Thursday, October 2, 2008

Three Poems

"Song of Myself" (Section 6) by Walt Whitman

Section 6 of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" is built upon a single question: "A child said What is grass? . . ." The narrator is unsure himself and offers possibilities in keeping with the poem's themes of an underlying unity among a seemingly disparate humanity, in addition to the inextricable union of body and soul and their expression through the boundless energy of the new United States.

The following five stanzas take on an air of questioning, of sounding out potential answers to the child. The first four all start out with the phrase "I guess" and skip from one suggestion to the next: "I guess it is ... I guess it is . . ." The tone of conversation between child and adult is enhanced by poetic flights of fancy. The narrator envisions grass as some manifestation of his personality, as the Lord's handkerchief, or as the offspring of larger plants. However, this innocent inquiry soon ascends to a democratic testimony, as Whitman imagines that grass is a "uniform hieroglyph" among the teeming diversity of America: ". . . Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones, / Growing among black folks as among white, / Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give the same . . ."

Taken in context with the remainder of "Song of Myself," this is very much in line with Whitman's sense of the intimate harmony of mind and body as an extension of the material world as a whole. Democracy, Whitman felt, is the melody composed of infinite harmonies. Grass, a uniform lawn of green, is in reality made up of countless individual blades. ("I am large, I contain multitudes.") The greatest equalizer of them all, of course, is death, which Whitman embraced as readily as he embraced the vibrancy of life. "And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves," he asserts immediately after his democratic vision. It is as though the preceding statements have been leading up to this simple sentence, which ushers in the great metaphor that occupies the rest of the section. Whitman has found the child's answer.

Whitman describes the grass as the physical demonstration of death's egalitarianism, as well as the perpetual cycle of life. Grass has arisen from the bodies of countless deceased to create countless life. It is "uttering tongues" speaking in indecipherable "hints," perhaps of a prevailing existence that transcends simple humanity, a neo-Platonic image of a realm beyond the chaos, triviality, and division of living society. The dead "are alive and well somewhere, / The smallest sprout shows there is really no death." The poem becomes a sort of reassurance to both child and reader, as Whitman concludes that "to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier." Grass is but an image of the sea of eternity.

"Night City" by Elizabeth Bishop

Many of Elizabeth Bishop's poems are glazed with a sense of foreboding. "Night City," however, is thoroughly suffused with a dark aura from the very first lines: "No foot could endure it, / shoes are too thin." These words suggest distress and uneasiness, which the second stanza strengthens into a visceral menace of "variegated bloods." Later on there is also "[d]iaphanous lymph" and "bright turgid blood."

These images appear in the midst of visions of a sort of violent heat - like that of a volcano - which predominate throughout "Night City." The first stanza describes burning debris, while the second intensifies this metaphor into "fires" and "flaring acids." The fourth stanza explicitly states, "The city burns tears." This serves as a sort of thesis statement for the poem, as the theme seems to be that of a metropolis ablaze with dark passions. The fifth and sixth stanzas seem to bind the body with the burning, as well as with the volcanic: "bright turgid blood" becomes lumps of "gold" which run in a "molten" and "silicate" river. Taken with the picture of the lone "tycoon" in the following stanza, "gold" also carries its usual connotations of wealth and riches. However, the "blackened room" also suggests something that has been scorched. The second to last stanza, however, speaks of a "conflagration" that "fights for air / in a dead vacuum." This seems to imply that all this base and burning aggression is suppressed in some way, as though it is smoldering beneath the surface and seeking release.

The final stanza is rather odd and doesn't really seem to fit the rest of "Night City." In contrast to what preceded it, it seems almost whimsical: "They set down their feet, they walk / green, red; green, red." It's obviously describing traffic lights, but in an almost childlike way, or maybe that's just my interpretation. At the same time, the use of the word "creatures" still gives it that vaguely disquieted quality that nevertheless links it to the rest of the poem.

"Corson's Inlet" by A.R. Ammons

"Corson's Inlet" starts out simply as a walk along the beach. The narrator recounts his sojourn "over the dunes" and describes the weather. Soon, however, he enlarges his scope and begins to elucidate on the state of mind his walk inspires; from there, he connects this new feeling of self with the natural world around him. The poem ends with him comparing the constraint and artificiality of human society with the serene order of nature. Yet there is a note of disquiet in the second to last stanza, as he introduces the notion of a "terror," which naturally "pervades" all. I think he means to contrast the struggle to survive in nature with the pre-scripted, simulated moral panics and mass hysteria that sometimes grip humans in advanced society.

Upon finishing "Corson's Inlet" I noticed was some similarities to Marianne Moore's notion of the human mind as the "glaze on a / katydid-wing / subdivided by sun / till the nettings are legion." I often think of her metaphor for life and the universe as a series of nets, webs, or a "Tree of Life." I got the same sense of that in "Corson's Inlet," in which the poetic speaker meditates on the intertwining, interlocking relationships between earth, vegetation, and animal that make up the natural world: "I see narrow orders, limited tightness . . . / still around the looser, wider forces work: / I will try / to fasten into order enlarging grasps of disorder, / widening scope . . ." He also describes "order tight with shape: / blue tiny flowers on a leafless weed: carapace of crab: / snail shell: / pulsations of order . . ." This revelation is developed throughout the poem as the narrator's view of things steadily widens.


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