Walt Whitman

3 posts

Allusions R Us


I’ve noticed, reading published poetry, that it doesn’t hurt to use allusions, whether subtle or direct. If you have a keen literary interest in a famous writer, artist, philosopher, or historical figure, etc., allude away! Use quotes. Use interesting facts. Just use them Yoda-like, blending them into your poem’s purpose and its art until you have an allusion smoothie.

Here’s an example from a poet who is not known for his subtlety, Charles Bukowski. But then, I’ve always suspected Bukowski’s rebel act was just that and only partly true. He did, in fact, take his writing quite seriously. You can’t have that much of an output while constantly drinking and lazing around, after all!

Here Bukowski is alluding to the greatest American poet of all time, Walt Whitman. OK. Maybe not the greatest poet in everyone’s minds, but certainly the bearded poster boy for American poetry.


a song with no end
Charles Bukowski

when Whitman wrote, “I sing the body electric”

I know what he
I know what he

to be completely alive every moment
in spite of the inevitable.

we can’t cheat death but we can make it
work so hard
that when it does take

it will have known a victory just as
perfect as


A twofer! Allusion and the universal preoccupation of poets everywhere, death! You might even make it a threefer if you deem it aphoristic, as in a wise man’s teaching, to boot.

Really. Charles Bukowski as prophet and sage. And all because of a stiff drink of Whitman-infused allusion.

One Man’s Loss Is Another Man’s Win


Every once in a while, you stumble across a book that proves an unexpected charmer. David Markson’s Reader’s Block, the book I am presently reading, is one of those rare treats.

Ostensibly, it’s about an old reader who has sat down to write a novel. Trouble is, he suffers not so much from writer’s block as reader’s block. He is so well-read and knows so many facts from the arts that he would put Alex Trebek to shame. His head is literally swimming with knowledgeable obstructions.

The book, then, is not laid out in paragraph form so much as stream-of-consciousness form, where the stream is a roiling with trivia about poets, artists, composers, painters, philosophers, etc.

To give you a taste, I’ll share a few notable ones about poets and other famous sorts below. Some I knew already, but most I did not. I wonder how many I’ll remember when I’m done? Probably more than I think. I’m pretty good when it comes to the “Useless Facts for $500, Alex,” category.

  • There is no mention of Ockham’s Razor in anything Ockham ever wrote.
  • Not one of Thomas Hardy’s first three novels sold more than twenty copies.
  • Wallace Stevens told Robert Frost his poems were too often about things. Frost told Stevens his were about bric-a-brac.
  • Tolstoy and Gandhi corresponded.
  • Berryman’s name was originally John Smith. He adopted his stepfather’s name when his mother remarried.
  • Walt Whitman more than once wrote anonymous favorable reviews of his own work.
  • Thomas Hobbes was born prematurely when his mother became hysterical at the approach of the Spanish Armada.
  • The tyranny of the ignoramuses is insurmountable and assured for all time. Said Einstein.
  • Balzac called Ann Radcliffe a better novelist than Stendhal.
  • Pouring out liquor is like burning books. Said Faulkner.
  • Robert Frost had exactly five poems accepted in the first seventeen years in which he was submitting.
  • Baudelaire spent two hours a day getting dressed.
  • Being a successful reader of poetry on stage, said Akhmatova, is not necessarily the same as being a writer of successful poetry.
  • Twenty American publishers rejected Elie Wiesel’s Night.
  • Johnny Keats piss-a-bed poetry, Byron called it.
  • Aesop was executed for embezzlement.
  • Philip Larkin: I wouldn’t mind seeing China if I could come back the same day.
  • Edna St. Vincent Millay died at the first light of morning after having sat up all night reading a new translation of the Aeneid.
  • Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal. Said Eliot.
  • Housman published a volume entitled Last Poems in 1922. And lived until 1936.
  • Captured by Moorish pirates at sea, Cervantes spent five years as a slave before being ransomed.
  • Stalin was one of Maxim Gorky’s pall bearers.
  • An enormous dungheap, Voltaire dismissed the sum of Shakespeare as.

You get the idea. One man’s block is another man’s page-turner. And I’m only on p. 88 as I write this!

Have a Ruby Tuesday, all….

Getting Away with Corny


The last thing any aspiring poet wants is corny. You know, where readers look at your poem and say, “Seriously? This is (fill in the blank) cornball, schmaltzy, over-the-top, stereotype-bad!” This is especially dangerous in contemporary poetry. In olden times corny was not only forgiven, it was expected–a hallmark of the times, even.

What constitutes corny? Too much to chronicle, but if a rose is red (don’t say!) and a violet is blue (really?), look out! Also suspect are certain poetic expressions, such as “yonder” and “o’er” and “Oh!” (or the more flamboyant still “O!”)

No. Never. Don’t go there. And yet…and yet…sometimes a contemporary poet not only goes there but sends postcards saying the weather is fine!

The secret is not one I can give you, beyond this: If you’re going to attempt a word or expression that might be cornier than a field in Iowa, play it straight and keep a poker face until the very last moment. Like exclamation points and adjectives and salt, corn must be used sparingly.

The payoff? Big. Yes, sometimes, against all odds, “corn” can reward the daring among us. Even in the year 2017. Even in these cynical, world-weary times. For proof, I offer you a poem I came across and loved while reading an August Kleinzahler collection this week:


“Family Album”

Loneliness–huge, suddenly menacing
and no one is left here who knows me anymore:
the Little League coach,
his TV repair truck and stinking cigars
and Saul the Butcherman
and the broken arm that fell out of the apple tree,
dead or gone south to die warm.

The little boy with mittens and dog
posing on the stoop–
he isn’t me;
and the young couple in polo shirts, ready to pop
with their firstborn
four pages on in shirtshorts and beatnik top
showing her figure off at 16…
1955 is in an attic bookcast
spine cracked and pages falling out.

Willow and plum tree
green pods from maple whirling down to the sidewalk…
Only the guy at the hot dog stand since when
maybe remembers me,
or at least looks twice.

But the smushfaced bus from New York, dropping
them off at night along
these avenues of brick, somber as the dead child
and crimes of old mayors
lets off no one I know, or want to.

Warm grass and dragonflies–
O, my heart.


Whoa! Did you see what I saw? Here Kleinzahler has us with a garden-variety (albeit it nicely done) memory lane poem when–WHAM–he goes all Walt Whitman on us and drops a should-be corny “O.”

Trouble is, it’s NOT corny in this poem. It’s effective, especially paired off with the everyday ordinariness of warm grass and dragonflies. Maybe that’s part of the secret: two parts everyday with one part corn. That and being an experienced poet. (Can’t you just hear it? “Beginners should not try this at home. These are professional poets driving on a closed course.”)

The moral of this post? Don’t close yourself off. Don’t accept blanket rules such as “Thou shalt not sow, reap, and write corn.” It may just be the captain, your captain your poem needs. What’s more, if you pull it off as Kleinzahler does, you just might be closer to an “experienced poet” than anyone let on. Congratulations!