Wednesday, November 7, 2007

A Poem a Day for 30 Days: #1“There Was a Child Went Forth,” by Walt Whitman

Here's the aim: a month of straight reading and rapid response, keeping it simple - no scrabbling after symbols or plotting out rhyme schemes - just let the poems do their work and work their spell.

All poems for this next month from Grant Hardy's Enduring Ties: Poems of Family Relationships.


(p. 11) from "There Was a Child Went Forth," by Walt Whitman

His own parents, he that had father’d him and she that had conceiv’d him in her womb and birth’d him,
They gave this child more of themselves than that,
They gave him afterward every day, they became part of him.

The mother at home quietly placing the dishes on the supper-table,
The mother with mild words, clean her cap and gown, a wholesome odor falling off her person and clothes as she walks by,
The father, strong, self-sufficient, manly, mean, anger’d, unjust,
The blow, the quick loud word, the tight bargain, the crafty lure,
The family usages, the language, the company, the furniture, the yearning and swelling heart,
Affection that will not be gainsay’d, the sense of what is real, the thought if after all it should prove unreal,
The doubts of day-time and the doubts of night-time, the curious whether and how,

Whether that which appears so is so, or is it all flashes and specks?

Whitman loves the long line, the list and lists of lists. The effect is a rather ageless, Biblical rhythm. I like (sometimes) Whitman’s long lines—they sound like someone thinking to himself very carefully and thoughtfully, but almost sleepily. Like how your thoughts come very clear sometimes right before you fall asleep. But it's the details I love about this poem--that he makes me see his parents uniquely as themselves rather than settling for dull and empty generalizations. The line: “a wholesome odor falling off her person and clothes as she walks by” puts me right next to the mother in her tidy gray dress, as she sets the table. I like too that even though the father is shown more negatively there is still “affection that will not be gainsay’d.” And the insight that rings true with me—that parents’ beliefs, words, physical characteristics, etc., become the environment a child grows up in. That parents form the ground, the foundation to “the sense of what is real,” and also the point from which we differentiate ourselves and begin our contradiction.
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