Walt Whitman has always been problematic for me. Too vatic, too nationalistic, too in-your-face. For years I didn’t pay much attention to him, being smitten with Miss Dickinson, who told it slant, and others who told it otherwise but in a lower register. It wasn’t until I began to loosen and lengthen my own lines (as well as my so-called aesthetic) around 1975, when I was forty years old, that I picked up “Song of Myself” and read it seriously for the first time. Amazing. Then I read all of his stuff. But other than “Lilacs” and “Out of the Cradle,” which are, of course, wonderful, the rest tended to reconfirm my original prejudice. But “Song of Myself” (which is basically the poem we all write, I suppose—even Eliot, we’ve found out) stayed marvelous and almost unapproachable in its invention and spiritual ambition. This is no revelation to anyone, of course, but it was to me. And like many before me, I became fascinated by his lines, how he threw them out, long and looping and delicate, as from a fly rod. Or a spider casting threads out of her own body No matter how long they were, or how inclusive, they always seemed to be self-contained units. He is the Great Cataloguer, as we all know, and that device, as it has for so many others, had an irresistible pull on me. And the one that pulled me most, and continues to be the high level one aspires to in such devices, is section 15 in “Song of Myself”—“The pure contralto sings in the organ loft.” Starting with that pentameter line, it seems to go on forever, in various guises, never breaking down, never dividing into sections, and never falling away into pieces. As diverse as its roll call is, it goes on seamlessly until we find out who all these people are. And they are—as we suspected all along—all Walt, or parts of him, old Papa Cosmos himself. At forty, like Ezra Pound, I let there be commerce between us, and that has made much difference, if not all, in the way my lines now work, and the way my mini-catalogues have worked for thirty years. Sometimes you don’t see the master until the master’s stick pokes you in the eye.
ISSUE: Spring 2005