Responses to American Poetry
The aim of this online space is to host the research work of university students or young scholars as this emerges from larger projects focusing on the American poetry scene. The objective of this initiative is to bring this kind of research activity to the attention of the general public in an attempt to further promote the exchange of ideas with regard to the process of reading, understanding and appreciating poetry writing.
Autumn, In Grand Forks; Whitman in the Prairie
These five photo-poems are contained in my public art exhibit titled Autumn, In Grand Forks on display in my hometown in North Dakota. The exhibit totals thirteen photos and eleven concrete poems. I have extracted this sub-collection, titled Autumn, In Grand Forks; Whitman in the Prairie, to spotlight the pieces that are, to me, the current that brings the whole to life. If I were inclined to metaphor, which I am, I might say that these five pieces are the murmur of a breeze that breathes vibrance into my prairie landscape as I seek to celebrate the sublime.
The photo poems in this collection depict a sensuous experience of nature that exists in contrast to older, more classical understandings of the sublime. To philosophers, such as Martin Heidegger, the human project is that of "saving the earth" through artistic expression (Garrard 35). And yet, Heidegger’s vision of the role of humans amongst the sublime leaves one fundamental problem intact. This problem, from a modern ecological perspective, is that Heidegger maintains an anthropocentric vision of the natural world. One could argue that such a "human first" position is inherent in phenomenological understandings of the human mind. After all, in these frameworks, lived experience, being itself, is the primary source of revelation. However, I believe that by turning to other phenomenologists we may come to a more ecological intertwining.
The work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty treats the sublime in a manner that seeks to "overcome the residual anthropocentrism of [Heidegger]" (Garrard 35). As Merleau-Ponty writes in "The Intertwining—The Chiasm," human perception is enmeshed in the world in a way that breaks what we might typically think of as an observer—observee dyad. As he writes of human language, "The meaning is not on the phrase like the butter on the bread, like a second layer of 'psychic reality' spread over the sound: it is the totality of what is said" (Garrard 155). In the same way, we can conclude that the sight of a stalk of milkweed or the tactile experience of that plant are not simply layers of "psychic reality" spread over nature but they are instead the totality of what is felt and expressed. David Abram sums up this subversion of the anthropocentric, writing that, for Merleau-Ponty, "To touch the coarse skin of a tree is thus, at the same time, to feel oneself touched by the tree" (qtd. in Garrard 36). While rereading Merleau-Ponty work, I began to recognize a kinship between its treatment of the sublime natural world and that breezemurmur tussling the prairie grasses of my photo-poems, the verse of Walt Whitman.
It is no surprise that the personal pronoun "I" is a dominant feature of Whitman's "Song of Myself". In the 1892 version of the poem, this "I" appears 489 times—its prevalence, along with the poem's title, seems to indicate an extraordinarily anthropocentric vantage point. And yet, throughout the poem Whitman uses his "I" in unexpected ways, often dissolving himself into the world in a manner that anticipates Merleau-Ponty revision of Heidegger. One memorable passage that comes to mind occurs in the poem's final section:
I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
(“Song of Myself,” section 52, lines 7-10) .
Here we see Whitman's "I" dissolve into air and eddies, into the dirt and grass that he so loves. If we are to follow through with Merleau-Ponty, we might say that just as Whitman's "I" effuses itself in the world, so too does the world effuse itself in it.
It is because of my fascination with this connection between Merleau-Ponty, Whitman, and ecophenomenology that I infused lines of "Song of Myself" into many of the photo-poems in this series. The direct textual ties to Whitman are listed at the end of this introduction, yet they cannot capture the full spectrum of Whitman's reverberations between the lines, colors, and shapes of each photo-poem.
While this project was awakened from within me by Whitman's exuberance for the natural world, I tried my best not to let his verse entirely be subsumed by my own poetic instincts. At times, "Song of Myself" falls closer to a Romantic view of nature, one in which "nature is never seriously endangered […] rather, it is loved for its vastness, beauty, and endurance" (Garrard 37). Perhaps it was, for Whitman, appropriate to speak to this untarnished sense of the infinite in nature; however, this is not the world of poets today. Landscapes across the globe have, increasingly, become endangered. Even my home landscape, the tallgrass prairie that once seemed to stretch without end, has been decimated beyond recognition. One 2017 source estimated less than one percent of original tallgrass prairie remains (Carrels). I moved to the Red River Valley in 2020. By then, this land of infinite grass was, effectively, gone. I never got to see it.
And so, this photo-poem collection attempts to balance the reverie of Whitman's poetry with a modern dread for what losses the world has already suffered and what greater losses await us in the coming decades. Thus, toward the start of the photo-poem sequence, the reader is told of monarch butterflies disappearing along with their only source of food, milkweed, the face of every-encroaching corporate farms. However, despite these ongoing losses, the spirit of Whitman within me is hardy. I couldn't squash it even if I wanted to.
The remaining photo-poems of Autumn, In Grand Forks; Whitman in the Prairie carry a message of resilience. From the project's inception, I leaned heavily into the spirit of Whitman, but in my revisions led me to a greater focus on ecological dread, and I was forced to navigate twin impulses to mourn ecological decimation and to sing of nature's resilience. In the final photo-poem of Autumn, In Grand Forks, I ask the viewer to look out over a field of hay bales, drenched in the orangeyellow light of pre-dusk. The image is conventionally beautiful, and yet, in the context of my landscape, I cannot help but mourn the tallgrass. But even now, I cannot banish hope. In the text portion of the photo poem, I see the tallgrass—the four horsemen of the prairie—big bluestem, Indian grass, switchgrass, and little bluestem laying roots down to fifteen feet beneath my feet as I look out over a landscape that, for better or worse, will outlast me.
I leave you now with a last note: as of January 2022, monarch butterfly populations have rebounded to a five-year high. Their numbers still pale in comparison to their swarms of the 1980s, but biologists have hope.
Recovery is a long journey, one well worth taking.
Carrels, Peter. "As the Great Plains disappear, a Path to Better Farming." High
Country News, June 29, 2017, https://www.hcn.org/articles/opinion-agriculture-farming-the-wrong-way-to-the-right-way. Accessed 18 Nov. 2021.
Garrard, Greg. Ecocriticism; The New Critical Idiom. Second edition, Routledge, 2012.
Gay, Ross. "Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude." Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, reprinted on Poetryfoundation.org, U of Pittsburgh P, 2015, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/58762/catalog-of-unabashed-gratitude. Accessed 18 Nov. 2021.
Whitman, Walt. "Song of Myself; 1892 version." Leaves of Grass, reprinted on PoetryFoundation.org, Norton, 1973, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/ 45477/song-of-myself-1892-version. Accessed 18 Nov. 2021.
"Western Monarch Butterfly Count Hits Five-Year High." The Guardian. Jan 25, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/jan/25/western-monarch-butterfly-californiarebound#:~:text=The%20Western%20Monarch%20Thanksgiving
%20Count,Xerces%20Society%20for%20Invertebrate%20Conservation. Accessed 18 Nov. 2021.
Contributor Bio: Grant McMillan
Textual links to "Song of Myself":
1.“Grass & Mudsmell”borrows from “Song of Myself” section 27 line 1, “To be in any form, what is that?” and section 7 line 3, “I ... am not contain’d between my hat and boots”
2.“Life Study in Paper Birch” borrows from “Song of Myself” section 3 lines 1 and 2, “I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end, / But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.”
3.“A Vine of Red” borrows from “Song of Myself” section 3 line 15, “Clear and sweet is my soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul.”
4.“Prairie II” draws inspiration from “Song of Myself” section 52 lines 7 and 9, “I depart as air / ... / I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love.”
Also, the full exhibit, Autumn, In Grand Forks, can be viewed on the Grand Forks Public Arts Commission Website.