Saturday, September 26, 2009

Yawp: how to blow, how to translate

1. Song of Myself, section 24, lines 519-521:

I do not press my fingers across my mouth,
I keep as delicate around the bowels as around the head and heart,
Copulation is no more rank to me than death is. 

2. Antiques roadshow: in nineteenth-century America, death was spoken of without euphemism and funerals were held in the home. By contrast, copulation was rarely spoken of at all, except for the purpose of inducing guilt and shame. We find that hard to think about now, from either side of the comparison. Consider, for instance, the emotion with which this fastidiously sanitized sample of the past was sealed into its specimen jar of 21st-century prose.

Edith was a nervous bride, wondering about the intimate side of married life. On her wedding eve, she shyly approached her mother with this question, only to receive a coldly dismissive response. Lucretia made reference to the sexual act by reminding her daughter of the differences in physiology between men and women as represented in statues in art museums.

(Shari Benstock, "Edith Wharton, 1962-1937: A Brief Biography." A Historical Guide to Edith Wharton, ed. Carol J. Singley [New York: Oxford University Press, 2003] 27) 

Signaled by the icy distaste of that prose, we pick up its social cue and perform a historical permutation on Whitman's comparison. Translating for 21st-century politesse, we make ourselves understand Whitman to say, "Death is no more rank to me than copulation is." That rationalizes the poet's awe before himself and gives his poem a new and more hygienic focus. As Whitman's son Hart Crane succinctly put it, at a time when Whitman's era was giving way to ours: "New thresholds, new anatomies."

3. "I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world,"

sang the elder poet at the end of Song of Myself, secure in what he thought was possession of a code unbreakable by time. But Leaves of Grass, the book whose paper Whitman pulled through the printing press himself, turned out to be not just decipherable in time but recyclable.

In the recycled libretto, what is Lattice Amethyst? A setting for the opera Kleenex. "Yawp into me," sings yearning Kleenex there, her flesh all sensitive tissue under amethyst moonlight. "Yawp into me," Kleenex repeats. "I am all Whitmanic acceptance. I am extra large, I contain germs. Receiving your exuberance with complete understanding, I absorb and silence and dispose of."

And "Yawp," breathes Walt Whitman into Kleenex, completing the duet. A copyright attorney slips the cuffs on at the coda, "Let it out," and into the sanitary landfill goes the translated song of the tenderest lover, yawping for the last time as it crumples under the bulldozer.