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Neither Whitman nor the president he eulogized in his great elegy “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” are ever far from America’s consciousness; neither is what you’d call neglected. But sometimes our need for one of them is more than usually acute. Lincoln offered a touchstone when we tried to make sense of Barack Obama’s election in 2008. Now, C. K. Williams has written a book on Whitman, and it arrives not a moment too soon.
This isn’t just a dark time for the American economy; politics have grown so vicious and corrosive, it’s turning into a dark time for the American soul. Creeping militancy. Mounting cynicism. Talk of division—up to and including secession. Affection for the Confederacy, whose sympathizers (does this not bother anybody else?) killed Abe Lincoln. Until his death in 1892, Whitman opposed all those forms of ugliness. He knew they would subvert American democracy’s ability to bring about his most earnest dream: a people with large spirits and heroic souls. “How short we have fallen compared to what he saw for us,” writes Williams, “how in so many ways have we regressed.” Those shortcomings make right now an excellent time for our mystic chords of memory to be touched by the poet who is—if anyone is—one of the better angels of our nature.
In On Whitman, Williams takes an approach that’s more innovative than it sounds: he keeps his focus on the poems. He wants to strip away the heavy theorizing and layers of biography that have accrued around his fellow poet. Williams’s aim is to restore the strangeness and power he encountered when, at age 16, he made a Whitman anthology his first poetry purchase. “For a young poet, reading Whitman is sheer revelation, sheer wonder, a delight bordering on then plunging into disbelief. How could all this come to pass?” His slender book offers a convincing answer.
For Williams, the first source of Whitman’s power is the music of his verse. It was the result not of steady development of craft but of an epiphany. The poet spent his early years toiling in and around New York City as what his biographer Justin Kaplan calls “an inconstant newspaper editor, a sometime demagogue, and a writer of imitative fiction.” Then, like Robert Johnson returning from the crossroads, the 36-year-old journeyman erupted with Leaves of Grass, a book that sounded like nothing he’d written before—or that anybody else had, for that matter. Whatever its origins, Williams writes, his musical system “was magically encompassing and had within it echoes of other singings, the Bible, oratory, opera, even some older poetry, but was entirely unique as well.”
Out of his wild and spontaneous seeming word music, Whitman used the “I” of lyric poetry to create a new kind of self—really a new kind of consciousness—to suit the New World. The secret, Williams writes, is a radical form of sympathy. The first lines of “Song of Myself” proclaim:
I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as
good belongs to you.
Whitman wanted his “I,” according to Williams, to be “the container and enactor and, he hopes, the redeemer of others’ ‘I’s.” Thus Leaves of Grass wasn’t meant to be a mere spectacle or performance, it was an act of kinship. “Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,” he promises. With our eyes opened, with our tongues loosened by his example, we are accounted for, enfranchised, even ennobled. As Williams puts it, “We will be again first persons adequate to our greatest selves.”
In 1960, poet, artist, and beatnik Brion Gysin invented the Dreammachine, a hypnotic light device with the power to induce hallucinations. The Dreammachine enthralled mystics and freethinkers everywhere, with William Burroughs claiming that it could, “storm the citadels of enlightenment.”
Nik Sheehan’s riveting documentary explores the life of Brion Gysin and his quest to transform human consciousness. With interviews from some of the counter-culture’s most eccentric icons- from Iggy Pop to singer Marianne Faithfull- FLicKeR is a fascinating exploration of the age-old search for the boundaries of reality.
Watch the film via Snag Films (2008) 68 min
Jonas Mekas scrambling to convert 70,000 rare indie flicks into digital at Anthology Film Archives
BY SIMONE WEICHSELBAUM
NY DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER
An independent East Village cinema shows rare flicks that are blissfully stuck in the past – and in dire need of preservation for the future.
Jonas Mekas, the 85-year-old godfather of independent film who worked alongside Salvador Dali directing films, has assembled one of the largest collections of indie movies on the planet at his Anthology Film Archives.
But now his stock of 70,000 titles, including one-of-a-kind flims and rare copies of the first moving pictures, needs to go digital, and fans of the archives are scrambling to ensure a chunk of history won’t be lost.
“For me, it’s a perfect example of why I’ve lived in the East Village for most of the last 30 years,” said techno-artist Moby. “The first time I went to the anthology archives was to see a surrealist film fest in the mid-’80’s, and I sort of fell in love with the uncomfortable seats and the people yelling at each other in between films.”
Mekas, a Lithuanian Jew who survived the Holocaust, needs $200,000 to buy a digital transfer machine and pay an archivist to run it inside the archives at Second Ave. and E. Second St.
His goal is to put his entire film collection on the Internet, so the world is just a click away from watching 19th-century moving pictures created by Thomas Edison or Andy Warhol‘s experimental flick “Chelsea Girls.”
“Films fade, crumble and stick very fast,” Mekas said. “Film has limited life. Finally, we have technology that can produce copies like the original.”
Moby, Sonic Youth and other stars will rock out Wednesday at the Hiro Ballroom to support Mekas’ dream of taking his archives into the digital age.
“Jonas Mekas is a grand master of American cinema, and we are all luckier for it,” said Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth, explaining why his band will play for free.
Musicians like Sonic Youth borrow films from the archives and play them during performances.
The concert is also meant to introduce Mekas, who counts Al Pacino as a pal, to a new generation of filmmakers who’d rather have their work shown at the Tribeca Film Festival than on one of the archives’ two screens.
Lola Schnabel, the 28-year-old daughter of wealthy New York painter Julian Schnabel, is helping Mekas plan the show to expose young artists to the Anthology Film Archives, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary.
“All these films are sitting in boxes. They need to be saved. They can rot or collect mildew,” Lola Schnabel said.
Mekas, who has no plans to retire, said he will fight for film until his final days. The passion, he said, stems from his struggle to stay alive as a slave laborer in Elmshorn, Germany, during the 1940s. A United Nations worker told him afterward to go to New York – and he never left.
“After the war, I was disappointed with humanity,” Mekas said. “New York helped me put myself together. New York is my home. I am here. Rooted in the present.”
PHOTO: NOONAN FOR NEWS, JEANNERead more | Anthology Film Archives: Benefit Concert