Friday, October 08, 2010

`A Few Faint Clews and Indirections'

For the epigraph to his newly published Bob Dylan in America, Sean Wilentz chooses a line from Walt Whitman:

“Only a few hints—a few diffused, faint clues and indirections…”

The source, not identified by Wilentz, is “When I Read the Book”:

“When I read the book, the biography famous,
And is this then (said I) what the author calls a man's life?
And so will some one when I am dead and gone write my life?
(As if any man really knew aught of my life,
Why even I myself I often think know little or nothing of my real life,
Only a few hints, a few diffused faint clews and indirections
I seek for my own use to trace out here.)”

This is the version Whitman included in the “Inscriptions” section of his 1871 edition of Leaves of Grass. Note the unannounced emendation of “clew” to “clue” in Wilentz’s epigraph. Justin Kaplan, a Whitman biographer and editor of the Library of America’s Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, tells us the poem in the 1867 edition of Leaves of Grass had only five lines and concluded like this:

“(As if any man really knew aught of his life,
As if you, O cunning soul, did not keep your secret well!)”

Wilentz’s choice is inarguably appropriate to Dylan, a renowned shape-shifter and expectation-confounder. Has any major performer so perversely defied the hopes of audiences, scorned wishes while fueling speculation about motive and meaning? Whitman is also a Dylan forebear, culturally if not literarily, and Wilentz cites him eight times, usually in connection with another windbag, Allen Ginsberg. My problem is not with Wilentz but Whitman.

The excerpt out of context is good but the poem is awful. The second line is almost unreadable – try it aloud – with eight monosyllables in a row like knots in a shoe string. The poem reads like a throwaway, the sort of thing Horace Traubel was dutifully recording on Mickle Street a few years later. Significantly, Wilentz’s epigraph stands as serviceable prose.

Whitman’s coyness here is cloying. On one level, he’s suggesting what Henry James posed in the first sentence of “Louisa Pallant,” a story from 1890, two years before Whitman’s death: “Never say you know the last word about any human heart!” But Whitman is also baiting readers with portentous hints, whether of bastard offspring or homosexuality, take your pick. There’s something tawdry and self-regarding about the strategy. It’s a cute variation on what later was called “confessional” poetry.

I write this as a longtime admirer of Whitman’s best work. As a poet, he’s best at the level of words, phrases and lines. Like Wordsworth and Tennyson, he benefits from scrupulous editing by someone less likely than the poet to celebrate himself.

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

I myself have never experienced my family waking up in the middle of the night because someone was walking on my roof trying to get to my trashcan as research for writing my biography, as Bob Dylan has, but I do tend to instinctively take the side of the poet over the biographer, which is maybe why I like Whitman’s poem, for it is the kindest way of saying “fuck you” to those who think the public persona – the known stuff called words –could constitute a human life. Stripped of its Whitmanesque rhetorica, the meaning is fairly simple:

When I read a biography of someone famous,
I question whether this is really the man’s life
And wonder what they will write about me in my biography
When they pretend to know anything about my life
The only things I know about my own life
Are inconsequential things I’ve discovered or been given
That I use in my work.

It is this unwillingness to let others define them—along with their tendency to define themselves in the largest scope possible—that annoys the fans of public chameleons Dylan, Whitman and Ginsberg to no end. Identity is also the major theme of all three: playing with it to see just how far it will go, exposing the gap between the roles we play and our true selves silent in our lost world.

At its worst this can come off as irresponsible to their higher calling, the very role they’ve assumed, that of inspiring, hectoring, manipulating, influencing and soothing people to think and act differently. How can the lion who just said he was me, America, a generation, a whole new way of thinking about the world suddenly turn around, bristling for privacy, and back out of the contract, claiming the fans don’t own him, and no one really knows him at all?

“It’s my job, he’d say
I do it for pay
And when it’s over
I’d just as soon go on my way.”
(from “Hurricane” by Bob Dylan)

Ah, but at its best, it just cuts through all the bullshit, telling all our sorry asses to just get over ourselves:

“These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they
are not original with me,
If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next to nothing,
If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they are nothing,
If they are not just as close as they are distant they are nothing.

This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is,
This the common air that bathes the globe.”
(Whitman, from “Song of Myself”)