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The Origins of Poetry of Famous Americans Artists Essay

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Updated: Oct 19th, 2021

In Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself” (237-238), the poet says “Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin / of all poems.” This claim seems overly optimistic in that he claims the origins of ‘all poems’ can be discovered in a single day and night with a single poet. However, it does not seem such an astronomical claim when applied to the poet alone. For Whitman, the origin of his poems is found within his life and within the environments in which he finds himself. Realizing this is the origin of his own poems, Whitman may have extrapolated this concept to all poets in the above statement, suggesting that the origin of all poems is in the lives of the poets and the environment in which they find themselves. In attempting to discover whether this generic ‘origin’ of the poet’s life and environment might be true for all poets, it is helpful to take a look at the writings of others as well. By examining several poems by other well-known writers such as Elizabeth Bishop, Langston Hughes and Sylvia Plath, it should be possible to determine whether or not Whitman had a point.

Elizabeth Bishop is considered a contemporary poet. Her poems obviously originate from the environment she lives in as can be seen in her poems “The Man-Moth”, “The Fish”, “Filling Station” and “Pink Dog”. “The Man-Moth” is actually a poem that arose out of a misprint in the New York Times for the word “mammoth.” (Rzepka, 2001). For Bishop, this was a perfect example of the New York persona and an irresistible opportunity to poke a little fun at The Big Apple. Here, the Man-Moth “cannot tell the rate at which he travels backwards” (32) and “does not dare look out the window” (36). Through this descriptive language, she indicates the motion of individuals trapped within the city’s subways and patterns are not traveling forward, yet are not exactly traveling backward either. In “The Fish,” Bishop describes the perfect catch of a venerable old fish as she observes him hanging from her line. The fish hasn’t fought at all to prevent being reeled in and his skin hangs in strips “like ancient wallpaper” (11), the pattern reminding her of “full-blown roses / stained and lost through age” (14-15). However, this fish has a surprise for her in the five strands of fishing line seen dangling from its jaw.

After describing the very dirty conditions of a family filling station in “Filling Station” in which everything is “oil-soaked, oil-permeated / to a disturbing, over-all / black translucency” (3-5), Bishop finally arrives at some comic books that provide a little color as “They lie / upon a big dim doily / draping a taboret” (23-25). This doily has been “Embroidered in a daisy stitch, / with marguerites, I think” (31-32). Bishop observes that someone had to embroider the daisy, someone had to water the plant that sits next to it, yet that someone doesn’t seem to be affected by the overwhelming pervasiveness of the oil surrounding these things, even going so far as to arrange the oil cans “so that they softly say: / ESSO – SO – SO – SO / to high-strung automobiles” (38-40). In “The Pink Dog,” Bishop offers a stance on the ability of the individual to survive in modern society. By advising the dog to cover itself with a Carnival costume, the speaker in this poem is acknowledging that one cannot remain completely subjective in the modern-day world. Instead, it is necessary to take on the form and shape of the surrounding culture or “go bobbing in the ebbing sewage, nights / out in the suburbs, where there are no lights” (Bishop, 17-18). Without the costume, the reality of the individual proves too frightening for most as Bishop describes: “Of course, they’re mortally afraid of rabies, / You are not mad; you have a case of scabies / but look intelligent” (Bishop, 7-9). Any action that is different from the culturally prescribed action of the modern is viewed as crazy, different, bizarre, and undesirable. Through these poems, then, Bishop uses the world around her as an inspiration and origin for her poems.

Langston Hughes can also be seen to use the world around him as the origin of his poems, but the world he focuses on is the world as it has been experienced by black people trying to survive in a white man’s world. In “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, Hughes manages to capture a sense of the long history and cultural memories that run through the people. “I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow / of human blood in human veins” (2-3). By invoking locations such as the Euphrates, the Congo, and the Nile, Hughes takes his readers on a whirlwind journey from the birth of man to the deepest, darkest jungles to the birthplace of civilization itself, emphasizing all along that he has been there, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers” (4). In “Mother to Son,” Hughes depicts a mother as she explains to her son that her path through life “ain’t been no crystal stair” (2). The path has been scattered with numerous hazards that one would immediately recognize as dangerous within this context, including “splinters, / And boards torn up, / And places with no carpet on the floor” (4-6).

This struggle is envisioned to have a more positive future in “I, Too.” In this poem, Hughes discusses the treatment of the black man as it has been experienced in American until this point: “They send me to eat in the kitchen / When company comes” (3-4) but also indicates the emerging strength of the black nation as they began to experience greater human rights and more opportunity for education. “I laugh, / And eat well, / And grow strong” (5-7). While he expresses his outrage that he is still dismissed when the company comes, he is also exultant that it won’t be long until many of his brothers will be educated just like him and able to lift their unique voices to add to the cultural mix that is America. Finally, in “Jazzonia”, Hughes illustrates the lilting rhythm of the jazz player as it incorporates the sights and sounds of the cabaret and links it all with the history of Egypt and the Bible. The rhythm can be heard in lines such as “A dancing girl whose eyes are bold / Lifts high a dress of silken gold” (5-6). The repeated refrain, “Oh, silver tree! / Oh, shining rivers of the soul!” (1-2; 7-8; 14-15), brings to mind the rivers of his earlier works and the depth of the black soul in tracing its lineage through them. To Hughes, the world is comprised of the culture and experiences of the black man throughout history rather than the superficial events of everyday life.

Sylvia Plath’s world, in contrast, is much more constrained, existing almost entirely within her own body. One of her more famous poems, “Daddy”, is written in the first person as a letter to her father, who has been dead for 20 years. The story that emerges is of a woman who has lived in fear and awe of her father for as long as she can remember. The fear is evident in her metaphor of him as “Marble-heavy, a bag full of God, / Ghastly statue with one gray toe / Big as a Frisco seal” (8-10). Later, she compares her fear of her father to the fear the Jews felt for the Nazis, seeing herself as being shipped off to the concentration camps and describing her father’s appearance in terms of the perfect Aryan. Her beginning and end of the poem, each expressed in terms of anger and fear, leaves no doubt that her fear outweighed any other emotions she had of her father. In “Tulips”, which first appeared in Ariel, the author describes her metaphysical journey experienced during a stay at a hospital. Written in 1961 when Plath was admitted to the hospital for an appendectomy, the speaker of the poem is the hospital patient as she undergoes the surgical process. She is speaking more to herself than anyone, describing her experience as she first accepts the descent into oblivion and then awakens again to life. Although her world is found more within than without, the poet can still be seen to be speaking from her life and the environment she finds herself in.

All three of the poets examined here can be seen to take the origins of their poems from their lives and the world they find themselves in. Bishop is the most obvious about this, writing about typographical errors she sees in the newspaper, big catches out on the lake, old filling stations she happens to stop at, or a poor dog with scabies that gets stared at. However, Hughes also takes the origin of his poems from his life and environment as he illustrates the importance of heritage and culture to himself and the people he knows, the connections they draw between them, and the way that this affected him. Plath takes it to an even more personal level as she focuses almost exclusively on her own life, making only occasional links to the outside world as a means of providing context to her ideas. In making this discovery, it is possible to say that, if Whitman had it in mind that the origin of all poems comes from the life and environment of the poet, he was correct in making this tremendous claim.

Works Cited

  1. Bishop, Elizabeth. Elizabeth Bishop: The Complete Poems 1927-1979. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1983.
  2. Hughes, Langston. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. Vintage Classics, 1995.
  3. Plath, Sylvia. The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Poetry. 3rd Ed. Jahan Ramazani, Richard Ellmann & Robert O’Clair (eds.). New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2003.
  4. Rzepka, Charles. “”: Two Hundred Years of Lyrical Ballads.” 2001. Boston University. Web.
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