Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By:
James Rother

Singing the Body Electric  in a Hard-Wired Age

On the Future of Poetry in a Computer Age

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Click here to recive news and leave comments for CPR.It's old slouch by now that Walt Whitman had the skinny or true gen about the coming millennium before anyone else in the writing or predicting trades ever got around to licking their fingers and nailing the prevailing wind not emanating from their own hot-air balloons. Any undergraduate worth his internet listing of cribsheets and term paper mills knows that the Good Gray Poet sensed the frissons already beginning to unsettle the no'sphere and rattle the prevailing pericope, electricity-wise. America would either come into its own as beacon to the nations and the supreme democratic poem its launching in the New World originally auspicated--or it would wheeze itself moribund amid the chamber pots of commerce and old business dragged from Europe's comfort stations and pissoirs. The war among options, he perennially urged his readers to consider--the war that was no longer the mother continent's to decide--was, as the Republic headed for the last century before the dawning of a new millennium, America's to lose. The future, like the body of America (indistinguishable, finally, from the American body), was charged with the grandeur of all the Higher Magnetisms--

The curious sympathy one feels when feeling with the hand
     the naked meat of the body,
The circling rivers of the breath, the breathing it in and out,
The beauty of the waist, and thence of the hips, and thence
     downward toward the knees,
The thin red jellies within you or within me, the bones and
     the marrow in the bones,
The exquisite realization of health;
O I say these are not the parts and poems of the body only,
     but of the soul,
I say now these are the soul!

"I Sing the Body Electric" rhapsodizes the body and its limitless energy fields across the recalcitrant pathways and linkages of traditional language, obfuscation's last frontier. The solution to the human dilemma was not to be pursued through a truly emancipated poetronics; such a poetronics was itself the solution--so long as it remained unencumbered by the various numbing forces of the ethereal, insubstantial and disembodied.
     Fast forward now to our own post-Whitmanic-depressive state of cybernetic funk, in which, for many, to continue trying to jump-start the poetical is to flog the all but dead horse formerly known as Pegasus, and the outlook turns grim indeed. Poets, used to apologizing for their very existence, have retreated to an unprecedented cliff-edge of denial where they are waiting out the dry spell before the rebirth of wonder prophesied by generations of Walt's progeny up to and including Ferlinghetti and the multicultured stepchildren of Chuck Olson and the Black Mountaineers, whose glyphs and gaffes presently clot the pages of miscellanies as monotonously clone-ish as Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology and From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry, 1960-1990.
     Has Whitman's legacy been amputated by too much unwanted, undistinguished and unreadable verse product? Or has computer culture, the McLu(ha)natic wonderland of Global Village idiots, obliterated with its home page his love-achey map once a-bulge with padded baskets of relief? Can the body electric he sang of still sing when everything that grounds its extremities has been hard-wired to extinguish all non-iconic words and music?
     Contrary to the brayings of Nasdaq supernerds and their academic fellow travelers, there may actually be a future for poetry (if not for poets themselves) within the interstices of the Resolution Revolution, that no-man's land between high definition images and Ur-text, conscripted from archives of stock verbiage, to caption them. If poetic apologists like Sir Philip Sidney were willing to grant the poetic the power to range beyond mere poetry to encompass other frames, forms and media than those traditionally allotted the practicing versifier, then why could a hitherto inimaginable poetics not emerge, one willing to wholly jettison its Gutenberg past and neuromance the stone of Infotainment till all its Medusan nullities shatter and a new age of expression is ushered in? How Laurentian does one have to be to dream such dreams, which is to say, boot such screen savers up? The author of The Rainbow and Aaron's Rod, though a cautious claque for the Body Electric, had, as is well known, certain reservations about accompanying Whitman's Unwashed All on the road to fulfillment. His Studies in Classic American Literature makes the case for a revolution in feeling our way back to the undivided self; it does not pump--or pimp--for a return to utter mindlessness, whether bodied forth as tonic or not.
     The possibilities for a regenerated poetics on a different order of magnitude and intelligibility are clearly there, if there are those among us far-sighted enough to seize them when they finally present themselves. What form they might take, what shape they might evince cannot at this point be foretold. The new breed of poetronic surfers, when their moment approaches apogee, may well echo Justice Potter Stewart on pornography: they may not be able to define the possibilities in question, but they'll know them when they sense them tsunami-ing toward their shores of light.

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2001 Contemporary Poetry Review