“Lads”, said my American Studies (History) lecturer at the University of Ulster (oblivious to the presence of two girls in the seminar), “If you want to understand America mid 19th Century you’ll read Walt Whitman’s poems.”
On completion of the class I made a beeline to the campus library to spent the next 36 hours straight devouring the great man’s work, only pausing to smoke Gauloise cigarettes on the steps of the the University whilst contemplating how life changing this experience was. As if. I have to admit a fear of poetry due to the fact that most of the stuff we did at school went right above my head. I loved Keats as taught to us by Mr. Walsh because he says what he thinks and describes what he sees. This is Ode to Autumn (1820)
SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
What’s not to love about this evocation with it’s fantastical use of descriptive language? I think my fear came from not “getting” poetry and this was reinforced by my University of Surrey teacher training tutor who got a kick out of my strong Hull accent and seemed to delight in the fact that I hadn’t heard of Siegfried Sassoon when we were planning how to teach war poems to Year 10 kids.
I did have a flick through Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” compilation in the early ’90’s when I heard him quoted by Bill Clinton during the ’92 election campaign. I found, “Eidolon” compelling as it put me mind of one of my literary favourites, Jean Paul Sartre due to its questioning of reality, and postulation that religion is a method to try and fathom what is often unfathomable. Shit Happens as it were; don’t look for hidden reasons when none exist.
Whitman’s name came up again connection with Clinton when it was revealed that he had given Monica Lewinsky (amongst other things) a copy of “Leaves of Grass”. “The Simpsons” paid homage to the poet when Homer discovers his grave in Springfield cemetery later intoning to Lisa, “Leaves of Grass, my ass!” . The repeat of this episode last month led me to download Whitman’s compilation for 78p via Kindle. Result. This short poem intrigued me.
“To a Certain Cantatrice”
Here, take this gift,
I was reserving it for some hero, speaker, or general,
One who should serve the good old cause, the great idea, the
progress and freedom of the race,
Some brave confronter of despots, some daring rebel;
But I see that what I was reserving belongs to you just as much as to any.
This is for me an example of great poetry as it is real, immediate and gets to the point in an unpretentious and direct manner. It’s referring to the perennial issue of false deference and elevating people onto a pedestal for no good reason.
In the modern era this is done to quash any sense of collectivism or facilitating ordinary people to take control of their own destiny. The “Corbyn Mania” thing is prime and very relevant example.
A groundswell of discontent existed in the UK working class following the Tories return to power with a majority in May, even though only 24% of electors wanted this. Enter Jeremy Corbyn who rode a huge wave to victory. But it was the 1/4 million voters who had created this landslide. Yet instead of throwing their arms wide open to this new and radical movement the Labour Party (the Left included) has just sat back and said to Corbyn, “Well? What have you got?”. And unfortunately the answer is, “Errr, not a lot actually”.
Without the energy and talent of the 1/4 million Corbyn and McDonnell’s ideas are just that. They are stuffed unless they create a new party and the collective will of the workers is harnessed to end the hegemony of Cameron and his capitalist appeasers in the political class. That 1/4 million can quickly be doubled and the momentum (sic) created can sweep Socialism onto the mainstream agenda with Local Government being the key battleground in the New Year.