Thursday, April 28, 2011

Walt Whitman at LPAC

Coming Soon— “An Old Man’s Thoughts of School”

Here’s some good news: the Master Chorale and AVC Concert Band will be performing Howard Hanson's "Song of Democracy" on May 7th at LPAC. Text is based on Walt Whitman's "An Old Man's Thought of School."

Who’s Whitman?

Sometimes confused with a windbag now fallen from grace (John Greenleaf Whittier, whose grave I have paid homage to outside of Boston), Whitman was the first distinctly “American” voice in transcendental poetry. In the middle of the 19th century, in essay prose we had Thoreau and Emerson, in fiction we had Poe and Hawthorne and Melville, but for poetry, there is just Whitman, and what a one-man mariachi band he has turned out to be.

(Emily Dickenson was writing then but her work would not become known until the 1890s.)

He fashioned himself a rustic, and wanted to expand all aspects of American writing. I quote now from poet Dean Young, in The Art of Recklessness:

"Whitman gives aesthetic expression and formal enactment to possibilities of self-making, the self-made man, while insisting that the self is a manifestation and dependent on interconnection with otherness.

The great sprawl of this poem [ “Song of Myself” ] , ranging from somewhat loopy expressionist free verse to metaphoric collage, biblical incantation, Homeric listing, from narrative to the vaporously lyric, implicates us in a spree of claims [ . . . ] and a sense of frontier, a frontier content and style.”

In other words, he was a Beat poet before the Beats were around, and at the same time, he was a gay rights activist and Native American rights activist and African-American rights activist too. (His work was banned in Boston, though that probably increased sales overall.) Walt Whitman was a patriot and a word-maker-upper and a man in love with the sound of his own voice. He was a nurse and a Kind Soul and a walking movie camera a hundred years before cinéma vérité was ever talked about.

That his words have been set to music is not surprising; others who have done so include Kurt Weill, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Paul Hindemith, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Benjamin Britten, and Leonard Bernstein. The poets Ezra Pound, Allen Ginsberg, and Galway Kinnell (among many others) have written important tribute poems.

The engraving above comes from the cover of a new (and recommended) Whitman edition edited by former Poet Laureate Robert Hass. Whitman now even is part of architecture. According to Wikipedia, “The final stanza of the poem ‘The Wound-Dresser’ [ . . . ] has been engraved across the top of the massive granite walls encircling the 188-foot north entrance escalators descending to the underground trains at the DuPont Circle stop on the Washington, D.C. transit system. The installation was formally dedicated as a tribute to caregivers for those with HIV/Aids.”

In a forty-year career, Howard Hanson was a fierce advocate for American music—as an educator, as a composer, and as a conductor. He has touched American life from the inauguration of Richard Nixon to the background music in the movie Alien, and he had an especially good ear when it came to filling out the words of Walt Whitman.

This promises to be a special evening. Dr. David Newby will conduct.

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