Sunday, May 31, 2009

`The Great Improviser'

That Constance Rourke devoted more than nine pages to Walt Whitman in a book titled American Humor is another reminder that the author of Leaves of Grass not only contained multitudes but that some of those swarming selves are yet to be appreciated by readers and critics. One continues to hear of Walt the pious blowhard, patron saint of the laboring classes and hippie precursor. That Whitman encouraged such blurrings and misreading, and comfortably coexisted in multiple bogus selves does not excuse our failure to read him. What we risk losing is our respect for Whitman’s mastery of language, the poet’s essential gift. Rourke writes:

“He was indeed the great improviser of modern literature. He had turned the native comic rhapsody, abundant in the backwoods, to broad poetic forms.”

Rourke’s use of “improviser” is superb, as is “comic.” She published American Humor in 1931, when jazz and Louis Armstrong were in their vigorous prime. The musician who gave us “West End Blues” was an improviser of genius, but that gift too is misunderstood. Great improvising is spontaneous composition, not self-indulgent noodling. The composer Alec Wilder was in awe of jazz improvisation: “I don’t believe the layman has any notion of the miraculous chain of events which occurs when a jazz musician plays.” The same goes for Whitman at his best, though no other great poet – not even Wordsworth or Tennyson – noodled so often.

Today we celebrate Walt’s 190th birthday. What other poet can so readily be identified by first name? Surely not “Tom” or “Wallace,” though perhaps “Hart.” Whitman encourages us to become his "Camerado," so I’m pleased to introduce a friend and former newspaper comrade, Jim McGrath, the chief editorial writer at the Albany, N.Y., Times Union. In today’s editorial he celebrates Walt’s birthday and other notable New York anniversaries in 2009. Tonight, in Albany’s Washington Park, by the statue of Robert Burns, some of Walt’s admirers will read “Song of Myself” aloud. Jim writes:

“Summer, then, can begin tonight with a collective reading and appreciation of a 15,000-word poem that Mr. Whitman had written in hopes of bringing a sense of unity to a nation that was on the verge of going to war against itself.”

The sincerest birthday present we can give our national poet is a deep reading of his deepest poems, and “Song of Myself” is an excellent place to begin. Here are the last of its 15,000 words:

“Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.”

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