Friday, December 16, 2016

Make it known

John D’Agata’s The Making of the American Essay (2016) has a witty sequence of epigraphs from Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, and John Ashbery, one epigraph to a page: “Make it plain.” “Make it new.” “Make it sweet again.”

D’Agata does not identify sources. If there is a source for Whitman, I’m unable to find it. Two children’s biographies of Whitman have him writing these words:

“Make it plain,” he wrote. “Lumber the writing with nothing — let it go as lightly as a bird flies,” &c.

Catherine Reef, Walt Whitman (1995).

“Make it plain,“ he advised himself. “Lumber the writing with nothing — let it go as lightly as a bird flies,” &c.

Milton Meltzer, Walt Whitman: A Biography (2002).
But the relevant passage from Whitman’s prose is missing “Make it plain”:
Make no quotations, and no references to any other writers.—

Lumber the writing with nothing, — let it go as lightly as a bird flies in the air — or a fish swims in the sea.

Selected Poems, 1855–1892, ed. Gary Schmidgall (1999).
There are various accounts of Whitman using the words “make it plain” in conversation. He is reported to have said, in speaking of slavery, “I never lost any opportunity to make it plain where I stood.” But I can find nothing that suggests a Whitmanic imperative related to writing.

Pound’s imperative “Make It New” (properly capitalized) long ago became a motto of literary modernism. Here is a fine account of the imperative’s history.

Ashbery’s words, followed by an exclamation point, end the poem “But What Is the Reader to Make of This?” (A Wave, 1984):



And what is the reader to make of “it”? Is “it” “the general life”? Or the mood? These lines give us Ashbery in Romantic mode, with the hope of recovering something lost (as in Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”) and a strong echo of Shelley (“Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass”). But Ashbery’s words are hardly a precept for writing.

What most surprised me in looking into these epigraphs is that they have appeared together before, in Douglas Crase’s introduction to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays: First and Second Series (2010):



No one owns these words, of course. But it’s clear that Crase got there first. I still don’t know what to make of “Make it plain.”

A related post
Deresiewicz v. D ’Agata

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