Monday, June 09, 2014

Long ago and far away

One of the unused Clive Hicks-Jenkins
images for The Foliate Head--it seems
to fit this Whitmanian post...
"Walt Whitman" just followed me on twitter, and that made me remember that I had a professor once who made me read great swaths of Whitman aloud in class. We had an 8:00 start time, but he made us arrive at 7:00 a.m., a great trial for the young, who think they have long lives ahead, not knowing that life is a mere blink, and so feel that they need much sleep. We had to arrive early because he was such a great believer in feeling the rhythms of poetry or prose in our bones, and so we read as well as discussed. I suppose it was, even then, an old-fashioned way to teach, but I imagine that it was effective in a time when theory was already in ascendance.

Our professor would often arrive singing "Lili Marleen," a thing that somewhat disconcerted me because my legal first name is Susan (meaning "Lily") and my middle name "Marlene." He was always cheerful and clearly the famous early bird, which most of us were not. If we were reading poetry, he would always want me to read because he liked the way I read poetry, and if we were on Whitman, he would rarely let anybody else get a word in. Some mornings at 7:00 I could hardly speak! But Whitman tends to wake a person, even a young and sleepy person. The professor was a bright, amusing man, to whom a number of sad things later happened that are nobody's business. But he seemed to have strong friendships with colleagues and a deep love of literature, so I think he must have had, overall, a satisfying life.

He's long gone now, gone to the grass under my boot-soles, as the poet he loved so much said, even longer ago. They were kindred in some ways, and departed "as air." They shook "white locks at the runaway sun." They effused "flesh in eddies, and drift[ed] it in lacy jags. And so this morning I read a little Whitman aloud in the honor of that long-ago professor, the early bird, the lover of poetry, the man of great good cheer.

Have you reckoned a thousand acres much? Have you reckoned the earth much?
Have you practiced so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun.... there are millions of suns left,
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand.... nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.

--Whitman, shaker of white locks at the runaway sun

* * *

Notes on my recent books, no. 3
(click above for complete review)
It is seldom that a novel from a small university press can compete with the offerings from the big houses in New York. A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage may be the best novel this reviewer has read this year. Its quality and story-telling remind one of The Adventures of Roderick Random, Great Expectation and The Grapes of Wrath among others. The winner of the 2012 "Ferrol Sams Award for Fiction," A Death has the potential to become a classic American picaresque novel. / One wishes, however, that this novel will not get shunted into the regional box and be seen only as a Southern novel. Its themes and the power of its language, the forceful flow of its storyline and its characters have earned the right to a broad national audience. 30 July 2012 John M. Formy-Duval


  1. 7 a.m. for an 8 a.m. class! Yikes! I would have never survived that class. How on earth does a professor require his students to arrive an hour prior to class? I would have had no legal leg to stand on if I had insisted upon students arriving even 10 minutes early for class; the students would have refused, and the administration would have supported their refusal. And I wonder if Whitman is yet another canonical poet whose star is fading within English departments.

    1. Whitman? Ack, sad thought. Probably. But I'll bet he'll burn on outside of them!

      Yes, it was an astonishing thing to do... And yet we went. Another age, another way of relating to school and books, I suppose.

  2. I think it is a wonderful eulogy

    and as a student I say that there are few teachers, rare, but if they would ask me to come 12 hours late and stand all night outside with them to contemplate - well, I would not hesitate for a sec. I can think of at least one (or maybe just and simply - one) for whom I would be happy to arrive early.
    I think when you are met with someone who is happy and content in her doing and is willing and wishing to share from their hearts, then we go.
    I think so.

    1. Hello, Guy--

      That was good to leave me a note because . . . I still haven't mailed your books to Israel and needed a pinch! Oh, I am dreadful about packages. Will get them out this week.

      Yes, that teacher was very full of life--"willing and wishing" indeed. That's a sweet way to put it.

    2. O, semester exams, I have no time to read any how for the time
      and as long as they wait with you and not with me, well then, it is yours to...well.. yours.

      No worries. Juts make sure not to try and send it on a day where who-ever-comes-after-obama will be in town (read almost like a Douglas Adams script)

      ;) I am fortunate to be inspired by a teacher all year now. That alone make me sweet

    3. Oh, that's good! I am glad to hear it...

      Well, I hope you won't have to wait until the next POTUS before your books arrive!


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.