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 was mulatto; they met in New Orleans, where during the 1840s he lived for six months; during that time they had had six children together [sic] before they had had, tragically, 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 Whiman’s children. The irony is, though, that he did have a lot of progency: writers and theorists and artists who define themselves as overtly
in the “line of Whitman” [sometimes eagerly claiming continuity, sometimes consciously acting out Oedipal resistance]. We’ll read through the terms of Whitman’s long career, stage by stage [his idealism and anxiety before the Civil War, his work as a nurse during the War, his conflicted love poems, his celebration oflate-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 D H Lawrence and Thomas Mann
–poets [Ezra Pound, W C Williams, Hilda Doolittle, Marianne Moore, Allen Ginsberg] –gender-theorists and provocateurs [Oscar Wilde] –post-colonialist writers and theorists of Negritude [Aimee Cesaire] –epic/lyric writers [Pablo Neruda, J L Borges] –contemporary writers of collective narratives [Vladimir Mayakovsky, Grace Paley]

We’ll also have a visit by a dramatist who will present her play on Whitman [and on the problems of representing him] and a screening of a new film on Emily Dickinson, which focuses on the dynamic of reputation-formation after a writer’s death [It’s more interesting– and funnier– than it sounds in paraphrase].