Yusef Komunyakaa

Komunyakaa is a radical African-American political poet. His books of poetry include Dien Cai Dau (1988), many poems of which are about his experiences in the Vietnam War, and his Neon Vernacular, which won the Pulitzer Prize. He has a very complicated relationship with Whitman's legacy as a white male father figure. In Kosmos, (1992), Komunyakaa talks directly to Whitman, wrestling with this white male figurehead. For him Whitman is almost a museum piece, someone sacred and out of the grasp of this young author.

He sings of Whitman embracing the black experience, but he also writes how Whitman as a white man is claiming to be part of an outsider mentality. When he says, "Whitman thought his heart could run vistas with Crazy Horse and runaway slaves," he is commenting on what he believes is Whitman's desired company. Many poets who follow in the Whitman legacy believe wholeheartedly in this idea of Whitman being one with the outsider, but Komunyakaa is noticeably skeptical of this claim. There is almost a tone of mockery in Komunyakaa's poetry about Whitman. For Komunyakaa, Whitman belongs in the "white space" because he is a white man and it makes reaching out to Whitman very difficult for someone as radically black as Komunyakaa. However, f he felt that perhaps Whitman shanghaied him, there is evidence that eventually he learns something: "You taught me home was wherever my feet took me."

The final lines of "Kosmos" really show the impact of Whitman's work on Komunyakaa's stance: "Everything flew apart, but came back like birds to a tree after the blast of a shotgun."

God, there is beauty in every body. Walt Whitman stands at center court while the Indian boys run from basket to basket. Walt Whitman cannot tell the difference between offense and defense. He does not care if he touches the ball. Half of the Indian boys wear t-shirts damp with sweat and the other half are bareback, skin slick and shiny. There is no place like this. Walt Whitman smiles. Walt Whitman shakes. This game belongs to him.

—Last stanze from "Defending Walt Whitman"

Sherman Alexie

This image of disassembly and then assembly is, in effect, what Whitman is doing for Komunyakaa. There is somewhere that the black poet and the "old hippie" could find a meeting ground.

Sherman Alexie

Alexie, who is representative of the Native American movement to embrace Whitman, shares the difficulties that Komunyakaa had towards connecting to Whitman. Alexie is a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian and activist for Native American rights. He has written novels as well as poetry. Part of the response that Native American poets have had to Whitman is to think of him as the poet who celebrated the beauty of the native. In fact, it's been claimed that Whitman approximated "so close the Native Americans' conception of the spiritual and the commonplace as one could possibly do." In his poetry, Whitman celebrated the beauty and spirit of the native and the aboriginal. Examples run from his descriptions of a squaw in "The Sleepers" that had befriended his mother, to the late brief poem "Yonnondio" (1884, an Iroquois lament). The poem "Defending Walt Whitman" is from Alexie's collection The Summer of Black Widows (1996).

Sherman Alexie

In his poem, Alexie shows that he is not so willing to step into the footfalls of Walt Whitman. Whitman's love of the native is evident, Alexie concedes, but does Whitman really "get" the native? Alexie suggests that though he may be able to feel the beauty of a native culture Whitman can never, as a white man, be a participant, and must always remain a spectator.

Asian Americans and Whitman

There have been many Asian-American respondents to Whitman. Maxine Hong Kingston in her novel Tripmaster Monkey writes of a young Chinese-American poet named Wittman Ah Sing, who reads poetry aloud to the passengers in the buses of San Francisco. Garrett Hongo, a Japanese American poet (born in 1951 in Hawaii), in his essay "On Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass" (1992), describes listening to the jazz musician John Coltrane play "Equinox" while he's trying to understand Whitman. Like Komunyakaa and Alexie, Hongo has trouble understanding Whitman's white male stance, but somehow, listening to Coltrane while reading Whitman opens something for Hongo.

I heard Whitman. Whitman's "Starting from Paumanok." The barbaric yawp fit like Coltrane's saxophone ... you try it sometime ... Whitman means Coltrane to me, Coltrane means Whitman. 19th century optimistic ofay runs into 20th century reformed drug-addict cool Negro saxophone genius. They depart as air. Look for them under the bassline. Of all our voices. They are with us, cameradoes.

Conclusions

"The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it," Whitman wrote in the 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass. In these lectures, we have found proof positive that this exchange has occurred—even if Whitman didn't live to see the day. The dialogue between Whitman and his readers continues. In that spirit, we started this series of lectures with Whitman's voice; it's only fitting he gets the last word. And perhaps his last wish would indeed be to continue to reach audiences—even you.

Poets to come! orators, singers, musicians to come! Not to-day is to justify me and answer what I am for, But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than before known, Arouse! for you must justify me.

I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future, I but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness.

I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping, turns a casual look upon you and then averts his face, Leaving it to you to prove and define it, Expecting the main things from you.

—Walt Whitman's "Poets to Come"

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