April 15, 2017
Walt Whitman’s “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim”
This date in history President Abraham Lincoln died after being shot the night before while he and Mary were watching the play “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. The Civil War over which he had overseen a bloody victory had essentially ended just four days earlier.
Earlier still in the War of Rebellion as the Union forces called the Civil War, or the War of Secession as the Confederate forces called it, the good grey poet Walt Whitman had written Drum-Taps, a collection of war poems, Here is “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim”:
A SIGHT in camp in the day-break grey and dim,
As from my tent I emerge so early, sleepless,
As slow I walk in the cool fresh air, the path near by
Three forms I see on stretchers lying, brought out there,
Over each the blanket spread, ample brownish woolen
Grey and heavy blanket, folding, covering all.
Curious, I halt, and silent stand;
Then with light fingers I from the face of the nearest,
the first, just lift the blanket:
Who are you, elderly man so gaunt and grim, with
well-grey’d hair, and flesh all sunken about the
Who are you, my dear comrade?
Then to the second I step—And who are you, my
child and darling?
Who are you, sweet boy, with cheeks yet blooming?
Then to the third—a face nor child, nor old, very
calm, as of beautiful yellow-white ivory:
Young man, I think I know you—I think this face of
yours is the face of the Christ himself;
Dead and divine, and brother of all, and here again he
In this elegy, written well before the death of Lincoln, Whitman mourns three soldiers who died just hours before. He states rather clearly that their martyrdom is comparable to that of Christ. Obviously the words were to take on even more meaning after the events that night at Ford’s Theatre.
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April 9, 2017
Walt Whitman’s Drum-Taps
On this date in 1865 General Robert E. Lee of the Confederate States of America surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to General Ulysses S. Grant of the United States of America.
For those of us for whom literature matters greatly, probably no literature of the American Civil War matters as much as Walt Whitman’s collection of poetry, Drum Taps. Here are two poems “Beat! Beat! Drums” and “Cavalry Crossing a Ford.”
BEAT! BEAT! DRUMS!
BEAT! beat! drums!—Blow! bugles! blow!
Through the windows—through doors—burst like a
force of ruthless men,
Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation;
Into the school where the scholar is studying:
Leave not the bridegroom quiet—no happiness must
he have now with his bride;
Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, plowing his field or
gathering his grain;
So fierce you whirr and pound, you drums—so shrill
you bugles blow.
Beat! beat! drums!—Blow! bugles! blow!
Over the traffic of cities—over the rumble of wheels in
Are beds prepared for sleepers at night in the houses?
No sleepers must sleep in those beds;
No bargainers’ bargains by day—no brokers or specu-
lators —Would they continue?
Would the talkers be talking? would the singer attempt
Would the lawyer rise in the court to state his case
before the judge?
Then rattle quicker, heavier drums—you bugles wilder
Beat! beat! drums!—Blow! bugles! blow!
Make no parley—stop for no expostulation;
Mind not the timid—mind not the weeper or prayer;
Mind not the old man beseeching the young man;
Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s en-
Make even the trestles to shake the dead, where they lie
awaiting the hearses,
So strong you thump, O terrible drums—so loud
you bugles blow.
CAVALRY CROSSING A FORD.
A LINE in long array, where they wind betwixt green
They take a serpentine course—their arms flash in the
sun—Hark to the musical clank;
Behold the silvery river—in it the splashing horses,
loitering, stop to drink;
Behold the brown-faced men—each group, each person,
a picture—the negligent rest on the saddles;
Some emerge on the opposite bank—others are just
entering the ford;
The guidon flags flutter gaily in the wind.
Many of Walt Whitman’s war poems embody the very spirit of civil conflict, picturing war with a poignant realism and a terrible, tender beauty. Unlike poems from other wars, such as those from World War I or those from Vietnam, these and other poems in Drum Taps make no attempt to resolve the tension between a romantic glorification of the Civil War and a rigorous anti-war stance.
Illuminating the Beats From Their Shadow
Books | American Beauties
By Joyce Johnson
265 pages, Penguin Books, $16.
Joyce Johnson was 21 and not long out of Barnard College when, in the winter of 1957, Allen Ginsberg set her up on a blind date with Jack Kerouac.
She took the subway downtown to meet him at a Howard Johnson’s on Eighth Street in Manhattan. “I push open the heavy glass door, and there is, sure enough, a black-haired man at the counter in a flannel lumberjack shirt slightly the worse for wear,” she writes.
“He looks up and stares at me hard with blue eyes, amazingly blue. And the skin on his face is so brown. He’s the only person in Howard Johnson’s in color. I feel a little scared as I walk up to him. ‘Jack?’ I say.”
Kerouac was older than Johnson, 34, and still largely unknown. The book that would make his reputation and upend American literature, “On the Road,” had yet to be published.
He was broke, hungry, distraught. She bought him a plate of frankfurters. He followed her back to her small apartment. A door had swung open in her life.
Thus began an off-and-on relationship that lasted nearly two years, years that witnessed the publication of “On the Road” and life-altering fame — not only Kerouac’s but also that of many of his closest friends, other Beat Generation writers.
Johnson captures this period with deep clarity and moving insight in her memoir “Minor Characters” (1983). It’s hardly an unknown book. It won a National Book Critics Circle Award, and it has remained in print since it was issued.
Joyce Johnson in 2009. More than a memoir of her time with the Beats, “Minor Characters” is a riveting portrait of an era. Credit Schiffer-Fuchs/ullstein bild, via Getty Images
I’m including it in this series of columns about neglected American books because I so rarely hear it mentioned, and because I continue to think it is hideously undervalued and under-read. “Minor Characters” is, in its quiet but deliberate way, among the great American literary memoirs of the past century.
Johnson’s book takes its title from her realization that — as was so common in every sphere of cultural life in the 1950s and beyond — the Beats were a boy gang. She would always be, at best, on its periphery. Her memoir braids and unbraids, at length, the meanings of this fact.
She recalls how the women at the San Remo and other bars, hangouts for writers and artists, “are all beautiful and have such remarkable cool that they never, never say a word; they are presences merely.” Johnson and her friends wanted to be among the yakkers, the all-night arguers.
“Minor Characters” is not just about the Beats. It’s about many different subjects that bleed together. In part it’s a portrait of Johnson’s cloistered middle-class childhood on the Upper West Side. Her parents wanted her to be a composer.
She longed for escape and began sneaking down to Washington Square Park to be among the musicians and poets. She was round-faced, well-dressed, virginal. She’d never tasted coffee. It was “my curse,” she writes, that “my outside doesn’t reflect my inside, so no one knows who I really am.”
Her book is a riveting portrait of an era. It contains a description of a back-room abortion that’s as harrowing and strange as any I’ve read. Johnson had the abortion because she didn’t love the boy and wasn’t ready for a child.
“Sometimes you went to bed with people almost by mistake, at the end of late, shapeless nights when you’d stayed up so long it almost didn’t matter,” she writes. “The thing was, not to go home.”
Alessandra Montalto gets credit for the image
actually published with this article./The New York Times
“Minor Characters” is a glowing introduction to the Beats. There are shrewd portraits of not just Kerouac and Ginsberg but people like Robert Frank and Hettie Jones.
Johnson has a knack for summing up a character in a blazing line or two. Here’s how she describes the Beat-era figure Lucien Carr, for example, at the moment he first met Kerouac: “This rich, dangerous St. Louis boy with the wicked mouth who’s already been kicked out of Bowdoin and the University of Chicago, who’s amassed a whole dissipated history by the age of 19.”
Best of all, perhaps, this book charts Johnson’s own career as a budding writer. She worked in publishing when she was young; she was secretary to John Farrar of Farrar, Straus and Cudahy (later Farrar, Straus & Giroux). He wanted to promote her; she left instead to visit Kerouac in Mexico and write. She published her first novel, “Come and Join the Dance,” when she was 26.
By then, she and Kerouac had separated for good. There was a final scene on a sidewalk. “You’re nothing but a big bag of wind!” she shouted at him. Kerouac, constitutionally unable to remain with one woman, shouted back, “Unrequited love’s a bore!”
Johnson looks back on the young woman she was, while with Kerouac, and realizes she was “not in mourning for her life. How could she have been, with her seat at the table in the exact center of the universe, that midnight place where so much is converging, the only place in America that’s alive?”
I remember tracking down a first edition of “Minor Characters” — this was harder in the late 1980s than it is today — to give to my college girlfriend as a graduation present. She looked at its title, wrinkled her brow and asked, “Why this book?” Why a book, in other words, about women who are minor characters?
I fumbled my answer. I knew only that I loved the book and wanted to share it. What I wish I had said is this: “Minor Characters” is better than all but a handful of books the boy-Beats themselves wrote. It’s a book about a so-called minor character who, in the process of writing her life, became a major one.
Follow Dwight Garner on Twitter: @DwightGarner
American Beauties is a column by Dwight Garner, appearing every other week, about undersung American books of the past 75 years.
Racedown Cottage, the first residence of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, in the Lake District
April 7, 2017
On this date William Wordsworth was born in 1770 in Cockermouth, Cumberland, UK.
Few brother-sister relationships in literary history have affected the course of western literature like that of Dorothy and William Wordsworth. The story of that relationship is the story of natural and shared genius, yet the genius of one relegated, obscured, and subordinated in her lifetime to the genius celebrated in his lifetime. Yet, William’s genius was dependent greatly upon that of his sister’s. Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals were not published in her lifetime, but they reveal her genius and they reveal that she was for many of the early Wordsworth poems her brother’s collaborator. It’s not that William took advantage of his sister or that he would have denied her role as his partner if asked. Nineteenth-century English society took advantage of her.
Regardless, William Wordsworth received the acclaim of history and the western world as he dominated his age and mightily helped the worldwide paradigm change that was Romanticism.
Dorothy and William spent their childhoods apart with relatives after the deaths of their parents. So when they came together in early adulthood they really did not know each other well.
Here in a letter to her close friend Jane Pollard from February 1792, Dorothy offers her early impressions of her brother, at first comparing him to their brother Christopher:
Christopher is steady and sincere in his attachments. William has both these virtues in an eminent degree, and a sort of violence of affection, if I may so term it, which demonstrates itself every moment of the day, when the objects of his attentions to their wishes, in a sort of restless watchfulness which I may not know how to describe, a tenderness that never sleeps, and at the same time such a delicacy of manner as I have observed in few men.
In another letter to Pollard from June of that year, Dorothy writes an introduction to her brother whom she hopes Pollard will soon meet:
But it is enough to say that I am likely to have the happiness of introducing you to my beloved brother. You must forgive me for talking so much of him; my affection hurries me on, and makes me forget that you cannot be so much interested in the subject as I am. You do not know how amiable he is. Perhaps you reply, ‘But I know how blinded you are.’ Well, my dearest, I plead guilty at once; I must be blind; he cannot be so pleasing as my fondness makes him. I am willing to allow that half the virtues with which I fancy him endowed are the creation of my love; but surely I may be excused! He was never tired of comforting his sister; he never left her in anger; he always met her with joy; he preferred her society to every other pleasure—or rather, when we were so happy as to be within each other’s reach, he had no pleasure when we were compelled to be divided. Do not, then expect too much from this brother of whom I have delighted so to talk to you. In the first place, you must be with him more than once before he will be perfectly easy in conversation. In the second place, his person is not in his favour—at least I should think not; but I soon ceased to discover this—nay, I almost thought that the opinion which I had formed was erroneous. He is, however, certainly rather plain, though otherwise has an extremely thoughtful countenance; but when he speaks it is often lighted up by a smile which I think very pleasing. But enough, he is my brother; why should I describe him? I shall be launching again into panegyric.
April 5, 2017
Hirshfield’s fifth volume of poetry, published in 2001, continues with the old themes but proves her most expansive volume to date: “As water given sugar sweetens, given salt grows salty,/we become our choices.” And thus Given Sugar, Given Salt explores our choices for meaningful living. In “Bone,” for example, the speaker’s dog unearths an old bone, the toy of her previous dog—for whose memory she still grieves. The new dog knows nothing of the old dog:
my counting and expectations,
mean nothing to her;
my sadness, though,
does puzzle her a moment.
But the new dog does not remain puzzled for long. She just keeps on chewing and then readies herself for a game of catch.
Choices control all of our lives. In “Happiness is Harder” Hirshfield considers even happiness a choice. Sadness can be cured perhaps: “A person has only to choose./ What doesn’t matter; just that-.” However, “Happiness is harder.” Or, she says,
Consider the masters’ description
of awakened existence, how seemingly simple:
Hungry, I eat; sleepy, I sleep.
Is this choosing completely, or not at all?
In either case, everything seems to conspire against it.
Jane Hirshfield has, then, developed a unique voice among contemporary American poets. Her work has the quiet yet persistent vision characteristic of Zen. Life often is a question with no answer, but the question must be asked. Jane Hirshfield continues to ask.
Ok, folks, I think that’s all I’ve got for this series on the early poetry of Jane Hirshfield. If you would like to collect the entire series at once just click on Jane Hirshfield under Categories to read everything.
Since 2001 Jane Hirshfield has published the following volumes of poetry:
Pebbles & Assays (2004)
Each Happiness Ringed by Lions (2005)
Come, Thief (2013)
The Beauty (2015)
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April 3, 2017
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye,
So priketh hem Natúre in hir corages,
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Opening Lines of The Canterbury Tales.
April 1, 2017
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke’s,
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.
From The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot