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Posts Tagged ‘Walt Whitman’

Sing It, Walt! and Other News

May 19, 2015 | by

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Whitman at age twenty-eight, 1848.

  • After seventeen years, Judy Blume is publishing a new novel—for adults. “In so many of Blume’s books, her main characters’ bodies insist on their inherent, primal messiness; they crave, they ooze, break out in rashes as strange and humiliating as desire itself. The body is reckless, but telling.”
  • Walt Whitman, pop-music critic: in 1845, the poet published a brief review in Broadway Journal, where he pays a hearty compliment to a family of singers: “The sight of them, as they are, puts one in mind of health and fresh air in the country, at sunrise—the dewy, earthy fragrance that comes up then in the moisture, and touches the nostrils more gratefully than all the perfumes of the most ingenious chemist.”
  • Herman Wouk turns one hundred this month. Give the guy a break. “Readers under forty know Wouk, if they know him at all, as a name on the spine of a paperback shoved into a cottage bookshelf at the end of someone else’s summer vacation—or perhaps as the supplier of the raw material for Humphrey Bogart’s epic performance as Captain Queeg of the USS Caine. What they don’t know is that Herman Wouk has a fair claim to stand among the greatest American war novelists of them all.”
  • “Often when I’m home alone, only the thought of how my dead body might be found helps me act proper … I thought of this while going to the local deli to buy a carrot and a couple of onions. A long time ago, when I started living by myself, before my wife-to-be and I moved in together, I used to be very careful when I went to the grocer’s for a carrot or a courgette to buy more than one—for who, when cooking for one, ever needs more than one carrot?—in case the grocer thought I had improper designs on the vegetable … These days, I do not give a damn. I am too busy palpating my solitude, as the tongue probes a gap in the teeth.”
  • Paul Ford on “No Manifesto for Poetry Readings and Listservs and Magazines and ‘Open Versatile Spaces Where Cultural Production Flourishes,’ ” a new collaborative poem: “My own opinion of whether the poem is good or bad doesn’t matter. The poem makes me squirm; it makes me roll my eyes; it makes me angry at the world; and it makes me tired. I keep coming back to it. This poem indicates a lot of things at once about how cultural work is done now, in form, content, and means of production.”

Your Coral Lips Were Made to Kiss, and Other News

April 23, 2015 | by

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A nineteenth-century escort card.

  • Whitman’s Drum-Taps, his collection of Civil War poems, is 150 this month—and like the war itself, it’s still perplexing and angering people. Henry James, upon its release, called it “an insult to art … the efforts of an essentially prosaic mind to lift itself, by a prolonged muscular strain, into poetry.”
  • In which Mary Shelley trounces taboos: “When she meets the enormously handsome and charismatic poet Percy Shelley when she’s sixteen, she takes him to her special place, her mother’s grave. He’s twenty-one, she’s sixteen, and they sit and talk there for hours, day after day. Finally, it’s on that gravesite that Mary Shelley declares her love for Percy. That’s where we think she had sex for the first time, on her mother’s grave. We can’t prove that they actually had sex, but they certainly declared their love and became intimate. It was a really dangerous thing to do. The next thing they do is they run away to Paris.”
  • One might suppose that in the nineteenth century, with no text messages or telephones, it was more difficult for men to be creeps. But one would be wrong, as this assortment of nineteenth-century escort cards shows. Men gave these cards to women at parties, begging them for the privilege of walking them home. “Your coral lips were made to kiss,” one says. And several offer a disturbing ultimatum: either let me take you home or let me sit on the fence, slobbering and drooling at you as you pass.
  • Where have all our haruspices gone? These days, it seems hardly anyone can be bothered to divine our future from animal entrails, though we have arguably more occasions for it than ever.
  • “All art—all non-propagandist art—is a form of resistance to the idea that the shape, the meaning, the myriad ways of living in and moving through the world should—or even could—ever be one thing. The greatest paintings, performances, sculptures, installations and films refuse to represent anyone as a type: this is, perhaps, art’s finest attribute.”

Write Tight

April 21, 2015 | by

What is poetry? Etymology provides more questions than answers.

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Contest of the Poets, a float design by Jennie Wilde for the 1910 “Comus” Mardi Gras

T. S. Eliot, who once famously called National Poetry Month the cruelest, was also one of many to point out the hopeless semantic tangles that ensue because “poetry” has two opposites. Poetry can be the lined stuff, often with rhymes, as opposed to sentences and paragraphs; poetry can also be the good stuff, as opposed to the plodding or simply informational. But if good prose can be poetic, a novel can be “pure poetry,” and poems can be prosaic, then it’s not clear what anyone is talking about, really. Or rather, it’s clear except to theorists trying to come up with definitions. Poetry is what’s thrilling, while a poem is that poor thing with eleven readers, eight of them members of the poet’s extended family.

Etymology doesn’t help—it only highlights that the apples and oranges here are how the thing is made and how it moves. Poetry is from the Greek poiein, “to make”: a poem is something made, or in English we would more naturally say crafted. Yet everyone agrees good prose is well crafted, too. Prose means, literally, “straightforward,” from the Latin prosa, proversus, “turned to face forward” (whereas verse is all wound up, twisty and snaky, “turned” in every direction except, apparently, forward). Yet we all know that poems can be clear and direct, too, especially when they’re songs. Read More »

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

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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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