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Posts Tagged ‘Walt Whitman’

Philip Levine, 1928–2015

February 15, 2015 | by

We were saddened to learn that Philip Levine died yesterday at eighty-seven. The U.S. poet laureate from 2011 to 2012, he composed poems that were, as Margalit Fox writes in the New York Times, “vibrantly, angrily, and often painfully alive with the sound, smell, and sinew of heavy manual labor.”

Levine grew up in industrial Detroit during the Depression; the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, he worked factory jobs for Cadillac and for Chevrolet. “You could recite poems aloud in there,” he told The Paris Review in 1988 of his time on the assembly line. “The noise was so stupendous. Some people singing, some people talking to themselves, a lot of communication going on with nothing, no one to hear.”

His time in those jobs would later inform one of his most enduring poems, “They Feed They Lion,” from the late sixties—you can hear him read it above. Levine explained the title in a 1999 interview with The Atlantic: Read More »

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An Exciting Career in Forensic Sculpting, and Other News

January 21, 2015 | by

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Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Skull, ca. 1900.

  • “They lost their identity … We’re going to give it back to them.” In which the New York City medical examiner’s office teams up with fine art students in a last-ditch effort to ID crime victims: “Each student was given a skull—a replica made by the medical examiner’s office of each victim—and a block of clay to sculpt a face. The students were told to incorporate whatever information investigators recorded in finding and examining the skeleton, including estimates of the victim’s age and height, maybe a hair type or style, and possible clothing sizes.” (Listen to the sound of hundreds of television executives thinking, Could this be our next big crime series?)
  • Leslie Jamison on the enigma of natural beauty in Whitman’s Specimen Days: “Part of our pleasure in reading his book … is not just feeling close to his sensory perceptions, but feeling invited more deeply into our own—to feel the world more fully in all its snorting ice and malachite cabbages and whirling locusts and wriggling worms.”
  • In the thirties, a Grade A swinging-dick asshole named Harry Anslinger took over the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, then on the verge of being dissolved. So he set himself a reasonable goal: lock away Billie Holiday for drug abuse. Jazz to him sounded “like the jungles in the dead of night.” His agents wrote that “many among the jazzmen think they are playing magnificently when under the influence of marihuana but they are actually becoming hopelessly confused and playing horribly.”
  • In sci-fi, where exactly do the science and fiction collide? “Science writing isn’t the same as fiction writing. Sometimes people who read popular science about scientific theories like loop quantum gravity say ‘it’s like reading science fiction.’ But no, it isn’t.”
  • Painting and boozing in Belgium: Two years after Waterloo, J. M. W. Turner “visited the Belgian battlefield where the Brits, Prussians, Dutch and Belgians finally put paid to Napoleon’s dreams of empire. The resulting painting, an unnerving clash between dark, roiling clouds and corpses illuminated by the torches of the bereaved, is no paean to victory … What does a thirsty man—which Turner was, by all accounts—drink after a day sketching carnage?”

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Who Shot Van Gogh? and Other News

November 19, 2014 | by

Toulouse-Lautrec_de_Henri_Vincent_van_Gogh_Sun

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

Brooklyn_Bridge_1892

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 »