Sunday, October 21, 2007

Salut au Monde! Writing Race in Poetry

In the current issue of the American Poetry Review, Major Jackson wrote about race. Titled, From a Mystifying Silence: Black and Big, Jackson takes on race as an issue in American Poetry ending with a call for more white writers to write about race. I thought about this essay again when reading Whitman’s “Salut au Monde!” There are so many wonderful things about Whitman: those huge lines that fill your lungs and bump the outer edges of your mind. The pure ambition of the poems which leave nothing as subjects that do not exist in the world of poetry. The naked sexuality of Whitman, or to say it plain, I cannot imagine a person for whom Whitman is not a hot writer - the writer who makes you race to the bedroom and drop the book for a minute or more alone. All of these things I love about Whitman, but this read I was reminded how I loved him for writing race in a meaningful and interesting way.

As a brief aside, I’ve been thinking about white writers writing race in other material in the course. It is one of the things that fascinated me about Swenson’s work as well. I felt like the absolutely most effective poem of hers in Iconographs was Black Tuesday. I was interested in her poem “The Power House” because at the end she writes, “I thought he’d be a Negro but he wasn’t. He didn’t see me. Didn’t need to see anything. He had a red face and a blue uniform.” The assumption there that he was Negro and that she wasn’t seen interests me.

Returning to Whitman and his salute to the world, I love the scope of this poem and how race and ethnicity in Whitman’s world are so different than how they are circumscribed in our world. I’m aware that Whitman writes it prior to the doctrine of manifest destiny in the United States and at the height of the British Empire. I am aware of the imperialism of Whitman’s vision, but I think that the imperialism is tempered by humanity and profound humanity. He writes,

I hear of the Italian boat-sculler the musical recitative of old poems,
I hear the locusts in Syria as they strike the grain and grass with the showers of their terrible clouds,
I hear the Coptic refrain toward sundown, pensively falling on the breast of the black venerable vast mother of the Nile,
I hear the chirp of the Mexican muleteer, and the bells of the mule,
I hear the Arab muezzin calling from the top of the mosque,
I hear the Christian priests at the altars of their churches, I hear the responsive base and soprano,

Whitman hears more in the world than I ever have. The things he hears are complicated as well. This is not just poetry of adulation. A few lines later he tells us, “I hear the wheeze of the slave-coffle as the slaves march on, as the husky gangs pass on by twos and threes, fastens together with wrist-chains and ankle-chains.” Later he writes, “I see all of the menials of the earth, laboring,/I see all the prisoners in the prisons,/I see the defective human bodies of the earth.” Whitman is intent on seeing it all.

The final strophe of the tenth part of the poem is this:

I see male and female everywhere,
I see the serene brotherhoods of philosophs,
I see the constructiveness of my race,
I see the results of the perseverance and industry of my race,
I see ranks, colors, barbarisms, civilizations, I go among them, I mix indiscriminately,
And I salute all the inhabitants of the earth.

I read this as Whitman speaking of a human race in the third and fourth lines but then realizing that there are differences and moving among them. This strophe leads into the directive of the next two sections where Whitman calls upon the people of the world through hist direct address. The eleventh section ends with this:

Each of us inevitable,
Each of us limitless--each of us with his or her right upon the earth,
Each of us allow’d the eternal purports of the earth,
Each of us here as divinely as any is here.

(Now Whitman wrote this in 1881 and so it seems pretty astounding that over 100 years later there are still people unable to use gender inclusive language as easily as he.)

I first read Whitman as a young child. I have in a journal from 1976, “I, six years old, the bicentennial of the States,” which I have to believe is not from reading Calamus, but rather from the Unitarian Universalist “celebration” of the troubled country; still it seems an odd Whitmanesque mark.

Yet, I digress from Whitman and race. I’m weary of reading him as having a vision of race that is not informed by the racism ripping at the soul of the United States while he is writing or by the imperialism that is shaping the world, but I’m inspired by how consistently and unabashedly Whitman writes race in his work. He has no concern of being seen in a particular way or another. I find that inspiring and I find it what Jackson was calling us to do when he wrote for APR. It also functioned to shape another generation of writers such as Langston Hughes and his poem, “I, too, Sing America.”

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