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Street SongsWriters and urban songs and cries, 1800-1925$
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Daniel Karlin

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780198792352

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: December 2018

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198792352.001.0001

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The poet and the knife-grinder

The poet and the knife-grinder

(p.159) 7 The poet and the knife-grinder
Street Songs

Daniel Karlin

Oxford University Press

Walt Whitman’s short poem ‘Sparkles from the Wheel’ describes an encounter on a Manhattan street with a knife-grinder who ‘works at his wheel sharpening a great knife’: the ‘sparkles from the wheel’ form the knife-grinder’s song. The poem, with its narrator observing a group who are watching the knife-grinder’s magical performance, circles back to Wordsworth’s ‘Power of Music’, with which I began. But the way the narrator places himself in the scene, the description of the old man at work, and the implied politics of the urban landscape are all radically different. In the knife-grinder’s long literary and visual history, there are very few images that ennoble his ‘art’, and some that carry the darkest intimations of violence. Whitman deliberately refrains from investing the knife-grinder with attributes ‘above his station’. What is transcendent is not the knife-grinder himself, but his utterance—matched by that of the poet.

Keywords:   Walt Whitman, Sparkles from the Wheel, New York, urban poetry, knife-grinder, images of knife-grinder

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