Monday, May 15, 2006

On Walt Whitman's "A child said, What is the grass?"

Growing up, I never loved Walt Whitman. Back then, I never loved Whitman, because I formed my perception of Whitman solely upon his oft-anthologized "O Captain, My Captain!" (a decent poem but really quite one-dimensional -- it's cool that the war was won, but it's sad that the captain died). I thus made the abysmal error of conflating a single poem with the poet's work as a whole. It ain't all broccoli, folks. Just because you don't like celery, doesn't mean you won't enjoy tomatoes.

Whitman's "A child said, What is the grass?" ( is a prized tomato in my book. I view it as one of the first American poems to successfully explore issues of race and multiculturalism in an emotionally compelling way.

I'd like to draw your attention to the stanza that proceeds, "And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow/ zones,/ Growing among black folks as among white,/ Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the/ same, I receive them the same." Rather than bogging himself down in the sameness versus difference dichtomy that sometimes confounds multiculturalism and feminism, Whitman moves fluidly between sameness (sprouting alike), difference (in broad zones and narrow zones), sameness (growing among black homes as among white), difference (Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congresman, Cuff,), and sameness again (I give them the same, I receive them the same). This particular stanza explicitly focuses on race,

but then Whitman makes an abrupt transition to the next stanza, comprised solely of the elegant line, "And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves." It is a distinct quality of this poem that -- while it celebrates diversity in age, gender, and race -- it alternates this celebration with an honoring of what is universal about life at the same time. And this alternation is a vibrant one -- like bubbles blown in the air by children, not like a pendulum.

In "A child said, What is the grass?," Whitman also refuses to suppress or make stereotypical uses of color, which may stand for race. For example, in this stanza -- "This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,/ Darker than the colorless beards of old men,/ Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths" -- darkness is not a representation of evil but merely exists as is, as a part of life. Sameness and difference both juxtapose and stack upon each other here with "The grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers" and "Darker than the color beards old men" taken as representations of sameness among each of the respective groups ("old mothers" and "old men") but representations of difference when read alongside each other.

In the following stanza, Whitman also proclaims, "O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!/ And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing," which one may interpret as a celebration for the fact that many dialects and languages are spoken in the United States of America.

The last couple stanzas move surprisingly from relatively more questioning and unsure stanzas (e.g., "What do you think has become of the young and old men?/ What do you think has become of the women and children?") to crescendo in a daringly self-assured proclamation of hope -- "They are alive and well somewhere;/ The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,/ And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait/ at the end to arrest it,/ And ceased the moment life appeared.// All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,/ And to die is different from what any one supposed, and/ luckier."


Blogger Lyle Daggett said...

It also took me a while to feel an affinity with Whitman. From the first time I read him, I felt that there was something worthwhile in his poems, but I've come to him gradually.

Like a lot of wonderful poets (Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Carl Sandburg come to mind in this respect also), Whitman's reputation -- the life of his poetry in the world -- has suffered somewhat from poor or unimaginative selections in anthologies.

His work is immensely popular outside the United States. I can't even begin to name the poets from outside the U.S. who have read him passionately -- Pablo Neruda and Federico Garcia Lorca come to mind, just off the top of my head.

Walt Whitman's birthday is at the end of this month.

6:52 PM  
Blogger pam said...

dear readers of Asian American Poetry,

Do you like Flarf? Do you wish to comment on this Flarf poem by Mike Magee?

Magee notes: "It may be helpful to your readers to know that the title is a pun on the famous line from Yeats' "Lapis Lazuli" and directly engages with the Orientalism at work in that poem"

What do you think? Do you think Magee's poem engages with Orientalism? What do you think this poem is meant to accomplish? Does it accomplish it?

7:10 PM  
Blogger Lee Herrick said...

pam, i'm not familiar with that website, but after reading a bit of the poem you mentioned, it sure turned me off in a big way. the poem itself was inadequate from my point of view, but i will have to go back and read it again (if i can muster the energy/ interest).

8:55 AM  
Blogger pam said...

hi Lee,

Actually I debated whether or not to even bring up this poem for discussion... eventually I decided to post the link because the poem is being discussed on other blogs as part of a larger discussion on Flarf. My first instinct with stuff like this is to turn away and "just not go there," but since this poem is getting attention as an instance of a method/school that itself has gotten a lot of attention in blogosphere and elsewhere, I thought it would be worth bringing up here.

Myself, I don't have the heart or precious time to get into another debate about "poetic irony" and "appropriating racist language as a means of obliquely attacking racism." So I just offer the facts here as a kind of news item for anyone who may be interested. And here's a link to the Yeats poem referenced in the title:

4:18 PM  
Blogger Lee Herrick said...

pam, i appreciate the fact that you posted it here. i hesitated to even comment, but i thought i would, since you took the time and energy to post it/alert people to it. i think it reeks of racism, and i, like you, don't have the time to engage people like this.

a while back, someone sent me a link about some bonehead slamming cathy song's work as nothing more than multiculturalism gone wrong and exoticism ad nauseum, and i just couldn't take the bait.

the poet's musings are old. framing it some pseudo avant garde poetry does little to entertain or stimulate me into further reading or any sort of debate.

pam, please know that i am not directing this to you! i have fought many, many battles of this sort, and of course, we have to pick carefully. some of these bloggers, in my opinion, are toxic and have too much time on their hands (always ready for the fight, always ready to show how much theory they've read recently). sometimes my energy level rises and i can play for a while with the racists. but it really can exhaust a person. maybe i'll visit again and loft a brief defense/attack or two.

7:08 PM  
Blogger Lee Herrick said...

pam, yeats' poem ends "their eyes/their ancient glittering eyes are gay," but the flarf post says their "[asian] guys are gay." i'm not sure if that alteration is magee's or the blog owner's, but either way i am unimpressed---the post only has one comment, so it seems that others aren't interested in taking this bait. as for magee's poem, it does seem to engage in orientalism. it's not interesting, and the "poetry" (if you can call it that) is lame.

ok. that's enough about that :)

7:39 PM  
Blogger pam said...

Lee, I totally sympathize. You could very well be describing my feelings about this subject too. Part of my reason for bringing it up here was to wonder about this question: Should we even bother getting involved in discussions of this nature? Is getting involved essentially pointless, as far as serious issues of race and race relations are concerned?

Sometimes I am tempted to jump in and add my perspectives to the mix, just for the sake of not seeming like the "silent Asian." But I usually wind up in the end not gaining much and feeling like I've just wasted a lot of time. So I've just been watching this one from the sidelines.

BTW, the blog discussion I was referring to is at

The discussion there is more nuanced than what one might expect and gets into some potentially interesting territory, but ultimately I wonder if this poem which refers to "their Asian glittering guys" really has any relevance to Asians at all, other than using them as a provocative trope. The discussion at the link above seems to suggest no. So I'm left with this weird dilemma of a poem that specifically calls out Asian stereotypes and seems to reference race relations between the "Occident" and the "Orient," but isn't really relevant to the race being discussed. Or rather, it is the race being discussed that apparently isn't relevant to the discussion. Which in itself seems to replicate the dynamics of Orientalism in the Yeats poem that is supposedly being critiqued by "Their guys."

On the other hand, it looks like a gorgeous day in California-- perfect for a bike ride and soda. ;)

11:34 AM  
Blogger Michael said...


I'm Mike Magee, author of the poem under discussion here. I'm majorly hesitant to weigh in here and realize I have not an ounce of good faith built up. I do have a certain amount of good faith built up with Asian American writers I've published in my magazine Combo, a number of whom I'm close to and who are poets I find vital, people like Brian Kim Stefans, Jessica Chiu, Mytili Jaganathan and Suyenne Juliette Lee. I mention them because I very much had them in mind when writing the poem, in the sense that I wondered what they would think of it as it was being written and afterward.

I think the relationship to the Yeats poem has been somewhat overstated, likely my own fault. I said that Yeats's orientalism was "operative in" my poem. That's true, but it hardly closes the book on what's going on there. Indeed, I don't know myself what exactly the poem is, or does. I suppose I thought of it when writing as a "writing through" (not "via" but "into and out of") racist and homophobic language generated by a google search on the frivolous, punning language of my title. The question I was trying to explore and perhaps answer was, given a culture where all this vile language exists, what does a language-maker like myself *do*. Ignore it? That doesn't seem viable to me. Condemn it? A poem doesn't condemn anything very successfully. If I were going to condemn it, as I condemn racism from the rooftops in my critical work EMANCIPATING PRAGMATISM, I would use prose. So, does a poem engage at all with racist language, with the "slur" and if so how and why and what for? These were the things I was exploring. What you might call "the poethics of the slur."

The poem risks being terribly wrong headed. But again, it proceeds from this situation: I am in the middle of racist language; what do I do to get out? "Getting out" in this case involves working *with* the language at hand, since there is no space *outisde* of language. In this case innovation -- which is simply, as Zora Neale Hurston says, "the modification of ideas" -- is the only response (from within the logic of the situation at hand). One way to think about the poem, if you care to, is to imagine the poem itself, lined-up next to pages and pages of its source material from Google: material which can be awful to read indeed. That just might, -- and this is my hope -- indicate to you how a mind was at work improvising a counterpoint or counter-narrative.

Now, it's perfectly reasonable for someone to say, well, you shouldn't have done that Google search in the first place, it was callous and trite to search "Their Guys, Their Asian Glittering Guys, Are Gay." I might respond that making the *guys* glitter instead of their eyes (as in the Yeats version) was a way to interrogate what John Dewey calls "the spectator theory of knowledge" -- glitter (as on an Las Vegas costume, and unlike Yeats glittering which is sentimental description) is a Brechtian distraction of the kind Charles Bernstein describes in "The Artifice of Absorption." But this doesn't necessarily deflect the charge of callousness.

Likewise, its reasonable for someone to react by saying, you don't have a right to work with this sort of langauge at all. In both cases I would defend myself and the poem but I recognize these positions as perfectly valid. But in either case the argument has nothing to do with the poem as such -- indeed it barely needs the poem at all to make its case, one or two lines from the poem would be sufficient.

The poem itself is a complex experience born from the concerns and questions I've noticed above. If it is irritating, hurtful, confusing, bewildering, annoying, frustrating, icky, absurd, laughable, even boring, this does not necessarily speak to its failure *as a poem*, whatever it may lead you to conclude about its author.

Michael Magee

12:08 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Though I'd let you know that K. Silem Mohammad has posted a long and intensive reading of my poem on the Limetree blog:

12:16 PM  
Blogger Lee Herrick said...

If anyone here would like to read the brief posts I made in response to Michael's lukewarm defense of his poem, feel free to visit KSM's Limetree blog. Pam also takes him to task nicely.

9:29 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Thanks for the discussion. You people have way too much time on your hands. :) (Just kidding -- actually, I long for the days when I had the time to engage in such debates, but just a bit too busy nowadays.)...Anyhow, it's nice that there are still vibrant discussions about poetry/Asian-American poetry going around.

12:17 PM  
Blogger Allison said...

Actually that "What is the grass?" is only a chapter of a much larger poem, and WW's greatest work, Song of Myself. If you carefully read it, you will find WW was a revolutionary who saw America as a country for egalitarian living. Although he fell short of this in his own life, he was pretty radical for his time, talking about sex as natural and not base, talking about equality around the world and dismissing the idea of snooty religious judgment.

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