work itself.

Michael Longley, asked as a student to describe the difference between poetry and prose, answered that poetry is a fountain, prose a river. Whitman's poetry, exceptionally, is a river, massive and tidal. Its free-flowing prosody springs from various sources, not chiefly literary (though he knew Shakespeare and Milton): the Italian opera which he loved as a young man, the full-hearted American acting style of the period, the parallelisms of the preacher and the psalmist, the impassioned rhetoric of the political reformer. Quakerism, from his mother's, Dutch, side of the family, may have influenced his sense of the supreme validity of the colloquial "sermon", the individual prayer or testimony. The brief, vivid visual detail which characteristically replaces figurative invention reveals Whitman the journalist. Perhaps the printer in him also lent a hand in shaping that verse which challenges the right-hand margin with such confidence.

The two pieces this week complement each other surprisingly well, and together give us a glimpse of Whitman's cosmos in miniature. The first, suggested by BillyMills, is the opening section of Starting from Paumanok. This 19-part sequence was the introductory poem (under the title Proto-Leaf) of the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, sounding its major themes. Paumanok is the Native American name for Long Island, Whitman's birth-place, and the section is full of the "coming and going" of his early life. The syntactical control is like the breath-control of a great singer: how endlessly we're made to wait for the subject of all those subordinate clauses, and how faultlessly placed the "I" when it finally arrives to "strike up for a New World".

The second piece, The Dalliance of the Eagles, was nominated by Hafren who described it as "that staggering imagist tour de force, full of verbs but without a main verb". It is a small masterpiece (as in the 'Paumanok extract, Whitman's use of the comma alone deserves a thesis) and points to one of the sources from which Lawrence learned the art of his own wonderful "animal" poems.

Starting from Paumanok

Starting from fish-shape Paumanok where I was born,
Well-begotten and rais'd by a perfect mother,
After roaming many lands, lover of populous pavements,
Dweller in Mannahatta my city, or on southern savannas,
Or a soldier camp'd or carrying my knapsack and gun, or a miner in California,
Or rude in my home in Dakota's woods, my diet meat, my drink from the spring,
Or withdrawn to muse and meditate in some deep recess,
Far from the clank of crowds intervals passing rapt and happy,
Aware of the fresh free giver the flowing Missouri, aware of mighty Niagara,
Aware of the buffalo herds grazing the plains, the hirsute and strong-breasted bull,
Of earth, rocks, Fifth-month flowers experienced, stars, rain, snow, my amaze,
Having studied the mocking-bird's tones and the flight of the mountain-hawk,
And heard at dawn the unrivall'd one, the hermit thrush from the swamp-cedars,
Solitary, singing in the West, I strike up for a New World.

The Dalliance of the Eagles

Skirting the river road, (my forenoon walk, my rest,)
Skyward in air, a sudden muffled rush of sound, the dalliance of the eagles,
The rushing amorous contact high in space together,
The clinching interlocking claws, a living, fierce, gyrating wheel,
Four beating wings, two beaks, a swirling mass tight grappling,
In tumbling turning clustering loops, straight downward falling,
Till o'er the river poised, the twain yet one, a moment's lull,
A motionless still balance in the air, then parting, talons loosing,
Upward again on slow firm pinions slanting, their separate diverse flight,
She hers, he his, pursuing.

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