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Whitman Symposium brings scholarly, artistic discussion

Last weekend, the College hosted a symposium celebrating the combined sesquicentennial of the College and Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” The following are Signal reporters’ accounts of several of the events.

Opening Reception, September 22

The College and Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” are both imaginative, American and democratic, College President R. Barbara Gitenstein said in her welcoming remarks at the opening reception to the Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” Sesquicentennial Symposium last Thursday.

David Blake, associate professor of English and director of the symposium, highlighted Whitman’s ties to New Jersey. Whitman, who lived in Camden, was “undoubtedly New Jersey’s greatest poet,” he said.

Literary critics David Lehman and James Longenbach also read some of their work on Whitman.

Lehman read his piece, “The Visionary Whitman,” and James Longenbach read his piece, “Whitman Is God.”

Lehman’s piece highlighted Whitman’s public, interior and spiritual selves, as well as his relationship with Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson was supportive of Whitman and helped him find himself. Lehman read a quotation from Whitman: “I was simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil.”

Longenbach’s piece explored how Whitman met the readers’ expectations of the poet to “indicate the path between reality and their souls,” an expectation defined by Whitman himself in the 1855 preface of “Leaves of Grass.”

In a question-and-answer session that followed their presentations, a member of the audience asked the scholars what they thought of Whitman’s advice in the recently recovered interview with Whitman that appeared in the February 1888 edition of The Signal.

In it, Whitman said, “First don’t write poetry; second ditto; third ditto. You may be surprised to hear me say so, but there is no particular need of poetic expression. We are utilitarian, and the current cannot be stopped.”

Longenbach said Whitman’s advice in the interview highlights a paradox of poetry: Whitman understood that poetry was useless, but in today’s society where everything seems to need a use, “to have something useless is an immense liberation.”

Sherman Alexie, a poet from Seattle, also was scheduled to present his work “Walt Whitman vs. Crazy Horse,” but cancelled due to illness.

Angela Elliot, professor of English at Centenary College, said she was disappointed Alexie was not there. “I’m really here for Alexie,” she said before the presentations began. “I expect him to come down from a cloud.”

-Jake Remaly

Poetry Reading

Literary critics David Lehman and James Longenbach, along with poet Matthea Harvey, read their poetry aloud last Thursday as part of the symposium.

Longenbach selected a series of poems with what he called the “Whitmanian theme of listening to the Earth.” His first poem, “Yard Work,” included the lines: “First rule: No one is speaking. Second rule: Follow the sound.”

Harvey read “The Future of Terror,” a series of three poems that link words found on pages of the dictionary in alphabetical order between the words “future” and “terror.”

“It was amazing,” Harvey said of the technique. “There was a story that seemed to emerge.”

The poems produced images of gravediggers, gas masks in garages, gunshots and green glass mistaken for grass.

Lehman had members of the audience chuckling frequently and loudly as he read poems including “To a Critic,” describing an artist’s fantasy of a nasty critic finding his wife in bed with her yoga instructor and getting in trouble for plagiarism.

He opened with “Stump Speech,” a poem about a politician who truly appreciates nature: “And if I get elected, I shall become Walt Whitman,” he read.

In the question-and-answer session that followed the reading, the poets and audience members discussed whether poets have a political responsibility.

The topic was sparked by one audience member’s remark on author Sharon Olds’ letter to Laura Bush published in The Nation Sept. 19, declining an invitation to read at the National Book Festival in Washington and eat breakfast in the White House.

Harvey said several months ago, she would have said ‘no,’ but after writing “The Future of Terror” she changed her mind. Politics, she said, is “so much a part of your subconscious you have to let it out.”

Longenbach said writing poetry is never enough to satisfy one’s civic responsibility. A good example, he said, is Carl Sandburg, a man who wrote poetry and also worked as a labor organizer and political activist.

Lehman, on the other hand, said he felt poets should attend national readings to get more funding for the arts. “I don’t think they’re invited to determine foreign policy,” he said.

“You really don’t want poets determining foreign policy – then again, I’m not really sure who you’d want doing that.”

He added, “I think it’s a good idea to get $200 million to support the arts. I don’t think it has anything to do with Iraq.”

John Russoniello, junior English and education major, said the reading “was very good for aspiring authors and poets.”

-Jake Remaly

Opening Reception, September 23

The second day of the College’s three-day symposium on Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” kicked off with a panel discussion in the Music Building on Friday morning.

Students, faculty and other scholars filled the concert hall to hear the speakers, beginning with Susan Albertine, dean of the School of Culture and Society.

“I love (him) for the way – and despite the way – he exasperates me,” Albertine said of her relationship with teaching Whitman.

Each panelist was introduced by Cassandra Jackson, an associate professor at the College who specializes in 19th century American literature and African American literature.

The distinguished speakers for the morning’s event were Daphne Brooks, associate professor of English and African American studies at Princeton University, Ed Folsom, professor of English at the University of Iowa and Kirsten Silva Gruesz, professor of literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Brooks began her lecture by discussing everything from slam poetry to hip-hop to ’80s culture. She also included a clip from the movie “Fame” and part of a Rage Against the Machine song to demonstrate the way Whitman’s vision of a diverse society came through in popular culture.

As co-director for the Whitman hypertext archive, Folsom has a vast knowledge of Whitman. He said that searching through the archive allows anyone to be a creator.

According to his Web site, “my book, ‘Walt Whitman’s Native Representations,’ deals with photography, Native American policy, dictionaries and baseball. Other essays have dealt with Whitman and race and Whitman’s relationships to place.”

Folsom discussed “‘So Long,’ ‘So Long!’: Langston Hughes’s Deferred Departure from Whitman” and provided the audience with a copy of selected works so they could follow along.

Gruesz is the author of “Ambassadors of Culture: The Transamerican Origins of Latino Writing.” Gruesz addressed the topic of Walt Whitman and Latino poetry.

Gruesz states on her Web site that her book “reads these productions in light of broader patterns of cultural and political relations between the United States and Latin America, showing how ‘ambassadors of culture’ such as Whitman, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Lord Byron propagated ideas about Latin America and Latinos through their translations, travel writings and poems.”

-Allison Hurley


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