So, I was Skype chatting with a friend about poetry, and part of an old Introduction to Poetry lecture popped out.  I figured, now that I’ve sold my soul to Wal(*)Mart — and was recently promoted by them to “Merchandise Supervisor” — that I’m probably not going to be teaching all that much anymore.  So, I thought I should post that spiel about poetry here, of posterity.  Here goes, the spectrum of American poetry goes like this:

dickinson <————————————————->whitman

Dickinson                                                                            Whitman


Basically, if you’re American and writing poetry, you’re naturally going to fall somewhere between these two writers.  The both represent the extreme ends of the Spectrum of American poetry.  Forget about subject matter for a moment, in terms of craftmanship, these two are the complete opposites of each other.  Dickinson writes poetry largely of abstraction.  Often, I like to describe her poetry as a “disembodies head and voice, floating in space.”  By that, I mean there’s nothing ground the speakers in her poetry.  Here’s an example:

I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there's a pair of us?
Don't tell! they'd advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –  
To tell one's name – the livelong June –  
To an admiring Bog!

There is nothing here to ground the reader in a perceived reality.  Dickinson, ultimately, is a poet of lyrical outbursts.  Yet, we know nothing of the where, how, when, what, why and how of the speaker.  The poem is all voice, and thus, abstracted to just the idea it’s trying to transmit. Whitman, on the other hand, is totally different.  A reader can learn whole geography lessons reading Leaves of Grass (and this is a sloppy cut-and-paste):

Starting from fish-shape Paumanok where I was born,
Well-begotten, and rais`d by a perfect mother,
After roaming many lands, lover of populous pavements,
Dweller in Mannahatta my city, or on southern savannas,
Or a soldier camp`d or carrying my knapsack and gun, or a miner
in California,
Or rude in my home in Dakota`s woods, my diet meat, my drink from
the spring,
Or withdrawn to muse and meditate in some deep recess,
Far from the clank of crowds intervals passing rapt and happy,
Aware of the fresh free giver the flowing Missouri, aware of
mighty Niagara,
Aware of the buffalo herds grazing the plains, the hirsute and
strong-breasted bull,
Of earth, rocks, Fifth-month flowers experienced, stars, rain, snow,
my amaze,
Having studied the mocking-bird`s tones and the flight of the
And heard at dawn the unrivall`d one, the hermit thrush from the
Solitary, singing in the West, I strike up for a New World.

Whitman employed a repetitious and absurdly long line.  He derived it from Biblical literature, as an alternative poetry to the British carbon copy prevailing meter of the day.   If Dickinson is abstract, Whitman is most assuredly “concrete.”  A section of Leaves of Grass usually strives to build a panoramic view of things around the speaker.  If Dickinson is a bare-bones minimalist, than Whitman is the maximalist who can and will throw the kitchen sink at you.

Basically, every American poet falls between these extremes.  The clarity and Imagism of Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, H.D. and Mina Loy?  They tend to be more on the Whitman side of the spectrum.  If we’re thinking of contemporary American poets — Adrienne Rich, Charles Simic, and writers like them — also closer to the Whitman side of things.

As for Dickinson — I believe I said to my friend, on Skype:  “If you’re an avant-gardist, you owe your shirt to Emily Dickinson.”  Take, for instance, a critical approach to literature that was, at one point, very in vogue: Deconstruction.  Deconstructions posit that language is fundamentally unstable, and therefore absolute interpretation is unreliable.  So, there is no real stability in “meaning.”  Basically, this approach ultimately implodes; which, convienently enough, is what the usual Dickinson poem does.  It fragments, it falls appart.  It usually starts of with a strong meter, but even that disintegrates.  All that is left is an abstraction with no ground to stand on.   One reads this rather strongly in Avant Garde poetry, whether it’s the Oulipo exercises of Harryette Mullen or any of the writers that poetry critic Margorie Perloff often pays attention to.   Even outside of experimentalism, a reader can find indications of this.  Langston Hughes?   Dickinson said, mostly.  “The Negro Dreams of Rivers” is definately not spatially restricted, even though Hughes does toss a lot of concrete imagery at his reader.  Russel Edson?  Whitman … albeit in a very fucked up way.  With Edson, you’re grounded in an other reality, one where pianos can give birth to other pianos.

Basically, contemporary American poetry has a father and mother.  Both were “alternative” literature in their day, but now…honestly, they’re indispensable, and I don’t so how a reader could ever even approach American Poetry without them..