Commentary by Alan Helms & Hershel Parker

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Here we have a sort of the duel (which is here a nice way to say a fight) of two professors who had a difference of opinions concerning one sequence of twelve poems that Whitman wrote in the period between 1856 – 1859 and which he entitled Live Oak, with Moss (or Live Oak with Moss). The sequence was never published, but the poems were revised, shuffled and dispersed among the Calamus poems and published in 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. On this both, Helms and Parker agreed. But then starts the juicy part.

Since helms was the first of the two to deal with the Live Oak sequence (around 1992), his opinions were repudiated by Parker several years later. Parker pointed out some of the weak spots in Helms’s article and at some points, attacked rather fiercely Helms’s interpretation of the poems. In the light of these accusations, Alan Helms made a sort of a comment where he tried to explain himself and defend his position on the matter of the Live Oak with Moss sequence of poems. On the accusation that he chose the ‘wrong’ version of the poems he answered that he chose the version the poet himself found fit for printing and that the 1860 version of the twelve poems in question is no less valid that the ‘original’ version of the 1859 notebook. Then he goes on to enumerate all the mistakes Hershel Parker made concerning this and many other issues.

Professor Parker responded to this comment of Professor Helms by reaffirming his own attitude toward the Live Oak, with Moss and by making remarks about the orthography and punctuation of professor Helms. However, at the end of his reply to Helms, Parker notes something quite right and quite useful for us – that ‘study of “Live Oak, with Moss” and of the origins and revisions of “Calamus” (and “Children of Adam”) has hardly begun.’

In addition to this useful insight, there are a few more things that this duel can teach us; firstly that we need to be very meticulous while researching because we do not want to risk stating something that is vague, incomplete, ambiguous or, worst of all, wrong. Also, that we must be aware that our interpretation will depend on the source text – in case of Whitman it is not certain that two versions of the same poem will have completely the same meaning. One period can make all the difference in the world when it comes to Whitman’s poetry. Finally, the fact that his poetry leaves enough space for ever new readings should inspire us to be original and bald when writing our own projects.

One Response to “Commentary by Alan Helms & Hershel Parker”

  1. Karen Karbiener Says:
    Avatar of Karen Karbiener

    …I applaud your decision to call this a duel, which seems a much more appropriate word than ‘fight’ if Helms and Parker are discussing some of the world’s hottest love poems! And you’ve pointed out further challenges with our translation project, when it comes to Whitman’s particular usage, To comma, or not to comma? That is the question– made even trickier by the possibility of typos!

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