Lorine Niedecker, Walt Whitman, & Vladislav Khodasevich
Each issue the Star-Crossed column chooses one or more writers who were born during a particular month and talks about their work.
Walt Whitman – born May 31, 1819, in Huntington, New York
Vladislav Khodasevich – born May 16, 1886, in Moscow, Russia
Lorine Niedecker – born May 12, 1903, on Black Hawk Island, Wisconsin
The three May birthdays for this month's column belong to Lorine Niedecker, Walt Whitman, and Vladislav Khodasevich. Niedecker and Whitman have both written major poems about American presidents: Niedecker on Thomas Jefferson, and Whitman on Abraham Lincoln. Meanwhile, Whitman and Khodasevich have staked out opposite ends of the poetic spectrum in their approaches to nationalism and mystical transcendence.
1 – Lorine Niedecker: Thomas Jefferson
I did part of my studies at the University of Virginia, the school Thomas Jefferson designed and founded, and two of my friends there were total Jefferson fanatics. It’s always interesting to hear fanatics on a subject where you’re not fanatical yourself, and I now have a greater respect for all those volumes of Jefferson’s writings that my friends pressed on me at the time. If nothing else, learning about Jefferson gave me a much fuller impression of his great rival, Alexander Hamilton, the Michael Corleone of the Founders, a thrillingly contradictory leader. It still seems to me that we’ve inherited Hamilton’s America much more than Jefferson’s, and that Hamilton’s dark complexities tell us more about our culture than Jefferson’s demagoguery does. It was Hamilton, after all, who believed we needed to create a national free-market economy where everyone would always feel a little desperate to keep up with everyone else. In true Enlightenment fashion, he thought politics should be about controlling people through their self-interest. He then concluded that a great way to fix our self-interest to a tight leash was to hold us all in constant fear of financial humiliation. Hamilton created the modern American economic system, and to the extent that our system has shaped countries everywhere, he created much of the modern world. This has made him a hero to neoconservatives, who’ve engaged in a lot of revisionist doubletalk about him in recent years. The rest of us, though, should probably take a closer and less propagandistic look at this most confounding of our national figures.
Compared to Hamilton, who at least has the better-to-reign-in-Hell glamour of his convictions, Jefferson has always felt a bit sordid to me. I find him sanctimonious and hypocritical, a devious and dishonest politician obsessed with power and privilege while spinning his webs of sticky rhetoric about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If they’d had the chance, both Hamilton and Jefferson might have become pseudo-democratic tyrants, but Hamilton would’ve probably been another Napoleon while Jefferson, I’m afraid, would’ve come out closer to Robespierre. The one thing we can be happy about is that Hamilton largely blocked Jefferson’s dictatorial ambitions, just as Jefferson largely blocked Hamilton’s. Maybe the reason our revolution didn’t go the way of the French or Russian Revolutions is simply because we were lucky enough to have a pair of Lenins, more or less equally matched, who held each other at bay.
Lorine Niedecker, in her long poem “Thomas Jefferson,” is more sympathetic to Jefferson than I am, but she conveys her sympathy while remaining honest about his less appealing qualities. She digs so deeply into Jefferson’s flaws that they become inseparable from her vision of what makes him fully human and ultimately admirable. When I want a corrective for my negative views of Jefferson, I don’t turn to his many hagiographers and apologists. I turn to Niedecker, who has an appealing belief that our greatest understanding of others should be reserved for their greatest shortcomings.
From the opening lines the poem announces its method of doubling back on Jefferson’s thoughts:
My wife is ill!
And I sit
for a quorum
Throughout the poem Jefferson’s public and personal lives -- his abstract beliefs and private actions -- wrap around each other like a nest of snakes trying to slither up a long iron rod. Sometimes they wind together harmoniously, but always the strain is present, the potential for the slithering to grow opposed or violent. Jefferson’s relationship with his daughter shows the winding at its most subtle, the fascist and boorish tendencies of the father coiling coldly around the warmth of his genuine love:
To daughter Patsy: Read –
No person full of work
was ever hysterical
Know music, history
(I calculate 14 to 1
she will draw
Niedecker also traces the back-and-forth between the pragmatic and the philosophical in Jefferson’s deist mind, through an amusing passage that resembles some of Melville’s odd reflections on the theological implications of whale oil:
Agreed with Adams:
send spermaceti oil to Portugal
for their church candles
(light enough to banish mysteries?:
three are one and one is three
and yet the one not three
and the three not one)
Niedecker packs her language with as much meaning as possible while stripping her phrases of excess and ornament. Lines that sound casual, tossed off with little thought, turn out to hold Jack-in-the-box surprises:
When I set out for Monticello
will they know me?)
How are my young
chestnut trees –
That parenthetical aside about the grandchildren, tucked within Jefferson’s thoughts of returning to Monticello and inspecting the young trees, opens up a furtive epic about the respective positions of both his legitimate heirs and his secret line of relatives with Sally Hemings. Also, it’s no accident that this furtiveness is embedded within his much stronger and more open interest in seeing what has happened to his trees, the chestnuts that he has planted on the estate as part of his drive to bend nature to his own specifications. Niedecker is very good -- is peerless, really -- on the way that Monticello and Jefferson’s other creations and interests strive to contain and guide the people who end up captured inside them. This striving energizes Jefferson yet also imprisons him. He enslaves himself and everyone else to his love of controlled spaces, the internal architecture of his reasoning and the external architecture that his mind imposes on his physical and human surroundings:
Mind leaving, let body leave
Let dome live, spherical dome
“Thomas Jefferson” is one of Niedecker’s best-known poems, but the good news is that all her work is worth reading. She should be undergoing a proper revival these days because of the renewed interest in her fellow Objectivists, George Oppen and Louis Zukofsky. In the last few years, though, much of the attention seems to have focused almost exclusively on Oppen, and not so much on his verse as on his life, his usefulness as an appealing role model for today’s writers. Nothing wrong with that: Oppen is a fascinating person as well as a first-rate poet, and his experiences form a powerful example of some of the tough choices many poets must make. Still, I’d like to put in a word for Niedecker on her own, separate from her part in a movement that only loosely defined her.
Her first book, New Goose, wasn’t published until 1946, when she was 43 years old, and she didn’t have a chance to publish a second volume until My Friend Tree in 1961. Like Wallace Stevens, another poet who did most of his publishing relatively late in life, Niedecker writes verse that is distinguished by its depth and breadth of knowledge, both of literature and of the world, and by the refreshing combination of an older writer’s maturity with a younger writer’s freshness. Stylistically, the gaudy flamboyance of Stevens and the condensed austerity of Niedecker couldn’t be more different, but in their separate ways they’re both poets of plenty, always giving us more than we expect. “Thomas Jefferson” is a reasonable place to start with Niedecker, but what you really want to get your hands on is her Collected Works, brought out in 2002, and superbly edited by Jenny Penberthy.
2 – Walt Whitman: Abraham Lincoln
The oddest thing about Walt Whitman’s poems on Abraham Lincoln is how little they have to say about the president as either a person or a leader. Niedecker constantly sends us back to the historical Jefferson, back to his letters, his biographers, as many details of his experiences as we can find. Her poem is an intense compilation of telling bits and pieces, specific phrases, specific incidents, each of which crystallizes a sophisticated interpretation of whole bodies of writing and evidence. Anyone can read “Thomas Jefferson” and get much of what Niedecker is saying, but the poem is really meant for readers who share her knowledge of Jefferson’s life, or who are inspired by her passion for Jefferson to learn more about him.
Whitman goes a different route. Leaves of Grass, in its Memories of President Lincoln section, brings together some of the Lincoln poems that Whitman originally composed in 1865-66, soon after Lincoln’s death, plus one poem written in 1871.
Three of the four poems are embarrassingly bad. “Hush’d be the Camps To-Day” is Whitman at his worst, a rush of editorializing sentimentality:
Hush’d be the camps to-day,
And soldiers let us drape our war-worn weapons,
And each with musing soul retire to celebrate,
Our dear commander’s death.
“This Dust Was Once the Man,” the 1871 poem, is more of the same:
This dust was once the man,
Gentle, plain, just and resolute, under whose cautious hand,
Against the foulest crime in history known in any land or age,
Was saved the Union of these States.
“O Captain! My Captain!” shows Whitman attempting traditional meter and rhyme: it’s as jingle-jangly as Poe without any of the mad excessiveness that pushes Poe’s best verse beyond self-parody and into a wild extravagant realm all its own. Even an American who’s amused by the French mania for Poe can understand what Baudelaire saw in “The Raven,” but “O Captain! My Captain!” merely makes us grateful that Whitman attempted little else in this vein:
O CAPTAIN! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
That leaves us with one great poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Whitman is nothing if not repetitive, and “Lilacs” repeats many of the elements from, for instance, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” Once again we have the scent of lilacs, the italicized bird-song of death, the Keatsian vision retold in Whitman’s distinctly American voice. The new elements here are the “battle-corpses, myriads of them,” and the extraordinary description of Lincoln’s funeral train moving across the country:
Over the breast of the spring, the land, amid cities,
Amid lanes and through old woods, where lately the violets peep’d from the
ground, spotting the gray debris,
Amid the grass in the fields each side of the lanes, passing the endless grass,
Passing the yellow-spear’d wheat, every grain from its shroud in the dark-brown
Passing the apple-tree blows of white and pink in the orchards,
Carrying a corpse to where it shall rest in the grave,
Night and day journeys a coffin.
The poem sustains the description, in one of those epic Whitman passages that gathers up detail after detail until the whole world seems to be lifted into his verse:
Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
Through day and night with the great cloud darkening the land,
With the pomp of the inloop’d flags with the cities draped in black,
With the show of the States themselves as of crape-veil’d women standing,
With processions long and winding and the flambeaus of the night,
With the countless torches lit, with the silent sea of faces and the unbared
With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,
With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising strong and
With all the mournful voices of the dirges pour’d around the coffin,
The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs—where amid these you journey,
With the tolling bells’ perpetual clang,
Here, coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac.
Whitman accomplishes what he’s after: the mythologizing of Lincoln’s death into an event of global importance. Entirely missing, however, is any sense of the particular qualities of greatness that Lincoln expressed through his actions. Apart from the vaguest generalities, Whitman never attempts, either in “Lilacs” or anywhere else, to give Lincoln the specific dimensions of a human being who distinguished himself through specific deeds and specific decisions. Whitman has been singularly fortunate that Lincoln, nearly alone among American leaders, has turned out to deserve much of the praise we’ve used to obscure and abstract him. As a poet, Whitman can see other people in vivid flashes but completely lacks the ability to imagine them in a sustained fashion. Everyone, even Lincoln, is drawn into the roaring rapids of the total Whitman vision, and the effect is magnificent, a Niagara Falls of humanity, but cuts Whitman off from any effort to examine Lincoln with the subtlety that Niedecker brings to Jefferson.
This isn’t a small loss. As worthy of admiration as Lincoln undoubtedly is, he is defined by his failures and limitations as much as by his strengths and achievements, and Whitman’s attempt to leap straight towards glorification is artistically lazy and morally irresponsible. Gore Vidal’s historical novel Lincoln suffers from the ponderous clichés of its genre -- all those memoirs and primary sources recast as expository dialogues in the White House -- yet Vidal has succeeded magnificently in imagining much of what Whitman leaves out. The Lincoln invented by Vidal is a man of Shakespearean dimensions, full of doubts and mixed motives, a closet dictator who started the Civil War as much out of a desire to trump the glory of the Founders as out of any nobler instincts. Whitman’s Lincoln is a cartoon Christ-figure: he died not to remind us of our sins but to inflame our self-righteous sense of America’s greatness. Vidal’s Lincoln is a much more interesting person. His death isn’t seen as the ultimate glorious sacrifice to the Union’s victory. Instead, he seems to will his own murder as a guilt-ridden, inadequate atonement for all the blood he has spilled in the pursuit of his relentless compulsion to amass unprecedented glory for himself.
3 – Khodasevich: The Poet Dissolving in Acid
Whitman is too great a poet for us to treat him with kid gloves. Since he’s in no danger of being neglected or underappreciated, I think it’s important to continue acknowledging his absurd jingoism, a disturbing feature throughout Leaves of Grass. The Drum-Taps section celebrates the bloodshed of the Civil War with monotonous patriotic zeal. Characteristically, it proclaims: “I’ll pour the verse with streams of blood… / With the banner and pennant a-flapping.” Whitman loves the idea of the Union preserving itself through violence: “No longer let our children deem us riches and peace alone, / We may be terror and carnage, and are so now...” Later, after dealing directly with wounded and dying soldiers, Whitman becomes less exuberant about slaughter per se, but even more extreme in his hysterical praise of the United States, perhaps most embarrassingly in “the carol of victory” that he offers us in his post-war shaping of “By Blue Ontario’s Shore.”
The artistic rationale for all this noisy flag-waving is Whitman's mawkish idea that American democracy recognizes on a political level the unity and importance of all individuals everywhere, a conviction that's central to Whitman's verse. When Whitman is on a roll -- during the best parts of ”Lilacs” or ”Song of Myself” -- no other poet is as good at capturing the mystical oneness he believes we hold with each other and with the world. Whitman feels connected to every person who has ever lived, every animal and rock and weed, everything around him and beyond him. This is his special glory. Who else has been half so inspired in fulfilling Forster's command that we must only connect?
Yet as Whitman's warlust demonstrates, there's good reason to be skeptical of some of those connections. It's not a matter of rejecting Whitman, but of admitting that his strengths can be the flipside of his weaknesses. And on this particular flipside, where our connections with others are sometimes problematic or destructive, we could do worse than to read the Russian poet Vladislav Khodasevich.
Khodasevich came out of the Silver Age of Russian literature, the years running from the start of the twentieth century and bleeding into the early Soviet era: a period when Symbolists like Bely and Blok harped on their determinedly mystical vision of the world. In Bely's Petersburg, for instance, the Symbolist vision is as exhilarating and occasionally absurd as Whitman’s own brand of mysticism. (One big difference, though, is that Bely has a sense of humor about his fixations, and makes comedy and parody part of his method.)
Khodasevich stood slightly apart from the other Symbolists, and his separation from them widened over the years. For English speakers, the terrific David M. Bethea biography, Khodasevich: His Life and Art, remains the essential work. It's still the best place not only to start learning about Khodasevich's background and experiences but to find a large number of translations of his verse.
Khodasevich had a complex relationship with Symbolism. As he explains in his memoirs, he shared deeply in the Symbolist view that ”[e]very event, beyond its obvious meaning, acquired a second meaning which was necessary to interpret.” Yet to a startling and ever-growing degree, Khodasevich was obsessed with the separateness of this secret world of meaning, and with the difficulty of reaching that world. In his breakthrough collection, Grain's Way (1920), he writes (all the translations are Bethea's):
Step over, jump over,
fly over, cross – however you like –
but break loose: like a stone from a sling,
like a star falling in the night...
you lost it yourself – now look for it...
The possibility of transcendence exists here, but it has been lost and needs to be recovered. Grain's Way, as a sequence of poems, sees the recovery in cyclical terms, loss followed by gain, almost a seasonal process. Indeed, throughout his career, the possibility of the return of transcendence never fully abandons Khodasevich's verse. Even among the much more pessimistic poems of his next collection, The Heavy Lyre, the remarkable ”Ballada” dramatizes his continued belief in reaching the mystical world beyond. The poet feels the objects in his circular room move around him until he begins to ”outgrow” himself, advancing ”with steps into the subterranean flame, / with brow into the fleeting stars.” Yet he's already isolated, trapped by the ”stale, beggared paltriness” of his ”hopelessly closed life,” and it's no longer clear how his moment of transcendence relates to what he’s leaving behind. I've written earlier about some of the references to ”Ballada” in Pale Fire, and The Heavy Lyre includes another poem, ”The Swallows,” which obviously contributes to Nabokov's celebrated opening: ”I was the shadow of the waxwing slain / By the false azure in the windowpane.” Khodasevich describes a pair of swallows trying but failing to pass through a window:
...in vain two swallows are bursting to get out,
darting at the window with a faint chirp.
One cannot puncture with a sharp-angled wing
that transparent but sturdy membrane over there;
nor can one, with a tiny bird's wing or
a captive heart, flit there.
In Whitman, the poet's communion with the world is ecstatic, even orgasmic. He recognizes no barrier between himself and others, or between the natural and the mystical. His mysticism is instead contained within the tangible, which is why his verse becomes more exhilarating the more he observes everything around him. He proceeds through joy and excitement. With Khodasevich, however, the transcendent can't be reached by any pleasurable effort: the swallow's wings and ”captive heart” are unable to pass through the glass. Only suffering and human devastation offer even the promise of spiritual revelation:
Till all the blood has come out of your pores,
till you have cried out your earthly eyes,
you won't become spirit. Wait, looking point blank,
as the light splashes without covering the night.
In the later Khodasevich poems, the world is often a place of torment. Worse, over the years Khodasevich becomes less and less certain about whether the torment will lead to the dark release that ”The Swallows” suggests or merely to the bleakest destruction. In ”The Automobile” he imagines a car that devours ”everything that simply falls / under the black shaft of its rays...” Once the car has passed, the poet is left with the knowledge of permanent diminishment:
By the time of his final collection, European Night from 1927, his awareness of his collapse has sharpened, driving the hope of transcendence into nearly complete retreat:
Here a world stood, simple and intact,
but ever since that other is on the road,
in my soul and world are gaps
as though from spilled acid.
And in this life dearer to me than
all harmonious beauties
is the shiver running along my skin
or the cold sweat of terror,
or the dream where, at one time whole,
I, exploding, fly apart,
like mud splashed by a tire
along the alien spheres of being.
After European Night, Khodasevich lived another twelve years, but he stopped writing verse and felt he had lost his ability to ever take up poetry again. The biographical record is, as always, incomplete, but he seems to have felt cut off from the Soviet literary community, which completely rejected him after he left Russia in 1922. In addition, he felt equally cut off from most of the Russian literary community in Paris, and experienced his life abroad as a debilitating separation from the sources of his creativity. Where Whitman wrote out of unbreakable certainties about his relationship to his country and his beliefs, Khodasevich was shaken from his national place and from his particular community of Russian poets. In the end, he found many of his personal, literary, and philosophical convictions dissolving in the corrosion of his alien environment. His measure is that, through his verse, he brought as much artistic perceptiveness to his desolate, discouraging vision as Whitman did to his much more invigorating one.