“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Thursday, March 31, 2005

"clearness, simplicity, no twistified or foggy sentences, at all."

LI recommends William Logan’s article on Whitman in this season’s Virginia Quarterly Review: Prisoner, Fancy-Man, Rowdy, Lawyer, Physician, Priest: Whitman's Brags. (inexplicably, they don’t have the toc up on their site).

A brag comes, Logan claims, from the Scot’s practice of flyting:

"Whitman's poetry treated American English—I mean the English that Americans spoke—as more than a dialect, not tbe literary English of literary men. Literary English was a censored language, but not all America was censored. Listen:

I'm a Salt River roarer! I'm a ring-tailed squealer! I'm a reg'lar screamer from
the ol' Massassip'i WHOOP! . . . I'm half wild horse and half cock-eyed alligator and the rest o' me is crooked snags an' red-hot snappin' turkle. I can hit like fourth-proof lightnin' an' every lick I make in the woods lets in an acre o' sunshine. I can out-run, out-jump, out-shoot, out-brag, out-drink, an' out-fight,
rough-an'-tumble, no holts barred, ary man on both sides the river from Pittsburgh to New Orleans an' back ag'in to St. Louiee. Come on, you flatters, you bargers, you milk-white mechanics, an' see how tough I am to chaw!

“Come on you flatters, you bargers, you milk-white mechanics. Tbat's Wbitman's talk. But it's not Wbitman; it's a brag reputedly by Mike Fink, tales of whom were current wben Wbitman was a boy. (The rest o' me is crooked snags—that might bave been Wbitman's motto.) The Americans sometimes called such boasting a brag; but Scottisb poets in the sixteenth and later centuries knew it as a flyting, a bout of cursing or poetic invective, a slanging match between two poets who swaggered or slandered as they chose. The brag echoed Homeric vaunts before battle, the boasts of Beowulf, the bowls of the sagas. Such word battles must bave reached tbe American binterland early, possibly with Scotcb-Irish settlers who drew upon their literary tradition or the tavern duels on wbich their poets once had eavesdropped.”

I wonder about the “echoing of Homeric vaunts”, here. I imagine it is more likely that the brag comes from the same source – the warrior end of society, its ethos refined among those for whom language is always there, the song on the tongue. American Indians no doubt had their own tradition of the brag, and certainly it overflows in hip hop; and struggles, obscurely, in advertisement, porno, and among salesmen. From Mike Finn to Bush’s “bring it on,” it is both central to the American self perception and the alienated child of twentieth century suburbia, a partaker in American good and evil, the Hiroshima locked inside the Statue of Liberty.

Logan isn’t giving us a radically new look at Whitman in his essay, but he nicely sees that the vulgar tongue is not free of genre – far from it.

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