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COLLEEN GLENNEY BOGGS Specimens of Translation in Walt Whitman's Poetry Two accounts help us to understand how Anglo-American poetry defines itself in relation to language. The first argues that a unique vernacular distinguishes the American Adam's autochthonous literature; the second argument takes issue with the first for serving, in Jonathan Arac's critique, "nationalist myths of purity" and nativism (44). To emphasize the linguistic mixture of America's heterogeneous culture, Arac replaces the term vernacular with creóle. In his discussion of Walt Whitman, the former poster child of arguments about the vernacular and about cultural nativism, Arac proposes that we must understand Whitman's poetry as inventing a diverse and deracinated— that is, uprooted—idiom best exemplified by journalistic language. Yet Arac's argument for linguistic mixture leaves open the question of how such heterogeneity can be maintained under the homogenizing pressures of the global, metropolitan, capitalist culture he describes. As Arac demonstrates, Whitman performed what we may think of as the worlding of America by incorporating non-English words into his poems . But once Whitman's mixed language takes on the status of a language in itself, it runs the risk of being as monolingual in outcome as theories of the vernacular make it in origin. Whitman's poetic practice indicates a keen awareness that mixture is more easily invoked than maintained. To examine how the American idiom could express and sustain the diversity of its global contexts, how it could—in Allen Grossman's words—"preserve the ends of the enterprise from the prédation of the means" (189), Whitman developed a practice of literal, linguistic translation for which we have not yet accounted in our critical assessment of American literature's relation to language. Arizona Quarterly Volume 58, Number 3, Autumn 2002 Copyright © 2002 hy Arizona Board of Regents issN 0004-1610 34Colleen Glenney Boggs Throughout his career, Whitman drew on translation to conceptualize his literary project. Although Arac considers the "vernacular" a modern term that was not "part of nineteenth-century discussions of . . . 'popular language'" (44), Whitman himself used the term when he examined the linguistic importance of translation. In Specimen Days (1882), Whitman reflects on the most prominent American poet-translator, the recently deceased Longfellow: His translations of many German and Scandinavian pieces are said to be better than the vernaculars. ... To the ungracious complaint-charge of his want of racy nativity and special originality , I shall only say that America and the world may well be reverently thankful—can never be thankful enough—for any such singing-bird vouchsafed out of the centuries, without asking that the notes be different from those of other songsters; adding what I have heard Longfellow himself say, that ere the New World can be worthily original . . . she must be well saturated with the originality of others. (Whitman, Poetry and Prose, 917-18) Based on this passage, Kirsten Silva Gruesz has argued that "Whitman dismisses the translative mode" by contrasting it with his own originality (405). But what if we were to take Whitman's praise of Longfellow and of translation seriously? What if we were to accept at face value his insistence that translation may be a valuable improvement of vernacular literature—and of American vernacular literature at that? In this essay , I explore the contours of this unlikely attachment between translation and the American vernacular to explain how Whitman negotiated his desire to be aboriginal and universal, to be nationally unique yet globally representative. Echoing The Venerable Bede, Robert Frost opined in the twentieth century that poetry is that which gets lost in translation, but for Whitman , the reverse holds true: American poetry is that which emerges in acts of translation. To examine what Whitman meant by translation and why he chose translation as the privileged mode of his literary enterprise , I will show how his comments in Specimen Days and his linguistic practices in Leaves of Grass reconfigured the discourse of a specific kind of literary anthology, the specimen collection. These early collec- Walt Whitman's Poetry35 tions argued for and naturalized a mutually constitutive relationship between language and nationality. Because translations participated in two linguistic contexts, they challenged these schemes of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 33-56
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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