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Posts Tagged ‘Walt Whitman’

Who Shot Van Gogh? and Other News

November 19, 2014 | by

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Toulouse-Lautrec’s portrait of Van Gogh, 1887.

  • Mark Twain’s career as an author began at a place called Jackass Hill, a boomtown gone bust where, in the local tavern, he heard the story that would become “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” “[I] turned my attention to seriously scribbling to excite the laughter of God’s creatures,” Twain wrote. “Poor, pitiful business!”
  • Today in terrifyingly ambiguous headlines: “Family’s agony over when to tell mother her premature babies died while she was in a coma after she woke up.”
  • “O to sail to sea in a ship!” Walt Whitman inspired many things—one of them, it turns out, was a logo.
  • Was Van Gogh … murdered? Conventional wisdom has it that he shot himself, but the facts don’t really support his suicide. “What kind of a person, no matter how unbalanced, tries to kill himself with a shot to the midsection? And then, rather than finish himself off with a second shot, staggers a mile back to his room in agonizing pain from a bullet in his belly?”
  • “I sometimes see science like art. People don’t necessarily see the connections to how it makes their lives better—this is not going to give them a better toaster, or something like that—but there is this feeling, just like with art, that this is important in some way. It is worth expending vital resources on, whether it’s tax money or people’s focus. It just feels worthwhile to do.” What we talk about when we talk about landing spacecrafts on comets.

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Walt Whitman, “Election Day, November, 1884”

November 4, 2014 | by

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A polling place in New York ca. 1900.

A reminder: Walt Whitman really, really liked Election Day. Nothing could quicken the man’s pulse like a good showing at the polls.

As “Election Day, November, 1884” has it, he preferred the spectacle of democracy—the “ballot-shower from East to West”—to any of our nation’s natural wonders, including, but not limited to, Niagara Falls, the Mississippi River, Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Great Lakes … you name it, Whitman thought the vote was better than it. (You’d think someone could’ve sold him on the Rockies, at least.) One can imagine a latter-day Whitman passing up a trip to the Grand Canyon and instead hunkering down at the TV, flipping anxiously from network to network as the precincts begin to report, wringing his hands. Not, mind you, that he would have any particular stake in the outcome; he’d just be along for the great democratic ride, clucking his tongue at the gerrymanderers of the world.

(If you need an antidote for all this unalloyed patriotism, try Charles Bernstein’s “On Election Day,” which contains, among many excellent lines, “The air is putrid, red, interpolating, quixotic, torpid, vulnerable, on election day.” I know which poet would get my vote.)

If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest
         scene and show,
’Twould not be you, Niagara—nor you, ye limitless prairies—nor
         your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado,
Nor you, Yosemite—nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic geyser-
         loops ascending to the skies, appearing and disappearing,
Nor Oregon’s white cones—nor Huron’s belt of mighty lakes—
         nor Mississippi’s stream:
—This seething hemisphere’s humanity, as now, I’d name— the
still small voice vibrating—America’s choosing day,
(The heart of it not in the chosen—the act itself the main, the
         quadriennial choosing,)
The stretch of North and South arous’d—sea-board and inland
         —Texas to Maine—the Prairie States—Vermont, Virginia,
         California,
The final ballot-shower from East to West—the paradox and con-
         flict,
The countless snow-flakes falling—(a swordless conflict,
Yet more than all Rome’s wars of old, or modern Napoleon’s:)
         the peaceful choice of all,
Or good or ill humanity—welcoming the darker odds, the dross:
—Foams and ferments the wine? it serves to purify—while the
         heart pants, life glows:
These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships,
Swell’d Washington’s, Jefferson’s, Lincoln’s sails.

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Hang Your Quiver on Your Wagon, and Other News

October 20, 2014 | by

An illustration of the Amazons from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493.

  • In 1882, Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde spent an afternoon together. They had some homemade elderberry wine and talked about how to be famous.
  • And in 1817, Keats, Wordsworth, and Charles Lamb had dinner. Lamb said repeatedly, “Diddle idle don / My son John / Went to bed with his breeches on.”
  • Winning the Nobel Prize causes an intense, nearly insurmountable euphoria. But according to Patrick Modiano, there is one way to magnify this sensation: by having a family member who hails from the same country that gives the prize. “It gave me even greater pleasure because I have a Swedish grandson … It’s to him I dedicate this Prize. It is, after all, from his country.”
  • Historically, fiction has afforded writers the chance to break taboos—under the guise of the fictive, one can “talk about potentially embarrassing or even criminal personal experiences without bringing society’s censure on oneself.” So what happens when taboos fall away? “It could be we are moving towards a period where, as the writer ‘gets older’ … he or she finds it increasingly irrelevant to embark on another long work of fiction that elaborately reformulates conflicts and concerns that the reader anyway assumes are autobiographical. Far more interesting and exciting to confront the whole conundrum of living and telling head on, in the very different world we find ourselves in now, where more or less anything can be told without shame.”
  • The sexual congress of the Amazons “was robust, promiscuous. It took place outdoors, outside of marriage, in the summer season, with any man an Amazon cared to mate with … The sign for sex in progress was a quiver hung outside a woman’s wagon.”

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Poetry in Motion

August 4, 2014 | by

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The Brooklyn Bridge in 1892.

Yesterday, I decided to walk home across the Brooklyn Bridge. With this in mind, I had downloaded a fine recording of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” before setting off, and planned to commune with Whitman, or whatever, as I marched, marveling at the ceaseless roll of existence and the beauty of the language and, if I felt like it, crying a little. There was absolutely no question in my mind that this was a fantastic idea.

FLOOD-TIDE below me! I watch you face to face;
Clouds of the west! sun there half an hour high! I see you also face to face.

Which was all very well, except that I’d forgotten that in fine weather the pedestrian thruway is so crowded that it’s almost impassable. People like to stop and take pictures—of themselves, or with others, or by others—and you can hardly blame them for it. Not that there’s anything wrong with visiting the Brooklyn Bridge! On the contrary! It’s beautiful, it’s historic, it’s free, and walking the mile-plus span is good exercise! But it gets in the way of the idyll, a little. Undeterred, I put in my earbuds and started walking. Read More »

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Please Hire Walt Whitman, and Other News

May 12, 2014 | by

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The guy needs a job. Portrait of Whitman by Thomas Eakins, 1887.

  • In 1847, Charles Dickens founded a “home for homeless women”: he “flung himself into organizing every detail of it, from the food to the flower garden, and the piano around which the women would gather for wholesome evening entertainment … when he learned London society was particularly shocked about the piano, [he] spread a rumor that there would not just be one but many pianos, one for each woman.”
  • And in 1863, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a recommendation letter for Walt Whitman, who sought a government clerkship: “He is known to me as a man of strong original genius, combining, with marked eccentricities, great powers & valuable traits of character: a self-relying large-hearted man, much beloved by his friends; entirely patriotic & benevolent in his theory, tastes, & practice.”
  • A look at Alt Lit, “an online writing community that emerged in 2011 and harnesses the casual affect and jagged stylistics of social media as the basis of their works … Its members have produced a body of distinctive literature marked by direct speech, expressions of aching desire, and wide-eyed sincerity. (‘language is so cool. i can type out these shapes and you can understand me,’ or ‘Yay! Dolphins are beautiful creatures and will always have a wild spirit. I have been very lucky because I have had the awesome experience of swimming with dolphins twice.’)”
  • The problem (or at least a problem) with superhero movies: “the visual and rhythmic sameness of the films’ execution … Despite their fleeting moments of specialness, The Avengers, the Iron Man and Thor and Captain America films, the new Spider-Man series and Man of Steel treat viewers not to variations of the same situations … but to variations of the same situations that feel as though they were designed, choreographed, shot, edited and composited by the same second units and special effects houses, using the same software, under the same conditions … Shots of people fighting inside and atop collapsing and burning structures all feel basically the same.”
  • Misha Defonseca’s 1997 Holocaust memoir, which sold millions of copies in Canada and Europe, is entirely fabricated; a court has ordered Defonseca to return $22.5 million.
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The Illustrated Walt Whitman

May 8, 2014 | by

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Beautiful/Decay has a striking selection of images from Allen Crawford’s illustrated, hand-lettered new edition of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” a long poem included in Leaves of Grass. Crawford writes in the introduction,

I’ve tried to make the vigor of “Song of Myself” tangible. I’ve attempted to liberate the words from their blocks of verse, and allow the lines to flow freely about the page, like a stream or a bustling city crowd. The text and imagery in this book are intended to be in keeping with Whitman’s unfurnished sensibility … Whitman’s verse concerns itself with epic sweeps and grand gestures, which means including nearly everything and everyone. Walt did indeed contain multitudes, and I had to follow his lead if I was going to properly serve his words. At times, this could prove exasperating: Keeping up with Whitman’s torrents of people and places sometimes felt like riding a bee-stung bison down the aisle of a bus. I found that in order to add anything at all to Whitman’s panorama of people and places, I had to add a dimension of my own. Events in my daily life affected my approach to each spread, and the Philadelphia of today seeped into the Philadelphia of Whitman’s day. Thus, you’ll find a variety of contemporary or near-contemporary images in this book. Not doing so would have been a disservice to Whitman’s work, which attempts to create a new form of verse for The Here and The Now.

You can see more of his work here.

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