house-building

The house-builder at work in cities or anywhere,
The preparatory jointing, squaring, sawing, mortising,
The hoist-up of beams, the push of them in their places, laying them regular,
Setting the studs by their tenons in the mortises according as they were prepared,
The blows of mallets and hammers, the attitudes of the men, their curv’d limbs,
Bending, standing, astride the beams, driving in pins, holding on by posts and braces,
The hook’d arm over the plate, the other arm wielding the axe,
The floor-men forcing the planks close to be nail’d,
Their postures bringing their weapons downward on the bearers,
The echoes resounding through the vacant building;
The huge storehouse carried up in the city well under way,
The six framing-men, two in the middle and two at each end,
carefully bearing on their shoulders a heavy stick for a
cross-beam,
The crowded line of masons with trowels in their right hands
rapidly laying the long side-wall, two hundred feet from front to rear,
The flexible rise and fall of backs, the continual click of the trowels striking the bricks,
The bricks one after another each laid so workmanlike in its place, and set with a knock of the trowel-handle,
The piles of materials, the mortar on the mortar-boards, and the steady replenishing by the hod-men;

 

— Walt Whitman, “Song of the Broad-Axe”

 

 

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As I told my students when I was teaching at St. John’s University, Walt Whitman the poet used the simplest words, images, and tropes he could find. He built his poems out of all-original materials that were, so to speak, close at hand (sort of like a bird using twigs on the ground to build a nest) — nothing was “literary” or derived.

Here we see minute observation.

The particular made universal. The concrete, the here and now, timeless.

Wonderful.

Whitman had a genius for using so called deverbal nouns, as is explained by James Perrin Warren in a fascinating book I have been reading: Walt Whitman’s Language Experiment (The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990).

 

 

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Walt Whitman’s father, Walter Whitman, was a carpenter and house builder. Whitman was living in Brooklyn when Leaves of Grass was first published. His father was making a living then as a house builder. It was there that Ralph Waldo Emerson called in the year 1855 upon the poet, who in the frontispiece to the first edition of Leaves of Grass was pictured as a common working man, a Christlike carpenter-poet.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   July 2018

About Roger W. Smith

Roger W. Smith is a writer and independent scholar based in New York City. His experience includes freelance writing and editing, business writing, book reviewing, and the teaching of writing and literature as an adjunct professor. Mr. Smith's interests include personal essays and opinion pieces; American and world literature; culture, especially books and reading; classical music; current issues that involve social, moral, and philosophical views; and experiences of daily living from a ground level perspective. Besides (1) rogersgleanings.com, a personal site, he also hosts websites devoted to (2) the author Theodore Dreiser and (3) to the sociologist and social philosopher Pitirim A. Sorokin.
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One Response to house-building

  1. JMJames says:

    A Christlike carpenter-poet exactly describes Walt Whitman. I did not know Walt Whitman’s father was a carpenter, like Saint Joseph. This is how it was that Walt Whitman knew all the carpentry terms to form his beautiful poem.

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