Chrysalis Unbound: Poems of Origin and Initiation

  • Peter Nickowitz


Poems of initiation are windows into the imaginative life of the poet and reveal how art constructs the poet. As an example of a poem of initiation, picture the following scene. It is the New York coast, the early 1830s. A young, preternaturally mature boy looks out onto the rolling Atlantic Ocean. He is alone; as one of eight siblings he craves solitude. He is well-dressed in a shirt and short pants. It is summer and the sun unravels onto him. As if in a trance, he is listening to a bird singing, and, suddenly, the boy has a random epiphany. He declares: “Now in a moment I know what I am for, I awake.” This line is Walt Whitman’s from his poem “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” The speaker, as a young boy, fashions his initiation into poetry as an awakening—getting up from a slumber of being lost to a sudden acquaintance with his artistic vocation. The trope of Whitman’s speaker’s awakening is a rich one and, together with images throughout the poem such as that of the cradle, suggests a kind of rebirth or second birth out of the commonplaces, out of the world around him, and into a world of metaphoric substitutions, of artifice, and of heightened poetic language.


Burning Rubber Beach Silt Posit 
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© Peter Nickowitz 2006

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  • Peter Nickowitz

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