Poet's Pick April 18
Walt Whitman: "When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer"
Selected by David Roderick
National Poetry Month 2012

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David Roderick's Poetry Month Pick, April 18, 2012

"When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer"
by Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

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 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.




* David Roderick Comments:
Back when I started writing poems and knew far too little about them, I discovered Walt Whitman.  For a whole summer I devoured his Collected Poems, or rather, they devoured me.  I fell in love with Whitman’s generosity and warmth and randy attitude and insatiable desire to include everything and everyone in his poems.  Of course I felt the rhapsodic “Song of Myself” both deeply and personally, as most people probably do when they first read it.  My own lines of poetry began to stretch beyond pentameters, but I soon realized I couldn’t sustain enough rhythmic energy to maintain a longer line’s tensile strength. 

Poems that use anaphora (repetition of a word or phrase at the beginnings of sentences or lines) to heighten a poem’s vocal power have always charmed me.  I suppose anaphora was originally used as a mnemonic device and also as a method to bring a communal tribe or audience under a spell.  Imagine listening to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963—his use of anaphoric repetition creates a physical sensation that carries us beyond the meaning of the words.   Though anaphora is a rhetorical device used to clinch an argument, it makes our hair stand on end when it’s delivered with emphasis and inflection, and it strangely carries us beyond reason and sometimes beyond ourselves. 

Whitman commits to the device.  One might even call it his default mode.  In the absence of meter it serves him well, as it propels energy across his long lines and, when it accumulates, often creates rapture for an audience despite the fact that his poems were written for the page and not live performance.  Furthermore, Whitman exhausts the form for the rest of us.  Any American poet who overuses anaphora will automatically draw a comparison to Whitman, whose shadow is far too vast for any of us to shake.
           
Part of the pleasure of reading “Song of Myself” and other long, sequential lyrics by Whitman comes from listening to him dance toward and away from his anaphoric patterns.  I hadn’t noticed until recently how often Whitman employs the device in his shorter lyrics like “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.”  Whitman’s use of it here both surprises and interests me because it gathers a different sort of energy.  Instead of carrying toward rhapsody, the four lines that begin with “When” do the exact opposite, evoking the boring atmosphere of the astronomer’s lecture hall and perhaps even mocking the astronomer’s vocal delivery.  (Possibly I’m sensitive to this quality because I, too, teach in large lecture halls.)  By the time I reach the fifth line, where Whitman breaks the repetition and turns away from the astronomer’s tedious charting and measuring and diagramming, I’m dying to get the heck out of the lecture hall.  The details that follow offer such a rich contrast to the musty academic setting—especially the “mystical moist night-air” Whitman finds outside.  I like joining him as he magically glides into that air and looks up “in perfect silence at the stars.”

About David Roderick:
David Roderick's first book, Blue Colonial, won the American Poetry Review/ Honickman First Book Prize. Recent poems have appeared in Cave Wall, Poetry, and Shenandoah. He teaches in the MFA program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.


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