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 would probably start by choosing these essential six words. Regardless of the process, however, these repeated words help determine the poem’s overall effect, and Fulton certainly chose her words with a particular effect in mind. The words lover, face, glass, heel, blood, and you by themselves give a rough sketch of the violent and disturbing nature of the Janis Joplin Fulton wants the reader to know. The word blood especially carries violent and painful connotations, so its recurrence in the poem cannot help but make me wince a few times as I read. Overall, the images Fulton has chosen reveal the self-destructive recklessness with which Joplin lived her life.
Fulton mentions Joplin’s childhood in Port Arthur, Texas, where she was harshly teased, and her self-hating addictions to unhealthy relationships, booze, and hard drugs: “a pale horse lured you, docile, to heel” (15). By the end I sense a disturbing implication with the words “You knew they worshiped drained works, emptied glass” (35). This seems to say that Joplin lived so wildly because she knew that was what the public wanted at that time, as if she felt that the only way she could find validation in the rock world was to publicly drain herself as an...