Why I sobbed like a b*** reading Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

My relationship with Leaves of Grass was turbulent from the beginning. I’m not really well-read in poetry, nor have I ever been particularly enamored with it as a genre, and Leaves of Grass  is a commitment both in language and length.

I did feel some comradery with Whitman based solely on our mutual love of the parenthetical, but I wasn’t sure it would be enough to make it through the book.

It doesn’t help that Leaves of Grass is front-loaded with some of Walt Whitman’s incredibly long, rambling poems about boats and dock workers. He also apparently was on a quest to name drop every State and landmark of those states, not to mention important rivers. It is not an easy volume of poetry to get emotionally involved with, and the volume is long.

But after spending three months with Walt Whitman, my feelings towards him and his poetry changed. It was gradual, I still wanted to rip the pages out whenever I saw the word “ship” or “boat,” but Whitman caught me somehow. At some point I was entangled in his feverish dream of humanity.

Walt Whitman has an equal love for humanity in all its forms, across races, across countries, even for those who we see as the worst of us. He professed a love of the weak, not just the bold, that the crippling self-doubt and self-hatred we fall victim to makes us no less loveable as human beings. The man was so capable of boundless love that he saw beauty and sanctity in death, just as much and if not more than life.

After the Union was restored, Whitman saw a chance for previously unachieved equality in America. Racism, borders, all of the barriers of prejudice and racism would dwindle in a new age of brotherhood and travel. For, in travel, Whitman saw only the possibly that by knowing each other, we could only love each other more for we would understand how we are all the same.

Whitman as a writer is a voice of the spirit of this country. His poetry is distinctively American in both its ideology and the romanticism of the American life. He captures the fiery devotion to liberty and freedom and the rugged individualism that is iconic of our culture.

Comparing the America Whitman envisioned, and perhaps experienced, compared to the one I have experienced was painful. In the past few years I have felt abject despair at America’s path, in its continuing inability to respect the dignity of persons within its borders and outside.

Following the news, I feel utter defeat as a woman, faced with an institution that seems determined to deny me my personhood, an level playing field in my chosen career, equal pay if I do achieve my dream job despite the incredible harshness of the sexism in my chosen field, and inevitable criticism if I choose to be unmarried, childless, and devoted to my work.

And that is just what is relevant to my life, and nothing of the institutional racism that is deadly in my country, or the institutional mishandling of justice in law.

Currents events, endlessly horrific, are enough to make me despair not just about my country but about this whole world. What would Whitman think of us? For a man who imagined such a dream of unity and indiscriminate love, how could he understand where we went?

Recently politicians have been throwing around this phrase “making America great again.” It’s tempting, for any society, when in a bad position of strife to look backwards and try to identify a better time. The problem with looking backwards is that America was never great. What country can claim to have been truly great?

When you look backwards, it’s easy to focus on the bright spotlights of the good and relegate the bad to the dark periphery. Point to me a time in American history where things were great for all peoples. It can’t be before slavery was illegal. It can’t be before women had the right to vote. It can’t be when that same America created Internment camps for Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor. It can’t even be before marriage rights were given the chance to be equal, and that only happened so very recently.

We can’t make America “great again.” Walt Whitman wasn’t in delirious happiness about the Union being restored after the Civil War because it meant the country would go back to being the way it was. Rather, he believed that now it could move on to be better.

That is what I want, for my country—for it to be better.

The contrast between Walt Whitman’s surety in the beautiful path America must take with the reality here in 2016 left me emotionally exhausted. Every time I picked up Leaves of Grass, Whitman was waiting to erratically espouse his love for men, for women, for anything remotely alive and even in nature what isn’t alive.

“I swear they are all beautiful,

Every one that sleeps is beautiful, everything in the dim light is beautiful,

The wildest and the bloodiest is over, and all is peace.

Peace is always beautiful.”

 

But then I would close the book and the reality of current events would re-assert itself, pressuring me back into pessimism.

When I was nearing the end of Leaves of Grass and I read the poem “So Long!” I didn’t know how much I needed Whitman’s words.

Whitman occasionally “breaks the 4th wall” if it can be called that in a book of poems and addresses the reader. After three months of trying political times—racist hate speech, photos of bombed cities, denial of women the right to their bodies in the case of access to health care through the defunding of planned Parenthood, the list goes on— I was at a breaking point.

And then Whitman steps off the page.

“Comerado, this is no book,

Who touches this touches a man,

(Is it night? Are we here together alone?)

It is I you hold and who holds you,

I spring from the pages into your arms—decease calls me forth.

Oh how your fingers drowse me,

You breath falls around me like dew, your pulse lulls the tympans of my ears,

I feel immerged from head to foot,

Delicious, enough…

Dear friend whoever you are take this kiss,

I give it especially to you, do not forget me”

I had been looking into Whitman this whole time, learning his most intimate feelings and dreams. But, as with all books, the author can’t look back. Somehow though, this poem transcended that limitation. Like my sudden bursting into tears would indicate, damned if I didn’t feel looked back at. It felt personal. It felt intimate. It felt like he had heard the apology I so desperately wanted to make regarding the failure of his vision.

I’m sure that presenting this quote out of the context of struggling through three months with a 600 page volume of antiquated poetry does not capture my feelings. I had wished, up until that moment, that Whitman had hired a damn editor to cut some of the poems out of the book. I can never wish that now because without the length, the rambling, the obsession with, yes, boats, I wouldn’t have felt so connected to Whitman.

I had spent three months suffering through this man’s wildly spinning thoughts and now we were, in his words, touching.

It is hard to recommend a book to someone with the promise that it will “change their life.”  Literature affects us differently depending where we are in life. I would never have thought that I would be someone to say that Leaves of Grass is undeniably a part of who I am, based on my brief exposure to selected poems of his I read in school.

But here we are, Leaves of Grass affected me deeply and I cried like a b*** reading Walt Whitman’s poetry.

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Top Ten Tuesdays– Walt Whitman Edition

Ten Things Walt Whitman Wants to Get Down and Dirty With

 (according to Leaves of Grass)

  1. Nature (esp. grass. Did you notice the title?)
  2. The ocean (actual real thing that Walt Whitman wrote and made me imagine after I read it about the ocean: “that it is safe to allow it to lick my naked body all over with its tongues” COME ON WHITMAN! REALLY?)
  3. Boats. No really, boats.
  4. America, including each state individually, also Canada
  5. Me
  6. You
  7. A lot of the United States Presidents but especially Abraham Lincoln
  8. The wind (another actual real thing that Walt Whitman wrote and made me imagine without ever wanting or needing to “winds whose soft-tickling genitals rub against me” !?! WHAT?)
  9. Women and men, of any age and shape, he’s really not that picky tbh
  10. ??? everyone

 

An American Icon, everyone.

Make Room! Make Room! A guest post

A good friend of mine recently read Make Room! Make Room!  by Harry Harrison and she had something to say on the matter. Fueled with the indignant rage that is right at home on this blog, here is exactly why Maggie thinks this book is utter garbage. Enjoy!

Also expect more blog posts from Maggie :’)

– – –

makeroom

Have you ever finished a book, slowly closed it, and thought to yourself, “What in ever-loving Christ’s name did I just read?”  Welcome to Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison, the novel that Soylent Green was based on.

Set in New York City at the cusp of the new millennium, Make Room! centers on detective Andy Rusch solving the murder of a local racketeer against the background of crime, poverty, starvation, and sickness caused by extreme overpopulation.

Alright. Like I’m with you here. A dystopian novel that doesn’t involve a teenage girl in a lyrca jumpsuit who manages to obtain enough skill in combat, tactics, and rhetoric within three months to lead a revolution against her government? No set of teenage boys to chase said teenage heroine, inevitably ending in her having to choose between the two? No teenagers at all? I’m with you.

Too bad Harrison seems to have settled on the plot just to yell “Look at the crime! People are starving, sick! They have to murder each other to survive!” at his readers repeatedly. I wish I was making up how blatant his preaching was, but those lines were dialogue actually spoken by the characters who naturally don’t hold any real substance, serving only as mouthpieces to soliloquize on just how crummy this whole overpopulation problem is.

The clichés in the characterization are almost physically painful. Andy is your typical good guy in a world gone wrong with leading lady Shirl as his damsel in distress and old-timer Sol wistfully reflecting on the good ol’ days. They come off so one-dimensional and canned that it’s hard to care about them in even a fleeting way, especially when their dialogue consists of telling readers how crime-ridden, poor, dirty, etc. the city is or how hungry, sick, tired, etc. they are. While I understand the need to establish a sense of place and appreciate authors who take time to develop their settings, nearly the first. Two. Hundred. pages are composed of this forced, clumsy world-building spewing from these cardboard cutout’s mouths.

All of this preamble leads up to one of the final chapters where Harrison tells us what Make Room! is about: birth control. In a real throwback, we see Shirl play the misguided student as wise philosopher Sol shows her the error of her ways, explaining why legalized birth control is not only morally sound but is necessary for our continued survival – a style of writing that went out of fashion before we switched from B.C. to A.D.

While I agree with the sentiment, I was furious that I had slogged through the entire book, hoping for some kind of payoff, only to be treated to ten pages of poorly-written, heavy-handed philosophizing before a hastily slapped-together ending.

Even beyond all the conceptual failures, though, the novel was just poorly constructed on a technical level. The sentences were short and bland with Harrison falling into the trap of telling the reader instead of showing them. If I had a dollar for every time Harrison says how hot New York City is, I could buy ten new novels in an attempt to erase the memory of this one.

At one point halfway through the novel, Harrison even says that the heat was so pervasive that no one mentioned it anymore, but then continues to say how hot it is throughout the rest of the novel. The heavy use of exposition and repetition are unforgivable. Paired with awkward phrasing and choppy transitions between scenes, the writing is almost embarrassingly amateur.

For something that started off so promising with its lack of teenagers and their hormones, readers are left with a poorly-written novel that has no clear conflict, climax, or resolution. It’s dull, dissatisfying, and disappointing when compared to both Harrison’s other novels and Soylent Green. I can’t believe I’m saying it and will likely lose my serious readers certification, but skip Make Room! Make Room!­ ­– the movie is better.

 

 

Top Ten Tuesdays: Fanny Price

Why you should reconsider Fanny Price as a worthy Jane Austen heroine

Fanny Price gets a lot of scorn thrown at her for being the most ‘boring’ Austen heroine. People say she’s too reserved, too prude, too modest, and too judging. I think Fanny has gotten an unfair treatment and I actually consider her to be the most relatable Austen leading lady. In order to defend Fanny, I have constructed this Top Ten list on why you should give Fanny a second chance.

So without further introduction:

1. Fanny is awkward and fails at basic human interaction a lot of the time (most of the time). She lives to avoid notice and hide in plain sight so that she doesn’t have to engage in small talk with her insipid relatives. Which, come on, we all pull the statue technique in the desperate hope we’ll escape notice and not have to talk with our relatives during some reunion dinner where your aunt is looking for the next person to tell that story of what her cat threw up recently. Fanny is the embodiment of internal screaming.

2. Sure, Fanny doesn’t have the brilliant witticisms of Elizabeth Bennet, but consider this—she instead acts how any one of us average, not clever and confident people would act. When people ask her for her opinion, she is overcome with anxiety about making the wrong choice! She spends a lot of time sweating nervously! When she’s offended, she imagines telling people off instead of actually doing so because she wants to avoid conflict! Face it. We are all Fanny Price.

3. No supremely rich man swoops out of nowhere conveniently to marry her and raise her into high society. Which, you know, probably won’t happen to you. Or me. Which is a tragedy.

4. She actually marries a man who is never once a jerk to her (except out of neglect, which he apologizes for later and probably is sleepless over guilt about). Edmund is a good, stable, and good natured man who isn’t particularly rich or handsome, but he and Fanny complement each other and will most likely have a peaceful and happy marriage. Inter-personal conflict with your marriage partner is NOT the goal people!

5. She’s not mean to people she doesn’t like and, instead, patiently puts up with them. We all dream of telling people off, but, like Fanny, we’re most likely to politely respond to their e-mails or Facebook messages while gritting our teeth so that we can continue to exist peacefully on our own time.

6. She has to cope with one of the most entitled male characters—Henry Crawford, who basically tries to ruin her because he feels like she friendzoned him. She also has to listen to everyone complaining at her for friendzoning Henry because he goes on a smear campaign blaming her rejection of him for why he has an affair with her married cousin and inducing the whole family into scandal. He literally argues that if Fanny hadn’t said no, he wouldn’t have had sex with her cousin. Because he’s the victim of her rejection, and so it’s all her fault. I mean COME ON. He’s a fuckboy and he won’t leave Fanny alone. How can you not feel for her?

7. Have I mentioned she is plagued by HENRY CRAWFORD, fuckboy extraordinaire? (This is a separate reason because I just wanted to call Henry Crawford a fuckboy one last time, when I still had the opportunity.)

8. She watches the person she’s in love with fall for someone who is completely unmatched for him and can never make him happy but doesn’t know how to stop it from happening and is way too non-confrontational to advise him against it, so she stiffly stands around while it happens all the while hoping that the earth will split along its tectonic plates and swallow her alive so she can escape this living hell. (This is only a slight exaggeration, probably).

9. She’s an introvert and a fucking nerd (I assume).

10. Fanny is intimidated by people even when they’re nice to her, indicating a level of lack of faith in the world that we can all suffer from. She’s suspicious about kindness, but I can’t even blame her considering that her parents kicked her out of the house because they couldn’t afford to keep her and her cousins/aunts treat her like a piece of furniture that has outdated upholstery. Plus it saves her from Henry Crawford so is she even wrong to doubt people’s good intentions? NOPE.

I think people don’t like Fanny because she’s too much like a mirror image of ourselves. We WANT to think that we would be Elizabeth Bennet, because she’s so much more attractive and clever than Fanny. We aspire to navigate life with that kind of grace.

But we shouldn’t look down on Fanny for acting like we do every day. We should relate to her. We should be saying to Fanny, every time she freaks out because someone asks her to make a decision, “same girl.”

Every time Fanny mumbles instead of thinking of a witty comeback, we should nod our heads and say, “been there.”

When Fanny has to try to shield the kindness of Henry because it’s with the ulterior motive of banging her, we should roll our eyes and say, “men. Am I right?”

Love Fanny. Love yourselves.

Fuckboys of Classic Literature: Mansfield Park Edition

As my year with Jane Austen is coming to a close, I’ve been ruminating on Mansfield Park, particularly the quote “Let him have all the perfections in the world, I think it ought not be set down as certain that a man must be acceptable to every woman he may happen to like himself.”

In this quote, Austen attacks male entitlement and what we now call the friendzone—men feeling cheated or insulted that though they are nice and attentive to a woman they like, the woman doesn’t like them back. Austen shuts this down with one of her mildest characters, which adds to the humor because Fanny is all propriety and politeness, but even she has no time for men complaining about being friendzoned.

This line of thinking led me to the important discovery that Henry Crawford is literally a fuckboy, be it a 19th century fuckboy.

Seriously, his behavior through the entire novel escalates him to fuckboy over-achiever. He flirts with every woman he comes in contact with, believing that it is impossible for any woman to resist his charms and not fall in love with him (delusions of importance and attraction, fuckboy score: 1).

In fact, Henry decides to make Fanny fall in love with him simply because she DOESN’T seem attracted to him, undertaking to manipulate someone’s emotions for his own benefit and because, really, he thinks she’s hot and wants to have sex with her (fuckboy score: 2).

Plus there’s this whole scene:

MANS 1 TOTAL up

incredible

Then there’s the whole scene where Henry is angry and insulted when informed that, in fact, Miss Fanny Price does not find him all that attractive except in sort of a general objective way. (Fuckboy score 3)

After being thus insulted, Henry makes a point of it to turn everyone against Fanny and to criticize her for not caring about him when he’s possessing so many desirable qualities, making him…dare I say it?

mans 2 total up

classic “nice guy”

And the FINAL fuckboy move is when Henry decides to blame Fanny and her choice to reject him for all of the trouble he causes later on.

mans 3 total up

it’s her fault for saying no!

Henry Crawford is the quintessential fuckboy. Incredible.

This is a very important discovery and I hope to someday publish an academic paper on it. I already have a great title: “Male Entitlement: Fuckboys in Literature.”

There’s got to be other ones. I’m pretty sure I could nominate Frank Churchill as well.