Walter E. Washington Convention Center | February 10, 2017

Episode 148: To Sing the Idea of All: Walt Whitman in DC (1863-73)

(Brian Brodeur, Cornelius Eady, David Kirby, Nickole Brown, Dorianne Laux) The bard of democracy arrived in the Federal District to nurse his brother George, who was wounded at Fredericksburg in 1862. In the decade that followed, Whitman lived in the capital as civil servant, comforter of dying Union soldiers, and witness to the political upheaval of the end of the Civil War, the assassination of Lincoln, and Reconstruction. Join us for a discussion of this decade's influence on Whitman, and the legacy of this poet's life and work on American poetry and poetics.

Published Date: June 28, 2017


Speaker 1 (00:00:05):

Welcome to the A W P podcast series. This event was recorded at the 2017 A W P conference in Washington dc. The recording features Brian Broder, Nicole Brown, Cornelius, Edie, David Kirby, and Dorian Locks. You'll now hear Brian Broder provide introductions.

Speaker 2 (00:00:36):

Hello and welcome to the Poetry Craft and Criticism panel. Discussion to sing the idea of all Whitman in DC 1863 to 1873. I'm Brian Broder and I'll serve as moderator. After I introduce the panelists and provide a thematic overview of this event. Each poet will offer a brief presentation. We'll then have a discussion about subtopics raised throughout the presentation, followed by an audience q and a. And I will say too that Cornelius unfortunately may have to leave early, so you'll forgive him in advance for that. As the event title suggests, this panel will consider the Bard of Democracy focusing on the decade he spent in the federal district during which time Whitman worked as civil servant comforter of dying Union soldiers and witness to the political upheaval of the end of the Civil War, the assassination of Lincoln and Reconstruction. During this period, Whitman published nearly 100 poems including the sequences drum taps, passage to India, democratic vistas, as well as the IES for Lincoln O Captain, my captain.

Speaker 2 (00:01:48):

And when lilacs last in the door, yard bloomed, this panel will explore how this crucial historical moment influenced Whitman's life and work and how this poet continues to shape our thinking about democracy, nationalism, race, sexuality, poetry, and poetics. But first I'd like to introduce our panel of poets proceeding in alphabetical order, which will be the order of presentations. Nicole Brown, immediately to my right is the author of Fannie Says, A Collection of Poems and Sister, a verse novel. Currently, she lives in Asheville, North Carolina with her wife, the poet Jessica Jacobs Brown teaches as part of the NCA's great S Smokey's writing program each fall and will be on faculty at the Swanee School of Letters M F A program. This summer, Cornelius, Edie immediately to my left has published eight volumes of poetry among them, the gathering of my name, nominated for a Pulitzer and Brutal Imagination and National Book Award finalist Hardheaded Weather.

Speaker 2 (00:02:55):

New and selected poems appeared in 2008. Ed has been a teacher for more than 20 years and is now a professor at Notre Dame University. David Kirby, on my right is the author of more than two dozen volumes of criticism, essays, children's literature, pedagogy and poetry. The House on Boulevard Street New and selected poems was a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the Florida Book Award and the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance Award. Since 1969, he has taught at Florida State University. He lives in Tallahassee, Florida with his wife, the poet, Barbara Hamby. Dorian Locke's fifth collection of Poetry. The Book of Men was awarded the Patterson Prize. Her fourth book, facts about the Moon won the Oregon Book Award and was shortlisted for the Lenoir Marshall Poetry Prize. I'm sorry, Dorian is the last person, sorry, I'm sorry. Locks teaches poetry in the program in creative writing at North Carolina State University and is a founding faculty member of Pacific University's low residency m F a program. Before we begin, I'd like to hear from Whitman himself. Here is the final section of the wound dresser, one of the poet's most unflinching and most tender poems of the Civil War.

Speaker 2 (00:04:22):

Thus in silence, in dreams, projections, returning resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals, the hurt and wounded. I pacify with soothing hand. I sit by the restless all the dark night. Some are so young, some suffer so much. I recall the experience sweet and sad. Many a soldiers loving arms about this neck have crossed and rested. Many a soldiers kiss dwells on these bearded lips. Please welcome Nicole Brown.

Speaker 3 (00:05:10):

Hello. I just want to share something with you. My good friend Melissa just gave this to me. It's a Walt Whitman centennial celebration published by Beloit Poetry Journal back in 1954. If y'all want to come up and just touch it, it was only 75 cents. And I love that Langston Hughes is in here, Charles Olsson, I recognize and I love the continuity of that and the fact that that journal has been around so long. It's really beautiful. So I'd like to read what I have written because I get a little nervous. So I thought rather than just talking, so here we go.

Speaker 3 (00:05:58):

The meanest kind of bawling and blowing office holders, pimps, malignants, conspirators, murderers, fancy men, spaniels, well-trained to carry and fetch terrorists, male rifles, slave catchers, pushers of slavery, creatures of the president, creatures of the would be presidents, compromises, ramers sponges, dualists carriers of concealed weapons, the lousy combinings and born freedom sellers of the earth. Does this sound familiar to you? This isn't from this morning's news, but is only a fraction of a very long list. Walt Whitman's description of the government in the years 1840 to 1860, during the two decades before Lincoln even took office, when the seeds of the Civil War began to germinate back when Whitman says the United States was convulsing, that the war in the temper of society preceding it can best be described by that very word convulsive. I imagine I'm not the only one here who senses this country in a very similar predicament now who sees the aura of a seizure coming on.

Speaker 3 (00:07:43):

Who in panic grabs for a wallet to cram into the mouth before the world blurs? Whitman wrote about this time as a top most warning and shame, he says, as the most significant warning in beacon light to coming generations. So my question to you is this. Can you hear Whitman's warning and if you agree that our democracy is beginning to convulse just as it did some hundred and 75 years ago, what do we do with our frustrations and what do we do with our shame? And even so what does it matter if there's nothing we can do or worse, as Jane Hirschfield wrote in a poem, let them not say they did nothing. We did not enough. I admit I don't know the answers, but to try and find a way, I've spent nearly every day since the election combing remnants Whitman left behind, not just his classic leaves of grass, but particularly his specimen days. Today I want to briefly share some of what I found. And to make it easy, I've made a list of 10, but I only share four of those with you today. This is a list of reminders, if you will, or bits of wisdom brought back from the dead. Or if you're a pragmatist like me, call this a description of your job as a writer in this new regime. So here we go. Number one, realize your uselessness. Admit your uselessness and well make yourself useful anyhow.

Speaker 3 (00:10:00):

Certainly Whitman saw the war coming and he didn't just express his concerns in poetry either. For years he worked as a reporter and editor and lost more than one job as a newspaper at a newspaper over his fierce opinions. But it did nothing to stop what was to come regardless. This didn't mean he turned away quite the contrary. He saw himself as a witness, a noticer, a collector of all around him as a mouthpiece from which many could speak. And as such to be placed in tumult was a kind of blessing or as he called it, the most profound lesson of his life. But observation and writing on its own wasn't enough at the height of the war. When the wounded arrived into this very city at the rate of nearly a thousand per day and many either fled DC or grew callus, he went directly to the camps and hospitals where the soldiers were.

Speaker 3 (00:11:17):

And while Whitman's time spent volunteering at war, hospitals is well known, what I didn't realize until reading about his time there was how little he thought he was doing. Those three years he wrote, I do not see that I do much good to these wounded and dying, but I cannot leave them. Indeed, what he had to give those boys was small sweet crackers, green tea, pocket change, some tobacco almanac from 1964 ice cream treats. He wrote letters for boys who could not do so themselves. He brought D Ss G in bed, 52, some who hound candy for his weak throat for C H L in bed, six some oranges and tart jelly for his easily nauseated stomach for J h g in bed 24 and undershirt drawers and socks as the boy had not changed his clothes in a long time. This to me is not just a call, not to look away, but to do whatever pragmatic and concrete kindnesses that can be done during these times. No matter how small.

Speaker 3 (00:12:57):

Two, talk to everyone, and I mean everyone, even those you pity or even those you despise. Long before the war, Whitman had a passion for fairies, for those streaming, never failing living poems in the omnibus. He would ride them for hours and knew the drivers by name like Broadway, Jack, bulky bill, old elephant, pop, rice, big Franken, yellow Joe. I just love even those names. There's a lot much longer list of them. Of course, because it is Whitman. Later during the war, it should come as no surprise that he stopped to talk to everyone, the nurses and the illiterate farmers sons, the deserters, the severely wounded, some half out of their minds spewing delirium. And yes, he lent his ear even to the rebel soldiers who as the war went on, Whitman had more than one reason to despise, especially as news spread of how the south kept their prisoners of war union prisoners held not in cells but in holes in the ground, half full of water fed only scarce meals of corn with the cob and husk ground.

Speaker 3 (00:14:43):

Together, these soldiers were toned home pitiable and Whitman saw them unable to stand often with not enough flash on the lips to cover their teeth. Yet still, when Whitman was administering to a young soldier in the hospital and the boy said to him, I hardly think you know who I am. I don't wish to impose on you. I'm a rebel soldier. Whitman replied by saying It made no difference. He wrote, I can say that in my ministering, I comprehended all whoever came my way, northern or southern and slighted none. And in another entry he wrote, the dead, the dead, the dead. Our dead, our south, our north ours all finely. Dear to me. Few of us could deny how divided our country feels even now, but certainly if Whitman could see past the differences in his time, surely we could try to listen to others no matter how deplorable they might seem. Or as I hear Martin Luther King Jr. Used to joke, we need to love the hell out of each other.

Speaker 3 (00:16:27):

Three go outside. That's right. We should all get off our damn computers, put on our walk-in shoes and go outside because Whitman's writing about this time wasn't all soldiers and politics. In fact, nature was what he said made him who he was and what healed him after the war. From the time Whitman was a child, he spent his days in the weather and some of his earliest remembrances were of filling baskets with what he called a bonanza of eels, pulled from the ice of collecting gull eggs of the vigorous black walnut trees that he imagined stood even before 1776. Should you consider this a waste of time? Think again. Shortly after the Civil War, Whitman witnessed a flock of birds passing through the darkness overhead in the middle of the night, immense flocks migrated. Its velvety Russell for hours so big as to last from midnight until three in the morning.

Speaker 3 (00:17:55):

Now, who here has ever witnessed a flock of birds that large, especially up here? My guess is no one has because they don't exist anymore. Ironically, even back then already Whitman himself was mourning the diminishment of nature such as the thoroughly rural character of Brooklyn asking even then, who remembers the old places as they were? Who remembers the old citizens of that time? So my question then is this, if we aren't outside paying attention, not only to what is, but what is no longer there, how will we bear witness to our world? How will we protect it?

Speaker 3 (00:19:01):

By the way, should you think Whitman would be a denier of climate change? Know how he believed in science, how he called science, the arms that lifted him first and embraced him best that in the beauty of poems are hes forth. The tuft and final applause of science even more compelling is how he saw democracy. Dependent upon humankind's relationship with nature, he said democracy, most of all affiliates with the open air is sane only with nature. He wrote, American democracy must be fibered and vitalized by regular contact with outdoor light and air and growths, or it will certainly dwindle and pale. He wrote, nature brings people back from their persistent strings and sickly abstractions to the divine original concrete. Four. Finally, I want you to write something down in your notebooks and your arms, your legs, across your chest and neck and on your wall here. Whitman makes it easy and speaks directly to us, the American poets of the future. He writes, this is what you should do. Love the earth and sun and the animals despise riches. Give alms to everyone that asks. Stand up for the stupid and crazy. Devote your income and labor to others hate tyrants. Argue not concerning God. Have patience and indulgence towards the people. Take off your hat to nothing known or unknown to any man or number of men. Go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families reexamine all you have been told in your own soul and your very flesh shall be a great poem.

Speaker 4 (00:21:51):

Thank you.

Speaker 5 (00:22:11):

Okay, as I'm turning on my media, I'd like to correct one part of the introduction to me. I'm no longer at Notre Dame. I am for the past seven years have been teaching at the University of Missouri. And usually that doesn't bother me at all and I don't want to bring this to Brian's and I'm not trying to embarrass, but now we live in a world of alternative facts. I'd hate to have that, the website. So now we're in a world of alternative facts and I just thought we'd better just be clear about what we do these days. I'm going to start my part of the conversation by also sort of you're going to, I think this afternoon here, a lot of similarities between where Whitman is then and where we are now. I just think that we're at this point where the parallels are kind of on.

Speaker 5 (00:23:43):

Whitman was dealing with the Civil War and what is the Civil War. It's a conflict between the states and part of that conflict has to do with my ancestors and yours. History is something that we all live within. It is a bubble that contains us and we move through or move along with I should say. So many of the arguments that Whitman had to deal with or they were dealing with pre-civil war and during the Civil War are some of the same arguments we're hearing today. In fact, yesterday you had to hear the latest round of this argument when president, the president lost at least so for the moment, lost his argument to ban Muslims from coming into this country even if they had a green card. His argument is that he has the power to protect us. Well, the southern states were trying to protect themselves or to preserve their right, to have my ancestors live as chattel. It's as simple as that. That's the great tradition they were fighting for. So the great tradition that Trump seems to invent here, this crisis that doesn't exist is for the ability to inflict state harm upon one particular group of people and the similarities are remarkable. Now for Whitman, I'm going to read the beginning of drum tabs, aroused and angry. I fought to beat the alarm and urges relentless war, but soon my fingers failed me, my face drooped, and I resigned myself to sit by the wounded and sooth them or silently watch the dead.

Speaker 5 (00:26:18):

The remarkable thing about Whitman and this period of his life and what I think the introduction sort of illustrates for me is that you see this transformation within the poet, the brash poet who is cosmic and embracing everything and trying to embrace the energy of this country at that time, he's now deflated and become much more somber. And the transformation of Whitman during this time is really one of the most remarkable transformations of any writer I believe in the 19th century because suddenly he stops being cosmic and becomes very minute. Not only that, but I think one of the remarkable things about these poems is that suddenly you have a poet that's touching another human being that is literally reaching out and holding and touching and soothing another wounded human being. And the poems take this shift that's no place else in Whitman. He's a tactile poet.

Speaker 5 (00:27:50):

He says he encompasses everything, but this is a different kind of touch, a different kind of exploration, and it slows him down and it changes the nature of his line. And you actually feel the ache through the lines of the shock of hearing or feeling another person who die in your arms or having to watch the agony the last few minutes of a young soldier. The fear how he takes that makes that and transfers that into a form that we actually feel. Whitman doesn't do this any other time in his career, and those three years are the most remarkable for me. Part of his writings, he's actually literally holding inversed another human being and the tenderness there and the rage about what's going on around him and I desire to do something is something that we're all feeling right now I believe. And the question you might want to ask the fourth, the fifth question you might want to ask is what are you going to do with your body?

Speaker 5 (00:29:15):

What are we going to do with our bodies in this time? Who are we going to touch and how are we going to touch them even knowing if we can't stop it, what are we going to do with our bodies? That's what rereading that period of time from Whitman brought up to me these last few weeks. He was able to throw himself into that breach every fiber of his being. So that is I think the revelation for me and I think for us, the lesson that we need to carry forward ourselves. We may not solve this, but we can't let it go unnoticed and we can't let it go untouched. We can't pretend that we're not seeing what we're seeing or feeling what we're feeling, and we have to figure a way to actually as artists make that connection.

Speaker 5 (00:30:23):

Now, I don't have the answer to that, but I do know that's the path some of us have to walk on. And again, I think the inspiration for me comes from Whitman during this period of the Civil War, all that turmoil, him trying to figure that way through. I'm going to read the close because I wasn't going to be long here. I'm going to read a poem of mine that has Whitman in it. And the reason I'm going to read it is not because it was beginning of another period of time, another war. This was just before the Iraq war and the first Iraq war, I should say.

Speaker 5 (00:31:09):

Yeah, it loads. Yes. So it was dealing with that feeling of what happens next and also it deals with loss and the loss Here it was friends, now it's poets. And I'm thinking particularly of Tom Logs who just died recently, a very, very dear man. I mean we weren't very, very close friends, but Tom did a lot for my career. There are so many poets whose stories will begin. Suddenly Tom appeared and said, suddenly Tom called me up and then that's the sort of person in poet he was. And so all of this loss is also touching this and Whitman as well. And the poem, it's the title poem for hardheaded weather.

Speaker 5 (00:32:10):

The leaves wave off their stems as I drive my small red car under this grumpy November sky towards our house, upstate fingers of bear branch, an argument between the wind and any object. The wind decides to push pelt of sleet, the hardheaded weather, a limbed landscape nudged towards sleep. A year has passed since you died and you died in you a world absent of all of you all fidgets at the edge of war in this adventure. Friends who'd guessed I'd own doors, your hands won't open floors never to carry your tread against the rolled up glass. A seedy drums of folk song about dying. I think of Whitman in the solo war, how he cradled the wounded at the army field hospital's, long, long I gazed. He wrote high and lonesome as a cat, gut fiddle, his polite notion of death. Now a kid's thready pulse, even his kiss can't repair. I feel my breath verse this all throat croak chorus. I feel the push and pull of Gus that buffet the car frame. Almost a sail, nearly a kite that tug before you rise.

Speaker 6 (00:34:14):

Brian, thank you for convening this session for bringing us all together and thank you all for coming out, everybody, including I just noticed the handsomest man in the metro DC area, Willis Barn Stone. Yes,

Speaker 5 (00:34:30):


Speaker 6 (00:34:33):

Willis and I were in the see. Yeah,

Speaker 5 (00:34:35):


Speaker 6 (00:34:39):

Willis and I were in the same high school class with Walt Whitman. Actually Willis played quarterback and I was third string something I can't remember. But I find it's often best to approach

Speaker 6 (00:35:01):

Poets of the monumentality of Whitman through their family. You think of somebody like Emily Dickinson who's such an enigma Keats with all of his achievements. When you look at Dickinson in terms of her brother and all those people in that hot pot of Amherst, Massachusetts in those days, or Keats and his brothers, you can find an angle where you might go in. So I looked to prepare for today through among other sources, the most useful one was a book by a guy named Robert Roper called Now the Drum of War and Roper begins, and this brief presentation will begin and end with a glimpse of George Whitman, who was Walt's brother and who was actually in the army and was very badly wounded. And at one point he wrote a letter not telling his family what he was doing, but fantasizing what they were doing.

Speaker 6 (00:36:01):

And he says, I'll bet now that mother is making pies, Matt is putting up shirt bosoms by the deuce sis is downstairs helping mother mix the dough. Walt is upstairs writing, Jeff is down at the office. Jess is peeling potatoes for dinner and Tobias has gone down cellar for a scuttle of coal. So you see everybody's doing something useful except this one guy who's upstairs writing porn. But, and the best part of Whitman that we often don't see are the letters that he wrote in the letters that he got. But then isn't a poem like a letter in the sense that it does many things, A good letter consoles it impresses it, reports it beseeches, what are you doing? And there are all sorts of levels of rhetoric and we rarely write them or receive them anymore, but that just makes them all the more precious.

Speaker 6 (00:37:00):

Whitman wrote his mother, you have no idea how letters from home cheer one up in camp, which reminded me of something you're all familiar with, which is Frank O'Hara's idea of the poem as a phone call. In his famous statement on Personalism, he said he was having lunch with Leroy Jones and he went back to work and he started writing a poem. And he said, while I was writing it, I was realizing that if I wanted to, I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem. And so Personism was born. It's a very exciting movement which will undoubtedly have lots of adherence. And it did, and it also kind of existed long before Fran O'Hara did. But at least he gave the name to it because everybody in this room knows that a poem has to do two things. It has to arise from something so intensely personal as to be trivial in nature, yet be expanded until it becomes cosmic and universal.

Speaker 6 (00:37:57):

And that's Walt Whitman the roper in this book. Now the Drum of War says elements of Whitman's story give rise to a sense almost of clairvoyance. And we've heard that a little bit from Nicole and Cornelius already, as if just as great poets are supposed to be. He had seen deep into his nation's soul, his sense of an impending cataclysm leading him to become a healer. Right now I'm teaching a class for interdisciplinary honors seminar for sophomores, none of whom are English majors. They're all mechanical engineering majors and psychology majors and business majors, but it's of course in public intellectuals and you have to plan these things well in advance. And so we're reading Machiavelli and Voltaire, candid and Thoreau. And so the other day a student said, he said, how did you know all this? How did you know that we were going to be where we were in 2017 reading Machiavelli's the Prince?

Speaker 6 (00:39:00):

And I said, I didn't because I planned the course two years ago. I said, but that's just the way literature works. You write it and it just kind of sits there and it waits and then when the time comes, it turns out to be prophetic. So he was prophetic, he was clairvoyant. Well before the Civil War. He was writing about bloody wounds and the terrible things that would happen, but he was an ordinary guy. Nicole has already quoted some of these things that he has promised to bring people. He kept very detailed records shopping just as his poems are laundry lists of great images. So he had these images of things that he needed to bring the fellas. One of them was, oh gosh, I didn't hear somewhere. Oh yeah, one of the young fellows was quite crotchety. One Ladd in bed, 23, he had his heart set on a pair of suspenders.

Speaker 6 (00:39:57):

I gave him 30 cents and the next time I came I took him a pair of suspenders. So Whitman served as a nurse to these wounded soldiers giving them, that was back when 30 cents was 30 cents, right? It's a pretty good deal for the Ladd in bed 23. And they didn't know who he was because you can't get up there and thumb up your chest and say, look at me. I'm world's grace poet. You just have to do the do, which he did the do. And I read one account of this is no surprise, he looked like Santa Claus, right? Big beard. And he had a sack of stuff with licorice and suspenders and things like that. And the most touching thing is one of the, it said that when he left, the boys would say, come back Walt not meaning come back right now, but tomorrow or in a week, come back please.

Speaker 6 (00:40:54):

And they were boys, weren't they? They were 17, 18 years old. They weren't that far from their mother's apron strings. So the poems have those two essential qualities that I think, and I hope and I pray that everybody in this room who writes this stuff and reads this stuff, looks for and tries to bring to life, which is the small thing, the trivial thing, the intensely personal thing. And yet the thing that becomes because of our sleight of hand and leisure domain becomes universal and becomes transcendent and in that way touches people because among the many other senses that he invokes, Whitman invokes the sense of touch, of actual touch. And I want to come back to George again. George survived because a particular doctor

Speaker 6 (00:41:54):

Took a liking to him. The doctor whose named Wilson blistered him and gave him mercury. We all know that Mercury is not exactly one of the top three cures these days, and I think blistering might be on the way back, probably along with chronology and some of those other things that I think ought to be on the menu. But the point was he was blistered and he was dosed by a doctor who wanted to lay hands on him at a time when they were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of these young men here and there. There's something about George that drew the doctor back, which doesn't make him a good literary critic. This is what George Whitman said about leaves of grass. I was about 25 when it first appeared. I saw the book, I didn't read it at all, didn't think it worth reading, fingered it, a little mother thought as I did, did not know what to make of it. I remember mother comparing hiawatha to Walt and the one saying to us pretty much the same muddle as the other mother said, that if Hiawatha was poetry, perhaps Walt was too

Speaker 6 (00:43:15):

Like Nicole. Also, I want to say that I brought something to show when I was a young man, I had a lot more money than I had now, and then I got married and raised a family and became, as you see me now, impoverished and happy. But back then I didn't want to just take the pennies that I had and put 'em into the coke and potato chip diet. So whenever I got a payment for a reading or one of those $12 royalty checks that we get every year, I saved it up and I always tried to buy a book with it. And so back then I bought a copy of drum taps and it's signed by Whitman and I brought it and if you want to look at it later, you can't borrow it, but I'll be happy to show it to you. Thank you very much.

Speaker 7 (00:44:24):

This has been delightful for me. I've been having a great time and I've been wishing that it would just go on forever because I didn't get the memo and I didn't realize we were talking about Whitman's political poetry or the Civil War, or I just thought it was about Whitman. There's this great movie called King of Hearts. Has anyone seen King of Hearts? And there's this moment where this guy dresses up in this outfit, this complete crazy garb walks into a party and everybody's just sitting around in their ordinary clothes and he says, I thought it was a costume bowl. And that's sort of how I feel.

Speaker 7 (00:45:09):

And so not only do I have nothing that concerns this particular subject matter, but also I'm veering away from some of the very things that brought me to Whitman in the first place, which was his love of the body, his love of the world, his love of the specific, the object, the variety of people and animals and flora and fauna. All of that is why I originally fell in love with Whitman, but especially the human. And as I get older, I find there are other things that are starting to affect me now, and that's sort of what I just wrote a very brief piece about. And so I'll just go ahead and read it and imagine that it's filled with political intent.

Speaker 7 (00:46:05):

I once visited self-designed and self-built tomb in Harley Cemetery in New Jersey. I broke off a few frozen sprigs with the leaves still hanging on, wrapped them in my scarf and flew back with them to the west coast. They were placed in a vase on my writing desk for years, and I looked at them each time I sat down to write. I may have parted with one or two of them giving them to students I thought needed a talisman. I don't know what happened to them when we moved to the south, but it doesn't matter like his poems they lived on in my memory, vivid and distinct. I was recently reading Suen Fires across the Atlantic essays on transatlantic romanticism, and this woman Sarah Ferguson wag stuff from Harvard was talking about points of contact between Blake and Whitman. And when I saw Whitman's grave at the time, it didn't hit me like it did.

Speaker 7 (00:47:07):

As I began reading her, she said on September 29th, 1890 Whitman enclosed a rough sketch of his tomb in a letter to his literary executor. Richard Book, an outline of a house with the door is surrounded by design specifications. Walt Whitman's burial vault on a sloping wooded hill gray, granite un ornamental surroundings, trees, turf sky, a hill, everything crude and natural. Whitman based. The design, which I did not know at the time, I'm William Blake's engraving of Death store, which he encountered in 1881 when he read Alexander Gilchrist's Life of William Blake death store. In death store, an old bearded man hunched over a crutch steps inside the open doorway of a square stone structure. The wind blows at the old man's back rippling his garment and his beard just inside the door is a rolled mat on a raised surface as this dying physical body enters death's door, a vibrant young man surrounded by rays of light, CROs on top of the stone structure representing the life of the soul.

Speaker 7 (00:48:26):

Aside from all this fascinating background, which I did not know at the time, I was impressed that Whitman's tomb included the roof structure so that it actually resembled a home. I kept thinking of Edna St. Vincent Malays last line in her poem of salt, where she is walking through the forest next to these very loud frogs on her way from one house to another. It seemed to me that Whitman thought of death as simply a final move without possessions from one house here on earth to another that would house the soul through eternity. When we read down into the opening of Song of Myself, we are struck by the poem sense of timelessness, the vastness of the universe. Whitman describes, have you reckoned a thousand acres much? Have you reckoned the earth much? Have you practiced so long to learn to read? Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?

Speaker 7 (00:49:33):

Stop this day and night with me, and you shall possess the origin of all poems. You shall possess the good of the earth and sun. There are millions of sons left. You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectras in books. You shall not look through my eyes either nor take things from me. You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself. I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end, but I do not talk of the beginning or the end. There was never any more inception than there is now, nor any more youth or age than there is now and will never be any more perfection than there is now, nor any more heaven or hell than there is now. This is what Whitman shares with Blake, the mystical knowledge that eternity is close at hand like the kingdom of heaven. It exists in the present moment and in the tiniest grain of sand. There is no beginning or end to it. His language is plain spoken and simple. No gram symbols or metaphors, everything stands for itself alone, exists on its own specific terms. It vibrates and glows differently from the poetry of Blake. Yet both of them exist on the edge of the void, profoundly aware, backlit by eternity.

Speaker 2 (00:51:26):

Thank you all so much. That was wonderful. So what I'd like to do now is, well, I guess I'll just ask a question and see who on the panel would like to respond. And then after we finish that discussion, I'd like to just because considering time, we don't have a whole lot. I'll just open it up to you all and take your questions for the panelists. So Nicole mentioned the great word convulsive, which Whitman used to describe the period preceding the Civil War as well as the war. Whitman also saw this convulsive as somehow justifying his poetics, his line. Of course, he had been writing in this line for decades before this, but he did see it as something of a justification. So my question is, do we see now that we're, as Nicole pointed out, living in a period of convulsive, if you agree with that or not. Do we see any echoes of this in terms of the way that either you all are thinking about making poems and making poems in terms of line, in terms of poetics or the work of others who are writing right now about the kind of convulsive events of our time?

Speaker 3 (00:53:03):

Is this where we all look at each other? It's like who wants to, I think it is hard to say because it feels so new, right? I mean, it's not new, but now it's news, it's there. I know that for me since November, it's scarcely all I can think of. And when I was asked to be on this panel, my first thought was, I am no Whitman expert. I'm just an enthusiast. I was one of those barefooted hippie kids that carried leaves of grass through the park. So I was studying him this fall and looking so desperately, not only into his life but into his lines. And one of the things I thought was really interesting that Alan Ginsburg said that I found so interesting and that lineage between Whitman and Ginsburg and then Ginsburg talked about these long lines of Whitman in that the lines made room for everything, the lines made room for everybody. I don't know what that means for my work or the work that's going to come from others, but I do feel like we need to find a way to make room for others in our work, and we need to find a way to turn our focus outwards and to listen and love really hard. And of course it's going to affect the form that those poems will take, but we're in a hard place now because my answer to almost everything is, I don't know. I don't know. I don't know, but I'm looking. But

Speaker 6 (00:55:00):

I am kind of horrible about being ready to respond to the calls that people are getting these days to write certain kinds of poems of resistance or poems of protests. And when you get that call, you hope that you've already written that poem sometime before and you wrote 11 years ago and it's just, maybe you can give it a haircut or something like that. But as I look back and see some of my former students gazing Bale Foley at me back there, there's Kim, there's Seth and Jen and Dominique and Sarah, and up here, Kelsey and Landis and another Jen because I made them all keep Bits journals, which is I've never had any original ideas. And so the Bits journal I stole from Whitman who didn't have exactly that, but he had kind of a coffer that was apparently of the right size and he would write 'em scraps of paper and chunk scraps of paper in there when the coffers lid, when he couldn't, he had to sit on it to get it close and he would pull the pieces of paper out and tape them together and make poems. And so I think that's what we do. We always have to be ready. We always have to have our coffer in the process of being stuffed and emptied. And we always have to have our bits journals just going, I mean, action and motion should always be there. We shouldn't wait for times of crisis. I read, you know who Mario Andretti is, the race car driver I read recently, he said, if you have everything under control, you're not going fast enough. And so I kind of feel that way as a poet too.

Speaker 7 (00:56:46):

Yeah, I also don't think you can

Speaker 7 (00:56:51):

Write consciously about very easily. Sometimes it can happen, but most of the time we're just writing our poems as Whitman was writing his poems. And I don't think any of us sits down to say, I'm going to now change the world and things are going to be better after I write this poem. One of the things I'm thinking about in terms of this idea of being able to see Whitman in a new way as I age, which I didn't mention, but I think as we get older we see different things in poets and we need different things in them. And what's wonderful about Whitman is he offers you not only this vibrancy of life and being an alive young man in the world, but also someone who is teaching us very wisely about the end of our lives. And that it really is just a journey.

Speaker 7 (00:57:45):

And we're going to move through just as we're going to move through this history that we're living in right now. This is just one moment in many moments that we have lived since there have been human beings on the planet. And I think sometimes like you do, Nicole, I'm so right, I feel such a weight and oddly enough reading Whitman makes me that weight kind of come off of me. I remember, oh, that's right. This is just one moment in my life and this is just one moment in our lives and our life as a country we've been through so much as a country when you think about, and then all the other countries and the planet. And so that gives me hope somehow that this is momentary, it's going to change everything changes. And Whitman is the king of change and how things will find their way like water to where we should be. And it doesn't mean as David's saying that we shouldn't be active and act, but that we should allow ourselves to find it lifted from us for a while because then it's more difficult to act if you feel so burdened. So Reid Whitman and he'll make you feel better. And then go out and march

Speaker 4 (00:59:18):


Speaker 2 (00:59:21):

And remember to please speak up if you do have a question because we're recording this. Yeah, Willis,

Speaker 4 (00:59:35):

I was and endlessly interested. I was at a, it was, I won't say anymore. Remember the South America learned everything from Lovely and Lucas Place in there were two huge, twice the natural size photographs, one the other of American so dominated the 20th century

Speaker 2 (01:01:25):

Willis Barn Stone's. Wonderful comment, which I cannot even summarize I think, but maybe I can get a question out of it if you don't mind. His comment was concerning Borg and Neruda and how both poets were influenced very heavily by Whitman, I guess. So we should also keep in mind of course, that this conversation extends beyond the United States and indeed into the world. So I guess my question to follow up on that comment would be what other poets are we turning to during these uncertain times?

Speaker 6 (01:02:11):

Actually, there was one thing Willis and Brian that I just thought of when you were talking is that Ruda said, Whitman taught me to be an American, which is the simplest and the best thing you could possibly say. Lately, I've been reading a Palestinian poet named Taha, Muhammad Ali. Do you know this guy? He's well worth reading. I actually started reading him. I don't really read thematically, I don't say now I'm going to read food poems or political poems or something. But Taha Muhammad Ali was the guy who said, poetry's like billiards, you strike here to hit there. And that goes back to the question about should I not go to the dance tonight and go home and write political poem? Well, I'm going to write, see, I don't know. I don't know what I'm going to do. I write something maybe tonight or tomorrow. It's going to get written over time, but I'm going to be striking here to hit there and I hope I hit in the right place.

Speaker 3 (01:03:13):

Well, first of all, Willis, you are the most handsome fella here. Just want to throw that out there. It was a great comment, but I haven't turned to any one poet whatsoever. I have been looking at the things that you guys have been writing. When I opened Facebook in the morning, I didn't really get a poem from Rise Up Review. It's the first poem that pops up on my feed. It's a great poem by Bob Hickok, not that long ago that came through their sibling rivalry press. It's just put out an anthology. Cutthroat has put out an anthology. These are people who are now speaking out and speaking out in all sorts of ways. And that I think is what has comforted me most, is to hear from my friends and to hear from my contemporaries. And just like that nudge of people speaking about now and that less a lonely feeling. I think that comes from it.

Speaker 7 (01:04:27):

And I have so little time teaching two teaching jobs and my own work, and I judge a lot of contests. So I'm being inundated all the time with poetry from young people, poetry being written right now today in the consciousness of someone who is actually living. I mean, we're not really living as much through this time as young people are. It's really going to, in the way that our young lives were affected by the events that went on at that time. And it gives me a lot of hope to read what these young people are writing. Both my undergraduate students, my graduate students, my older graduate students are included as well. But there's a new young poet, her name is Brion Jeana, and

Speaker 2 (01:05:28):


Speaker 7 (01:05:29):

Was the second place winner in the boat contest recently that I judged. And she's going back and looking at her ancestors, digging each one of them up and finding out as much as she can about her black ancestry and then writing poems in the voices of each of those relatives in her life. And

Speaker 2 (01:05:54):


Speaker 7 (01:05:56):

Political in so many different ways, and yet it's completely personal. She just wants to know who her grandmother was. She just wants to know who her uncle, her great-great-grandmother, her great-grand. She just wants to know these things. But out of this very personal search comes this huge political book of poems. And so that one really moved me this year. My graduate students, what they're writing moves me to tears to know that there's this new generation of poets who will be replacing us and that they're as fervent about it and alive in it as we are and have been in our lives. So that's who I've been turning to sort of out of defaults just because I don't have time much to do anything else, and yet it's completely sustaining me during this rough period in our history.

Speaker 2 (01:06:59):

Brian, can I break the rules and ask who you're returning to? You're such a, I thought you'd never ask. I don't really know Wardsworth actually, particularly the earlier poems. I just started rereading Hopkins too. I don't know why last night I've been sort of under the weather. So I took a bath last night and I read the Wreck of the Deutschland. So the wreck of the United States. Yeah, that's good.

Speaker 6 (01:07:40):

Another thing too is remember there's more fish in the sea than poetry. There's music, there are things like, well, I mean when I say music, I think you could take Ginsburg's America and you could take the Declaration of Independence and you could put little Richard's Tootie fruity side by side. And there's not that much difference in them. The language is different. But the takeaway is the same. Lately I've been reading Lewis and Clark's journals, those guys could not spell worth a lick. I mean, Clark has something like 28 variations on the word mosquitoes, like squi tours. And at one point their job was to go over and find the Pacific Ocean and then find the waterway that connected that with the then us, which didn't exist, but they found the ocean. And Clark says, oh, we have found the ocean, O C I A N.

Speaker 6 (01:08:40):

He says, and the men are delirious over this beautiful O C T E A N. He couldn't even spell it the same wrong way in a single sentence, but these guys, they were writing down America, they were writing it. And of course they didn't know what they were doing. They didn't know they were opening up the west to exploitation. But I thought of them when Nicole was talking about looking up and seeing a flock of birds because they would go up to the tops of the mountains and see, they would see these massive herds of 3000 bison crossing a river, and they would write it down and like third graders, they would just get it wrong and misspell it and everything. But it's there for us to read. And that's why I keep going back to that idea of always the poetry store is always open 24 7. And the race car is always racing. We're always moving. We're always moving forward. Don't wait to write your poems of protest. Just write poems.

Speaker 2 (01:09:42):

Question. I think we have five minutes. Yes.

Speaker 8 (01:09:53):

So this is just a thank you. It's not a question I think many of us have been teaching for women these days. I think you've helped us understand why we might had that impulse. And also in particular, I found myself almost as afraid of the reactivity and ancy of the left, which I consider myself a part of as the reactivity of ancy of the right. And I feel that in bringing us to women, you've given us an antidote to that. It takes us into all embracing kind of love. I really thank you.

Speaker 2 (01:10:26):

That's a wonderful comment. Thank you. About the divisiveness of our time, both right and left, being equally poisonous maybe certainly to each other or toward each other. And so Whitman allowing us to at least recognize the importance of embracing the other side. And as Nicole pointed out, talking to everyone, not just those who agree with our particular political beliefs, whatever they may be.

Speaker 3 (01:10:57):

And if you haven't read Strength to Love Martin Luther King Jr. It's a collection of his sermons. It was if they were written last week, and they are of course, I mean, just so profound and smart and helpful. And also on the way up here, I was listening to an on being podcast with the Congressman John Lewis, and he was talking to Krista Tippett about that time, and he cried for an hour or so. But smart, fierce love, I think, and I understand what you're saying about that reactivity and how we need to be careful about that and how we need to love each other and how we need to listen and turning back to those heroes to say, what can you teach me, I think is really important.

Speaker 4 (01:12:01):


Speaker 2 (01:12:03):

On that note, thank you very much for coming and enjoy the rest of your day and your conference. Thank you. To our presenters.

Speaker 1 (01:12:15):

Thank you for listening to the AWP podcast series. For other podcasts. Please visit our


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