Poetry and art are kindred spirits. They both utilize unrelated elements, whether these elements are incongruous colors, clashing materials, or words that aren’t normally used together, to create a unified whole. They both culminate in an original product that arises from the muck of experimentation, unbridled thought and emotion, and hours of revision. They both have the potential to illuminate the world with wondrous ideas, ideas that mirror the world or expand into the unchartered territory of thought. And there is no one who expounds on the artistic process with more insight than Walt Whitman, who championed the natural world and also delved into thoughts about creativity and even democracy. Several of his poems, written during a tumultuous, intensely divisive period of American history when our country was at the brink of Civil War, draw strikingly powerful parallels between the structure of poetry and the major tenets of democracy.  It would be easy to imagine that literature and poetry of the 1860s would be rife with rhetorical questions, negativity, and uncertainty about the strength of democracy. And yet, Whitman’s poem “I Hear America Singing” (1860) is essentially a love letter to our democratic process. In this poem, he illuminates the distinct role each citizen plays in fashioning a well-orchestrated whole from smaller musical parts. Similarly, in the preface to the Leaves of Grass, Whitman writes: “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.”  The unusual grammar here, describing the United States in plurality, has meaning too. A discussion of Whitman and Patriotism illuminates the easily missed, thoughtful wording: “Only 79 years into the American experiment in 1855, Whitman’s grammar reflects the evolving balance between, on the one hand, the plura of e pluribus and, on the other, the emerging unum under construction” His grammar here seems to allude to the individual states since the notion of true national unity (‘unum’/oneness) must have been quite tenuous in the years before the Civil War. As noted in The Atlantic, Whitman expressed his view that “the power of poetry and democracy came from an ability to make a unified whole out of disparate parts.”  What an inspiring, uplifting, and insightful comparison. Art and poetry, by their very nature, reflect that same spirit of the ideals of democracy. It’s in the discrete parts that the whole is able to come to creative fruition. How simple yet astute: unity in diversity, applied across art and politics. Our country could definitely be reminded of that now. InLiquid artist Linda Dubin Garfield makes these poetic ideas, so piercingly true and relevant to our twenty first century world, wordlessly visible in her mixed media art.
In her See America Singing series, Dubin Garfield extrapolates from Whitman to create exquisite amalgams of memories of place. In this series, she creates layered, fragmented images of a visit to the American West. In a visual echo of the poetic discourse of Whitman, each of these unique mixed media pieces is composed of disparate sections that create a unified whole. She also utilizes an array of techniques, including printmaking, collage, photography, and digital images throughout her works, adding to the notion of unity in diversity. These are snapshots of layered memory that’s not photographic but molded and mashed together by time, emotion, and experience. It’s the poetic, visual version of a memory, in which the seemingly unrelated parts contribute to a graceful, unified picture. She states: “He [Whitman] imagined visual artworks as being poems themselves and imagined his own poems as paintings. Whitman worked to capture the vividness of visual art in language, and he mimicked the mental and emotional stimulation of an exhibition space in his organization of Leaves of Grass.” Our memory of a visual landscape isn’t just a realistic representation of place, but instead over time becomes encrusted with layered nuggets of unconscious thought. And these layers are part and parcel to the process of creating these works as well as the finished product. The colors and patterns and mountainous shapes evoke images of the land of the American West. The juxtaposed, unique patterns and colors are arranged alongside each other like the words of a poem, evoking the mountains and green landscapes, as well as the browns of the fertile soil, from which added memories grow. The title, of course, refers back to Whitman’s poem. Here the artist seems to utilize the visual sense to evoke that sound of America singing. It’s not just in the disparate people and ideas and fifty states that a unified country is created, not just in their voices which ultimately come together as one, but in the varied beauty of the iconic American landscape. And in the multitude of creative visions sparked by one nation.
Similarly, in the Green Hills series, we get a taste of the green rolling hills of Pennsylvania. It’s like an archetypal image of the earth, one that resonates with all of us yet exists as a personal memory for the artist. She enjoys making works from places which she has visited, which seems all the more poignant given the fact that we can’t visit places right now due to the pandemic. She adds: “Nature nurtures and inspires me. I combine elements of nature, texture and design along with the magic of the press. I am intrigued by memory and what remains in our mind’s eye. My work reflects scenes from travel near and far. More than a report on how it was exactly, I am interested in my expressive and passionate response to the color and pattern of the landscape or image. Rather than representing every detail, I evoke the hidden and reveal the atmosphere, creating personal visual memories.” In “Pictures,” Walt Whitman compared his own mind to an exhibition space, a small space several inches in diameter that is lined with works of art. These ‘pictures’ are like visual images that spark ideas in words, just as words can spark visual thought. They are like pictorial memories that seem to sit inside the mind, either neatly categorized or haphazardly organized, waiting for the right life prompt to allow them to come to life in words or visual art. Whitman had an exceptional capacity to bring his own mental images to life via pen and paper. Like a visual poet, Linda Dubin Garfield seems to capture those stored mental images and bring them to life through mixed media.
And today, when our world is again divisive and tumultuous more than a century and a half after Whitman wrote those poems, in the midst of a global pandemic, economic devastation, unemployment, justified mistrust of government and racial injustice, can we heed his words now? The nation’s divisiveness and turbulence when those poems were written and our own tumultuous world are scarily, shockingly similar in many ways right now. ‘E pluribus unum,’ (out of many, one) though still appearing on U.S. coins, is no longer our national motto. We as a nation are composed of millions of dissimilar souls, each of whom want in some way to be part of the songs that culminate in a grand national chorus. But does singing together in one voice out of many voices, ‘out of many, one’ seem pollyannish now? Can we bring back that positive national spirit that survived in the likes of Walt Whitman despite the severe discord of those times, the looming Civil War, and the assassination of Lincoln? Tough questions. And yet, the fact that America could even be conceived as poetic at the cusp of Civil War might give us some hope. Perhaps some of the underlying tenets of democracy will need to be refashioned now to create true unity, that ‘thing’ that’s not just spoken about in poems but needs to become a reality. And poetry and art, whose essence has always been about creating unity from disparate parts, an authentic ‘E pluribus unum,’ could conceptually become what society now emulates. Rather than art imitating life, perhaps life (or true democracy, not just the idealized version) could strive to ultimately imitate art.