February 12, 2010

From the Top

"The lack of a common skeleton, knitting all close, continually haunts me."

-- Walt Whitman in "Democratic Vistas" --

I have no memory of my first time reading the Walt Whitman essay "Democratic Vistas." I have a bedside-table notebook for cribbing good lines, and when I was flipping through it a few weeks ago, I found I'd written "running like a half-hid warp" on two consecutive pages. I liked the ring of it, but had no idea of the context or the source.

Now that I am out in the cold, this happens a lot: I read something, begin to follow the thread of a thought, and then put it away, forget it entirely. The impulse to seek out any and all interesting things is still strong, but it isn't matched by the structure or discipline necessary to arrive at understanding. Bones, but no skeleton. What do I like about the idea of a "half-hid warp"? What does it mean to me?

In "Democratic Vistas," wild-eyed Whitman, prophet and polemicist, predicts and/or summons a national literature to bond America, calling for "native authors, literatures, far different, far higher in grade than any yet known, sacerdotal, modern, fit to cope with our occasions, lands, permeating the whole mass of American mentality, taste, belief, breathing into it a new breath of life, giving it... a religious and moral character beneath the political and productive and intellectual bases of the States."

In his characteristic breathlessness, Whitman rushes to conflate everything: suddenly he's writing not just about literature but about moral character, the intellectual bases for common culture, and human connection. Write right, read enough, learn to put it altogether, and, almost mystically, we will find friendship, love, and blissful unity. A footnote reads: "I confidently expect a time when there will be seen, running like a half-hid warp through all the myriad audible and visible worldly interests of America, threads of manly friendship, fond and loving, pure and sweet, strong and life-long, carried to degree hitherto unknown..."

I'll skip the discussion of "threads of manly friendship" for now. Is Whitman's confidence justified? Over a hundred years later can I see the half-hid warp?

There is so much to read, so much to see, and so much to listen to that I have a hard time sensing continuity beneath my own interests let alone beneath "the worldly interests of America." It's hard not to feel isolated. I'm filling notebooks with endless, lonely fragments, and yet...

The past few months, I've been trying to write songs for a new Bishop Allen record, and my trouble finishing thoughts has made it impossible. In an attempt to help, my wife Darbie pointed me to a series of now-defunct blogs on the New York Times called Measure for Measure in which songwriters write about songwriting. I read every post, many of which proved useful. From an Andrew Bird post: "The only thing that separates a mess of seemingly disparate observations and a song is a moment of excessive confidence."

Maybe we don't have, as Whitman imagined, "a whole mass of American mentality, taste, belief." But I can have a moment of excessive confidence and write a song. I can pick up a thread and connect it to any other. I can, through a force of will, through refinement of sensibility, through a million tiny imagined connections, create a half-hid warp of my own.

Were Whitman alive, he would doubtless remain "haunted by the lack of a common skeleton," but he'd also be into blogs. He championed individuality, loved clamor, urged everyone to make as much noise as possible. He rewrote the same books over and over again, a tendency better suited to liquid type than to typesetting. He'd probably even appreciate the fact that this, my first post, will always come last on the blog. It's writing turned upside-down. Literally.