Whitman, I’m Sorry I Missed your Birthday

by:  Caroline Davidson




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 Displacement: The Gap between Expression and Experience

The PTNYC contributors have written several wonderful posts about the HOWL festival, Ginsberg, Whitman, and the American poet. I forgot about Whitman’s birthday, and I feel a little guilty. Now I can’t stop thinking about him, about displacement, about loneliness.

That language displaces meaning from object still fascinates me, as does the constant struggle this provides as we attempt to express and represent, if not transcend experience. We are bound by a closed system,  yet continuously attempt to capture something outside of it, however fruitless our efforts.

This tension is nothing new, but the implication of that space remains interesting. Specifically, how poets attempt to conceptualize a collective “consciousness,” within this problematic, closed system.  Does this inherent displacement express and expand the interrelatedness of humans in a social form, or does it only point out the expanse and inevitability of individual loneliness and mortal limitations?

Perhaps I’m feeling physically and emotionally displaced as I write this from a small room in Ohio, far from any poetic community, longing for New York.

Though Whitman attempted to dissolve, or at least infuse the dialectic of experience and expression, the tension still remains between the hope and idealization of a democratic society, and its opposing and chaotic realities. However, I want to believe that for Whitman, the “break” is a space of creative energy, a participatory experience that is revelatory, rather than representing the failure of man’s ability to achieve a dialectical synthesis.

“A call in the midst of the crowd,

My own voice, orotund sweeping and final.

Come my children,

Come my boys and girls, my women, household and intimates,

Now the performer launches his nerve, he has pass’d his prelude on the reeds within.

Easily written loose-fingere’d chords—I feel the thrum of your climax and close.”

Yes, it’s sexy. But let me move on for a moment.


In 1965, Leonard Bernstein composed a stunning and difficult choral arrangement of the Chicester Psalms in five movements. The introductory section and first movement are of particular difficulty to tenors who lack lengthy vocal ranges, and the complex rhythms and dissonant chords are meant to reflect the dynamic experiences represented in the Hebrew Bible. In each chord in the introduction, Bernstein included dissonant sevenths, which cause the chords to “loosen,” and “clang,” to mimic clanging bells, and in turn, awaken the audience with forceful energy. The subsequent movements include similar aspects of sonic and dynamic development, meant to enhance and infuse the Hebrew words. Much of the piece is characterized by shifting meters, interruptions, repetitions, as well as pure harmonies and resolutions, but the last measures of the movement contain notes which recall the interrupting section, which is meant to signify a ceaseless struggle of man with faith.  A perpetual tension.

I mention this composition as an example of Whitman’s role as the individual poet representing the collective—as one aims to transform divergent tones into a harmonious whole, into an expansive collaboration. I am also unable to detach myself from the associative qualities of language, so I have to processes Whitman’s clashes and dichotomies through my own representative experience: the experience of participating in a performance of the Chichester Pslams.  Like Whitman’s Reed performer, I was immersed in the energy of a collective mass counting, breathing, clenching and releasing their diaphragms, and yet I could hear no uniformity of sound while being immersed in the mass. Who around me would miss a note, a breath, and when?  Would it be me?

The actual experience of hearing each flat or sharp note, instead of the composite harmonies the audience experienced, caused strange anxiety. The audience, in contrast, was physically displaced from the experience, and they received an entirely different effect. Through distance they were able to appreciate a unity that I could not experience. The tensions, frustrations, all flattened and conflated into a composite, worldly collaboration—the pleasures of translated expression.

The individual experience, in contrast, felt entirely unsettling. There was always a moment of panic before each vocal part was collectively to take a breath. It was as if to miss the group inhale would be the one slip that dismantled the entire performance. One off-breath, one lonely breath, perhaps slightly audible to the audience so the family members noticed the divergence and shifted a bit in their chairs.

Why was this so problematic? It was the recognition of the break of solidarity, the opening in the breath “En Masse,” the point of transcendental doubt. Here was the fear of the break from being a part of a harmonious whole, the hyper-awareness of one’s limits and pressure. However, there simultaneously exists a transcendent moment in this break, as it is the moment of discovery, where (language) is at its infancy, where it is brought back to immediate experience.

The discovery of originality induces fear.

And further, this breath taken out of turn, this discovery of my mistakes and shortcomings, also represents the moment where one becomes aware of others’ ability to fail. Who will take the next breath out of turn? Whose “loose finger’d chords” will tremble too much on the next triad? (Itself a “loose finger’d chord.”)

Transforming experience into art makes for a “vicious living,” to quote D.H. Lawrence.

I cannot stop thinking of a particular Whitman line when I think about this anecdote, and the attempts to characterize the break of expression and experience, as well as the implication of the space between them: “I discover myself on the verge of a usual mistake.”

What a packed line! What a positioning of the poet! The individual “discovers” himself, which could either signify self-actualization, or it could signify a situational position. Then, the self is “on the verge of a usual mistake.” The self is on the hinge-point, the precipice, about to burst, about to destruct, but instead remains on the edge of a “usual,” (which suggests a temporal recurrence of an action) “mistake.” The poet sees the gap of expression and experience before him, he sees the limitations as a “usual mistake,” perhaps the mistake is the false thought of man’s ability to transcend and bridge that gap, and it is “usual” because the poet continues to attempt to transcend, through his continual creations. I find this “discovery” beautiful.

Poetry as Fracture and Bandage

Creation, the initiation of expression, and the process itself are to be cherished and revered. Whitman has always given me hope as a poet.“Urge and urge and urge,/Always the procreant urge of the world.” Loneliness is expansive, and created out of the gap between expression and experience, however, expression CONTINUES, the world CONTINUES, as it is PREGNANT with thought and idea—with the URGE to CREATE.

There remains a continuous stimulation of the individual to connect—to others, to nature, to the spiritual—and this is the initiation Whitman represented: “All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses.” What persists is the chaotic mass flux, the worldly collaboration of translated expression that at moments may transform into harmony, but never remain too fixed.

In the breaks of expression and experience there are laments, and in the laments there is simultaneously the will to continue, to remain in motion, to begin. That is the perpetual promise of art. Perhaps the Bernstein/Chichester conceit would be more fitting if the arrangement did not finish with a chord of resolve, but rather concluded on the penultimate note, and afterwards, the entire chorus would take a collective breath.


So, really what I’m trying to say is…Happy Birthday, WW. I’m lonely, but ever-thankful.


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