Some Whitmanians and Dickinsonians

In week 2 of Modern & Contemporary American Poetry by Al Filreis we explore some of the modern poets who have worked in Whitmanian and Dickinsonian modes of poetry. All the poems discussed are somewhat difficult in the sense that they don't open up to the reader immediately. All of them require some deliberation (to a varying degree) on the reader's part for their meanings and themes to come out, but ultimately the reward of comprehension is worth the effort.

Given that I cannot replicate the extensive discussions, and the nature of the discussions makes it almost impossible even if I had the time and energy, I can offer but small hints of guidance for readers who may be interested in reading and figuring out these poems on their own. It would also be worthwhile listening to poets recite their own poems in the links given.


William Carlos Williams's "Smell!"

Consider a playful sexual interpretation... what can a nose serve as an innuendo for?

William Carlos Williams's "Danse Russe"

Think of the conflicting attempts to juggle an indulgent artistic lifestyle with the demands of an American suburban family.

Allen Ginsberg's "A Supermarket in California"

Ginsberg imagines seeing a reincarnation of Walt Whitman in a supermarket, and explores what sort of an existence Whitman would have in these times, and how things have changed.


Lorine Niedecker's "Grandfather advised me"

Appreciate how condense the poem is ('sit at desk' instead of 'sit at a desk' or 'the desk'), and how in such few words it tells a story of the poet's response to grandfather's advise to learn an economically-viable trade. Also consider the shape of the poem... (does it look like a type-writer?)

Lorine Niedecker's "You are my friend"

Consider an un-reciprocated relationship ('friend-zoned'), think of sexual innuendos, particularly masturbation. Consider the theme of self-reliance with regards to relationships.

Cid Corman's "It isnt for want"

Think of the relationship of the poet with the readers, and how in a sense the poet continues to exist as long as the reader exists.

Rae Armantrout's "The Way"

A difficult poem to figure out. First half is a collage of unrelated observations and recordings. Leaves the reader frustrated and lost. Second half is a personal recollection of how the poet was read stories by her mother and she felt lost in the story and abandoned. The poem therefore recreates the same sense of abandonment for the reader. Some additional hints here.

Here is something I wrote about the poem on the discussion forum:

'I have re-read The Way several times now and I am beginning to get an idea of why I felt so enraged when I first read it. The poem radically shatters my expectations of what a poem ought to be like. I come to a poem with a certain expectation, that it would make sense in so and so manner, and then when I read The Way, it doesn't conform to any of that, leaving me (and many other readers) stumped. Now when I am re-reading the poem, I am approaching it with a very different set of expectations, and it begins to make sense. When it comes to such post-modern poetry, the usual ideas of poetry no longer hold. Every normative notion with regards to poetry will be challenged.

The task here is quite radical, because we are not just learning to figure out a complicated poem, we are learning to figure out a completely new way of reading a poem. Whether this new way is of as much value as others prior to it, I wouldn't say, but at least I can begin to appreciate that there is a place for it, and no number of frustrated readers can snatch away its right to existence.'


F. said…
Hmm. "The Way" reminded me of Hima Raza's style of poetry.
Shannon Baker said…
It sounds like an interesting series. I will check it out

book publicity
Anonymous said…
Where do u guys have discussion on the matter? On the forums? Or by discussion, you mean the professors video?
Awais Aftab said…

There is a discussion forum, but only accessible by those who have signed up for the course.