Studies in Poetry

Late in his middle age, unmarried and childless, Walt Whitman was dismayed to hear that rumors were circulating about his sexuality. In response, he encouraged his friends to spread a counter-rumor: the reason he wasn’t interested in women was that he was still grieving for a lost love from decades earlier. She had been mulatto; they had met in New Orleans, where during the 1840s he had lived for six months. During that time they had had six children together before, tragically, they had been forced to separate. He’d never returned to New Orleans…

In this seminar we won’t spend a lot of time discussing the plausibility of this story of Whitman’s “children.” [Even though it is an interesting exercise in literary reputation-formation in “influence” and in the limitations of biographical-criticism…] The irony is, though, that Whitman did, ultimately, have a lot of progeny: writers and theorists and artists who define themselves as overtly in the “line of Whitman.”  [Some eagerly claim continuity, some consciously act out Oedipal or cultural or poetic resistance.Some ideologically reflect on what it means to be influenced by 19th century America’s most famous poet.] Throughout the term, we’ll read through the major works of Whitman’s own long career, stage by stage [his idealistic poems before the Civil War; his compensatory work while he served as a nurse during the War; his conflicted love poems; his later celebrations of 19th-century American expansionism and industrialization.] At each stage we’ll also read work by writers, across several continents and centuries, who admired [or resisted] his model.

Novelists [including Thomas Mann, D H Lawrence, Maxine Hong Kingston]; poets [Ezra Pound, W C Williams, Hilda Doolittle, Marianne Moore, Allen Ginsberg]; Gender-theorists and provocateurs [Oscar Wilde, Edward Carpenter, Mark Doty] Post colonialist writers and theorists of Negritude [Aimee Cesaire, Langston Hughes]; Epic/lyric writers [Pablo Neruda, J L Borges, Gabriela Mistral, Guo Moruo]; Contemporary writers of collective narratives [Vladimir Mayakovsky, Grace Paley].