"Their being finely aware - as Hamlet and Lear, say, are finely aware - makes absolutely the intensity of their adventure, gives the maximum of sense to what befalls them. We care, our curiosity and sympathy care, comparatively little for the stupid, the coarse, and the blind;care for it, and for the effects of it, at the most as helping to precipitate what happens to the more deeply wondering, to the really sentient." - Henry James, excerpt from the Preface to the 1908 edition of The Princess Casamassima.
"Do you know so much that you call the slave or the dullfaced
Do you suppose you have a right to a good sight.... and he or
she has no right to a sight?
Do you think matter has cohered together from its diffused
float, and the soil is on the surface and water runs and veg-
etation sprouts from you...and not for him and her?" - Walt Whitman, excerpt from Leaves Of Grass,
I. - If ever two writers were meant for the scholastic exercise of "compare and contrast" it would be these two: Henry James (1843-1916) the aesthete and Walt Whitman (1819-1892) the free spirit. But that is not why I put them together here. Rather, their views of the relationship between aesthetics and moral worth seem designed for our current moment.
Whitman's poetry was as distinctive as that of his contemporary Emily Dickinson; where Dickinson's poems arrived as briefings from an alternative reality, Whitman's embodied his experiences in an expansive, generous, and democratic epics, as in Leaves Of Grass
. Although admired by the Transcendentalists on its initial publication, Leaves of Grass
was more typically derided as "trashy, profane, & obscene." In our time, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (b.1919) and Adrienne Rich (1929-2012), descendants of Whitman, also write themselves into the larger social narrative. Their poetry is personal but not solipsistic.
II. - Another sort of embodied or concrete poetry can be found in Scotland. There is a garden where Whitman-esque 'garden poems' are carved, one word at a time into stones, a plentiful substance in the rocky Alban soil. Little Sparta, as the garden is now known, was the brainchild of Sue Finlay and Ian Hamilton-Finlay, artist and poet living near Edinburgh. The original garden, accurately named Stonypath
, was planted in 1966 and has been elaborated on several times since. These lines from "Integrity" by Adrienne Rich would be a fine candidate for a walking poem. For Whitman, like Rich, patience would have to be an active virtue.
" A wild patience has taken me this far
as if I had to bring to shore
a boat with a spasmodic outboard motor
old sweaters, nets, spray-mottled books
tossed in the prow
some kind of sun burning my shoulder-blades.
Splashing the oarlocks. Burning through.
Your fore-arms can get scalded, licked with pain
in a sun blotted like unspoken anger
behind a casual mist." - excerpt from "Integrity" from A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far
by Adrienne Rich, 1981
To read more:
Lawrence Ferlinghetti - Starting From San Francisco
, New York, New Directions: 1961.
Adrienne Rich - A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far
, New York, W.W. Norton: 1981.
Daniel Boudinet - Little Sparta, the garden of Ian Hamilton-Finlay and Sue Finlay, at Stonypath
, 1987, Dunysre, Scotland.