A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Monday, February 22, 2010

Poem of the Day: Walt Whitman

To a Locomotive in Winter 

Thee for my recitative, 
Thee in the driving storm even as now, the snow, the winter-day declining, 
Thee in thy panoply, thy measur'd dual throbbing and thy beat convulsive, 
Thy black cylindrical body, golden brass and silvery steel, 
Thy ponderous side-bars, parallel and connecting rods, gyrating, shuttling at thy sides, 
Thy metrical, now swelling pant and roar, now tapering in the distance, 
Thy great protruding head-light fix'd in front, 
Thy long, pale, floating vapor-pennants, tinged with delicate purple, 
The dense and murky clouds out-belching from thy smoke-stack, 
Thy knotted frame, thy springs and valves, the tremulous twinkle of thy wheels, 
Thy train of cars behind, obedient, merrily following, 
Through gale or calm, now swift, now slack, yet steadily careering; 
Type of the modern -- emblem of motion and power -- pulse of the continent, 
For once come serve the Muse and merge in verse, even as here I see tee, 
With storm and buffeting gusts of wind and falling snow, 
By day thy warning ringing bell to sound its notes, 
By night thy silent signal lamps to swing. 

Fierce-throated beauty! 
Roll through my chant with all thy lawless music, thy swinging lamps at night, 
Thy madly-whistled laughter, echoing, rumbling like an earthquake, rousing all, 
Law of thyself complete, thine own track firmly holding, 
(No sweetness debonair of tearful harp or glib piano thine,) 
Thy trills of shrieks by rocks and hills return'd, 
Launch'd o'er the prairies wide, across the lakes, 
To the free skies unpent and glad and strong.
--Walt Whitman 

In the American literature section of the written exam at the end of my first year of graduate school, I was given a choice of essay topics, one of which was to defend or refute the premise, "All modern American poets are followers of either Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson." That's one of those "well, duh" premises that turn out to be harder to defend or attack than they look at first glance. Whitman is to Allen Ginsberg as Dickinson is to Elizabeth Bishop, except.... 

But it's true that superficially, Whitman and Dickinson seem poles apart. Here's her poem about a locomotive to contrast with Whitman's: 
I like to see it lap the miles --
And lick the valleys up --
And stop to feed itself at Tanks --
And then -- prodigious step

Around a Pile of Mountains --
And supercilious peer
In Shanties -- by the sides of Roads --
And then a Quarry pare

To fit its Ribs
And crawl between
Complaining all the while
In horrid -- hooting stanza --
Then chase itself down Hill --

And neigh like Boanerges --
Then -- punctual as a Star
Stop -- docile and omnipotent
At its own stable door --
Both poems are about motion and power and noise, and yet Dickinson's is about something familiar and tamable, like a horse, docile but still omnipotent. Whitman's locomotive is some alien monster, lawless and fierce, and yet Whitman hopes to tame it, to make it serve as his Muse. Both trains are also whimsical: Whitman's cars merrily following, Dickinson's chasing itself downhill. 

Whitman's is the darker poem, perhaps because it was written some 20 years later than Dickinson's, the "dense and murky clouds out-belching from thy smoke-stack" suggesting the encroachment of industrial pollution. Dickinson, though herself reclusive, sees the train as an emblem of freedom, of the ability to reduce mountains to molehills, and yet there's something arrogant about the train's peering into shanties. 

Myself, I prefer Dickinson, but I have to give Whitman his due. As original as she was, there's still something Old World about her. Whitman is the echt American, loudmouthed and expansive, while secretly filled with doubts and evasions.  

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