Saturday, July 28, 2012

READING WHITMAN: The Gordon Parks Dimension

There’s an intriguing cultural cross-fertilization between the flint hills and prairies of eastern Kansas — a land of tallgrass prairie and thin-soiled grazing land, with KC as its urban hub — and the eastern seaboard, which Walt Whitman called home.
Oh it’s middle America out there all right, with its ball fields and ice cream fundraisers and shootings after midnight outside the local hamburger joint.

But consider these:

-Whitman visited the Kansas prairies and called them the future of American culture, in 1879.

-Teddy Roosevelt showed up at Osawatomie in 1911 to dedicate a park to the fiery abolitionist John Brown and kick off an attack on oligarchy and monopoly in America (one of the more electrifying speeches in American history, called ‘The New Nationalism.’)

-Politically, there’s the impact of midwestern progressivism embodied by Kansas journalists like William Allen White (Emporia Ks) and Julius Wayland (Girard Ks), whose overtly socialist paper “Appeal To Reason” published Eugene Debs, Mother Jones and Jack London — not to mention underwriting the undercover investigative journalism of Sinclair Lewis, which resulted in the great muckraker novel The Jungle.

-Then too there’s the activism of the radical coal miners of the Pittsburg area, commemorated by a sweeping mural at the Pittsburg Library with a depiction of the three day march of the “Army of the Amazons,’ thousands of minetown women rallying against strikebreakers during ‘three cold days in 1921.’ (

-Artistically, think Charlie Parker, Virgil Thomson, Langston Hughes, Ed Sanders — and Thomas Hart Benton, whose mentorship to Jackson Pollock has yet to befully recognized in the art world.

All of which provides context to the lifework of photographer Gordon Parks, who was reared in the slow-poking county-fair-going BBQ-eating 4H-club prairie town of Fort Scott, and his contribution to the KS-NY connection.

Park’s emergence on the scene in NYC as a photographer for Life was more than just an individual achievement  — in fact, he assiduously created a body of work which placed him as a key mid-20th century artistic advocate for the dignity of the underclass and the oppressed.

Let me put it this way. My visit to the Woody Guthrie Festival and the Gordon Parks Museum this week, to bring Whitman’s message of transcendental ‘this is what you shall do’ acceptance of others, had multidimensional references and connotations I hardly realized until I made the scene and checked things out.

As in previous years, the Okemah festival for Woody was enormously gratifying, further illustrating the connectedness of America’s great dust bowl balladeer to the entire nation and beyond, and positively declaring the place of Oklahoma poets in celebrating that (

But in Fort Scott, flanked by iconic Parks photos of Harlem families, street gangs, South American orphans and the inestimable ‘American Gothic,’ the words of Whitman, Steinbeck, Guthrie, Sandburg, Hughes and Maya Angelou achieved a new dimensionality I hadn’t really anticipated.

A fine crowd in a beautiful space at the local community college, the numbers swelled in part by good press coverage locally ( and folks who were in town for ‘family reunion week,’  a shout out to them.

This was also my first collaborative reading — and a very successful experiment, so a shout out too to traveling British poet Geraldine Green, who with her husband Geoff was also on a tour which included not only the Parks museum but the Woody Guthrie Festival and readings in Norman OK, Shawnee OK, Pittsburg KS and Kansas City.

In Fort Scott she and I fashioned a tandem reading of the Whitman and Beyond poets and additionally infused some Blake, Coleridge and Burns into the mix. A fabulous result, not least of which was how Geraldine brought down the house with Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise.’ I hope we’ll have a chance to reprise in future appearances.

Kudos and thanks to OK and KS poets who hosted us and read with us along the way, including Carol Hamilton, Dorothy Alexander, Nathan Brown, Carl Sennhein and Jim Spurr (OK); and Al Ortolani, JT Knoll and the good folks at Prospero’s Books in Kansas City (KS). And David Amram, ambassador of bop, who once again extemporized on piano behind two hours of Woody Guthrie lovin’ poets in Okemah.

1 comment:

  1. The history of Kansas goes way, way, way back. Millions of years ago, the land that we now call Kansas lay at the bottom of a sea larger than the Mediterranean. It's an interesting note that those same grassy prairies are also a harvest ground for the bones of some of the most gigantic marine reptiles the Earth had even known. Tylosaurus and such.

    Anyway, enjoy your week.