C. K. Williams on Whitman’s Music: Whose Words These Are (30)



C. K. Williams is giving us his luminous, really rapturous, account of a lifetime reading Walt Whitman. Something changed just a few years ago — then moreso when C. K. Williams, himself a lavishly decorated poet, decided to write a short book, On Whitman. “I felt he was overwhelming me. He was just annihilating every other notion of poetry I had. I spent a summer just reading everything about him, and then reading the poems again and again. Finally I thought, this guy is killing me. I have to stop, I’ll never write another poem myself. And then when I finished my new book I went back to it, and the Whitman book came very easily because I had sort of put him in his proper place in my own life and identity as a poet.”

Suddenly Williams was hearing the Whitman words as music. “He is singing. It’s a kind of singing: the way poets control language and measure and make language move is closest to music. And it probably comes from one of the modules in the brain that’s different from the language module, so that the fusion of the music and language in poetry is, for those that hear it, what makes it so addictive and so glorious.” When Williams resumed his marvelous little book on the poet’s poet a few years later, he put it this way:

The new way of composing must have come all at once; I imagine it must have felt like some kind of conversion experience. There are very few signs before the 1855 edition that this great thing was about to occur. It’s as though his actual physical brain went through some incredible mutation, as though — a little science fiction, why not? — aliens had transported him up to their spaceship and put him down again with a new mind, a new poetry apparatus. It is really that crazy.

C. K. Williams, On Whitman

C. K. Williams is reminding me that the last time we heard Sonny Rollins at Symphony Hall, three years ago, he seemed to be our walking, improvising, all-encompassing, lyrical contemporary version of the great Walt. As I noted after our interview, then concert, with the great Rollins: “When Sonny Rollins soloes, we ‘hear America singing, the varied carols’ we hear.” So it seems entirely right and just that when C. K. Williams reads Whitman nowadays, he hears something like the sound and genius of the saxophone colossus. Or as I put it on Open Source, April 7, 2007: In sum, we stopped this night with Sonny Rollins at Symphony Hall and possessed, as Walt Whitman told us we would, the original of all poems and all music:

You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)

You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look

through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,

You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,

You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself.

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  • nother

    First of all, I LOVE the Sonny Rollins analogy!

    A beautiful and necessary conversation, of course most of Mr. Lydon’s conversations strike me – especially in retrospect – as necessary.

    Chris, you say in regards to Whitman: “of course he never realized his vision of America, and I’m sure he knew it never could be exactly real,” but he still gives people a sense of what we’re supposed to be about.”

    To me that sounds like the ideal that Plato put forth, Plato I’m sure knew it could never be exactly real, but he wanted to present the idea.

    Yet with that said, I think there is something else to be said. I propose that Mr. Whitman actually does achieve his ideal – his vision of humanity. Whitman’s sacred words are not about something, they are something; they are not some place where we should be, they are where we are the moment we read them…in THIS very moment we are thinking about them! Do not lament where his words have not taken us, Whitman’s words are the endgame.

    Please indulge me in one more quick quibble (and I’m honored to have this space to quibble). Mr. Williams (whose nature I sense is second to none) recites his poem “The Foundation.” It’s a powerful poem that references numerous learned men and sages. Yet I feel a strong need to point out that the vast majority of the names referenced are male and white and Eurocentric. Mr. Williams then finds his “steel” in the poets where he finds his true foundation. Only I feel a ravenous need to point out that his particular “foundation” of poets consists mainly of white Eurocentric males. Which is a beautiful foundation for Mr. Williams, but methinks not for the ideal of Whitman. Mr. Williams tells us it’s about singing! I gotta say, every good choir I’ve ever heard had and equal amount of woman (Bishop and Dickinson are good soloists but a full American choir they do not make). Where are the Latinos and Asians and Muslims and 50% of women!

    “I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear” – Whitman

  • Potter

    We are so lucky to have Walt Whitman in our native tongue!!… (even if he translates well). I was just listening to this in Brooklyn on a visit to family and thought it apt. The buildings around us rose during his time- and I who grew up in the (hilly) Bronx am now getting to know Brooklyn– flat Brooklyn, bit by bit. So I am moved to leaf through Whitman’s Brooklyn poems and prose (“Whitman’s New York” ed. Christman) and off the shelf comes my “Portable Whitman” after listening to this inspiring interview.

    The only way to understand the music is to actually read- re-read the poems because it’s sort of like trying to know music without hearing . I think ( or for me) the music is about how Whitman gets to you/me right away bypassing or quickly going past mental roadblocks one can get stuck in so that the reader is quickly soaring with him—- and than you just have to love him for this.

    And I you have to just love these interviews for the good stuff– the poke to take this gold off the shelf….

    Thank you so much CK Williams, Chris…. (PS- you can bring Sonny Rollins into any conversation and it will be appreciated!)

  • Potter

    Nother: To your good points about Whitman: I think Whitman does achieve in himself his ideal. We can say that he was (or he showed) his idea of what it is to be a human on one’s utmost level. And it’s by being oneself utterly, that the way is shown- as Emerson does in his own way. In America one can (or should be able to) be oneself utterly (“utterly” for lack of a better word at the moment).

  • nother

    Thank you, Potter. Your opinion means a great deal to me and beyond that you’ve shown beyond question that you are a loyal person, and that is a sacred trait. Happy Holidays to you and yours, Potter. I eagerly await the next convo

  • Potter

    Thanks Nother (yeah I am loyal- but I am benefitting tremendously)- I really did take that Whitman book off the shelf- went to the Whitman archive online as well (a notebook linked the other day in the NYTimes!) and focussed on “Chanting the Square Deific” (new for me).

    And then, bless the internet, I found at Google books, what John Addington Symonds had to say about it in his “Walt Whitman: A study” about this poem. Symonds I remember from my old college art history days: his excellent biography of Michelangelo. He was almost a contemporary of Whitman’s and btw apparently focussed on “male love” (including pederasty).

    But now I am inspired to get CK Williams book, Winter being an especially great time to read poetry and to listen to music!

  • Chris asks, “…you quote him, from a 1861 edition of ‘Leaves of Grass’ saying that he wants to suggest the substance and form of a large, sane, perfect human being, or character, for an American man, and for woman. It’s going to be a great person, entirely modern, at least as great as anything in the Homeric or Shakespearean characters; a person with the free courage of Achilles; the craft of Ulysses; the attributes of the Greek dieties; majesty, passion, temper, amativeness (spelling?), Romeo, Lear, Antony, immense self-esteem, but after democratic forms; measureless love; the old eternal elements of first class humanity. This was as you say, a sort of construction, but… did he mean it?”

    What an outstanding question! Outside of Chris’s hilarious George Carlin impression at the beginning of the Hedges interview, maybe that’s my favorite moment of a week with Open Source. What if everything’s in place but the immense self-esteem, I wonder. What then.

    To Nother: don’t like what sounds like a Eurocentric view? Don’t wait! Make your own global view! Pick a culture, find your poets. There are many wonderful Latino, Asian, and Muslim ones in translation now. I even once saw something called “Iraqi Poetry Today” in the window of Grolier’s Poetry in Cambridge, MA. Hard to imagine it exists with the massive diaspora our invasion caused, but there you have it, the power of poetry that survives, despite everything.

  • nother

    It’s a very good point, Stephen. I love the G shop in Harvard sq and I hope to follow your lead in 2011. btw, I freak’n love the photo on your website, of the blue street running into the blue water. Nice, brother