August 18, 2013

Breaking Bad and Walt Whitman

There have been several Walt Whitman references during the four and a half seasons of AMC’s Breaking Bad. This month the final episodes of the series are being shown.

The two WW's - Whitman and Breaking Bad protagonist, Walter White - have a strange connection.

The two don't seem similar. White is a high school science teacher who finds out he has cancer and becomes a crystal meth maker and distributor to build up a cash reserve for his family. Over the seasons, he breaks very bad, going “from Mr. Chips to Scarface” as the show's creator, Vince Gilligan, has said.

Whitman is nothing like that. Whitman and his book, Leaves of Grass, were not part of some original plot plan by the creator, But he keeps popping up.

In season three, White’s lab assistant, Gale, recites Whitman's poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer", a poem about disillusionment with theory and a need to engage with the world.
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air,…

Gale gives Walt a copy of Leaves of Grass as a gift. In a later scene, Walt read the book which Gale inscribed with “To my other favorite W.W. It is an honor working with you.”

The name of this year's fifth season’s midpoint cliffhanger episode was “Gliding Over All,” which is an allusion to a poem in the book, "Song of Myself."

Gliding o’er all, through all,
Through Nature, Time, and Space,
As a ship on the waters advancing,
The voyage of the soul—not life alone,
Death, many deaths I’ll sing.

This poem connects with the Walt that White has become.

And then Walt’s brother-in-law Hank, a D.E.A. agent who has been pursuing the meth cook that is Walt, found the copy of Leaves of Grass in Walt's bathroom, and reading the inscription written by the now dead Gale, knows that Walt is the meth cook and drug lord also known as "Heisenberg."

Walter "Walt" Whitman the poet was a humanist and part of the transition between transcendentalism and realism. He is among the most influential poets in the American canon, often called the father of free verse.

His work was very controversial in its time, particularly Leaves of Grass, which was described as obscene for its overt sexuality.

Will "The Good Gray Poet" figure in the final episodes of the series?

As at thy portals also death,
Entering thy sovereign, dim, illimitable grounds...
I grave a monumental line, before I go, amid these songs,
And set a tombstone here.

More About WW and WW

August 1, 2013

Prompt: Alliteration, Masturbation and Other Literary Terms

We all were taught literary terms in school, especially during some poetry unit. Simile, metaphor, personification and many others were supposed to be the common vocabulary and grammar we used to dissect the poems.

This month's model poem for our prompt is one that is titled with a literary term - alliteration. The poem itself is no ars poetica though.

by Paul Hostovsky

I whacked off in these woods once.
But that was a long time ago when
everything rhymed a little with
the trees all facing upward and the sky
was full of itself and no one
was around. And everything smelled good.
I smelled good myself. A sweaty,
muddy, musky, burning smell of
autumn or late summer or very early
spring was in the air, and I was so
excited to be so young and existential
and solipsistic, that I peeled off my shirt
and pants and underpants, and stood there
erect and steeply rocking under a sycamore,
my peeled bark in a little pile at my feet,
my head tossing in the wind, my mouth
opening, wider, wider, as if trying
to pronounce all the vowels at the same time
and failing deliciously, and sinking down
to the ground, totally spent and spluttering
a few choice consonants like kisses meant
for the pursed lips of the wind.

We know that alliteration is the repetition of the initial sounds (usually consonants) of stressed syllables in neighboring words. Usually it occurs at word beginnings, as in this line from Shelley's "The Cloud":  I bear light shade for the leaves when laid.

The poem has alliteration, but do you see a connection from the term to the poem's subject?  Repetition? The "few choice consonants" of spluttered sound? How intentional was it in this somewhat naughty-boy poem that has several puns that another name for alliteration is head rhyme?

For our August prompt, select a literary term as your title and starting point. Besides the common terms, there are plenty of lesser known ones (like half rhyme). And a term like "meter" has many sub-topics to offer. Pentameter and caesura suggest things outside of poetry to me. What would a poem titled "Free Verse" or "Masculine Verse" or "Feminine Verse" address?

To avoid preconceived notions, perhaps you should just browse a list of literary terms for poetry and find one that gets your interest.

Paul Hostovsky is the author of four books of poetry, Hurt Into Beauty (2012), A Little in Love a Lot (2011), Dear Truth (2009), and Bending the Notes (2008). His poems have won a Pushcart Prize, two Best of the Net awards, numerous chapbook contests, and have been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and The Writer's Almanac. He works in Boston as a sign language interpreter at the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf

"Alliteration" is from his forthcoming book Naming Names which can be pre-ordered now online.

Paul is online at