I, Too, Am a Vegetable: The Whitman Parodies
Among the gems in my late father's library is a book published in 1923 under the title Parodies On Walt Whitman, published by American Library Service with a preface by Christopher Morley.
Chronologically arranged and covering a sixty five-year period starting in 1857, it's a fascinating book from literary-historical, sociological, and psychological perspectives, not to mention its entertainment value, and it raises all kinds of questions:
Which kinds of poets are most open to parodies? Are ego and ambition a necesary requirement? Were the Whitman parodies funnier at the turn of the twentieth century, when he posed a threat to established poetics, than they are now? Is there any contemporary poet who could attract and sustain an entire book of parodies (Jorie Graham? Seamus Heaney? Charles Bernstein? It's hard to imagine). Is openness to parody any sign of greatness? And, last but not least, is it true that, as Morley claims in his tactful preface, "Walt, who would seem to be the broadest target ever offered to the jester, comes off the field without even a smell of scorching on his garments"?
From "I Am Walt Whitman," Anonymous (1868)
I am Walt Whitman.
You are an idiot.
O intellectual ingurtilations of creeds!
To such I am antiseptic.
I met a man.
In a gutter. We were at once friends.
O homogeneities of contemporaneous antiloxodromachy!
From "Covent Garden Market," Julian Sturgis (1884)
Covent Garden Market.
Onions, potatoes, carrots, turnips, parsnips, asparagus French and English
(O bon jour, French asparagus, my brother!)Good vegetables and bad musty vegetables!
Good sellers and bad musty sellers!
I devour the bad musty vegetables.
O bouquets for misses, and for opera girls!
Empty wagons and full wagons, empty baskets and full baskets, empty people and full people!
O Covent Garden Market!
O dirt and smell and slime indescribable! I describe you all, I love you all, I wallow in you all, I too, am a vegetable. I am likewise an animal and an angel.
Cool and sweet is the dewy grass, and the shore of the sea. Cool and sweet is the crowded London street.
I strip myself naked in the grass, on the shore of the sea, in the crowded street. I am free and naked; the policemen run me in,
Them also do I call brothers!
From “After Walt Whitman,” Richard Grant White (1884)
O eternal circles, O squares, O triangles, O hypotenuses, O centres, circumferences, diameters, radiuses, arcs, sines, co-sines, tangents, parallelograms and parallelopipedons! O pipes that are not parallel, furnace pipes, sewer pipes, meerschaum pipes, briar-wood pipes, clay pipes! O matches, O fire, and coal-scuttle, and shovel, and tongs, and fender, and ashes, and dust, and dirt! O everything! O nothing!
O myself! O yourself!
O my eye!
Annie Finch is the author or editor of more than twenty books of poetry, plays, translation, literary essays, textbooks, and anthologies, including the poetry collections Eve (1997), Calendars (2003), and Spells: New and Selected Poems (2012), and the long poems The Encyclopedia of Scotland (1982) and Among the Goddesses: An Epic...