Overrated Famous Poems #1: “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman

March 5th, 2010

The way I see it, most of contemporary poetry’s problems result from the fact that the vast majority of people — at least in America — never see a poem anywhere besides school.  For the vast majority of that vast majority, “school” means high school.  And the designers of high school curricula are notoriously — and, I must say, puzzlingly — bad at presenting the students with poems they might actually like.  Honestly, the goal is ostensibly to make kids like this stuff, so you give them “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud?”  Not, say, “Kubla Khan” or “Howl” or A Season in Hell or any of the thousands of poems that would make high school kids instantly realize that poetry is the most badass art form and love it forever, but instead the straight-up fruitiest fucking poem you could possibly find?  Oh, you wanted to teach them about meter and rhyme?  Well, okay then, because clearly “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” is the only poem that has those things.  Plus it includes the line “a poet could not but be gay,” which is sure to be handled well by fifteen-year olds, especially in light of the fact that the poem is no-shit about shrieking with glee and breaking into a spontaneous dance because you saw some daffodils, and nothing else.  Kudos.  Sure, “Howl” talks explicitly about getting a train run on your ass by a motorcycle gang, but it’s how it talks about it that matters.  For starters, no daffodils are involved.

Sometimes what poems are famous, and what poems are anthologized, just makes no sense.  And nowhere is this more evident than with the real “America’s Preacher,” Walt Whitman, who inaugurates my Overrated Famous Poems series.  Walt Whitman is the most influential American writer in any genre, and arguably one of the 10 greatest poets of all time in any language, and “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” is his most ubiquitous poem, the most frequently taught and most frequently anthologized.

It is also his only poem that sucks.

I cannot stress how baffling this is.  Leaves of Grass is 500 pages long.  There are like six thousand poems in the damn thing.  Know how you can find one better than “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer?”  Open it at random to any page.   Seriously, every other poem in the entire giant book is the most incredible poem you’ve ever seen, until you turn the page and there are five poems that are even better.  Alright, maybe you don’t want to give high-school kids the one about the hooker.  Fine, don’t.  Maybe there are a few others that you also think are inappropriate for high school.  Fine.  But you know what?  Even if half the book were inappropriate for high school—which it’s not—that would still leave you with two hundred and fifty fucking pages of poems that are not only not inappropriate, but are also mind-blowingly fantastic and the best representations of what poetry means and what constitutes its duties that you could possibly lay before a student or anyone.  Without having to give them “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.”

WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and  ……… measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much ……… applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Unlike in every other Whitman poem, there is not much to “get.”  It is a variation on the Wordsworthian “Tables Turned” conceit that experiencing Nature is superior to dissecting it.  True enough, but Whitman here takes the idea one fatal step farther.  Wordsworth’s point had been that you want to get outside once in a while instead of reading all the time.  The point of “Learn’d Astronomer” is that knowing about stuff is for chumps, period.

Are you having trouble paying attention because I used “farther” instead of “further” three sentences back?  Well, the way I see it, “farther” is correct there.  The rule is that “farther” should be used for literal distance and “further” for metaphoric degree.  But I was talking about steps there, which are taken over distance.  No-one is literally taking steps, but within the metaphor distance is involved, so it becomes a question of whether you think the metaphor ends after the word “step,” or after the subsequent adverb.  If the subsequent adverb is part of the metaphor, which I think it is, then said adverb should be “farther .”

There, wasn’t that interesting?  More interesting than, say, looking in perfect silence at a dictionary?

People who love things are supposed to analyze them.  That’s how you get good at them, and preserve the means for subsequent generations to get good at them.  For lack of a better idea, the place where humanity conducts such business is school.  It was a bad idea for this poem to suggest that people should ignore what is presented to them in school.  Because you know what they present you with in school now?  THIS POEM.

Actually, maybe this is Whitman’s most ingenious poem of all and, knowing that it would one day become standard high-school fare, he wrote it in a secret plan to make the dumb kids’ heads explode:  “This poem says I shouldn’t pay attention to what they give me in school, so I won’t, but they gave me this poem in school, so I shouldn’t pay attention to this poem, which means I should pay attention to what they give me in school, which means I should pay attention to this poem, which means…”

Ka-BOOM!!  And that’s what you get for beating me up because I stare at other boys and wear a stupid hat and have a fake butterfly on my finger, dumb kids!

I wish that had been his plan.  But alas, it was not, and this poem just sucks.  There are worse famous poems, but “When I Heard the Learn’d Astonomer” gets to kick off the series for being not only a bad poem, but a bad poem that negatively affects every other poem in the world, including other poems by the same author, which are all great, by providing lazy people with a convenient excuse not to read poetry.  This poem is why the kids in your poetry classes today, when you ask them who they read, just lean back with douchey grins on their greasy little faces and say “I don’t read ANYBODY, man — I just do my OWN thing!”, as if that makes them awesome instead of giant assholes.  In other words, thanks to Walt Whitman, the people who would benefit most from reading Walt Whitman are able to use Walt Whitman as an excuse not to read Walt Whitman.

Nice going, Walt Whitman.

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(In the unlikely event that you are unfamiliar with Walt Whitman but reading a poetry blog anyway for some reason, and would like to read a good poem by him, read any other poem by him besides the one I was just talking about.  If that is not specific enough, read “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”)

The Great “Silm” Hoax?

March 1st, 2010

….Has a former Poet Laureate of the U.S. been punk’d by nerds?

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Robert Hass is my favorite living poet.  I’m not trying to start a critical argument about whether he’s the best, but I enjoy reading his work the most.  When I was a junior in high school, I performed his “Berkeley Eclogue” (from Human Wishes) as my poetry piece in forensics-league oral interp, and years later I had the privilege of taking his workshop in my final semester at Iowa.  He even taught me my favorite word—or at least, I used to think so.

I first heard the word silm when Bob explained it from the podium at a reading in Iowa City in late 2000, before reading (perhaps an early version of) his poem that contains it, which later ended up in 2007’s Time and Materials:

Etymology

Her body by the fire
Mimicked the light-conferring midnights
Of philosophy.
Suppose they are dead now.
Isn’t “dead now” an odd expression?
The sound of the owls outside
And the wind soughing in the trees
Catches in their ears, is sent out
In scouting parties of sensation down their spines.
If you say it became language or it was nothing,
Who touched whom?
In what hurtle of starlight?
Poor language, poor theory
Of language. The shards of skull
In the Egyptian museum looked like maps of the wind-eroded
Canyon labyrinths from which,
Standing on the verge
In the yellow of a dwindling fall, you hear
Echo and re-echo the cries of terns
Fishing the worked silver of a rapids.
And what to say of her wetness? The Anglo-Saxons
Had a name for it. They called it silm.
They were navigators. It was also
Their word for the look of moonlight on the sea.

At the time, he identified silm as his favorite word and, mature poet that I am, I promptly stole it from him.  We need an elegant word for… well, pussy juice (you see how hard it is to refer to at all without being offensive?) in modern English, and silm fit the bill.  That “moonlight on the sea” double-meaning bit really made the ladies swoon.  It is not every poet who can make the ladies swoon by stepping up to a podium and saying “Here’s a new word I found for pussy juice,” but that’s Bob.

While working recently on an essay about offensive vs. inoffensive words for female sexual equipment and/or functions over on my other website, I was planning to bring up silm, and thought I’d go research it a bit first.  It’s a good thing I did.  Because I consulted multiple Anglo-Saxon dictionaries and, as far as I can tell, the word just straight-up never existed.

Unless the Anglo-Saxons omitted silm from their records but then privately sent Bob an e-mail about it, there was no such word.  One might assume that the word for pussy juice was simply left out of the dictionaries, but this doesn’t hold up, because if “It was also / Their word for the look of moonlight on the sea,” then it would be in the dictionaries with that definition.  The closest word they seem to have had, and the one that probably was their word for pussy juice (the Anglo-Saxons were notoriously blunt in their naming habits), was slim, with the “i” before the “l”—whither our modern slime, and pronounced the same way.  Presumably, a word that is effectively indistinguishable from “slime” (indeed, one that is technically the same word) does not have the same chances of catching on as the 21st century word of choice for pussy juice among the debonair of the Humanities building.

Plus, there’s nothing in there about the “moonlight on the sea” bit.  As far as I could tell, Hass just up and pulled that out of his ass.  Until I did a bit more research.  Once again, I’m glad I did.  Because it turns out that silm is actually one form of a word that does mean moonlight.  There’s only one problem…

…That word is not Anglo-Saxon.  It’s Quenya.

Quenya, as in the freaking language of the Elves from Lord of the Rings.

In case anyone who doesn’t follow poetry somehow stumbled upon this blog, be aware that this Robert Hass guy is a big deal.  He was Poet Laureate of the U.S. from ’95 to ’97, and he won the Pulitzer for the book that the silm poem is in.  I don’t know anyone in the game who wouldn’t name him among the top five living American poets, and really anyone who puts him outside the top three is probably just being contrarian (if you’re looking to get into him btw, the book to start with in my opinion is Human Wishes).  You may have had a poetry instructor in college with several acclaimed books out who you thought was a big deal, but Bob Hass is more important than that person to the same degree that Bob Dylan is more important than Alice In Chains.

And he has, apparently, been bullshitting the poetry world for ten years based on a made-up language from Lord of the Rings.

This may have been an accident, of course.  It’s not like one would have to be a giant Tolkien nerd to come across silm, as it appears in the title of The Silmarillion (which name comes from silima, the shining substance used by Fëanor son of Finwë to forge the silmarils from the essences of the Two Trees of Valinor before Melkor, later Morgoth, could send the giant spider Ungoliant to oh who gives a shit).  Hass could have assumed the root was valid Anglo-Saxon, as much of Tolkien is, and accidentally conflated it in his memory with a very similar word for pussy juice in which the two central letters are transposed.  Or someone else could have made this mistake, and then Hass heard it from that guy and didn’t think to double-check his research.  Or some giant nerd could have deliberately played a prank on one of the greatest living poets.  Or said poet could in fact secretly be a giant nerd himself, and playing said prank on us.

If it is the last option, of course, then Robert Hass is an ever greater genius than I thought he was.  He made up a word for pussy juice that was actually a word for glowing magic tree soul from J.R.R. Tolkien’s most impenetrably nerdy book, tricked women into thinking it was elegant and romantic, tricked tons of English geeks including me into using the word for a decade thinking they were so suave, and then put the word in a book and won the Pulitzer Prize for it.  Only Hass knows for sure, and I hope you will join me in a public call for him to come forward.

But one thing is sure: the word silm is not Anglo-Saxon, and means none of the things the Hass poem purports it to.  Which means that, after ten years, the most elegant English word for female sexual fluid is once again “femme-spooge.”

Sóðlice.