As I said in this posting, on the headline “Mau Mauing the Flesh Eaters”, cultural references are the very devil. Even more so when the reference comes from some time ago.

So here’s Robert Hass, interviewed by Terry Gross on the NPR program Fresh Air, about the language of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself — on the occasion of the publication of

Song of Myself: And Other Poems by Walt Whitman. Selected and introduced by Robert Hass. With a lexicon of the poem by Robert Hass and Paul Ebencamp. Counterpoint, 2010.

From a transcript of the program (available here, with audio linked from this address):

Gross: … afflatus [or] flatus actually means the miraculous communication of super natural knowledge, which kind of changes the whole feel of what he’s saying …

Hass: Yeah, it’s a word from 19th century theology. It was fun to look and say, blab of the pave. Does anybody else use the word pave as a noun? No, is the answer. We looked in every possible source. Another place he says, the kelson of creation is love. I looked up kelson. Whitman grew up on Long Island and then in Brooklyn, where there’s a shipyard, so he loved watching guys build boats. And the kelson is the piece of wood that connects the rudder to the frame of the boat.

So it was enormous fun doing the lexicon because it got us a chance to look at exactly the way he used these words. And over and over again, they turned out to be terrifically precise. When the young Henry James reviewed the first – an early version of Song of Myself, Whitman would throw in foreign words and James, with a little bit of fastidious snobbery said, one must regret Mr. Whitman too extensive acquaintance with the foreign languages.

Hass: … [Whitman] talks about the rushing by in the street the flaps of the ambulanza. But when we looked it up it turned out that the first army to develop a service to get wounded soldiers very quickly from the battle to hospital tents was the Italian army or the Piedmontese Army during the Crimean War. And the term for these very fast moving wagons taking people to the hospital was ambulanza and it was the newest, most cool word.

It’s time has, however, passed.

I was hoping that Hass would report on a clipped version lanza (as in Mario Lanza), but he and Ebencamp seem not to have found that one.

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