Journal of Romance studies

Narcissus in the desert: a new cartography for the American lyric

Journal of Romance studies (2011), 11, (1), 21–36.

Abstract

‘Poetry was all written before time was,’ Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1844 in his essay ‘The Poet’. ‘Whenever we are so finely organized that we can penetrate into that region where the air is music’, he went on to write, ‘we hear those primal warblings, and attempt to write them down, but we lose ever and anon a word, or a verse, and substitute something of our own, and thus miswrite the poem’ (Emerson 1960: 224). As a poet, Emerson knows that he ‘miswrites’, for ‘it is not metres [on which he excelled], but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem’ (225). The poet that Emerson describes in his essay is not yet there in ‘America’. But, Emerson concludes on a hopeful note, ‘America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres’ (238). For a moment, in 1855, Emerson hailed the American poet in Walt Whitman, who, Emerson believed, heard America singing. As Leaves of Grass evolved in subsequent years, however, Emerson was no longer so sure. Beginning with próspero saíz’s The Bird of Nothing (1993), from which its title is borrowed, this article is an attempt to show some of the ways in which American poets trace the nation’s geography by straining to hear its music.

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Santos, M. Irene Ramalho