Saturday, July 18, 2020

Calamus and Canna

I finished Mark Doty's book about Walt Whitman yesterday morning, sitting on our garden bench. I found the book a little uneven, a bit like a sandwich -- drier at the beginning and the end, but juicier in the middle. It was most interesting when Doty wrote about his own life and Whitman's relationship to it; less interesting, I found, were Doty's dissections of Whitman's linguistics and poetic structure.

I was most intrigued by Doty's descriptions of Whitman's "Calamus" poems, including one from 1860 that always stands out in my memory:

I dreamed in a dream, I saw a city invincible to the attacks
          of the whole of the rest of the earth,
I dreamed that was the new City of Friends,
Nothing was greater there than the quality of robust love – it led
          the rest,
It was seen in every hour in the actions of the men of that city,
And in all their looks and words.

I was living in Manhattan on 9/11. A few days afterwards, I was walking through New York's Union Square, which like many parts of the city featured a huge impromptu memorial to the victims of the catastrophe. Someone had written that poem on a poster or flier and left it there, among the flowers and candles, and it made a huge impression on me -- an almost prophetic assertion of New York's beauty and resilience.

It turns out that wasn't the original, though. Doty quotes a slightly different earlier version of the same verse:

I dreamed in a dream of a city where all men were like brothers,
O I saw them tenderly love each other – I often saw them,
          in numbers, walking hand in hand;
I dreamed that was the city of robust friends – Nothing was greater
          there than manly love – it led the rest,
It was seen every hour in the actions of men of that city, and in all
          their looks and words. –

Doty points out that Whitman's original version of this verse is more specifically male-oriented, with men tenderly loving each other, hand in hand. The friends are "robust," the love is "manly." Doty wonders if the "attacks" in the later version come "because of that tender love?" In other words, the original version is gayer -- a vision of a sort of queer utopia, albeit also brotherly, to be read and interpreted by both "insiders and outsiders" according to their perspectives.

At any rate, Whitman still isn't my favorite poet. Although Doty extolls his use of everyday language in his quest to write uniquely American poetry, I still find him difficult, rambling and circuitous. I guess I'm just a more direct communicator. (My journalism training!) Perhaps I would feel differently about what seemed to me the drier parts of Doty's book if I were more into Whitman in general.

On a completely different note, remember our new and struggling canna lily? Well, it was just beginning to produce a new leaf, and I was thinking it was going to survive -- and then, BOOM. I went out yesterday morning to find the plant ravaged (above). I have no idea what got into it -- either a very large and angry squirrel or perhaps even a fox. It was sitting beneath the bird feeder, and perhaps some suet dust sifted down onto the pot.

Anyway, I repotted it, but the new leaf is toast. I moved the pot away from the feeders. We'll see if the canna makes another comeback.

(Top photo: Some colorful steps in Soho.)


  1. What a shame about the lily. If the roots are OK it will probably bounce back. My foxglove seeds are ripe and I scattered some at the bottom of the garden in the little patch that I can't dig because of the tree roots. Hopefully the foxgloves might find enough to cling onto and thrive!

  2. Regarding poetry, you are clearly not convinced by Whitman or Doty's work. Perhaps you will prefer the edgy urban verses of an up an coming American poet now residing in West London. He is regarded as the Banksy of modern poetry. Here's an example of his work:-


    Earlier today
    We went down Billy Fury Way.
    Olga was keen
    To get to Fortune Green.

    by Reedsy

  3. There is so much about you that I don't know, including that you lived in Manhattan. I really wish I had found your blog earlier. Cannas are tough. It will grow again.

  4. I've also never really gotten into Whitman for the reasons you stated. The terrazzo tile step is beautiful. What a shame about the cana lily. Maybe it was an animal that just doesn't like canas. Anyway, they grow like weeds here. I hope yours surprises you with its resurrection.

  5. I don't recommend putting plants beneath a bird feeder. Sometimes, you may even grow new plants from the dropped bird seed. My canna lilies only came up one year, after that nothing. Could be the little critters in my yard like them too. I'm sure yours will bounce back. Enjoy your day, hugs, Edna B.

  6. I think that lily will comeback, Whitman was the bane of an undergraduate class long ago for me. I enjoyed your sandwich analogy.

  7. Hoping the cana lily makes a comeback. We've several bird feeders located in the middle of our backyard (area gets full sun most of the day), but rather than mow under them this year, my DH has allowed about a six foot area to grow wild. The result is mini-meadow of sunflowers (our predominant birdseed) surrounding the bird feeders. The birds are loving this wild patch and so are we.

  8. The canna will live! I decree it so!

  9. rough night for the canna!
    I like Whitman's Sampler -not too keen on his writing, thank you for saving me the trouble, another book crossed off of my to do list.
    Stay safe, stay well- Stay there! Too messy in your mother land!

  10. Were that Canna here in Arizona I would say a javelina had savaged it. It's a sorry picture.

  11. The difference between those two versions of that poem are amazing. I find that fascinating. I hope the canna survives. That must have been quite an attack.
    For some reason, I didn't realize you were living in NYC on 9/11. I was working in San Francisco on the other side of the country. That must have been a horrific experience. It was pretty much a gut-punch all over the country.

  12. I know I'm supposed to enjoy poetry, but I don't. The spacing confounds me, where do the lines break? Stuff like that.
    To answer your question about Obama's portrait, the orange man wouldn't have the hanging ceremony. It will have to wait until Biden is president. Truly petty.

  13. Interesting about the two versions of the poem.
    Hope that Canna lily survives and thrives. We've been finding potted plants knocked over in our yard. We think it must be raccoons digging around for something.

  14. I bet it was a fox. I planted tomatoes in a big pot, and put big stones on top of the soil. For the first few days something was digging around and burying the stones.
    I don't think I have ever read any Walt Whitman poems. Ignoramus that I am. It is interesting how the differences in those two versions are so meaningful. Where did the first version come from-or who changed it-was it Whitman?

  15. I bet living in NYC during 9-11 was horrible. It was horrible all over the country but you were at the center of it all. I wonder how it would have been different had Trump been president at the time...Sorry about the canna lily. Hopefully you will be able to revive it.

  16. canna cannot, sorry, someone had to say it.

  17. Let the canna go. You've got a wonderful garden as is, so one plant that doesn't make it will not mean the end of your garden!

  18. Frances: The roots seem fine, and it does have another little sprout at the base, so fingers crossed! Hope your foxglove seeds produce!

    YP: Ha! Love it. Definitely more my speed.

    Andrew: Yeah, I lived in Manhattan from 2000-2010. In fact, the posts in the early years of this blog feature pics taken in New York.

    Mitchell: I hope they're robust! And yeah, I love that terrazzo. It's not something we see a lot of in London.

    Edna: Yeah, but it can sometimes be interesting when the bird seed sprouts! (As Mary mentioned in her comment.)

    E: He's just not easy to read, is he?!

    Ms Moon: Keep thinking that way!

    Linda Sue: Yeah, it IS messy over there. I have a feeling we're headed for more messiness here too.

    Catalyst: Yeah, I definitely can't blame a javelina!

    Sharon: It was terrible. I still can't watch footage of 9/11. I have to avert my eyes.

    Allison: It's amazing how much of a child he can be.

    Robin: Well, I'm glad to know it's not just us! (Though I hope of course that your plants aren't harmed. :) )

    Sarah: Maybe he's not taught in British schools as much? He's thought of as a quintessentially American poet, kind of like Dickinson. I usually like our foxes but I'm not happy when they mess with our plants!

    Michael: It was horrible. I would never want to relive that time period.

    Alphie: But I have to give it my all! I think it's going to survive, honestly, but it may take a while to bounce back. Fingers crossed.

  19. That's beautiful and terrible, the Whitman poem at Union Sq.
    Terrible because the horrors we humans perpetrate on one another just keep coming...

    Whitman writing as the country was tearing itself apart--re-visioning how we love one another... We do that.

    Words written in hard times can offer comfort and perspective---or at least a sense that we're not alone.

    I first heard these lines from W H Auden's "Sept. 1, 1939" after 9/11:

    Defenceless under the night
    Our world in stupor lies;
    Yet, dotted everywhere,
    Ironic points of light
    Flash out wherever the Just
    Exchange their messages:

    May I, composed like them
    Of Eros and of dust,
    Beleaguered by the same
    Negation and despair,
    Show an affirming flame.

  20. That YP is hilarious. Reedsy - hah!