thumbnail of Poetry and the American; The American vision
Hide -
If this transcript has significant errors that should be corrected, let us know, so we can add it to FIX IT+
This is poetry and the American produced and recorded by station KPFA in Berkeley California under a grant from the Educational Television and Radio Center in cooperation with the National Association of educational broadcasters. This program the American vision discussion with readings by Anthony Ostroff Robert aloof and Richard Deering. Our subject for this program is a very very large one. The American vision. It's the largest to appear in first almost unmanageable in a brief discussion. But on considering how American poetry deals with it we have come to feel that the vision itself can be in some measure at least defined simply by inspecting some poems by three American poets who seem very much caught up in the problem. Accordingly we have chosen a few poems by Walt Whitman Hart Crane and Robert Lowell. The poems are two of Whitman's short Lincoln poems. The prologue or
problem as he called it of Hart Crane's the bridge and two points by Robert Lowell. Children of Light and Salem. I think it would be a good idea to start this program with the first two lines of Whitman's Leaves of Grass in the inscription which begins that book. He says oneself. I sing a simple separate person. Yet under the word democratic the word on mass before we go out I'd like to say that it seems to me that there you have a key to Whitman's home invasion of human society the mass was a sign of individual parts. Yes yes that seems to me the name really the two basic commitments of America. That is he sings on the one hand the simple separate person
the individual and on the other hand. Well he says the word democratic the word man. And it's interesting that he uses that word I think instead of our American the mass because it's that sense of togetherness the mass that is all important to him. You know I think the the notion that it's something that has to be singable. We can think of the individual being celebrated in a lyric or in a you know in a drama tragedy maybe but a brotherhood or a bond is something that has to be celebrated and sung is I think sort of sets of thieves. Yes I think this is a basic theme of the American vision all right and perhaps the vision of any democratic society that is we see in these two values of the simple separate self of the individual and the single. Self of the whole society incorporating all individuals. I think we see in these the two basic components or elements on which any democracy is predicated. But the interesting thing to me about this is that these two actually say dedications are in some
sense inconsistent with one another that is they tend to go to war with one another they exist only in a real kind of tension. We see ideally this tension is resolved and these two commitments exist in a wonderful balance. But once that balance if it gets a little out of kilter one way or another then things tend to fall off too far in the direction of one or another of these commitments and the two values turn into something else we get then either to tell a Parian ism or or enter key. Seems to me in a way Whitman resolve this tension. Technically artistically in his poems by making sense the past if you will by naming a lot of parts you feel that it all day. Yes there is that the sort of sense of a panoramic span and scope of it all the identities all the scenes places occupations concerns of American women's poems. Take for example the one of the starting poem is because it starts with his birth starting from home on a
Long Island where he was born and then before you know it after sort of a little sense of his personal origins you get immediately into the American landscape something like the chance of the prairie's chance of the long running Mississippi and down to the Mexican sea the chance of Ohio Indiana Illinois Iowa Wisconsin and Minnesota chants going forth from the center from Kansas and thence equal distant shooting impulses of fire ceaseless to vivify it all. I think that's. We then predicted that you were going to call up exactly this message from Whitman but I think this is a very good one to call attention to what is perhaps most important about Whitman in the popular mind because Whitman is thought of as the great neighbor of parts of the country isn't he. And you see is as you remarked Dick in Whitman perhaps really most essential to
Whitman's vision of America is his immersion in the national scene and the national landscape from coast to coast in all possible occupations all possible landscapes within this great continent of ours. I think however that day he had a more specific idea of what kind of individual it was that weren't in a democracy the individual that made up the part of the on Mars had its own ideal I think in in Whitman's mind and it seems to me that the number of poems on Lincoln that we haven't in Whitman are key to the kind of man that he idealized as the individual who could make democracy work somehow. Yes I think that's right I think Lincoln is an immensely important symbol to Whitman in precisely this way. I think Whitman gave us more than a sort of a transcendental Cinemascope version of America that with you know lots of scenery but no drama that the drama came when when personal identities
emerged out of this immersion in the land. And primarily to Whitman Lincoln was the symbol of the distinct individual on the one hand and on the other hand the person who saw almost prophetically and clearly the necessity of a bond of a union. And this is celebrated in a poem written I guess not long after Lincoln's body went into the Illinois earth to be the camps. Today May 4th 1865. I should be the camps today. And soldiers let us drape our war war weapon and each with musings so retired to celebrate our dear commander's death. No more for him life stormy conflicts nor victory nor defeat nor times dark events charging like ceaseless clouds
across the sky. But same poet in our name saying of the love we bore him. Because you do well or in camps know it truly as they involved the coffin they're saying as they close the doors of earth upon him. One verse for the heavy hearts of soldiers. My poem shows the real depth of grief. Isn't that over that. I suppose all thinking people felt at the time of Lincoln's death. Yes it's interesting that he addressed that to the individual soldier in the sense of the individual soldier is involved I think another quality of Lincoln that's
terrible was terribly important equipment as opposed to let's say a kind of European. He wrote type Iraq is that Lincoln was a man not aggressive who was in a sense heroically passive who fearlessly waited for the storm clouds to come to him facing them. But not one like I suppose a Napoleon or somebody who generates the storm clouds who is aggression personified Yes that's it that's an essentially American trait isn't neither or it has been historically and you know also I think it's clear in that point we get a sense that Whitman's. Devotion to the figure of Lincoln was no simple hero worship that he saw Lincoln really not simply as a symbol of the mass but much more importantly really as a symbol of the individual standing against the mass in the most bitter and tormented kind of conflict. Yes and precisely because of that that he was able to dominate the moment. You see
the need of the moment out of America's America's living destiny. Well this other short Elegy seems to be in order now. Suppose we listen to this one. This dress was once a man. This dust was once a man gentle plane just and resolute under whose cautious hands against the foulest crime in history known in any land or age was say the union of the states. I find what is most moving that is the concept perhaps of the of the great value Lincoln is stating is the union of individuals. Yes the foulest crime is the dissolution of the human body and the union is is
not simply the union of the states but the union of states a symbol of the unity of all all mankind. Oh you know I am reminded here to hark back just for a moment digression to starting from you said harmonicas that the pronunciation Dick I'd always thought it was Paul not I don't really know it all I recall is Christopher Morley once tried to set us right by arriving at time fashion poem on it. You know something else I think. How do you know your particular delta is. Well anyway I notice in the very first section of that he begins starting from fish a poem on it where I was born. And then we have listed California Dakotas Woods flowing Missouri aware of might and I wrote buffalo herds in the plains and so on spanning the whole continent but the. But that first section ends solitary singing in the West. I strike up for a new world and I think just as his devotion to the figure of Lincoln is important this perpetual first person through all of Leaves of Grass
is symbol again of the individual on whose vision on whose relation to this great landscape of America the landscape depends for its own being. So that we never really lose these two qualities in Whitman's of the American vision shall we say as summed up in Whitman. Yes one of officials as right you know it's interesting that in terms of the next part we were going to consider Hart Crane. This balance really isn't there anymore and it's the poem we're going to read of heart Grange the bridge the only actual individual and it is a suicide. And this is to me. Very significant and and explains a difference I think in Hart Crane's kind of attempt of making a vision of America from Whitman's which seems to me to be much more weapons that is seems to be much more humanistic attempt than Crane's which is much more metaphysical something like Crane is is a further out choice a mystic than the women in this
case. And of course he's contending with a different world where Whitman is dealing with an actual physical front here that is the nation is still defined in terms of that by the time we get to Crane the frontier has become industrial and so the myth that he wants to create for America is one that somehow has got to embrace this great new development in our history. He tried he tried to make a virtue out of necessity. You really will have to admit he grasped what what appeared to be the only alternative. Yes for an America always and I think that's very very correct. He it seems to me. Hopes somehow or desperately attempts to discover in these enormous material and accomplishments of our society they promise at least to some competent spiritual advance. But and of course this is the whole endeavor of this great poem the bridge and it seems to me that some of this is indicated in this prologue to the poem that we have here. And when for instance he talks two or talks of the bridge he addresses the bridge directly says
oh harp an altar of the fury fused and the fury I suppose is all of this terrible tension of life in the society which crane is part of writing in the very early 30s now and then he says how could mere toil a line by choir strings suggesting it seems to me that there is something more than merely mortal participation in the accomplishment of this great symbol of art of Crain's time Brooklyn Bridge. But there's something even divine involved here that somehow out of the potency and prowess of our technological achievement we have to find the the the meaning. As Craig says in the last line of the poem maybe everything is a curved ship a kind of a leap an adventure into the unknown and Amazingly though he found it in Brooklyn Bridge sort of in women's locality. And yet finally I think Bob's point about the the figure we see. When where we see an individual in this poem it is a solitary desperate
individual a failure and we see him related not to that community of man but Whitman saw. But what community does he have. Well he has the he has the machine he has a society now that is geared to the machine. And if he's going to find some kind of solace some kind of comfort some kind of consolation in life it's going to be in one way or another in terms of or through the presence the existence of this mighty fact of mechanization of our world. Well perhaps we talked enough about the detail why don't we hear the poem ride. To Brooklyn Bridge. How many Dawn chills from his rippling rests the seagulls we still did when it hit him. Shedding white gringos of Jumo building high over the chained Bay Water is liberty then within
Violet curve. Forsake our eyes as an apparition of the sails that crossed some page of figures to be filed away elevators drop us from our day. I think of cinemas panoramic slights with multitudes bent toward some flashing scene never disclosed but hastened to again foretold weatherize on the same screen and the across the harbor silver paste as though the sun took step of the yet left some motion ever under spend in the eyes stride implicitly desired freedom staying out of some subway scuttle cellar loft a Bedlamite speeds to the high pair of boots tilting their momently shrill short ballooning
i gess to fall from the speechless cover of hand. Down war from girder into street two new legs are ripped to the skies settling all afternoon the clouds flown. Derek turn the cables breathes the North Atlantic still and OB's cures that heaven of the Jews. Thy Gurdon I call lay the dust bestow of anonymity time cannot raise a vibrant reprieve and pardon thou dost show or heart but an altar of the fury fused. How could mere toy line by a choir ring strings. Terrific threshold of the prophet's pledge.
Prayer of pariah and the lovers cry again the traffic lights the guy's swift dun fractioned indium immaculate side of stars speeding thy path convents eternity and we has seen night lifted in thy own arm. Under the eye shadow by the peers I waited only in documents as I shot to clear the city's fiery parcels all andan already snows submerges an irony here. Oh sleepless is the river under the revolving the sea the prairie's dreaming sod on to us lowly this sometimes we descend
and I was the curved ship lend a myth to God. One can't help being moved by this great attempt of cranes to discover in America the spiritual sustenance he so craved. He again wants to find that unitary vision that really belonged to Whitman and yet I think at the end of the poem in the in the dissent he gives us his own ironic commentary on why his vision failed and as the word land land land the myth to God. Yeah. Yes he really. The faltering here the lack of faith in himself and finally use my middle term in an especially Ari Jerry sense done to them. I wonder if this kind of tone that we're striking out toward crane a doubtful tone isn't somehow best and most powerfully exemplified
in these poems of lows that we have chosen here to talk about today. Well I think I think it is I think in fact that not only Lol of course we've chosen these three figures to talk about. In connection with the subject of the American vision it's impossible to really cover this subject without naming just about every American poet it was ever written because all poets inevitably are very much involved in what shall we say the ethos of their nation. But there is a breakdown of the Faith in America is curiously changed and the vision of the future is a lot less certain in contemporary poems generally speaking and I think this poem that we're going to talk about of Lowell's Children of Light is a real case in point here. I'm interested by one of the figures that appears in it when he says and candles gotter by an empty altar. There is there is no longer any human appearance there by this
altar of faith. And the candles themselves are guttering promising soon come perhaps a total darkness. In the previous line the one that prepares for that he's given us the idea. When he speaks of something built on rock we think immediately of of the of a church that is to any of us a church being the the mystical body in which we are all participants in it. Yet at the same time the sort of awful sacred privacy of the individual is preferred is preserved and of course to Lowell it becomes glass houses built on rock. Yes yes unnerving reading the searchlights prose to shock the riotous glass houses built on rock I see what you mean dealt deck in the sense that the Glass House has now no privacy is allowed anymore and there are not houses of worship that are built on rock even private houses and yet not private. Yes it's a grotesque extremity isn't it really carried to the highest power of the terror of suburbia. That's a very good point I think it's always interested me in that poem is the
stance of the bloodlust land how the landless BLOOD OF CAIN I should say. That the whole image of America is reversed from the Whitman image where it's the land of promise and the land of the future. LOWELL goes back to find what has happened to America goes way back to its origins to a sense of blood guilt. And does this through Old Testament religious metaphors and now because we committed murder to gain this land we slaughtered the Indians. And there were crimes of intellect to which he goes into. America is the Land of those who are cast out as Cain was I was to the east of Eden. And the whole the whole vision is called Children of Light. Yeah. Let's have a reading of this problem. Children of Light our fathers wrung their bread from stock since stones and fenced
their gardens with the red man's embarking from the nether land of Holland pilgrims on a houseboat by Geneva's night. They planted here the serpents seeds of light and here the pivoting searchlights probe to shock the riotous glass houses built on rock and candles. Got her by an empty altar and lie just where the land lies. Blood of Cain is burning burning the on buried grain. Another vision becomes a terrifying one doesn't it. Especially in that last image where the seed grain which should be stored to be buried in the earth to bring forth a new crop the new generation. Is it the spiritual grain is being consumed so that what lies in the future about but
about nothing. In a sense. It's stuff. It's a comment on a profound condition of our current society that is seen reflected in terms of the great to do this very day about conservation of national resources and the terrible waste we see going on is symbolic of also a spiritual waste. You know I this is a digression perhaps but suddenly in this connection I've been thinking of something perhaps a little lighter. I was thinking of some of the TS Eliot's early poems and even some of his lighter poems for instance that won the Boston Evening Transcript. I think remarks something of the enervation of a society that New England once vigorous once powerful once hard and tough now softened now remote now languorous once worst stuffy. Yes of course Whitman Whitman really saw this tell us you know this is a small
segment of white man's world New England was never in Whitman's vision of America per se part of it. But that never that the core of it as it is and I think certain other American eyes still Suppose suppose we have a reading of this poem here I think it's an interesting kind of interlude in this the Boston Evening Transcript. The readers of the Boston Evening Transcript sways in the wind like a field of ripe corn when evening quickens faintly in the street wakening the appetites of life and sun and weather is bringing the Boston Evening Transcript. I mount the steps and ring the bell turning wearily as one would turn to nod goodbye to Roche will call if the street were time and he at the end of the street and I say Cousin Harriet
here is the Boston Evening Transcript. You know really seeing the readers swaying in the wind like a field of ripe corn. This is one of the terrors of the day we live in. Yes we've seen the whole nation swaying in the wind like a field of ripe corn seized in a lot of fears a lot of other people's opinions not having that old Yankee integrity of knowing what you know that sitting somehow to meet the terror of the poem is that the enormous enervation that summons everything I think to turn to the last that rather Robert long poem we were going to talk about. This is the metaphor of this part of the terrible contrast between what was an America heroic individual strong America's figure here and the seamen those perhaps most heroic with the frontiersman of all American types. And what now has become to the seamen in the lation. So yes this contrasts interestingly to that first little poem we read. Here we have a man
of intense intellect and Sensibility looking back through the past few decades of our time a time of real terror and therefore seen to those bloody beginnings of our nation which we've been more or less comfortably ignoring or cataloguing in pleasant ways traditional life for a long long time now. And here he looks to another consequence not of exactly the same thing but rather the consequence of that comfortable disregard of the facts of our situation. In a lot of respects and I think you put your finger on exactly the heart of the problem. Of course it's the same vision that comes in a small way in the Eliot poem drawn to a powerful dimension. Well let's close with a reading of this poem by Robert Lowell called Salem. In Salem C6 Spindrift group. Our scripts to the canvas flapping at the sea were paintings
until the knitting sailor stabs at ships nosing like sheep of Morpheus through his brains asylum scene. SEE out of the drive flashes the oily slick about your head beating up white cat semen. Karen's wrath dumps its damned goods into the harbor bed where the sewage sickens the rebellious seas. Remember this scene. Salem fisherman once hung their own nimble fleets on the great banks. Where was it that New England bred the man who could order the leviathans fat flanks and fought the British lion to his
Please note: This content is only available at GBH and the Library of Congress, either due to copyright restrictions or because this content has not yet been reviewed for copyright or privacy issues. For information about on location research, click here.
Poetry and the American
The American vision
Producing Organization
pacifica radio
KPFA (Radio station : Berkeley, Calif.)
Contributing Organization
University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
If you have more information about this item than what is given here, or if you have concerns about this record, we want to know! Contact us, indicating the AAPB ID (cpb-aacip/500-zg6g6076).
Episode Description
A discussion and reading by Anthony Ostroff, Robert Beloof and Richard Deering.
Other Description
Twenty half-hour programs designed to further the enjoyment of poetry.
Broadcast Date
Media type
Performer: Beloof, Robert, 1923-2005
Performer: Deering, Richard
Producing Organization: pacifica radio
Producing Organization: KPFA (Radio station : Berkeley, Calif.)
Speaker: Ostroff, Anthony, 1923-
AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 59-12-2 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:29:14
If you have a copy of this asset and would like us to add it to our catalog, please contact us.
Chicago: “Poetry and the American; The American vision,” 1959-01-01, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed August 9, 2022,
MLA: “Poetry and the American; The American vision.” 1959-01-01. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. August 9, 2022. <>.
APA: Poetry and the American; The American vision. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from