Pact

I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman — I have detested you long enough. I come to you as a grown child Who has had a pig-headed father; I am old enough now to make friends. It was you that broke the new wood, Now is a time for carving. We have one sap and one root — Let there be commerce between us.

Pound was honoring the influence of Whitman, whose uneven lines caused a sensation in his day. Here's an excerpt from Whitman's free verse poem, "I Hear America Singing:"

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,

Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong

The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam, The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,

The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck, The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, . . .

In his usual celebratory fashion, Whitman ends his poem by depicting all manner of Americans singing "with open mouths their strong melodious songs."

Whitman is widely acknowledged as the founding father of free verse. After all, the Civil War era was perfect for it, an emotional time whose theme was freedom and whose subject matter —death and destruction —did not fit tidy patterns of formal poetry. But the paradox of Whitman is that his influence seems as great in the twentieth century as Milton's was in the last; moreover, while Milton will forever be known as a religious poet, it was Whitman who looked to the Bible, particularly Psalms, to hone his voice. Based on ancient Hebrew patterns, the Psalms were translated freestyle in 1611 in the King James version. Here is a typical passage (Psalm 137:1-2):

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst.

As you can see, Whitman laid the groundwork for the moderns. Two schools of free verse evolved. Pound, Eliot, H.D., Williams, Stevens and others experimented further with voice and form but focused primarily on image (at the expense of clarity, some claim). Other poets, such as Carl Sandburg and Edgar Lee Masters — refer to the latter's poem "Editor Whedon" on pages 253-254 —followed Whitman's lead and simply employed the tones and cadences of language without becoming obscure in the process. Thus, Sandburg and Masters were among the first poets to capture true American diction, using free verse as the vehicle and structure as the frame.

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