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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

The Father of American Poetry?

Sunday, April 24, 2005

For someone now popularly revered as the first true poet in the American language, arguably as important to American letters as the founding fathers were to the political shape of the United States, Walt Whitman (1819 - 1892) provoked ambiguous endorsements from critics of his time.

A contemporary reviewer, Peter Bayne, complained of his works:

They are neither in rhyme not in any measure known as blank verse; and they are emitted in spurts and gushes of unequal length, which can only by courtesy be called lines. Neither in form nor in substance are they poetry...

It is understandable why his style came as a shock to the system. With his long, rolling lines (which have the cadence of Biblical writing) which demand to be read and absorbed as much as comprehended, streams of personal thoughts, often erotic and sensual, merging with philosophical or political ideas, Whitman seems a remarkably modern writer. Not only this, but he also seems excessively egocentric, and it is only natural to want to react strongly against this man who reviewed his own poems anonymously in the Democratic Review, heralding them with the claim, "An American poet at last!".

However, Whitman's experimentation in verse centred around the self is precisely why he has become seen as the father of modern American poetry. For Whitman, "the topmost proof of a race is in its poetry", and the advanced and imaginative use of language was the key definition of the quality of the nation and society which produced the writer. Whitman's aim was to cast aside the residue of European styles which had up to this point been an intrinsic element of American poetry, breaking new formal ground to match the new political ground of the United States.

The artistic use of words in Whitman's eyes was more than mere verbal craftsmanship. For him, poetry should always be spontaneous and, rather than being an artisan in full control of his creation, the poet ought to be seen as an inspired genius, able to absorb, accumulate and translate the sensations of his environment into words: "I think I will do nothing for a long time but listen,/And accrue what I hear into myself...and let sounds contribute towards me" (Leaves of Grass, ll.584-585). Language was more than a practical communicative act, instead becoming the essence of what it means to be and to feel both a single, conscious human and part of a wider social, racial and religious structure; as he affirmed in his Primer, "All words are spiritual - nothing is more spiritual than words". For Whitman, there is a chain of influence, from race to the poetry which defines that race, from poetry to language and from language to spirituality, with the current link throughout being the poet himself. This ideology explains to some extent the egocentric I of Whitman's verse: by setting out his stall so explicitly in Leaves of Grass, Whitman was effectively inviting the reader to measure him as the coincidentally chosen equivalent for the achievement of the new, unified American national identity.

In spite of this, it would be wrong to view Whitman as a single, dominant, Adam-like figure, in whose mould all future American poets are invariably and inevitably cast. For example, America was, for Whitman, a "nation of nations" yet a century later Langston Hughes would be declaring that the coloured 'I' too needed to sing of itself, implying (rightly) that the black voice had been neglected, never thrown democratically and equally into the linguistic melting-pot. Likewise, patriotically to claim Whitman as the quintessential American poet is to, implicitly, isolate him from the international context in which he became something of a cult figure, particularly for the French poets of the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

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Posted by Alistair at 3:09 pm


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