Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself and Alice Fulton’s You Can’t Rhumboogie in a Ball and Chain

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Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself and Alice Fulton’s You Can’t Rhumboogie in a Ball and Chain

When I read poetry, I often tend to look first at its meaning and second at how it is written, or its form. The mistake I make when I do this is in assuming that the two are separate, when, in fact, often the meaning of poetry is supported or even defined by its form. I will discuss two poems that embody this close connection between meaning and form in their central use of imagery and repetition. One is a tribute to Janis Joplin, written in 1983 by Alice Fulton, entitled “You Can’t Rhumboogie in a Ball and Chain.” The second is a section from Walt Whitman’s 1,336-line masterpiece, “Song of Myself,” first published in 1855. The imagery in each poem differs in purpose and effect, and the rhythms, though created through repetition in both poems, are quite different as well. As I reach the end of each poem, however, I am left with a powerful human presence lingering in the words. In Fulton’s poem, that presence is the live-hard-and-die-young Janis Joplin; in Whitman’s poem, the presence created is an aspect of the poet himself.

Alice Fulton’s modern sestina “You Can’t Rhumboogie in a Ball and Chain” finds unity in the repetition of similar images throughout the closed form poem. These images hold together to create a unique and disturbing picture of the young rock icon Janis Joplin. Addressed directly to Joplin, the poem strictly follows the sestina form: six six-line stanzas, followed by a three-line “envoy.” The distinct feature of the sestina is that the same six words conclude the lines of every stanza, simply changing order according to a set pattern from one stanza to the next. I imagine that to write a sestina, the poet...

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...he poem around a single figure: Fulton puts Joplin at the center of her poem, while Whitman’s poetic world is drawn around and even within himself. Both capture raw details of human life and misery in their imagery. Both use repetition to define an irregular but recognizable rhythm. Yet the two poems beat out their rhythms in distinct and utterly different measures, leaving me with two powerful figures, created by the poems’ forms, which have their own purpose and form in the larger world beyond poetry.

Works Cited

Fulton, Alice. “You Can’t Rhumboogie in a Ball and Chain.” Approaching Poetry: Perspectives and Responses. Ed. Peter Schakel and Jack Ridl. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. 128-29.

Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” 1855 ed. Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” Edwin Haviland Miller. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989. 9-11.

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