I find I incorporate gneiss, coal, long-threaded moss, fruits, grains, esculent roots,
And am stucco’d with quadrupeds and birds all over.
— Walt Whitman, 1855
What does Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass have to say to today’s reader? In the world buffeted by wars, suffering, fear, and arrogance it is good to listen Whitman’s gospel about the brotherhood and sisterhood of all and sundry. Is not his free verse primarily a means to “wash the gum” from his readers’ eyes into the realization of the divine spark in themselves, other humans, as well as in mice and leaves? And to persuade his readers to live and act upon this realization?
Conversely, however, Whitman’s texts have served a plethora of ideologies, and there have been apparent contradictions in Whitman’s life and work. Whitman dealt with these early on: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then... I contradict myself /I am large... I contain multitudes.” Yet this answer may not suffice. Such themes are to be asked in a debate held to commemorate four times forty years from the first edition of Leaves of Grass in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Poet Kamil Bouška will open the evening by reading aloud Whitman’s Leaves in Czech translation. Americanist Ondřej Skovajsa will apply oral formulaic theory to examine how Whitman “writes voice,” trying to awaken his reader to a life more perceptive and courageous. Aesthetician Jan Hlávka will reflect upon the contradictory persona of Whitman (as “prophet of sanity” and “poet of barbarism”) in the writings of two American philosophers, William James and George Santayana. Poet and literary historian Justin Quinn will compare the position of Walt Whitman in the US and Czechoslovakia in the 1950s, and then consider the transnational routes he had to travel between the two cultures. An open debate will follow, featuring Whitman’s original voice, and the collage-like manuscripts of Whitman’s poems. A performance by Obec (Marie Ladrová and Ondřej Vavrečka) will gently draw the evening to a close.
The event is organized by the Center of Orality and Literacy Studies. Hosted by Ondřej Skovajsa.