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Whitman and Olson, Research Paper Example

Pages: 6

Words: 1741

Research Paper

Two American poets, Walt Whitman and Charles Olson, were both considered as highly radical minds in their respective times. Olsen (1995) wrote that Whitman took great lengths to deviate his poetry from the “nineteenth-century European ‘high’ culture” that did not consider “everyday American linguistic usage” to have significant “poetic value.” According to Olsen (1995), Whitman embraced the “less codified practices of everyday language” and celebrated the “natural beauty” of the “liberal-democratic American state.” (p. 305). Similarly, Christensen (1977) wrote that Olson was largely regarded by the people of his day as a man of very high moral ambitions that are all doomed to failure, and his works were criticized as being merely grand assertions of what ought to be by a person who thinks himself as more morally enlightened than anyone else. Given the similar reception that the two authors garnered, this essay embarks on a comparison and contrast of some of their most famous works. For Whitman, these include two selections from his Leaves of Grass compilation, particularly the poems Song of Myself and Crossing Brooklyn Ferry. These are compared with some poems from Olson’s Maximus collection, particularly Maximus to Gloucester, Maximus, to himself, and West Gloucester. Specifically, this essay explores the tone and direction of the two poets’ works, and infers upon the similarities and differences between Whitman’s all-encompassing voice and Olson’s Maximus persona, as well as the over-arching political and philosophical assertions of the two epics. This essay forwards the thesis that both Whitman’s and Olson’s respective personas in their works communicate ideals that go against the sociopolitical norms of their times, but that the respective natures of these ideals as well as the respective ways in which these ideals were communicated differe from one great American poet to the other.

In Song of Myself, Whitman immediately begins with a highly assertive tone, proclaiming the following lines: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself, And what I assume you shall assume,” (stanza 1, lines 1-2) to declare his approval of himself and the imperative that the beliefs which he would profess would also be the beliefs that his readers would tale as their own. On the other hand, Olson’s Maximus in both Maximus to Gloucester and Maximus, to himself appear unassuming. In the former, Maximus states that “I come back to the geography of it, the land falling off to the left, where my father shot his scabby golf, and the rest of us played baseball” (stanza 1, lines 1-4) to apparently describe the city that he grew up in. In the other poem, Maximus talks about having to “learn the simplest things last” (stanza 1, lines 1-2), which made things difficult from him. Unlike Whitman’s persona, Maximus does not make a grand entrance. Rather, it seems that he is just calmly walking towards the stage, addressing everyone in a casual manner. This shows a stark contrast in tone. However, both personas lead the audience’s attention towards them. While Whitma’s “I” does this bombastically, Maximus is does not, but both personas achieve to have their audiences focus on them.

From this point, Whitman begins to generalize his persona of “I” to apply to an entire society. He states that “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” (stanza 1, line 3), and furthermore that “ My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air, Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,” (stanza 1, lines 6-8). In these lines, Whitman’s persona is attempting to establish that he and the rest of the world are of the same material, that all are the same. This serves as the springboard for the person to announce its messages, among which, is a denouncement of perfumes and an embrace of the atmosphere. Whitman writes that “Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded with perfumes,” (stanza 2, lines 1-2), but that “The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is odorless, It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it,” (lines 5-7). The perfume seems to symbolize artificiality, while the atmosphere is nature, being natural or being true to oneself. This is further supported by the succeeding lines, where the persona continues to declare that “I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked, I am mad for it to be in contact with me” (lines 8-9). Through these highly vivid lines, the persona invites people to break free of their dependence on “perfumes.” That is, that people should become true to themselves. The fact that the succeeding lines are of highly sensual content seem to indicate that the invitation to be true to oneself is in relation to some critical sociopolitical issues of Whitman’s time, which are sexual promiscuity and homosexuality. Similarly, Olson’s Maximus also proceeds with vivid imagery in Maximus to Gloucester, where Maximus continues to describe his days as a youth, talking about “a tent spread to feed lobsters to Rexall conventioneers, and my father, a man for kicks, came out of the tent roaring with a bread-knife in his teeth to take care of the druggist they’d told him had made a pass at my mother, she laughing, so sure,” (lines 12-17). These words hint of a happy childhood, and the lines that follow after show that Maximus was celebrating not just his youth but his liberty. He asserts that “There is no strict personal order for my inheritance. No Greek will be able to discriminate my body. An American is a complex of occasions, themselves a geometry of spatial nature.” (lines 33-39). This shows that Maximus is addressing a political issue that is different from those addressed by Whitman’s “I” persona, but are nonetheless significant. Maximus applauds that his inheritance is free from any strict order, which seems to imply that no one can force him to become what he is not. At the end of the poem however, Maximus acknowledges that there is still a need for change, and implores the city he lived in, Gloucester to yield to this change that was referred to simply as polis. Therefore, it would seem that both the persona of “I” and Maximus advocate some form of social change in their respective statements. However, it is clear that the direction of the social changes that each persona advocates is different, though not contradictory. Thus, it can be inferred that Whitman and Olson focus on different social issues in their development of their personas, as can be further seen from their other works that are discussed in this essay. In Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, Whitman’s “I” relates experiences aboard the ferry, and narrate about the vast diversity of the people onboard. He states “These, and all else, were to me the same as they are to you;” (stanza 4, line 1), to once more beckon human interaction and communion. The persona’s need to connect and associate with the audience is further established in stanza six, where the persona calls out that “I too lived—Brooklyn, of ample hills, was mine; I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan Island, and bathed in the waters around it; I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me, In the day, among crowds of people, sometimes they came upon me, In my walks home late at night, or as I lay in my bed, they came upon me. I too had been struck from the float forever held in solution; I too had receiv’d identity by my Body,” thereby establishing the same assertion that the persona made in Song of Myself, which is that it was one with all humanity. On the other hand, Olson’s West Gloucester has Maximus once again describing the different elements of the Gloucester setting, as he did in the previous two poems. Within these descriptions, Maximus shows a love for nature, and concern for the animals under nature’s care. As Olson writes of Maximus observing a curious animal, “With its own self like the prettiest thing in the world drilling itself into the pavement and gave it , I hope , all the marshes of Walker’s creek to get it off what might also seem what was wrong with it, that the highway had magnetized the poor thing the lovliest animal I believe I ever did see.” (lines 27-35).

The persona developed by Whitman in his Leaves of Grass and the Maximus who was developed by Olson in his collection of poems are both compelling characters that both are and are not the respective authors who created them. They allow their respective creators to express expansive ideologies, without having to say such ideologies themselves. That is, by constructing the “I”, Whitman is able to openly express radical thoughts about society’s oneness, and even more radically, about liberal rights to sexual expression and homosexuality, without actually being the one speaking about the ideas. In the same way, Olson makes Maximus talk about all of the changes that he believes is necessary to be done in Gloucester, and perhaps in the entire American society itself, but is able to dodge the responsibility of owning such ideas by passing them onto Maximus. It is Maximus therefore, and not Olson who thought of and expressed radical thoughts. On the other hand, Whitman projects his “I” to all people, forwarding the idea that it is not Whitman himself who maintains conviction upon the thoughts expressed in his poems, but all the people who read and have not read them. It was as thought Whitman was claiming that he knew what everyone in his society was thinking, and that he was only saying what they cannot bear themselves to say. Clearly, Whitman’s and Olson’s poetry are some of the most compelling works of their time, and it can be argued that the influence of their works has helped change American society to what it is today.

Works Cited

Christensen, P. Charles Olson’s Maximus: Gloucester as Dream and Reality. The Texas Quarterly, 20.3 (1977): 20-29.

Olsen, R. Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: Poetry and the Founding of a ‘New World’ Culture. University of Toronto Quarterly, 64.2 (1995): 305-323.

Olson, C. Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27. 1968. Web. 8 Nov 2010.

Olson, C. Maximus, to himself. 1987. Web. 8 Nov 2010.

Olson, C. West Gloucester. 1987. Web. 8 Nov 2010.

Whitman, W. Crossing Brooklyn Ferry. 1900. Web. 8 Nov 2010.

Whitman, W. Song of Myself. 1891. Web. 8 Nov 2010.

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