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Posts Tagged ‘Walt Whitman’

Troubler of the House

July 21, 2016 | by

The McLean Asylum for the Insane.

McLean Asylum for the Insane.

On September 14, 1838, the precociously gifted twenty-three-year-old poet Jones Very was removed under mysterious circumstances from his post as a Greek tutor at Harvard. The previous day, he had visited the Unitarian minister Henry Ware Jr., a prominent opponent of the radical new school of religious thought associated with Very’s friend Ralph Waldo Emerson and his Concord-based intellectual circle. Unprompted, Very started reciting a heated, controversial commentary on the twenty-fourth chapter of Matthew. “To Mr. Ware’s objections,” his fellow divinity student George Moore would later relate, 

he said he was willing to yield, but that the spirit would not let him—that this revelation had been made to him, and that what he said was eternal truth—that he had fully given up his own will, and now only did the will of the Father—that it was the father who was speaking thro’ him. He thinks himself divinely inspired, and says that Christ’s second coming is in him. 

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The Hatred of Poetry: An Interview with Ben Lerner

June 30, 2016 | by

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What do we want from poetry? To read a poem is, on some level, to loathe it—both poem and poet aspire to fulfill a set of impossible expectations from the culture. In his new book, The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner argues that a disdain for poetry is inextricable from the art form itself. Earlier this month, Michael Clune spoke to Lerner at Greenlight Books, in Brooklyn. The exchange below is an edited version of that conversation. —Ed.

INTERVIEWER

One of the most striking things you do in The Hatred of Poetry is to reorient our sense of value. Your canon is “the terrible poets, the great poets, and the silent poets,” as opposed to the merely good or the mediocre. You write about the worst poet in history, McGonagall, and his horrific masterpiece, or antimasterpiece, “The Tay Bridge Disaster”:

Beautiful railway bridge of the silv’ry Tay
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last sabbath day of 1879
Which will be remembered for a very long
time.

LERNER

Wikipedia says that he’s widely considered the worst poet ever. Read More »

Songs of Myself

June 28, 2016 | by

Hosting a national blurb contest.

LoGcover

Walt Whitman, the “American bard,” who was named after a shopping mall in Huntington, New York, where I grew up, is often credited with having invented the book blurb. On the spine of his debut, Leaves of Grass, he had printed in gold leaf a line teased from a letter he’d gotten from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” Emerson was right: Whitman continues to rank among America’s finest careerists.

Gertrude Stein, unable to break through to the literary mainstream, wrote herself a novel-length blurb entitled The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Writing as Alice, her live-in companion, she described at length Gertrude’s prodigious, if misunderstood, genius. This 252-page press kit was an immediate best seller, prompting Stein to embark on a national tour, which she described in Everybody’s Autobiography, a sequel explaining why you should hire her for speaking engagements.

Ernest Hemingway’s first short-story collection, In Our Time, was published with no fewer than six blurbs—on the cover. I can’t remember if he won the Nobel before or after he finished taping the beer commercials. With Toni Morrison, it was definitely before: Pulitzer, Nobel, Chipotle wrapper, in that order.

Will my novels secure my literary legacy the way Morrison’s and Hemingway’s did theirs? Will I ever see my name engraved on a line of high-quality toilets, I sometimes wonder, after hours of furious literary labor? Will I be immortal, like Whitman, transcending with my “song” the conventional boundaries of self? Will Kohler, the premier name in luxury flushing, ever ask me to be their spokeswoman? Read More »

Poets at the Supermarket, and Other News

June 2, 2016 | by

Nathan Gelgud’s drawing of Ginsberg and Whitman at the supermarket. Image via Signature

  • A 1907 book of American superstitions confirms that we’ve always been a delusional people. And a morbid people, too, as these sample superstitions suggest: “If you kiss a baby’s feet, it will not live to walk on them.” “Never call a baby an angel, or it will die before the year is out.” “If a fire puffs, it is a sure sign of a neighbor’s quarreling.” “Carrying a shovel through the house—bad luck.” “If a white horse strays into your yard, one of the family will die.”

I Feel Like Chicken Tonight, and Other News

May 2, 2016 | by

Who doesn’t?

  • In 1858, Walt Whitman made an impassioned contribution to a series called Manly Health and Training, a kind of precursor to the self-help movement. In the piece, newly rediscovered, he implores the young men of his day to pursue lives of fervid activity, and to avoid indigestion. “To you, clerk, literary man, sedentary person, man of fortune, idler, the same advice,” he says. “Up!” As the New York Times notes, “Whitman’s first installment strikes a vatic, exclamatory note: ‘Manly health! Is there not a kind of charm—a fascinating magic in the words?’ he writes, before outlining the path to ‘a perfect body, a perfect blood.’ That torrent of advice that follows touches on sex, war, climate, bathing, gymnastics, baseball, footwear, depression, alcohol, shaving, and the perils of ‘too much brain action and fretting,’ in sometimes rambling prose.”
  • While we’re on dead white male writers: Is it time to release Rudyard Kipling from detention? True, he was a racist, colonialist naïf who had the gall to speak of the white man’s burden, but The Jungle Book isn’t as bad as all that, Malcolm Jones writes: “The Jungle Book stories were not written by Colonel Blimp. They are not propaganda. They have no agenda. And they are not, in fact, even very optimistic at heart. If anything, Kipling’s tales quietly but inescapably leave their readers with a chilly view of life—nasty, poor, brutish, and short (except for elephants, who live practically forever). First and last, the Mowgli stories condemn all humans as foolish, superstitious, mean-spirited, and full of hubris, specifically for our propensity to assume superiority over the animal kingdom … The truth is, Kipling wrote a lot of ill-conceived garbage and he wrote a lot of truly wonderful fiction as well, and it’s usually not at all hard to tell the difference. Even when it is, the effort is justified. Pondering how a writer so good could occasionally go so wrong forces us to contemplate how all of us, even the most enlightened, can be swayed and deluded by the assumptions and beliefs that hold sway in the times in which we live.”
  • There was a time, roughly a quarter century ago, when one would hear the phrase “I feel like” only in catchy ads for Chicken Tonight. But now the phrase is everywhere, leaving our discourse awash in subjectivity. As Molly Worthen writes, “ ‘I feel like’ masquerades as a humble conversational offering, an invitation to share your feelings, too—but the phrase is an absolutist trump card. It halts argument in its tracks … The phrase cripples our range of expression and flattens the complex role that emotions do play in our reasoning. It turns emotion into a cudgel that smashes the distinction—and even in our relativistic age, there remains a distinction—between evidence out in the world and internal sentiments known only to each of us.”
  • If your goal is to shake the education system to its bedrock, upending the very notion of a curriculum and doing away with universities as we know them … you’re gonna need some convincing posters. When Maurice Stein and Larry Miller wrote the Blueprint for Counter Education, they were sure to spruce up all that talk of Eldridge Cleaver and Jean-Luc Godard with some impressive visuals, now collected in a new edition of the book. “Surrounded by charts, the participant will be confronted by ideas and issues that compel him to interact with everything going on around him—from movies, to riots, to political campaigns,” the introduction reads. “There is no text book, no syllabus, no final exam … THE REVOLUTION BEGINS HERE.”
  • Reading Joseph Brodsky’s poem “On Love,” Kathryn Harrison was struck by the line “For darkness restores what the light cannot repair”: “The line also defines writing, at least writing the way I experience it. For me, writing is a process that demands cerebral effort, but it’s also one informed by the unconscious. My work is directed by the needs of my unconscious. And through that dark, opaque process, I can restore what might otherwise be lost … I teach writing, and before I taught I never would guessed the thing I say most often is: ‘Please stop thinking.’ But people really write better without thinking, by which I mean without self-consciousness.”

Destroy Writer’s Block with the Nuclear Option, and Other News

March 15, 2016 | by

Don’t let this happen to you.

  • Anita Brookner, the author of Hotel du Lac, has died at eighty-seven. Brookner, who was born in London, gave an Art of Fiction interview in our Fall 1987 issue. “The truth I’m trying to convey is not a startling one, it is simply a peeling away of affectation,” she said then. “I use whatever gift I have to get behind the facade. But I hope I am not an aggressive writer, and that I see through people with compassion and humor … It was the need for order in my own life that made me start. And once the floodgates are open, you must go all the way.” “Her novels are beautifully written—her sentence structure is pure pleasure,” her publisher Juliet Annan told the BBC this week. “But I think what people miss is that her novels are some of the most shocking of the twentieth century, for underneath the veneer of novels plots about women failing to marry, failing to see the venal in those around them, failing to make successful lives. She wrote about the biggest fears we have: loneliness and death.”
  • Today in productivity by any means necessary: The Most Dangerous Writing App (that’s its real name) will rid you of writer’s block with one simple measure—it forces you to keep going. Stop typing for more than five seconds and it will delete all your work. This promotional piece was written using it: “The interface is a clean, no-nonsense text editor. You’ll find nothing in the way of formatting tools; if it wasn’t already abundantly clear, the app is purpose-built for writing and writing only. It allows for plenty of backspacing and typo-correcting, both of which can be useful for procrastinating in micro-doses, but I mostly felt compelled to write. Somewhere towards the tail end of my five minutes (you can choose to write nonstop for five, ten, twenty, thirty, forty-five, or sixty minutes, if you’re a masochist) the pressure starts to set in, and I’m really rambling.”
  • Or you could just follow the advice of the psychologists Jerome Singer and Michael Barrios, who advocate a strict regime of vivid imagery—basically, winging it. In the seventies and eighties, they staged an intervention for blocked writers: “exercises in directed mental imagery. While some of the blocked writers met in groups to discuss their difficulties, Barrios and Singer asked others to participate in a systematic protocol designed to walk them through the production of colorful mental images. These writers would sit in a dim, quiet room and contemplate a series of ten prompts asking them to produce and then describe dreamlike creations. They might, for example, ‘visualize’ a piece of music, or a specific setting in nature … Writers who’d participated in the intervention improved their ability to get writing done and found themselves more motivated and self-confident.”
  • Once you get over your writer’s block, you’ll have to deal with the old show-don’t-tell mantra, which remains the most divisive product of M.F.A. culture. As Benjamin Markowits writes, it’s both good and bad advice: “Not many writers are good at telling—their explanations are not always that interesting. George Eliot does good explanation. Philip Roth does good explanation. But good explanation is hard to teach: it involves having a sophisticated worldview and finding the moments when that worldview has something specific to say, about psychology, or economics, or the weather. It’s easier to say to a student: let’s cut all that out, stick to the facts, tweak the sequence of events to make it more plausible, prune the dialogue and leave out all the inner thought stuff, which gives the game away, delay the moment of drama, tone it down a little, too, and let’s keep a lid on the hero’s motivations, so we don’t know whether to trust her or not. And at the end of a series of ruthless edits and workshops you have a tight, vivid, suggestive, fine piece of work. You Gordon Lish it.”
  • During the Civil War, Walt Whitman volunteered at hospitals, writing letters home from soldiers who were illiterate or too ill to do so themselves. One of those letters has just been found: “I am mustered out of service, but am not at present well enough to come home. I hope you will try to write back as soon as you receive this + let me know how you all are, how things are going on – let me know how it is with mother. I write this by means of a friend who is now sitting by my side + I hope it will be God’s will that we shall yet meet again. Well I send you all my love + must now close.” (The soldier, Nelson Jabo, died before he made it back home.)