Academic journal article Walt Whitman Quarterly Review

Toward Zoopoetics: Rethinking Whitman's "Original Energy"

Academic journal article Walt Whitman Quarterly Review

Toward Zoopoetics: Rethinking Whitman's "Original Energy"

Article excerpt

I see in them [moose, cat, chickadee, prairie-dog...] and myself the same old law.

-Leaves of Grass (1855)

The underlying AssuMpTion deeply engrained within a culture that uses alphabetic systems is that letters do not relate to the material earth. They are immaterial, existing in the mind, and they are therefore disembodied. The theorist Brian Rotman exposes this assumption well in his 2008 Becoming Beside Ourselves. "Letters," for him, are "in no way iconic." Moreover, they have "no relation to that of the body," and even the sounds we speak-the "minimal hearable fragments"-are "absent any trace of the sense-making apparatus of the body producing them."1 Rotman's project explores how digital technologies, ubiquitously avail- able to people, change this bias. Increasingly, we look at the materiality of images, graphs, web-based texts, and words rather than through them, to echo Richard Lanham's phraseology.2 Rotman, though-and here is my departure point-overlooks the fact that letters can be iconic. They can gesture in written form, and when the letters compel someone to utter a sound, those "minimal hearable fragments" are not devoid of but rather replete with traces of the "sense-making apparatus of the body producing them." This is why in "A Song of the Rolling Earth" Walt Whitman can say "in the best poems re-appears the body"-and not just the human body.3

At first glance, alphabetic systems do not seem to resonate with, to use David Abram's phrase, the "animate world": the "life [that] swells within and unfolds around us." Abram seeks "a new way of speaking . . . that enacts our interbeing with the earth rather than blinding us to it. . . . a style of speech that opens our sense to the sensuous in all its multiform strangeness." An even greater challenge is for written language to emphasize our "interbeing" with the animate world. For Abram, ideogrammatic systems more readily exhibit the animate, sensuous earth than alphabetic systems, for they often "borrow their shapes . . . from elements in the surrounding landscape."4 However, in Spell of the Sensuous, Abram reminds us that the origin of alphabetic systems also involves a "pictographic inheritance." The Hebrew word for what became the English M is the same Hebrew word for Water-and we still see the ripple effect along the top of the lowercase m. Likewise, the Hebrew word for what became the English Q is the same Hebrew word for Monkey, and the Hebrew word for what became A is the same Hebrew word for Ox.5 Turning the A upside-down exposes the ox's two horns, and I cannot help but see the tail swinging to and fro in a Q -especially in italicized Garamond.

The fact that A's and Q's once explicitly mimed oxen and monkeys points towards several questions. Do nonhuman animals still shape the form of writings within alphabetic systems? If so, where ? Are they isolated cases? -widespread?

The dynamic where nonhuman animals shape the form of human writing pervades poetry and poetics in the long twentieth century, be- ginning prominently with the century's forerunner, Walt Whitman. I contend that many poets, including Whitman, discovered innovative breakthroughs in form through paying attention to the gestures and vocalizations of nonhuman animals. To substantiate these claims would take more space than this essay, but what follows is a gesture towards that direction.

In this essay I focus primarily on a subset within Abram's "animate world": just the animals. That is to say, I am more interested in the A and the Q than the m. Zoopoetics-a theory I introduce-recognizes that nonhuman animals (zoion) are makers (poiesis), and they have agency in that making.6 The etymology also suggests that when a poet undergoes the making process of poiesis in harmony with the gestures and vocalizations of nonhuman animals, a multispecies event occurs. It is a co-making. A joint venture. The two-fold foci of zoopoetics- that nonhuman animals are makers and that this making has shaped the form of human poems-illuminates how animals animate even the "non-iconic" alphabetic systems of language, and therefore bring the sensuous world to the surface of the written page. …

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