Literary Children

Like any progeny, those of Whitman and Dickinson, would display the blended traits of both parents, although some might favor one parent more than another.  Poets like e.e. cummings and Wallace Stevens could clearly be seen as blends of these “poetic parents.”

e.e. cummings

e.e. cummings, Self Portrait

e.e. cummings, in his poem “La Guerre,”[ii] for example, adapts the free verse style of Whitman, and the introspective and metaphysical view of death which is reminiscent of Dickinson’s work:

the bigness of cannon is skillful,

but i have seen

death’s clever enormous voice

which hides in a fragility

of poppies . . . .

In addition, e. e. cumming’s economy of words and his lack of punctuation and capitalization could be seen as a manifestation of Dickinson’s poetic style.

Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens, on the other hand, in the first stanza of his poem “Tattoo”[iii] takes the close and introspective view of Dickinson,  while employing the same sort of listing employed by Whitman:

The light is like a spider.

It crawls over the water.

It crawls over the edges of the snow.

It crawls under your eyelids

And spreads its webs there–

Its two webs.

Clearly this poem, although it utilizes rhyme and conceit, could draw an allusion to Dickinson’s “There’s a certain Slant of light,” but does not have Dickinson’s economy of language.  Likewise, although it utilizes lists, does not have the extensive scope, nor the application of free verse seen in Whitman.  For, although cummings and Stevens may be said to use the techniques and scope of both Whitman and Dickinson, it may also be said that they use the techniques and scope of neither.

The question of literary DNA, perhaps, is less ambiguous when applied to those poets who seem to clearly favor one “parent,” such as Whitman.  Such diverse works as Allen Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California,”[iv] Anne Sexton’s “Venus and the Ark,”[v] and Robert Lowell’s “As a Plane Tree by the Water.”[vi] display undeniably “Whitmanesque” features.

Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg

Ginsberg, as if to allay any doubt,  begins his poem with the words:

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for

I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache

self-conscious looking at the full moon.

In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went

into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumeration’s!

What peaches and what penumbras!  Whole families

shopping at night!  Aisles full of husbands!  Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!–and you, Garcia Lorca, what

were you doing down by the watermelons?

Clearly, Ginsberg is both mocking and drawing upon the inspiration of Whitman, not only in his words and imaginative actions throughout the poem, but in his style.  The poem is a list of images, of associations, which build upon each other to create the poem.  Likewise the repeated use of explanation marks, question marks, and the lack of a line break pattern, all add to Ginsberg’s allusion to Whitman.

Anne Sexton

Anne Sexton

Although not as obvious in her technique, Ann Sexton uses the cataloguing of items in her poem “Venus and the Ark”:

The missile to launch a missile

was almost a secret.

Two male Ph.D.’s were picked

and primed to fill it

and one hundred

carefully counted insects,

three almost new snakes,

coiled in a cube,

exactly fifty fish creatures

in tanks, the necessary files,

twenty bars of food, ten brief cures,

special locks, fourteen white rats,

fourteen black rats, a pouch of dirt,

were all stuffed aboard before

the thing blasted from the desert.

The line breaks are more regular than Whitman (and Ginsberg for that matter), but the catalogue of things is reminiscent of Whitman’s part 15 of Song of Myself in which he lists the different activities and identities of people in America.  With this allusion in mind, it is possible to see how Sexton, in this poem, draws from both the biblical lists and from the lists of Whitman to link the image of the ark with that of America.

Robert Lowell

Robert Lowell

Finally, Robert Lowell, in “As a Plane Tree by the Water,” recalls from Whitman the lyric notion of the enveloping repeated line, however, unlike Whitman, Lowell uses this repetition in a systematic fashion, repeating the phrase “Flies, flies are on the plane tree, on the streets” at the end of each of the three ten-line stanzas of his poem as both a reflective and unifying device.

Those works which could be seen to favor Dickinson’s side, are John Haines’ “If the Owl Calls Again,”[vii] and X. J. Kennedy’s “Nude Descending a Staircase.”[viii]

John Haines

Haines’ poem is a deceptively simple story of one who accompanies an owl on his nightly journey, but, like Dickinson’s similarly told “Because I could not stop for Death,” its use of metaphor, language, and its intensely introspective view, are habited in a non-self-conscious economy of language and form:

at dusk

from the island in the river,

and its not too cold,

I’ll wait for the moon

to rise,

and take wing and glide

to meet him.

We will not speak,

but hooded against the frost

soar above

the alder flats, searching

with tawny eyes . . .

The poem, like Dickinson’s poetry, is a compact interplay of metaphoric language.  Although Haines does not invoke Dickinson directly through use of similar rhyming or metric styles, he does, clearly, draw upon her sense of image and symbol.  “The island in the river,” for example, may mean both “any” island in “any” river, and a mythic island of the dead located mid-tide of the river Styx.  Haines work is also similar to Dickinson’s use of the “riddle” form, in which the author invokes the curiosity and contemplation of the reader.  Thus, questions such as “Too cold for what?” and “Who is the ‘him’ that the author awaits?” become significant to the interplay between author and reader and effect the interpretation of the poem.  It is a complex sign system which relies as much on surface meanings as it does on culturally shared mythology and literature.

XJ Kennedy

Kennedy’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” is also deceptively simple, even when the reader is aware of the fact that the poem is a description of the painting of like name:

Toe upon toe, a snowing flesh,

A gold of lemon, root and rind,

she sifts in sunlight down the stairs

With nothing on.  Nor on her mind

We spy beneath the banister

A constant thresh of thigh on thigh–

Her lips imprint the singing air

That parts to let her parts go by.

One-woman waterfall, she wears

her slow descent like a long cape

And pausing, on the final stair

Collects her motions into shape.

Like Dickinson’s poetry, Kennedy’s work employs a particular meter and rhyme sequence which pulls the reader through the work.  Kennedy also, like Dickinson employs a highly visual description to the work, with “punch lines” of ironic language at the termination of each stanza which draw allusion to the humor of “I heard a Fly buzz–when I died–,” and “Death is a Dialogue.”

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