Whitman, Stevens, & Co.

I haven’t checked, but I’m confident someone before me will have remarked on the similarity between the beginnings of Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” and Philip Levine’s “They Feed They Lion.”

Exhibit A:

Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,
Out of the Ninth-month midnight,
Over the sterile sands and the fields beyond, where the child leaving
      his bed wander’d alone, bareheaded, barefoot,
Down from the shower’d halo,
Up from the mystic play of shadows twining and twisting as if they
      were alive,
Out from the patches of briers and blackberries,
From the memories of the bird that chanted to me,
From your memories sad brother, from the fitful risings and fallings I heard,
From under that yellow half-moon late-risen and swollen as if with
      tears,
From those beginning notes of yearning and love there in the mist,
From the thousand responses of my heart never to cease,
From the myriad thence-arous’d words,
From the word stronger and more delicious than any,
From such as now they start the scene revisiting,
As a flock, twittering, rising, or overhead passing,
Borne hither, ere all eludes me, hurriedly,
A man, yet by these tears a little boy again,
Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves,
I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter,
Taking all hints to use them, but swiftly leaping beyond them,
A reminiscence sing.

Exhibit B:

Out of burlap sacks, out of bearing butter,
Out of black bean and wet slate bread,
Out of the acids of rage, the candor of tar,
Out of creosote, gasoline, drive shafts, wooden dollies,
They Lion grow.
      Out of the gray hills
Of industrial barns, out of rain, out of bus ride,
West Virginia to Kiss My Ass, out of buried aunties,
Mothers hardening like pounded stumps, out of stumps,
Out of the bones’ need to sharpen and the muscles’ to stretch,
They Lion grow.

The relationship is obvious enough, yet I’ve known these two poems all my life without ever observing the overlap . . . that is, until just now, when I was fussing with Richard Ellmann’s New Oxford Book of American Verse (1976). In that venerable anthology, which you can get for nothing online, Whitman’s poem “I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing” and the beginning of “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” happen to occupy the same page. Because I had gone to that very page in a spirit of tracing poetic influence, I suddenly saw “Out of the Cradle…” in this new light, today.

Whereas, to me, “I Saw in Louisiana…” (the other poem on the page, and the thing I was actually looking for) has always seemed to me the prompt for Wallace Stevens’s “Anecdote of the Jar.” The Stevens answers the Whitman. Have a look for yourself:

I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing,
All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the branches,
Without any companion it grew there uttering joyous leaves of dark
      green,
And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself,
But I wonder’d how it could utter joyous leaves standing alone there
      without its friend near, for I knew I could not,
And I broke off a twig with a certain number of leaves upon it, and
      twined around it a little moss,
And brought it away, and I have placed it in sight in my room,
It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear friends,
(For I believe lately I think of little else than of them,)
Yet it remains to me a curious token, it makes me think of manly love;
For all that, and though the live-oak glistens there in Louisiana solitary
      in a wide flat space,
Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend a lover near,
I know very well I could not.

cf.—

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Stevens’s poem is almost a photographic negative of Whitman’s. Whitman takes a piece of wild Louisiana and puts it in his room—a kind of jar. Stevens takes the jar and puts it in wild Tennessee. (“Tennessee,” “Louisiana”—for these guys, pretty much the same thing.) In both cases, the displaced object transfigures its new locale. The magic and dignity and meaning-making of the object is reflected upon. But in Whitman, nature (in all its lusty, garrulous self-sufficiency) is admired; in Stevens, nature is a lazy slob and it’s the human artifact that exerts the fascinating and impressive semiotic magnetosphere.

The only verbal correspondence between the Whitman and Stevens poems is the way the names of those Southern states are deployed. It’s hard to explain why it sounds so much grander to say “I placed a jar in Tennessee” than to say “I placed a jar on the ground at a campsite, in Pickett State Park, about three miles northeast of Jamestown, Tennessee”—but anyhow it’s obvious the less-specific version savors of the sublime, whereas the other version lets all the air out of it.

Isn’t the Whitman/Levine connection much more obvious, though, compared to the Whitman/Stevens—? Yet, to me the latter was a no-brainer, and the other evaded me for almost thirty years. I asked Michael Robbins to check for me and he says apparently nobody has drawn the “Live-oak”/“Anecdote” connection before. Perhaps someone reading this knows better.

Speaking of Robbins. He did a different kind of photographic negative of “I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing,” a few years ago. His piece, titled “From Karpos,” it is one of my favorite items from his first book; I dare not omit it here. Note that the ellipsis at the end is present in the original. I am quoting the piece in full, partly in acknowledgment of its comic merit but also observing in it a strange note of prophesy:

I glance at a twig, I take the twig to my bed, I tell it of manly love.
I tell my twig of the migratory song of the goose.
I tell it of the new form of companionship I propose in its name.
And now it seems to me I walked with my twig upon the brown earth
a thousand years ago, and a thousand thousand, before men were,
or women. It seems to me that a twig might sup with the president of the
      United States,
and become president in its turn. And I will drop my twig in the gutter,
for I know other twigs in their hour will fall into my uncharted path
      forever.

And I have said I am a brother to twigs, and I say I belong to their
      nation,
and together we embrace the hay …

Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2013, Boston Review, Fence, Harvard Review, Lana Turner, LIT, and Poetry. His first book is called I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say (Canarium Books, 2012). He is a correspondent for the Daily.

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