While typing up my Conversation Starter, I found this YouTube video, which asks, “How would Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson have fared if they met in real life?” Based on what we’ve read over this last month, both in their poems, and the second opinions of countless others, do you think this video provides an accurate description of such a date? If not, please explain what would’ve been different if Whitman met Dickinson.
This is my entry for the Hymn Meter Challenge, as I perform “I heard a fly buzz when I died” (F591A) to the theme from Gilligan’s Island.
I was reading about Emily Dickinson online, and found a few tips on how to read her work, from Crash Course English Lit, and PBS NewsHour. The latter is partly biographical, in fact. I hope you enjoy them! Did you find anything new, or helpful, in either video?
Given that this week starts the portion of this semester devoted to Emily Dickinson, I would like to present the one thing I knew about her prior to the start of this class: a second-season episode of Hey Arnold!, from 1997, entitled “Phoebe Cheats.” Why do you think Dickinson is the poet used in this episode? How do you read the “haunted trophy” element of the piece?
This week’s readings revolved around the theme of the U.S. Civil War, and how Walt Whitman dealt with the imagery the battlefields provided. In a way, hearing the fear of the unknown in every word Whitman wrote at the time showed how haunting the graphic carnage and bloodshed was to such a staunch optimist as Walt. It almost felt like the essence of America’s humanity, which Whitman was enamored by in prior entries, had been drained from its people overnight. In a roundabout way, Walt’s inner thoughts on the matter could have matched the lyrics to “Two Brothers,” a song written by Irving Gordon, and originally recorded in 1951.
The song mirrors Whitman’s poetic style by providing simple descriptions of the scene at hand. Through these details, it is suggested that one of the brothers killed the other with cannon fire, for no other reason than being a soldier for the enemy army. This is because, according to the song, “a cannonball [doesn’t care] if [a person is] gentle… or kind” to people in need. The song ends with the wives of the two brothers, both unaware that one of them has died, and will not return to the arms of their partner.
I think this song is a fitting reflection of what went through Whitman’s mind at the time, because it mirrored the uncertainty all Americans, both in the Union and Confederacy, felt back then. The soldiers on the ground were fighting for causes they and their loved ones knew little about, such as slavery and states’ rights. Before long, their friends and families were paying for that lack of knowledge by having to see their mutual acquaintance return to them in a pine box on the way to the grave.
When Whitman spoke of “[being] surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh” in “I Sing the Body Electric,” he referred to the memories people made with friends and family. As the war raged on, and said friends and family members died in battle, those who knew them on a personal level were left with only memories of the time spent together. Whitman wanted people to make as many memories with the ones they loved as possible, for nobody – not even Walt – knew when their time together would end.
What was the last thing you read, saw, or listened to that showed how fragile life can be, and how did you respond to it?
Reading through Walt Whitman’s life story, and figuring out how his worldview came to be, made me think of the 1975 Marvin Hamlisch musical, A Chorus Line. Specifically, it made me think of how the aspiring backup dancers that made up the bulk of the cast saw the audition they were taking part in.
According to his online biography, “some of the unhappiest times of [Whitman’s] life were [during the] five years… he taught school in at least ten different… towns” throughout Long Island. Whitman “was forced to take [the job during] bad economic times,” following the Panic of 1837, and the years-long recession that stemmed from it. This resulted in Walt “getting very little pay” for lecturing groups of approximately “eighty students, ranging in age from five to fifteen, for up to nine hours a day.”
In a letter he wrote in 1840, he summed up his years behind the desk like so:
“Never before have I entertained so low an idea of the beauty and perfection of man’s nature, never have I seen humanity in so degraded a shape, as here… Ignorance, vulgarity, rudeness, conceit, and [dullness] are the reigning gods of this deuced sink of despair.”
Compare this to the dancers featured in A Chorus Line. The show’s opening number, “I Hope I Get It,” contains lyrics that mirror the sense of dread and melancholy that Whitman had at the time:
“Who am I, anyway? Am I my resume? That is a picture of a person I don’t know. What does he want from me? What should I try to be? So many faces all around, and here we go… I need this job! Oh, God, I need this show!”
Whitman responded to the source of his mental anguish, a “very unenlightened” Long Island populace, by calling on his own memories of “rudimentary formal schooling.” His “[refusal] to punish [misbehaving students] by paddling” them, a common punishment teachers gave students even when Walt was a kid, was one of many facets of how Whitman taught students. He also took a more direct approach to helping students learn new lessons. This approach ranged from using “educational games” instead of a list of facts to allow students to learn through interactivity, to outright “joining his students in baseball and card games” during recess.
I read the second number of the musical, “And…,” as mirroring the formation of Whitman’s subsequent teaching and, later, writing style. During this, the dancers ask themselves what to tell the casting director when called on for their solo interview with him, the results of which are peppered throughout the remainder of the show. Ultimately, like Whitman himself, the dancers decide to place realism over romanticism, and let each other in on their respective reasons for wanting a job in the titular chorus line. By doing this, the dancers cast their vulnerabilities aside, and allow themselves to become more human through their experiences, not as dancers, but as people. Even if they don’t get the job they hope for, they will still have succeeded in becoming more than what first impressions imply they are.
What other stories can be seen as a mirror of Whitman’s development as a poet?