Approaches to Walt Whitman

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“The word I primarily put for them [my poems] is suggestiveness. . . . I round and finish little, if anything; and could not consistently with my scheme.”

—“A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads,” 1888

 

As you absorb Whitman’s work I am interested in you considering his lasting presence in literary and cultural history–in the United States and around the world. If you are interested in his cultural presence, I will be happy to share with you writers from around the world who have acknowledged Whitman as a singular figure in their work as artists, social activists, and citizens.

Questions in Whitman’s Poetry and Prose

Whitman’s project addresses a number of inescapable human questions. He does not “answer” these questions but rather explores them and, in turn, offers an opportunity for the reader to think with him through the experience of poems. Whitman was interested in the affective range and capacity of works of art. The questions below are really clusters of questions that have arisen for readers of Whitman.

1. The question of art: What is art? (Samuel Johnson pointed out that it is easier, after all, to say what poetry is not than what it is.) What is poetry? How does art or poetry evolve? What is the relationship between tradition and innovation? One definition: art is art when someone has used one’s medium well. Is this thing well conceived? What does it do?

  • How does one represent something like democracy? How does one represent a vision? How does one represent a feeling? How does one judge art? In what context and using whose criteria?
  • Whitman demonstrates well that the form or structure or shape of a poem is the realization of a potential.
  • His theory of art calls for innovation. It is predicated on what he understands as the theory of democracy. He believes that we need spaces in which to determine what we desire and what we need to live to the fullness of your powers and not to their limits. That is to say, we need literature and art in a very practical way, so as to better think, and reflect, and feel. As Whitman suggests when judging any piece of art, “Has it helped any soul?”

2. The question of the individual: We are all in the same dilemma as citizens of a democracy, observes the philosopher Hilary Putnam: we have the capacity to think for ourselves, to ask the question, “how shall I live?”

  • This idea of an individual is a relatively recent phenomenon, dating back to the seventeenth century when humans are first fully considered as discrete subjects with powers that can determine their fate and the fate of history. The ideas of creativity, genius, and originality, further developed in the eighteenth century, are radical proposals and are at the heart of Whitman’s art. Whitman’s essential belief is that a person can respond to and engage with an environment and be changed by it. He acknowledges but seeks opportunity for the democratic subject outside the narrower and traditional hierarchal determinants of class and identity (good breeding, money, and so on). Whitman complicates the idea of the unified self and seems to anticipate a definition of the self as “conjectural,” to borrow a term from the anthropologist James Clifford. He rejects the idea of the self as something simply put together by a person, expressed, and confirmed by others as an identity.

3. The question of the community: In what ways does one address the problem of being together? How does one live with others? What is the relationship between the individual and the community?

  • What happens when one dissents from a religious or social community of the “elect”? How do people reach agreement when one does not presuppose an authority (person(s), canon of precepts or laws) based on consensus? Whitman discerned that agreement does not incite continued inquiry: difference is essential to incite inquiry
  • The democratic demand for consent is therefore a problem for the individual. A community is in part defined by the relationship established by a proposition (“All men are created equal,” for instance). But the relationship among persons is not maintained there, and so the members of a community must respond, indeed have a “response-ability,” to address the potential meaning of the proposition. (The columnist Ellen Goodman once pointed out that tradition cannot be handed down it must be taken up.)

4. The question of democracy: Whitman emerges as a writer in the permanently transitional space between an already articulated and as yet unrealized democracy.

  • How does one invest in the redemptive possibilities of social experience and balance those opportunities with the ever-present awareness of limitations and complexity?
  • If the experiment of democracy is articulated in a set of documents (Declaration of Independence, The US Constitution)—and managed through its institutions (The Executive, Judicial and Legislative branches) and public servants—what is the role of the individual who must attempt to renew a hope in a system that is continually disappointing?
  • For instance, Whitman, writing at mid-century, was consumed by a staggeringly primitive question: which human beings are persons? Despite the theory of democracy that had guided the incipient nation the ideal of political unity had left unanswered the crisis of how one determines a person. Therefore there emerges an interesting convergence of art and policy that confronted a culture that lacked an effective or sustainable structure. The aesthetic ideal one sees in Whitman that seeks to rewrite a set of dichotomies—body/soul, individual/collective, nation/state, body/mind, writer/reader, master/slave—is therefore fundamentally a political ideal as well. Poetry and public policy in this sense are instruments of urgent, common work.
  1. The question of learning
  • How do we learn from our experience? How do we learn to think more deliberately? How do we change, adapt, grow? One of Whitman’s proposals is that we learn by doing, whether moving the body or the mind.

Themes in Whitman’s Poetry and Prose

There are literally hundreds of themes to consider when reading and thinking and writing about Walt Whitman’s poetry and prose.

  • Whitman’s Prose and Poetry: Reincarnations of the 1855 Preface: consider the relationship between the prose and the poetry in the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass; or, consider the 1855 preface in relation to Whitman’s later prose works, such as “Democratic Vistas” or Specimen Days.
  • The evolution of Leaves of Grass: Consider the design, layout, and aesthetic development in Leaves of Grass (1855–1860). Whitman made important changes to Leaves of Grass between 1855-1860. Track down a copy of the first three editions (you can borrow my variorum edition) and consider specific changes and their significance for subsequent “epic” projects by poets and writers.
  • Form and structure in “Song of Myself”: Formulate and discuss an approach to the organizational principle(s) of Whitman’s poem(s).
  • Catalogues and meaning in Leaves of Grass: Sections 15, 16 and 33: what are the differences among these sections? Is there a deliberate or identifiable structure? If so, what is it and how does Whitman establish, maintain and loosen this structure in each catalogue.
  • Whitman’s theory of the modern: The 1881 essay “Carlyle from American Points of View” (1881) provides a starting point for considering this topic. “My utmost pretension is probably but to offset that old claim of the exclusively curative power of first-class individual men, as leaders and rulers, by the claims and general movement and result of ideas. Something of the latter kind seems to me to be the distinctive theory of America, of democracy, and of the modern—or rather, I should say, it is democracy, and is the modern.”
  • Whitman’s philosophy: In the “Preface” to the 1855 Edition Whitman writes: “This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one who 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 toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body. . . .”
  • Whitman the radical: Consider the political propositions of Whitman
  • Whitman’s treatment of sexuality and homoeroticism: Read the “Calamus” and Children of Adam” sequences, “I Sing the Body Electric”; consider the essays in Erkkila and Grossman’s anthology of essays, Breaking Bounds
  • Whitman’s use of the American West: Consider the use of the American West by a lifelong resident of the Atlantic seaboard. Whitman’s preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass in which he says that the poet of America “incarnates its geography and natural life and rivers and lakes”
  • Whitman and Transcendentalism: Most apparent in Whitman’s relationship with Ralph Waldo Emerson, but it is also evident in his mother’s Quakerism and what is best called Whitman’s religious mysticism
  • Whitman, religion and the self: Begin with Alfred Kazin’s 1997 book, God and the American Writer. Consider Whitman’s treatment and adaptations of religious myth and symbol and terminology.
  • Whitman as American Adam: Early American theology was dominated by the concept of original sin, which stated that man was born into a fallen state. R.W.B. Lewis argues, in his book The American Adam, that Whitman provided one antidote to this philosophy.
  • Whitman, individualism and the community: Consider Whitman’s treatment of the relations between the “I” and the “en-masse,” the celebration of the individual and the problem of community.
  • Whitman and the American Multicultural Identity: Consider the following passage from an 1883 letter (Whitman: Poetry and Prose 1170): “We Americans have yet to really learn our own antecedents, and sort them out, to unify them. They will be found ampler than supposed, and in widely different sources. Thus far, impress’d by New England writers and schoolmasters, we tacitly abandon ourselves to the notion that our United States have been fashion’d from the British Islands only, and essentially form a second England only—which is a very great mistake.”
  • Whitman and Censorship: Reading the contemporary reviews of Whitman’s publications one comes to see that his poetry and prose has pushed the limits of public taste and decorum. Consider the most extreme responses to Whitman that deem his book of poems inappropriate for the public he sought to reach through his writing.
  • Phrenology and the Body Beautiful: Consider the relationship between the pseudo-science of phrenology and Whitman’s treatment of the body.
  • Whitman as Nature Poet or Environmental Writer: consider Whitman’s vision of the relation between human and nonhuman world.
  • America’s Poet/America’s Gay Poet: Conflicts in Memorializing Whitman: One way of mapping Whitman’s legacy is through the cycle of embrace and the rejection in the generations of his readers.
  • Representations of the Poet (I): Examine the 1855 Leaves of Grass frontispiece image. Consider how it might be said to merge with the text as part of an overall message. Consider how the 1876 Leaves of Grass frontispiece image interacts with—or even is an integral part of—the poem “Out from Behind This Mask.”
  • Representations of the Poet (II): Consider how the later image and poem respond to, or modify, the 1855 image and text. Perhaps consider, more broadly, the frontispiece photographs and engravings of American poets, 1820-1890.
  • Democratic Literature: Working with Whitman’s definition(s) of the literary, build an argument for the exclusive value and cultural importance of literature. Consider Whitman’s radical approach to the act of reading.
  • Contexts of Reception: Whitman’s Cultural Presence is astonishing. Over a century after his death, Walt Whitman remains an extraordinary presence in American cultural memory. Films and television shows depict him. Poets and musicians allude to him. Schools and bridges are named after him. Characterize the overall response to Whitman’s first edition (1855) of Leaves of Grass as compared with subsequent editions. Compare the response of English and American reviewers to the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. Compare the 1860s reviews written by women to those written by men.
  • Why Whitman?: “It is not ‘can any of us imagine better?’ but ‘can we all do better?’ The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is now, we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.” —Abraham Lincoln, “Second Annual Message” (in which he articulates the proposed policy of Emancipation)
  • Whitman and Modern Poetry: “It is a terrific problem that faces the poet today—a world that is so in transition from a decayed culture toward a reorganization of human evaluations that there are few common terms, general denominators of speech that are solid enough or that ring with any vibration of spiritual conviction. The great mythologies of the past (including the Church) are deprived of enough façade to even launch good raillery against. Yet much of their traditions are operative still—in millions of chance combinations of related and unrelated detail, psychological references, figures of speech, precepts, etc. these are all a part of our common experience and the terms, at least partially, of that very experience when it defines or extends itself. (Hart Crane, “General Aims and Theories,” included as an appendix in Phillip Horton’s Hart Crane, New York, 1937.)

Commentary on Commentaries

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“The art of writing consists of putting two things together that are unlike and that belong together like a horse and a cart. Then we have something far more goodly and efficient than either.”

––Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks (7.24)

 

Thursday evening I received a note from Asia who had just returned from the library. She writes:

The Emerson poem I really enjoyed reading was The Past but, when I went online and to the library I couldn’t find any context or information about the poem. I’m unsure if I was looking in the right places or if there is little bit of information. I was wondering if I should pick a different poem or stick with the one I like.

And yesterday afternoon Cam and I talked about Emerson’s poem A Psalm of Life. In a fun conversation in my office we worked to generate observations for a descriptive commentary he is writing about the poem.

What I want to do below is share with you some of the information I sent to Asia about how to gather the textual history and relevant contextual information about the poem. The first thing I said was that if there is no useful commentary on the poem then I would recommend sticking with the poem and providing useful commentary. As we have talked about in class, your commentaries offer an opportunity for you to make a genuine contribution to the to the history of commentary on Ralph Waldo Emerson that will be published and available for students and scholars in the years to come. That is, as I said to Asia,

At the core of this project is your work as a contributor to the available information on poems by Emerson (and other poets) in the public domain. Rather than asking you to be a consumer of information on the web I am inviting you to be a producer of that information to benefit others interested in or studying the literary and cultural history of the United States.

To have your work published in the book, however, you will need to be thorough and exacting––both in your research and in your descriptive writing. The work we are doing is gathering factual information about the textual history and contextual information that will together enhance the reading of a poem. You are also taking part in a multistage editorial process that will lead to a published work.

For Asia’s poem “The Past,” or for any of Emerson’s poems, you will want to begin with the primary writing and the textual scholarship that has been completed to date. Here is the material with which I encouraged Asia to begin, and that will be useful for all of your commentaries on a poem by Emerson:

Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson is the result of a fifty-year editorial process with the 2013 publication of the tenth and final volume of The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Harvard Belknap, 1971-13). The publication of the critically edited texts is a landmark for Emerson studies, and an indispensable resource for students and scholars of nineteenth century literary and cultural history. Each volume of the Collected Works (CW) has an introduction that offers reliable and authoritative textual and historical information. We are fortunate that Keene State College has added, at my request, this definitive edition to its holdings. Whether you are interested in his early sermons, essays and lectures, correspondence, or antislavery writing, you now have all of this textual material available.The call number is PS1600 .F71, a location in the library where you will discover shelves of Emerson materials.

More specifically, we are gathering information about specific poems. So volume Vol. 9: Historical introduction, textual introduction, and poem headnotes (Albert J. von Frank; text established by Albert J. von Frank and Thomas Wortham) will be most useful. “The Past” is on pages 472–73. There is a headnote to the poem, the textual history, and variants of the poem (information that may or may not be useful for your purposes).

The Poetry Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson In the note to the poem in volume 9 of the CW there is a reference to The Poetry Notebooks (PN). In the Analysis of Poems section there is commentary on the drafts and manuscript versions that may be useful. In the Appendix you will find the particular notebook(s) in which the lines appear. “The Past” shows up in the Notebook EL (pages 337–38 and 387)

A Concordance to the Poems of Ralph Waldo Emerson  may also offer a useful way to gather evidence of how Emerson used and thought of the past. As it happens, Emerson uses the word “past” in twenty-six of his poems.

In most cases the primary sources and concordance above should be sufficient. For other poems by Emerson, one might consult the Journals and miscellaneous notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by William H. Gilman et al. or Walter Harding’s  Emerson’s Library a catalog of Emerson’s personal library based on M.C. Haviland’s card catalogue of the collection, now in the library of the Concord Antiquarian Society.

 

Photo credit: Randy Fath on Unsplash

 

Interpretive studies of Emerson’s poetry may be useful as well. For example, one might consult John Q. Anderson’s The Liberating Gods: Emerson on Poets and Poetry (U Miami P 1971) or consider the e-book by John Michael Corrigan American metempsychosis: Emerson, Whitman, and the new poetry (Fordham UP 2012). A check of the index to critical studies on an author, a literary work, or a body of work can turn up information (and the source of the information) that you can use, or perhaps to find a lead to trace back to the primary text(s).

Once you have traced the textual history of the poem you might browse the Primary and Secondary Sources in the Mason Library A general key term search in the Mason Library holdings turns up 286 entries. An author search turns up fifty-three entries. Again, checking the index  of volumes (such as author biographies) will often turn up useful textual or historical information about a poem.

Recommended Electronic Resources Whenever you are introduced to an unfamiliar text, author or literary movement—or you are interested in gathering more information about a text, context or critical debate—the library makes available a range of electronic sources, subdivided into discipline-specific portals to the ongoing scholarly conversation about literature. Relevant e-sources are available at the English Library Guide page portal. It is your responsibility to know where the information is coming from. E-sources include peer-reviewed journals, web sites on particular literary sources, blogs and wikis, class notes, and so on.

Cambridge History of English and American Literature  Overview essays ranging from poetry, fiction, drama and essays to history, theology and political writing. 303 chapters and 11,000 pages on a wide selection of writing on orators, humorists, poets, newspaper columnists, religious leaders, economists, Native Americans, song writers, and non-English writing, such as Yiddish and Creole.

Literary Criticism Online Includes The Dictionary of Literary Biography overviews (7500-10,000 word) of the life, work and critical reception of literary authors. The Dictionary series runs to more than three hundred volumes and is organized by topic and period. The hardbound volumes are on the shelf in the reference section of the Mason Library (as explained in the Recommended Resources list above) or you can read entries on your desktop.

Electronic Resources and Archives A sea of information and materials lives (and dies) on the web. Some of it is useful. Some of it is not. This material is for the most part secondary, and often tertiary, as it is can be less reliable, as many of you have already discovered. In every case, your bibliography and further reading will not rest on the less reliable material.

Finally, I highly recommend––for the work we are doing on this project, and for the good of yourself and others––to consider strategies for using web-based materials. One of the best resources is my former colleague Mike Caulfield’s Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers. You can start with the sections Four Moves and Reading Laterally.

Thank you all for your good work so far. As we are discovering, writing short commentaries as part of a collective of contributing editors to a publication is challenging and rewarding intellectual work. As the general editor for this project I am ready and willing to meet with you to talk about a poem, work on an entry, or help trace information that may useful to you in your work.

“a point outside of our hodiernal circle”

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“The fate of the poor shepherd, who, blinded and lost in the snow-storm, perishes in a drift within a few feet of his cottage door, is an emblem of the state of man. On the brink of the waters of life and truth, we are miserably dying. The inaccessibleness of every thought but that we are in, is wonderful. What if you come near to it, — you are as remote, when you are nearest, as when you are farthest. Every thought is also a prison; every heaven is also a prison” (302).

––Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Poet

In his essay “Circles,” Emerson makes a comment about what he considers the cultural work of literature. He writes, “Literature is a point outside of our hodiernal circle, through which a new one may be described. The use of literature is to afford us a platform whence we may command a view of our present life, a purchase by which we may move it.”

In the book I passed around on Tuesday this week, Approaches to Teaching the Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, we included an essay by Saundra Morris, who open her essay this way:

Emerson’s poetry remains underemphasized in classrooms. Yet during his New York lecture tour of March 1842, Emerson wrote to his wife Lidian, “I am in all my theory, ethics, & politics a poet” (L 3:18). By “poet,” Emerson didn’t mean exclusively a writer of verse, but instead a person whose energy was fundamentally both iconoclastic and, as he emphasizes in his lecture and essay “The Poet,” affirmative, creative, and imaginative. For Emerson, the best preachers, the best scholars, and even the best social activists are all poets. In the Divinity School “Address,” he calls for the minister to be “a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost” (CW 1:90); in “Literary Ethics,” he speaks of “immortal bards of philosophy” (CW 1:03). In “The Method of Nature,” whoever seeks to realize her “best insight” becomes one of the “higher poets” (CW 1:136); in “Heroism,” the life of the great person is “natural and poetic” (CW 2:151); and the “Representative Man” Plato, although not literally a poet, is “clothed with the powers of a poet; stands upon the highest place of the poet” (CW 4.25). This inclusive terminology shows how important Emerson felt poetry to be, and how closely he identified himself with it.(36)

Her argument in the essay, too, is that we should take Emerson on his own terms. He viewed writers of verse as bringing light into the lives of readers, of lifting us from self-doubt and cynicism about the world around us, reminding us of the fundamental beauty both within and around us. At the same time, she writes, “few of Emerson’s poems have direct political content, I also attend to their underlying concerns with personal and political justice in terms of democracy, human rights, progressive politics, and anticapitalism that I find throughout his verse and his aesthetic.”

On Thursday this week we will consider a few of Emerson’s poems following our reading of his essays “Circles” and “The Poet” earlier this week. Including the following:

The Concord Hymn
Sung at the Completion of the Battle Monument, July 4, 1837
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
   Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
   And fired the shot heard round the world.
The foe long since in silence slept;
   Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
   Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.
On this green bank, by this soft stream,
   We set today a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
   When, like our sires, our sons are gone.
Spirit, that made those heroes dare
   To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
   The shaft we raise to them and thee.

 

The Rhodora: On Being Asked, whence is the Flower?

In May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes,
I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods,
Spreading its leafless blooms in a damp nook,
To please the desert and the sluggish brook.
The purple petals, fallen in the pool,
Made the black water with their beauty gay;
Here might the red-bird come his plumes to cool,
And court the flower that cheapens his array.
Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that if eyes were made for seeing,
Then Beauty is its own excuse for being:
Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!
I never thought to ask, I never knew:
But, in my simple ignorance, suppose
The self-same Power that brought me there brought you.

The Snow-Storm

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farm-house at the garden’s end.
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier’s feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.

Come see the north wind’s masonry.
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Pariah wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer’s lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer’s sighs; and at the gate
A tapering turret overtops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind’s night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.

 

For further study of Emerson’s poetry, see The Poetry Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Ralph H Orth, Albert J. Von Frank, Linda Allardy, and David W. Hill (Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1986); and the recent Volume 9 of Emerson’s Collected Works, Poems: A Variorum Edition, especially the Historical Introduction, Textual Introduction, and Poem Headnotes by Albert J. Von Frank.

From the Fireside to the Open Road

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We watched the first red blaze appear,
Heard the sharp crackle, caught the gleam
On whitewashed wall and sagging beam,
Until the old, rude-furnished room
Burst, flower-like, into rosy bloom;

—from
 Snow-Bound, John Greenleaf Whittier

 

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,

Strong and content I travel the open road.

––from Song of the Open Road, Walt Whitman

 

The story we are building of nineteenth-century American poetry and poetics is one among many—starting somewhere, in our case with Longfellow; touching on a few selected poems to provide useful coordinates for further study; and building a literary and historical context for the rise of modern poetry in the twentieth century.

Your choices of poems by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow are one of many beginnings—Fragments, The Arrow and the Song, The Arsenal at Springfield, The Old Clock on the Stairs, and The Wreck of the Hesperus. Together these poems suggest a poet adept at versification and storytelling. But if you are enchanted by Longfellow, there are places to go and poems to read. Take in the elegiac Mezzo Camin, the ballad The Village Blacksmith, or the nine-part poem The Courtship of Miles Standish. You will want to continue your reading in the long narrative poems, including the wildly popular narrative poem (written in unrhymed dactylic hexameters) Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie, a story based on the three thousand French settlers who were expelled from Acadie, near present day Nova Scotia. (This poem has appeared in over 270 editions and over 130 translations in ten different languages.) You will want to find your way into the twenty-two cantos of The Song of Hiawatha (written in trochaic tetrameter, after the Finnish epic poem Kalevala), a passionate and sentimentalized white man’s account of native American culture and tradition based on the author’s reading in George Catlin’s Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians (1841), the ethnographical studies of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, and the literary writings of the Ojibwe Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, whose poems and stories were sources for Longfellow’s North American epic.

The Fireside Poets

Longfellow, along with John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and William Cullen Bryant—each of these “fireside or “schoolroom” poets were enormously popular. These artists and intellectuals who wrote not only poetry but sermons, lectures, essays, and journalism. They were among the first groups to imagine a distinctly American literary culture. And they were socially engaged and activist by temperament––though their sensibilities and poetics are perhaps described as more Victorian than democratic, and many readers have charged them with an overly sentimental or moralizing tone.

The poetic conventions and affirmative themes of these poets are evident in their works. Consider, for example, this sampling of poems: James Russell Lowell, The Present Crisis, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Concord Hymn and Each and All, William Cullen Bryant, Thanatopsis, John Greenleaf Whittier, Burning Drift-Wood or Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyll, and Oliver Wendell Holmes’ Old Ironsides. The use of conventional poetic forms, metrical cadences ideal for the use of poetry by many readers in nineteenth century America—for enjoyment, memorization, and recitation, whether at school or at home. While one can point to the abolitionist writings of Whittier, Lowell and Emerson, many of the poems taken as representative of the Fireside poets affirm the dominant culture and promote social conformity.

 

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) “The slave’s dream” in Poems on slavery: autograph manuscript, ca. 1842. MS Am 1340 (76) – Trustees of the Longfellow House Trust, 1976.

 

Longfellow was the most popular and revered American poet of the century: a singular teacher of modern languages at Bowdoin and Harvard, an accomplished scholar, and a promiscuous world traveler. Longfellow

  • mirrored and helped to shape a distinctive American literary culture that reflected ideological investments in definitions of domesticity, community and national identity
  • reflects and shapes in his poems mainstream public opinion and national mythologies, hence embody the internal contradiction of nineteenth-century ideology as well as shared in the most enlightened viewpoints of his era
  • embodied a public vision of poetry as forum for not personal confession or private feeling but for identification (and definition) of self with the public
  • cultivated a distinctive transatlantic and cosmopolitan vision for American literature (that differed from the nationalism of his contemporary Walt Whitman, who very few people read)
  • wrote in an extraordinary range of forms: narrative and lyric, popular ballads and classical lines (Evangeline is written in unrhymed dactylic hexameters, for example)
  • translated major works and adapted poetic forms; he produced a well-received English edition of Dante and his literary adaptations, of the epic Finnish poem the Kalavela, to take a notable example, offered Longfellow the measure for his long poem Hiawatha
  • collaborated as an anthologist, producing the anthology The Poets and Poetry of Europe as well as the massive multivolume collection Poems of Places.

Still, Longfellow’s legacy has been mixed. A young poet named Edgar Allen Poe wrote in admiration of Longfellow but as Poe developed as a poet he opined that Longfellow was “a determined imitator and a dextrous adapter of the ideas of other people.” Similarly, others charged Longfellow with merely imitating European literature and affirming cultural commonplaces. And as American literature took shape in the United States in the twentieth century, critics such as F.O. Mathiessen effectively ignored Longfellow in the literary renaissance that produced the first installment in American literary history.

Manuscript page of “The Village Blacksmith”

 

As Dana Gioia writes, “If Whitman and Dickinson stand at the beginning of modern American literary consciousness, Longfellow represents a culmination” (67). Consider the editorial decisions of successive editors of the Oxford Book of American Verse:

  • Bliss Carmen, in 1927: more Longfellow than any other poet, 17 poems and 35 pages
  • F. O.Matthiessen (American Renaissance), in 1950, doubled page count from 680 to 1132, prints 14 Longfellow poems, 39 pages
  • Richard Ellman, New Oxford Book of American Verse, 1976, 11 poems, 12 pages
  • David Lehman, Oxford Book of American Poetry, 2006, 6 poems, 9 pages (all short lyrics)

In Lehman’s 2006 edition, by comparison, Whitman has 12 poems and 71 pages, Dickinson has 44 poems and 23 pages. Interested in learning more? The most engaging account of Longfellow’s fate and a critique of the biases of modernist poetics is by Dana Gioia, “Longfellow in the Aftermath of Modernism,” in The Columbia History of American Poetry, edited by Jay Parini and Brett C. Millier. I also recommend Christoph Irmscher’s book-length study Longfellow Redux (University of Illinois Press, 2006). Here is Gioia elaborating on the process that effaced Longfellow’s presence in American literary history:

Modernism declared narrative poetry at best obsolete and at worst a contradiction in terms. By prizing compression, intensity, complexity, and elipsis, it cultivated an often hermetic aesthetic inimical to narrative poetry. Perfecting poetry’s private voice, Modernism––at least American Modernism––lost the art’s public voice (79)

Some Questions You Might Ask

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This week we will turn our attention to a fabulously interesting moment in the history of American poetry when the dike breaks, as it were, and a flood of poetic forms begin to circulate in the culture. Longfellow’s uses and adaptations of poetic forms, Whitman’s barbaric yawps, the formal and conceptual dynamics of Dickinson––these selected poetic projects have engaged poets and shaped the context for subsequent innovations in poetic form.

Notebook LC #85 | The Thomas Biggs Harned Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1842–1937, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

 

Below I have included some questions to ask a poem––a selection of queries that may serve to open up a poem in particular ways, and complement what Robert Pinsky calls the “hearing knowledge” we all have as speakers of language. The questions are points of entry that can guide us to ways of seeing, and thinking, gaining a deeper enjoyment and understanding of poems. You will also find some poems that you can use to try out some of these questions and see where they take you.

Finally, to get warmed up on Thursday, we will return to a distinction that many of you already have in hand––the differences in approach to a text that fall under the terms “poetics” and “hermeneutics.”

Some Questions You Might Ask

Is the soul solid, like iron?
Or is it tender and breakable, like
the wings of a moth in the beak of an owl?
Who has it, and who doesn’t?
I keep looking around me.
The face of the moose is as sad
as the face of Jesus.
The swan opens her white wings slowly.
In the fall, the black bear carries leaves into the darkness.
One question leads to another.
Does it have a shape? Like an iceberg?
Like the eye of a hummingbird?
Does it have one lung, like the snake and the scallop?
Why should I have it, and not the anteater
who loves her children?
Why should I have it, and not the camel?
Come to think of it, what about maple trees?
What about the blue iris?
What about all the little stones, sitting alone in the moonlight?
What about roses, and lemons, and their shining leaves?
What about the grass?

-Mary Oliver

Some Questions You Might Ask (a Poem)

“Poetics starts with attested meanings or effects and asks how they are achieved. (What makes this passage in a novel seem ironic? What makes us sympathize with this particular character? Why is the ending of this poem ambiguous?) Hermeneutics, on the other hand, starts with texts and asks what they mean, seeking to discover new and better interpretations.” (61)

– Jonathan Culler, Literary Theory:  A Very Short Introduction

Frames and Development: Title: is there an allusion? An occasion? Epigraph? Opening line(s)? How does the poem begin? What are the turns? Where are the turning points? How does the poem end? Does the poem seek or resist closure?

Speech acts: Address? Apology? Command? Conjecture? Exclamation? Exhortation? Invitation? Invocation? Lament? Narration? Plea? Question? Retraction? Supposition? Vow? Etc.

Prosody and Versification: counted lines (regular number of beats), free verse (irregular number of beats), prose. Is the poem long or short? Narrow or wide or irregular? What do you observe about the physical appearance of the poem on the page? Is it in stanzas?  verse paragraphs? Are they regular, or do they change? Are there patterns of repetition?  End rhymes?  What is the rhyme scheme? Does it vary? Rhythm?  What is the meter and where do variations occur?  Alliteration, assonance, internal rhymes? Are the lines end-stopped or enjambed? How many sentences are there?  Do the sentences coincide with or differ from the lines? Where do you get to breathe? Can you find pauses (caesuras) within the lines? Do these pauses always fall in the same place in each line? Are there parallel structures or repetition of phrases? Do you find instances of anaphora? Can you see patterns of contrast, cause and effect, or other organizational principles? Are there items in a series?  Where would further elaboration of the series lead? Why does the poem stop where it stops?

Order, Argument, Plot, Closure: Does the poem move forward in steps that suggest an argument? Is it logical? Is it persuasive? Does the poem pose questions and provide replies? Does the poem tell a story? Is there a pattern, such as a sequence? Repetition and variation? Refrain? Do subsequent lines transform the way we understand earlier lines? Describe the pace of the poem, after reading it aloud several times. Does the poem have strong or weak closure?

Grammar: words, parts of speech (nouns, pronouns, verb, adverbs), phrase, syntax. Formal or informal? High or low? Abstract or concrete? Monosyllabic or multisyllabic? Does the work participate in a discourse? (i.e. psychology, theology, patriotism, dissent) Does the work have an implicit politics? Is the work inflected by gender? Does power operate in the work ? What is the most interesting word in the poem? Why? Are the lines of the poem full of nouns? verbs? What tense(s) does the poet employ? Does the poem employ adjectives and/or adverbs? Do the parts of speech employed suggest metaphors? (Many clichés work this way: “It was a heavenly day!”). Does the poem contain words in another language?  Which language? (Does a poem that quotes Latin differ from a poem that quotes Yiddish?) Does the poem employ different kinds of diction in different places? What is the register of the diction? abstract, Latinate, proverbial, lowly, etc.? Does the language include absolutes? comparisons? contrasts? tautologies? Describe the tone of the poem: Does it change as diction changes? What is the relation between line and sentence? How does punctuation work to control the pace of a poem?

Rhetoric: analogy, antithesis, apposition, metaphor, metonymy, paradox, personification, quotation, etc. What sorts of rhetorical devices are at work? Does the poem employ antithesis,  bringing together contrasting ideas? Does the poem explore a paradox? Does the poem use the figure of chiasmus, or a criss-crossing inversion of words or phrases? Does the poem rely on a riddle? Does the poem deny what it is doing (litotes)? Does the poem employ oxymoron, or condensed paradox? Does the poem contain a proverb or a fable? Does the poem illustrate its point with exempla (brief exemplary anecdotes)?

Movement or Change: Evaluate the changes or shifts in the poem: changes in diction, syntax, form (meter, rhyme scheme, stanzas), speaker, mood, tone, metaphorical register, image patterns. How do changes or alterations in pattern work: by inversion, by contrast emphasized by parallel structures, as a response to an event, or an image, or as part of a dialogue? Are the changes a part of an implied plot? Does tension build up?  If so, how is it released? Does the poem place change between equilibrium and restored order? Is there a sudden reversal, change of direction (peripety), or a drop in level (bathos)? Does the ending make a significant change?

Person, Speaker, Persona: Who is speaking, and to whom? Are names provided? Do you have a sense of age, gender, rank, relationship? What is the person of the address (first, second, third, plural and singular)? Is something/one absent being addressed?  or something/one present? Does the poem employ apostrophe? What questions does the speech invite? What questions does it discourage or prevent? Is there more than one voice? What motivates the speech? Does the utterance erupt out of a situation? What is the purpose of the utterance? What other purposes does the speech serve? Is there a gap between the speaker’s intention and the implied intention of the writer?

Imagery: What objects or images are named by the poem? Are the objects or images related or unrelated to one another? Are art objects described? (exphrasis). What attitude does the speaker have towards the objects or images? Are the objects defamiliarized? What kind of imagery is employed and how completely is it elaborated? Is there a need to speak about a subject covertly, in code, elliptically? Does the comparison celebrate, elevate, or otherwise transform its subject?

Metaphor, Simile, Metonymy, Synecdoche: Does the poem use similes in an explicit comparison, with the words “like” or “as”? Are the objects carrying a metaphorical burden? Where does this relationship break down or become hard to untangle? What kind of metaphors do you find in the poem? Do the metaphors encourage an allegorical reading? Does the metaphor go so far that it becomes farfetched? (catachresis) Is the metaphor worked out in elaborate detail? (conceit) Do the objects or images stand for related concepts, of part and whole? (Look up metonymy and synecdoche). Does the poem employ both metaphor (or simile) and metonymy? How are the  metaphors/metonymies related to one another? What motivates them?

Other Questions: What does the work foreground? What does the work let slip? What does the work attempt to bury? Is anything conspicuously absent? Does the work, or a part of the work, resist interpretation? Where? How? Why? Of what kinds of discourse is the work comprised? Certain discourses imply conceptual structures (“Our sublunary love” suggests the Ptolemaic universe, for instance). Does the work employ different kinds of discourse suggesting more than one conceptual structure? What is their relationship? Do they clash? Mesh? Suggest a development? (Conceptual structures may limit the extent of possible knowledge, making some phenomena  unrecognizable.) Does the work pose an epistemological problem? Does the work present alternatives? Does the work ask questions? Does it use small questions to ask a serious, unstated question? Where are the breaks? Breaks may appear at the level of the form, the sentence, the imagery, the metaphor, the scene, the speaker, etc. and they may work with or against one another. Where are the knots? When does the language make the reader work, and to what end? Where does the work become unintelligible? Why? What word or phrase marks the work’s stress point(s)? Does the work interpret itself? Does the work make a statement about language, reading, or writing? What aesthetic values does the work embody or propose? Does the work have a moral stance?  Can you describe its attitude?

 

The Ache of Marriage

The ache of marriage:

 

thigh and tongue, beloved,
are heavy with it,
it throbs in the teeth

 

We look for communion
and are turned away, beloved,
each and each

 

It is leviathan and we
in its belly
looking for joy, some joy
not to be known outside it

 

two by two in the ark of
the ache of it.

 

-Denise Levertov, Poems 1960-1967 (1968)

 

No Sex for Priests

The horse in harness suffers;
he’s not feeling up to snuff.
The feeler’s sensate but the cook
pronounces lobsters tough.
The chain’s too short: The dog’s at pains
to reach a sheaf of shade. One half a squirrel’s whirling there
upon the interstate. That rough around
the monkey’s eye is cancer. Only God’s
impervious—he’s deaf and blind. But he’s
not dumb: to answer for it all, his spokesmen
aren’t allowed to come.

-Heather McHugh, The American Scholar (2006)

 

Are you the new person drawn toward me?

Are you the new person drawn toward me?
To begin with, take warning, I am surely far different from what you suppose;
Do you suppose you will find in me your ideal?
Do you think it so easy to have me become your lover?
Do you think the friendship of me would be unalloy’d satisfaction?
Do you think I am trusty and faithful?
Do you see no further than this façade, this smooth and tolerant manner of me?
Do you suppose yourself advancing on real ground toward a real heroic man?
Have you no thought, O dreamer, that it may be all maya, illusion?

-Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1891-92)

 

To the Light of September

When you are already here
you appear to be only
a name that tells of you
whether you are present or not

 

and for now it seems as though
you are still summer
still the high familiar
endless summer
yet with a glint
of bronze in the chill mornings
and the late yellow petals
of the mullein fluttering
on the stalks that lean
over their broken
shadows across the cracked ground

 

but they all know
that you have come

the seed heads of the sage
the whispering birds
with nowhere to hide you
to keep you for later

 

you
who fly with them

 

you who are neither
before nor after
you who arrive
with blue plums
that have fallen through the night

 

perfect in the dew

 

-W.S. Merwin, Poetry (September 2003).

 

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully ,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

-E.E. Cummings, ViVa (1931)

Making A Start

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To make a start,
out of particulars
and make them general, rolling
up the sum, by defective means—
Sniffing the trees,
just another dog
among a lot of dogs. What
else is there? And to do?

-William Carlos Williams, Paterson

 

Reading, thinking with, and writing about poems––these are the three primary activities in this course. My aspiration is that you will discover in these activities the pleasures of poetry in your life. For reading, thinking, and writing engage the body and the mind and awaken our capacities for feeling and thought. So much depends upon your interest, curiosity, and dedication––in this case, to exploring and expressing what happens when poems enter into your life. You will be writing to discover what matters to you (not to me), organizing what you are learning in the unfolding conversation in poetry and poetics that you are joining, and sharing what you have to say with others who might benefit from what you have to say.

In his 1962 book The Continuity of American Poetry, Roy Harvey Pearce proposes a history of the poems that “teach us how to read our world, the better to think about it.” For Pearce, the continuity of poetry in the United States has since its inception been antinomian—resisting the inheritance of cultural tradition while at the same time renewing the enduring commitment to language as well as the values language transmits. As a consequence, Pearce conceives an “inside narrative,” a story of “commitments and results, aspirations and accomplishments, theory and practice” (10) as exemplified in the poems that have mattered—those “great inventors” who have made “a considerable difference in the way poets have made their poems and readers have had to read them” (420). As a class, we will test these assumptions and extend Pearce’s insights into the way a tradition of literary and cultural production continues.

To this end we will trace the history of American poetry from the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century. One of my contributions will be to identify the poems and poets and ideas that shaped the tradition and that make possible imaginative and formal innovations in the art of making poems. We will explore formal developments in modern American poetry, in exemplary and representative poems, as well as pursue the critical and theoretical questions these developments raise—with a special focus on writing by working poets as they attempt to define, delineate and develop a poetics. Exploring the complex terrain of modern and contemporary poetry will make available to you the excitement and attendant controversies that circulate among readers and writers of poetry, and grapple with broader questions about language, culture and imagination.

Reasons for Poetry

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William Meredith, from Reasons for Poetry & Reasons for Criticism. Washington: Library of Congress, 1982.

The Mexican poet José Emilio Pacheco, in a poem called “Dissertation on Poetic Propriety,” asks for “a new definition. . . a name, some term or other. . . to avoid the astonishment and rages of those who say, so reasonably, looking at a poem: ‘Now this is not poetry.'” I too want to argue for a broader definition of poetry, a definition which will increase our sense of the multitudes that poetry contains. For those of us who care about poetry in this time of widely diverging definitions are apt to be consciously limited in our tastes, and churlish in our distastes. We often have more precise ideas, based on these distastes, about what poetry is not than about what it is.

If I cannot come up with the new definition Pacheco asks for, what I say is at least intended to turn aside the easy negative response in myself and in others to poems which are not immediately congenial. For whenever we say, “Now this is not poetry,” we are adding to the disuse of all poetry.

Perhaps the most useful definition, in fact, would begin with a statement about expectation: the expectation with which a reader engages a poem, and the reasons for which a poet may have undertaken the poem, and the possible discrepancy between these two. We have all had the experience of fighting a work of art because it was not doing what we were asking of it. John Ashbery said in an interview: “My feeling is that a poem that communicates something that’s already known to the reader is not really communicating anything to him and in fact shows a lack of respect for him.” Since what is communicated in a work of art is also how it is communicated, a false expectation is almost certain to produce a false reading. And often we confirm this by the happy surprise that comes when a work we had been defeated by suddenly opens itself to us–we find that it performs very well the job of work which was its reason, once we stop asking it to perform some other service which was no part of its intention.

A word here about liking a poem. This should of course be our primary objective and motive. But to like is a function of the critical intelligence, as this passage by W. H. Auden makes clear:

As readers, we remain in the nursery stage as long as we cannot distinguish between taste and judgment, so long, that is, as the only possible verdicts we can pass on a book are two: this I like, this I don’t like.

He goes on with the lovely, schoolmasterly, and abashing accuracy of an Audenism:

For an adult reader, the possible verdicts are five; I can see this is good and I like it; I can see this is good but I don’t like it; I can see this is good and, though at present I don’t like it, I believe that with perseverance I shall come to like it; I can see this is trash but I like it; I can see this is trash and I don’t like it.

My argument is that we should use the third option as often as possible, when the first response is not spontaneous with us. When we can’t say of a poem, especially of a poem that comes recommended, I can see this is good and I like it, we owe it to ourselves and the poem to try to say, I can see this is good, and though at present I don’t like it, I believe that with perseverance, et cetera.

Poems seem to come into being for various and distinct reasons. These vary from poem to poem and from poet to poet. The reason for a poem is apt to be one of the revelations attendant on its making. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader, Frost said. The reason for a new poem is, in some essential, a new reason. This is why poets, in the large Greek sense of makers, are crucial to a culture. They respond newly, but in the familiar tribal experience of language, to what new thing befalls the tribe. I shall have some comments to make here about three generic reasons for which poems seem to come into being, but even within these genera, the occasion of a poem is always a new thing under the sun.

Here I want to posit three roles a poem may take, and to suggest that one of these roles accounts for the stance a poem takes. I offer these three stances not to head off the proper surprise of a new poem but as an exercise in resilience, the way you might strengthen your eyesight by looking at objects near, middling, and far in regular succession. I think of them, as three reasons for poetry, identifiable genetically with the DNA impulse which starts a poem growing. The reason behind a poem shapes its growth and determines the way it is delivered. To stretch the metaphor further, it determines how the poem is to be picked up and spanked into breath by the reader. If every poem is new, it is also associated in its own mind, and ideally in the reader’s, with other poems of its species. Poems hold one another in place in our minds, Robert Frost said, the way the stars hold one another in place in the firmament.

The three roles I envision are these:

  1. The poet as dissident. Underlying poems conceived by the poet as dissident is a social criticism, whether of a tyranny, like George III’s or Stalin’s, of an abuse, like nuclear pollution, or of a system, like capitalism. As an activist poet, the dissident is likely to be formally radical, since the large metaphor of his work is revolution, but not necessarily.
  2. The poet as apologist. Underlying poems conceived by the poet as apologist is acceptance or approval of the human and social predicament of his tribe. However much the poem may focus on errors or imperfections in its subject, there is implied an order or decorum in the model. Often the poem’s mode is praise, overt or implicit, of the specific subject or of the human condition. Every work of art, the Christian apologist W. H. Auden said, is by its formal nature a gesture of astonishment at that greatest of miracles, the principle of order in the universe. The poet as apologist is apt to have a pronounced sense of form, but not necessarily.
  3. The third and commonest stance of the poet is the poet as solitary. While the poem by the poet as solitary will sometimes take the stance of talking to itself, more often it speaks from the poet as individual, to the reader as another individual, and intends to establish a limited, intense agreement of feeling. There is no implicit agreement about social needs or predicaments. Such solitary experiences, and they make up most of lyric poetry, carry on their backs the world they are concerned with, like itinerant puppet-shows They create a momentary event where the poet and the reader dwell together in some mutual astonishment of words. The best teacher I ever had told us a lyric poem can only say one of three things. It can say, “Oh, the beauty of it” or “Oh, the pity of it,” or it can say, “Oh.”

This is a crude trinity, and if useful at all, useful at the elementary level of detecting and dispelling false expectation. I will rehearse the three roles with some examples.

If a poet is committed to an overriding social grievance, as currently some of the best European, Latin American, and United States minority writers are, the poem is best read as a kind of ceremonial rite, with a specific purpose. A dissident poem aspires to be an effective ritual for causing change.

If a poet feels, on the other hand (to quote an easygoing character in one of my own poems), that the human predicament “is just a good bind to be in,” the poem should be read as an occasional poem, occasioned by some instance–however flawed or imperfect–of an existing order. An apologist poem aspires to be a celebration.

If a poet thinks of himself only as a man or woman speaking to men and women, the poem should be read simply as poem. A solitary’s poem is a message written on one person’s clean slate to be copied on another person’s clean slate as an exercise in person-hood. A solitary poem wants to become a little universe or a charade.

It is my cheerful illusion that these are fairly clear distinctions to apply to modern poems. Though I apply them to poems, they reflect intentions, brief or long-standing, of the poet who aligns himself with them. They shade into one another, and readers would disagree about many borderline cases. But at best, they could be helpful in determining how a poem wants to be read.