Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

WHITMAN: Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking

A small boy goes down to the seashore and notices a couple of birds nesting. He listens to them sing happily together. Then one day the female bird is gone. All summer the male bird continues to sing, alone, because his mate never returns. When the boy grows up he writes a poem about the experience he’d had as a child. That’s the gist of this whole poem. But to tell the story in straightforward prose drains all the poetry from it. This is a poem, not an essay or a newspaper account or a scientific treatise. Therefore it has its own sort of internal world-view. Either it works or it doesn’t. Whatever meaning the reader gets out of the poem comes from one of two readings: either you grant Whitman’s concept of a love-sick bird as something worthy of poetry because it’s beautifully sad, or you dismiss it as implausible if not downright ridiculous.

There’s something about Whitman’s poetry that especially appeals to some readers. The Whitman lovers tend to like his confident attitude. They like the portrayal of the natural world that gives a human resonance. They like his free and easy style of writing. They like his autobiographical and personal tone. The Whitman haters dislike him for precisely the same reasons. Same material, different interpretation. The Whitman haters tend to see foolish arrogance rather than confidence. Whitman’s portrayal of the natural world sometimes seems too mawkish and doesn’t accurately reflect the real truths of nature. This poem for example. Whitman’s free and easy style of writing is really just a lack of proper focus and discipline. And there’s much too much personal information packed into the poetry for these readers to fully appreciate the poem itself. It’s more like watching Whitman admire himself in a mirror. Who cares?

All those factors are present in this poem. And readers would separate very early on into the Whitman lovers (WL’s) and the Whitman haters (WH’s). The title itself will start readers off on the right or the wrong foot. “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking…” WL: Isn’t that a beautiful phrase? WH: Yes, but what’s it supposed to mean? Then Whitman proceeds to begin three straight lines with “Out of the…cradle/mockingbird’s throat/Ninth-month midnight…” WL: Doesn’t the repetition of the lines give it a poetic feel? WH: Yes, but how can a cradle rock endlessly? Is somebody pushing it or something? Then, after one line of going “Over the sterile sands…” Whitman uses a rhetorical device that begins with “Down from…Up from…Out from” and then eight straight lines begin with the word “From….” WL: Don’t you love the lines starting over and over? It’s like waves coming in to the shore. WH: Maybe that’s what’s rocking that cradle so endlessly. When readers come to the bird part of the story the division gets even wider. “Loud I call to you, my love.” WH: Isn’t that sad? So sad? WL: It’s a bird. Birds don’t sing sad songs. They sing for all kinds of reasons, but not for pensive longing like some 19th century Romantic poet. Do they?

And so on. Whitman definitely struck a chord in the American poetic tradition. The question is: was that a good thing, or a bad thing? WL: Oh, a wonderful thing. He made confessional poetry possible. WH: Are you kidding? That kind of stuff has ruined American poetry. And so on and so on. The two views will never have a meeting of the minds. WL: Love and birds go beautifully together. Lovebirds. WH: Are you kidding me? So does bird and brain.



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