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Prisoner, Fancy-Man, Rowdy, Lawyer, Physician, Priest: Whitman’s Brags

ISSUE:  Spring 2005

Wordsworth never thought that men, rustic or civilized, habitually spoke in iambic pentameter. When he tried to turn the “real language of men” into poetry, he chose to imitate their speech in meter, as Frost did a century later. A poet may be true to how men or women talk, without parroting the clumsiness, hesitation, rupture, and breakdown of actual conversation. Poetry has often turned to “real” language—as the poetic diction of one age hardens, it is replaced by language closer to the street, the kitchen, the factory and not just by what happens to be said in middle-class drawing rooms. Poetry negotiates between a language too far removed from its time and one that merely succumbs to its time.

Half a century after Lyrical Ballads, Walt Whitman changed not just the rhythms but the language of American poetry. Leaves of Grass (1855) showed that colloquial, cross-braced American was a proper medium for our verse. Whitman wanted, as he wrote later,

to give something to our literature which will be our own; with neither foreign spirit, nor imagery nor form, but adapted to our case, grown out of our associations, boldly portraying the West, strengthening and intensifying the national soul, and finding the entire fountains of its birth and growth in our own country.

There were American poets before Whitman: some had been born in England, some made in England; but even those born and made in America (like a patriotic toaster or a box of soap flakes) wrote as if part of their audience were elsewhere. Ours was still a poetry of naïve anthropology or miserable exile—not until Emerson did we begin to lose our sense of deprivation, and not until Whitman did we know what it meant not to be deprived. If all the poetry written in America before Leaves of Grass had been reduced to ash, every page of it, poetry now would be no different; but, if Whitman’s poetry had been lost, ours would be inconceivable.

Whitman was the first American poet who ought to have been incomprehensible anywhere else, yet he had many English admirers. They bought his books direct from America, a tedious and expensive business (customs duties were crippling); they wrote him letters by the dozen (one woman, a Mrs. Gilchrist, fell madly in love with him and offered to bear his children); they came to visit; but they really endeared themselves by sending him money.

The English had fallen in love with a myth of America, the America of brawny democratic laborers and wild-haired rustics. (Those who troubled to visit found a country mosquito-haunted, bedbug-infested, with one rude thin-walled hotel after another, the carpets—as well as the inhabitants!—stained with tobacco juice. An English traveler in the 1880s mentioned repeatedly how good the Americans were at one thing, baking bread—and a Frenchman about the same time continually lamented how bad they were at it.) Whitman’s lines were the reflection of the spirit that animated the dime novel, the tales of Crockett or Buffalo Bill. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was a hit in Europe at the turn of the century, and even after World War I an American known as “Young Buffalo” made a living playing cowboys on the London stage. He was my great-great-uncle.

Whitman, though suited to buckskin, was born in rural Long Island and lived mostly in cities like Brooklyn and Washington. His is the poetry of the city that dreams of the country. When he wrote,

I saw the marriage of the trapper in the open air in the far-west … . the bride
        was a red girl,
Her father and his friends sat near by crosslegged and dumbly smoking … .
        they had moccasins to their feet and large thick blankets hanging from
        their shoulders,

he had seen the west only once, having worked briefly as a newspaperman in New Orleans, traveling by side-wheeler down the Mississippi and, a few months later, back up the river and across the Great Lakes. That is the power of sublimated myth, of pastoral itself—when the city begins to dream of the country, the country is doomed. After Whitman, our poetry broke from its English root and became open to influences elsewhere, as well as available as an influence. It became the model of its own difference.

With Whitman, we have gone from ignorance to ignorance. Most societies are wary of raw-grained originals; Whitman’s was inoculated against him. It would have been difficult for someone born in 1740 to have appreciated the young Wordsworth and Coleridge, but not for someone born after the French Revolution—those born into the world that formed those writers (that those writers in part created) did not need protection against it. Similarly, those born after Jackson’s presidency should have found Whitman a congenial spirit of the late Romantic Age. The figure created in Leaves of Grass seemed, after all, what Coleridge wanted to become on the banks of the Susquehanna—the fulfillment of Romantic longing, a Natty Bumppo.

Yet Whitman was not appreciated by our great-great-great-grandparents. He was never as neglected as he felt, as he groused in his letters, for surely not until Robert Frost was there another American poet of such kittenish vanity. (Only a poet of the people ever complains he deserves to be loved by the people. Such poets—though not Whitman, oddly—have often been monsters in private life.) Many early reviewers seemed proud to be shocked by his book and trimmed their phrases accordingly: “reckless and indecent,” “words usually banished from polite society,” “as unacquainted with art, as a hog is with mathematics,” “nothing so much as the war-cry of the Red Indians,” “beastliness,” “pantheism and libidinousness,” “abominations,” “one of the strangest compounds of transcendentalism, bombast, philosophy, folly, wisdom, wit, and dulness.” Asked in 1862 if she’d read that already infamous poet, Emily Dickinson responded, in her prim and agreeable way, “You speak of Mr Whitman—I never read his Book—but was told that he was disgraceful.”

Whitman died still little more than his notoriety, an obscene poet treated like a dangerous animal. The image of the great gray poet was then in its infancy; and this “barbaric poet,” as he was instead often called, was a long way from being recognized as an American classic. Harriet Monroe, later the founder and editor of Poetry, wrote shortly after Whitman’s death,

In spite of the appreciative sympathy of fellow-poets who feel the wide swing of his imagination and the force of its literary expression, in spite of the tardy acknowledgments of critics who have gradually learned to find power and melody in some of his rugged verse, it cannot be said that the venerable bard is widely honored in his own country… . The toilers of the land care more for jingles than for the barbaric majesty of his irregular measures. The poet of the people is neglected by the people, while the works of scholarly singers like Longfellow and Bryant find a place in every farmer’s library.

Seven years later, Dickinson’s friend and editor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, saw matters differently. For him, Whitman was not a rough, but a fraud:

The essential fault of Whitman’s poetry was well pointed out by a man of more heroic nature and higher genius, Lanier, who described him as a dandy. Of all our poets, he is really the least simple, the most meretricious, and this is the reason why the honest consciousness of the classes which he most celebrates,—the drover, the teamster, the soldier,—has never been reached by his songs. He talks of labor as one who has never really labored.

Lanier! But whether barbarian or dandy (or a little of both), Whitman was a long while becoming to others the poet he always felt he was.

Whitman offered the rawness of a perceiving intelligence and didn’t care what most readers desired from books—he lacked the pretension of a literary manner (at least, an expected manner), one detached from the crude self-inspection that formed his art. He gave voice to the unfocused feeling of his neighbors and was therefore not afraid of the improprieties of their language. Henry James famously remarked of him that “one cannot help deploring his too-extensive acquaintance with the foreign languages”; but he was referring to the later Whitman who let succeeding editions of Leaves of Grass grow bloated, arcane, pretentious. What American readers shied from was his raw celebration of the body and his too great familiarity with the American language—in his preface he used words like nipples and onanist and venereal sores. Recall his lines about the grass:

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them
        the same.

Some of these terms have dropped from the language; they were not polite. A tuckahoe was a poor white farmer in Tidewater Virginia whose land was so thin he had to eat a fungus of that name. A cuff was a black man. Whitman embraced these names, embraced them for their alien familiarity as well as their democratic reach. He embraced even the congressman, something few poets have ever been moved to try.

Whitman’s poetry treated American English—I mean the English that Americans spoke—as more than a dialect, not the literary English of literary men. Literary English was a censored language, but not all America was censored. Listen:

I’m a Salt River roarer! I’m a ring-tailed squealer! I’m a reg’lar screamer from the ol’ Massassip’! WHOOP! … I’m half wild horse and half cock-eyed alligator and the rest o’ me is crooked snags an’ red-hot snappin’ turkle. I can hit like fourth-proof lightnin’ an’ every lick I make in the woods lets in an acre o’ sunshine. I can out-run, out-jump, out-shoot, out-brag, out-drink, an’ out-fight, rough-an’-tumble, no holts barred, ary man on both sides the river from Pittsburgh to New Orleans an’ back ag’in to St. Louiee. Come on, you flatters, you bargers, you milk-white mechanics, an’ see how tough I am to chaw!

Come on you flatters, you bargers, you milk-white mechanics. That’s Whitman’s talk. But it’s not Whitman; it’s a brag reputedly by Mike Fink, tales of whom were current when Whitman was a boy. (The rest o’ me is crooked snags—that might have been Whitman’s motto.) The Americans sometimes called such boasting a brag; but Scottish poets in the sixteenth and later centuries knew it as a flyting, a bout of cursing or poetic invective, a slanging match between two poets who swaggered or slandered as they chose. The brag echoed Homeric vaunts before battle, the boasts of Beowulf, the howls of the sagas. Such word battles must have reached the American hinterland early, possibly with Scotch-Irish settlers who drew upon their literary tradition or the tavern duels on which their poets once had eavesdropped.

The brag soon enough became the stuff of American literature, popularized in the Crockett almanacs first issued even before Davy Crockett died at the Alamo in 1836 and still being issued when Leaves of Grass was published two decades later. Colonel Crockett, the real Colonel Crockett, had considerable backwoods wit; in him that American individualism given mature and philosophic expression by Emerson found its real language among settlers and roughs. Here is Crockett after being re-elected congressman in 1833:

I am at liberty to vote as my conscience and judgment dictates to be right, without the yoke of any party on me, or the driver at my heels, with his whip in hand, commanding me to ge-wo-haw, just at his pleasure. Look at my arms, you will find no party hand-cuff on them! Look at my neck, you will not find there any collar, with the engraving “MY DOG. Andrew Jackson.”

It was the wild adventures and the boasts of the almanacs, however, none of them written by Crockett, for which he was often remembered. Here, printed the year after his death, is part of a speech he had allegedly made in Congress:

Who—Who—Whoop—Bow—Wow—Wow—Yough… . In one word I’m a screamer, and have got the roughest racking horse, the prettiest sister, the surest rifle and the ugliest dog in the district. I’m a leetle the savagest crittur you ever did see. My father can whip any man in Kentucky, and I can lick my father. I can outspeak any man on this floor, and give him two hours start.

I can run faster, dive deeper, stay under longer, and come out drier, than any chap this side the big Swamp. I can outlook a panther and outstare a flash of lightning: tote a steamboat on my back and play at rough and tumble with a lion, and an occasional kick from a Zebra… . I can walk like an ox; run like a fox, swim like an eel, yell like an Indian, fight like a devil, and spout like an earthquake, make love like a mad bull, and swallow a nigger whole without choking if you butter his head and pin his ears back.

These frontier exaggerations were not merely the work of ghost writers (in the case of the almanacs, ones probably located in Boston). The brag was recognized as peculiarly American as early as 1808, when a European traveler overheard two hot-tempered Natchez keelboatmen, one of them crowing,

“I am a man; I am a horse; I am a team. I can whip any man in all Kentucky, by G—d.” The other replied, “I am an alligator; half man, half horse; can whip any on the Mississippi by G—d.” The first one again, “I am a man; have the best horse, best dog, best gun, and handsomest wife in all Kentucky, by G—d.” The other, “I am a Mississippi snapping turtle: have bear’s claws, alligator’s teeth, and the devil’s tail; can whip any man, by G—d.”

F. O. Matthiessen, who used (and slightly misquoted) this example in American Renaissance, noted the resemblance to flyting. It’s a pity that the traveler, who said he “might fill half-a-dozen pages with the curious slang made use of,” so abbreviated his account; yet we hear the same self-conscious braggadocio, the preening pleasure in the metaphor of the self, the innocent masquerade Whitman transformed back into literature. Here is his own brag of identity: “I am,” he wrote,

A Yankee bound my own way … . ready for trade … . my joints the
        limberest joints on earth and the sternest joints on earth,
A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deerskin leggings,
A boatman over the lakes or bays or along coasts … . a Hoosier, a Badger,
        a Buckeye,
A Louisianian or Georgian, a poke-easy from sandhills and pines,
At home on Canadian snowshoes or up in the bush, or with fishermen off
At home in the fleet of iceboats, sailing with the rest and tacking,
At home on the hills of Vermont or in the woods of Maine or the Texan ranch,
Comrade of Californians … . comrade of free northwesterners, loving their
        big proportions,
Comrade of raftsmen and coalmen—comrade of all who shake hands and
        welcome to drink and meat;

A learner with the simplest, a teacher of the thoughtfulest,
A novice beginning experient of myriads of seasons,
Of every hue and trade and rank, of every caste and religion,
Nor merely of the New World but of Africa Europe or Asia … .
        a wandering savage,
A farmer, mechanic, or artist … . a gentleman, sailor, lover or quaker,
A prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician or priest.

I resist anything better than my own diversity,
And breathe the air but leave plenty after me,
And am not stuck up, and am in my place.

This was characteristically immodest (or, as Whitman might have it, “no more modest than immodest”); but there are the raftsmen and boatmen and mechanics, there the identification with place; there the mastery of any trade; there the amorphous, shape-shifting personality, the plastic I, that embroiders the brag. (“He’s bragging for the whole country,” a colleague of mine once said.) Whitman is usually read in a pinched “literary” voice (perhaps because the later Whitman, the Whitman we know, was so tentative and harmless); read in the brawling voice of a brag, he sounds much better.

Whitman welcomed to his poetry not just “experient,” a word Shakespeare never used (though Chapman did), but the down-to-earth slang of “stuck up.” No American poet before had such range, and none after has been prouder to speak plate-glass American. I resist anything better than my own diversity would have been Mike Fink’s motto, had he been anyone other than Mike Fink. Yet notice the lines that immediately follow Whitman’s brag:

The moth and the fisheggs are in their place,
The suns I see and the suns I cannot see are in their place,
The palpable is in its place and the impalpable is in its place.

Whitman added the language of observation to the voice of conceit.
Everything seen could be rendered as felt experience without being turned into a tidy symbolic apparatus (this makes Whitman very difficult to criticize in symbolic terms). Consider that archetype of high midcentury style, Oliver Wendell Holmes’s “The Chambered Nautilus,” published three years after Leaves of Grass:

This is the ship of pearl, which, poets feign,
Sails the unshadowed main,—
The venturous bark that flings
On the sweet summer wind its purpled wings
In gulfs enchanted, where the Siren sings,
And coral reefs lie bare,
Where the cold sea-maids rise to sun their streaming hair.

You can tell how Holmes prepared to write that poem—he memorized Keats. When Holmes wrote in the language of ordinary men, as he sometimes did, he sounded ridiculous—he hadn’t really listened to them; he’d made judgments. When Whitman walked among ordinary men, you can tell he modestly looked on and gave ear.

The blab of the pave … . the tires of carts and sluff of bootsoles and talk of
        the promenaders,
The heavy omnibus, the driver with his interrogating thumb, the clank of the
        shod horses on the granite floor,
The carnival of sleighs, the clinking and shouted jokes and pelts of snowballs;
The hurrahs for popular favorites … . the fury of roused mobs,
The flap of the curtained litter—the sick man inside, borne to the hospital,
The meeting of enemies, the sudden oath, the blows and fall,
The excited crowd—the policeman with his star quickly working his passage
        to the centre of the crowd; […]
What living and buried speech is always vibrating here … . what howls
        restrained by decorum.

That is an American noise, surrounded by the blab of the pave but not suffocated by it. The release of that living and buried speech, those howls restrained by decorum, marks the change in our literature to an American language, a change no less significant to vernacular literature than the moment English poets stopped writing in Latin. That clanking list, experience raw and unfixed and without the trammels of order (no wonder an early reviewer satirized Whitman’s lists by setting a London auction catalogue as lines of poetry), foreshadowed and influenced later attempts to disrupt the settled arrangements of poetry. We are familiar with the effect on Beat poetry; but in the travel poems of Elizabeth Bishop or the rumpled late poems of Robert Lowell that same journalistic disarray, that handlist of happenstance, becomes a psychological imposition. (It should not shock us that the best-mannered of our nineteenth-century poets, Emily Dickinson, was the most violently psychological or that her dashed-off lines bear uncanny resemblance to Whitman’s letters.) Whitman’s poetry is an archaeology of nineteenth-century bearing and imposture, and we find there what was almost translated out of existence in Emerson or Poe—though not in Melville, whose sailors talked boiler-iron American.

Leaves of Grass
is a work of prose—what one of his earliest critics called Whitman’s “wonderful poetic prose, or prose-poetry.” Whitman was not the first to use it—there was a small vogue at the time for prose poetry of biblical intonation. He may have been influenced by Martin Farquhar Tupper’s now-forgotten Proverbial Philosophy (1838), which the younger poet admired and which sold a million copies in America. Early critics compared Whitman to Tupper (a “wild Tupper of the West”!), as well as to James Macpherson, who wrote the Ossian poems, and to a minor English poet named Samuel Warren.

But why did Whitman choose this form? He may have felt the American tongue could not be adapted to the old meters—the break from tradition was meant to shock. As he wrote in Democratic Vistas (1871),

To-day, doubtless, the infant genius of American poetic expression, (eluding those highly-refined imported and gilt-edged themes, and sentimental and butterfly flights, pleasant to orthodox publishers … and warranted not to chafe the sensitive cuticle of the most exquisitely artificial gossamer delicacy,) lies sleeping far away, happily unrecognized and uninjur’d by the coteries, … or the lecturers in the colleges—lies sleeping, aside, unrecking itself, in some western idiom, or native Michigan or Tennessee repartee, or stump-speech … or in some slang or local song or allusion of the Manhattan, Boston, Philadelphia or Baltimore mechanic … , or along the Pacific railroad—or on the breasts of the … boatmen of the lakes.

Whitman’s prosy lines made possible, often indirectly, the American poetry of the next century. Eliot and Pound were writing free verse two decades after Whitman’s death, but they ignored his example. It took Pound a long while to develop a style as cantankerous, primitive, and pot-bellied personal as the language he spoke—you see the keelboatman in Pound’s letters before you hear it in his verse. Whitman’s influence had to be smuggled back into English through Jules Laforgue: through Laforgue’s translations to the other vers-librists, and through Laforgue’s own verse to Eliot.

Walt Whitman has therefore never been parent to American poetry, only an obscure, disreputable uncle. His influence has rarely been explicit, except upon the Beats and Hart Crane (and perhaps on that strange poet of mental landscape also too familiar with the foreign languages, Wallace Stevens). Yet his indirect influence on the reach and amplitude of our verse has perhaps never been greater. He invented the self-conscious myth of the self that has been our chief mode of poetic understanding. It is in that myth that we are largely condemned to write.

Americans are unkind to their monuments—they neglect them, and so are haunted by them. Listen again to the music of those brags. Here’s a boatman named Little Billy, reported (from a Florida newspaper) in the Cincinnati Miscellany in 1845:

W-h-o-o-p! I’m the very infant that refused its milk before its eyes were open, and called for a bottle of old Rye! W-h-o-o-p! … . Look at me, [said he, slapping his hands on his thighs with the report of a pocket pistol,] I’m the ginewine article—a real double acting engine, and I can out-run, out-jump, out-swim, chaw more tobacco and spit less, and drink more whiskey and keep soberer than any other man in these localities! Cock-a-doodle-doo!

Here’s the brag of Tiger Bill, a blacksmith, heard in Colorado a decade or so after the Civil War:

I’m a gaulderned son of a biscuit from the Arkansaw. I run on brass wheels. I’m a full-breasted roller with three tits. Holes punched for more! Now hear me talk!

Tiger Bill is forced to break off shortly after, because a woman starts clawing his face. Now hear me talk! And here, from the memoirs of Wells Drury, an editor of Virginia City newspapers, is the brag of an unnamed visitor, snarled sometime in the eighteen seventies, or just a few years after. An “ornery stranger” comes into a saloon and hammers the bar with his revolver:

I’m a roarin’ ripsnorter from a hoorah camp, an’ I can’t be stepped on. I’m an angel from Paradise Valley, an’ a bad one, an’ when I flop my wings there’s a tornado loose. I’m a tough customer to clean up after. Give me some of your meanest whisky, a whole lot of it, that tastes like bumblebee stings pickled in vitriol. I swallered a cyclone for breakfast, a powder-mill for lunch, and haven’t begun to cough yet. Don’t crowd me!

The editor didn’t write down his recollections until half a century later; and it is sometimes only belatedly, or from literature, that we catch the echoes of this most evanescent of forms, the brag. This is from Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi (1883):

Whoo-oop! I’m the old original iron-jawed, brass-mounted, copper-bellied corpse-maker from the wilds of Arkansaw!—Look at me! I’m the man they call Sudden Death and General Desolation! Sired by a hurricane, dam’d by an earthquake, half-brother to the cholera, nearly related to the small-pox on the mother’s side! Look at me! I take nineteen alligators and a bar’l of whiskey for breakfast when I’m in robust health, and a bushel of rattlesnakes and a dead body when I’m ailing! I split the everlasting rocks with my glance, and I squench the thunder when I speak! Whoo-oop!

Look at me! And he wasn’t finished. But Twain, Whitman’s and Melville’s great rival for love of the American demotic, wasn’t finished either. Sudden Death has a rival, who won’t pitch in fighting until he has his own brag:

Whoo-oop! bow your neck and spread, for the kingdom of sorrow’s a-coming! Hold me down to the earth, for I feel my powers a-working! whoo-oop! I’m a child of sin, don’t let me get a start! Smoked glass, here, for all! Don’t attempt to look at me with the naked eye, gentlemen! When I’m playful I use the meridians of longitude and parallels of latitude for a seine, and drag the Atlantic Ocean for whales! I scratch my head with the lightning and purr myself to sleep with the thunder! When I’m cold, I bile the Gulf of Mexico and bathe in it; when I’m hot I fan myself with an equinoctial storm; when I’m thirsty I reach up and suck a cloud dry like a sponge… . I’m the man with a petrified heart and biler-iron bowels! The massacre of isolated communities is the pastime of my idle moments, the destruction of nationalities the serious business of my life! The boundless vastness of the great American desert is my enclosed property, and I bury my dead on my own premises! … Whoo-oop!

The boundless vastness of the great American desert is my enclosed property! (The Great American Desert was what we now call the Great Plains.) Whitman loved the idea of acquiring land—he loved America for its breadth and thought it should be even bigger. He reveled in America’s “ampler largeness and stir” and of course said, “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” The brags were hollered by men who made America their private land, men whose every song was a song of myself.

We have no way of knowing how far Twain improved what he heard as a boy along the Mississippi in the 1840s (the passage in Life on the Mississippi was meant for Huckleberry Finn); yet his keelboatmen, those “reckless fellows, every one, elephantinely jolly, foul-witted, profane; prodigal of their money, bankrupt at the end of the trip, fond of barbaric finery, prodigious braggarts,” sound little different from those in the sketchy report from Natchez decades before or from the brag makers in the Florida of 1845 or the Colorado and Nevada of the 1870s.

How did Whitman’s style evolve? He had been writing prose in the philosophical manner of Leaves of Grass before he set out the lines as poetry. This first occurs, as far as we know, in a battered notebook of 1847 or possibly 1848, just before or just after his trip down the Ohio and the Mississippi (a poet may find his form and his language at different times). Some of the lines are reminiscent of the exaggeration and melodramatic posturing of the brag:

I have split the earth and the hard coal and rocks and the solid bed of
        the sea …
I am the poet of sin …
I talk wildly I[?] am surely out of my head.

On his return upriver, after those brief months in New Orleans, he scribbled down some of the mate’s shouts to the crew. This was—again, as far as we know—the moment Whitman began collecting his beloved colloquialisms (by the 1850s he was compiling lists of them). It was in New Orleans, further, that slang began to appear in his newspaper articles. The genius of a poet is often revealed when he becomes aware that something in poetry is missing.

There was a change here—after this trip west, the first time he’d been more than a few miles west of the Hudson, Whitman found voice and direction and style. It was as if he had heard the call Emerson had made in his essay, “The Poet,” published only a few years before:

Our logrolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, our Negroes, and Indians, our boasts, and our repudiations, the wrath of rogues, and the pusillanimity of honest men, the northern trade, the southern planting, the western clearing, Oregon, and Texas, are yet unsung. Yet America is a poem in our eyes.

Our boasts, and our repudiations! America is a poem in our eyes! Until New Orleans, Whitman’s poetry had sounded like that of a man with tin pans for ears:

How solemn! the river a trailing pall,
Which takes, but never again gives back;
And moonless and starless the heavens’ arch’d wall,
Responding an equal black!

That isn’t the song of anyone. Some while after returning to Brooklyn, he drew up, probably early in the 1850s, “Rules of Composition” for his great work. It would use “common idioms and phrases—Yankeeisms and vulgarisms—cant expressions, when very pat only,” and be distinguished by “clearness, simplicity, no twistified or foggy sentences, at all.” He sought a “perfectly transparent plate-glassy style, artless, with no ornaments, or attempts at ornaments, for their own sake.”

This, as much as his “obscenity,” may have been why he was shunned by the literary public—they were trying to leave behind the very thing with which Whitman identified, the country’s rough pioneer beginning. Unless romanticized, or “humorized” by the likes of Twain, men who spoke such language were an uncomfortable reminder of the country’s uncivil, uncivilized origin. As the reporter of Little Billy’s brag said, “Those who have attended musters and elections in the early days of Ohio and Kentucky, will hardly deem the following picture … of the ‘half horse half alligator’ nuisance of that day, too highly colored. These have been driven off in the progress of civilization.” The literate America didn’t want slang or vulgarisms in its literature—they were artifacts of a discarded past. This is not a new idea; Harriet Monroe said something oddly similar in 1892:

At present the mass of his countrymen brush aside his writings with a gesture of contempt, finding there what they most wish to forget—a faithful reflection of the rudeness, the unsettled vastness, the formlessness of an epoch out of which much of our country has hardly yet emerged.

It would be a mistake to think that Whitman’s song was only the song of a braggart, as is sometimes said. Surely “Song of Myself” is a title that also announces its humility—the song of himself was the only one Whitman felt capable of singing. It would be a mistake, too, not to hear in the “Whoo-oop!” of those boatmen and ruffians their melancholy and lonesomeness, the wish to give a holler because otherwise no one might listen, no one might be there to listen—each man otherwise was just a small voice in the “boundless vastness.”

The brag was from the beginning the literary property of illiterate men. It was not American speech plain but speech mashed, boiled, cooked down, fermented, and distilled into alcohol. The brag was competitive, its selling point the outlandish metaphors, the sublimate outrage visited upon language. Another man would answer with a brag of his own or with his fists. Brags were the mock fight before the real blows (or, in Twain’s satiric rendition, before Sudden Death and his rival were both soundly thrashed by a taciturn bystander). Whitman, that aficionado of rough speech, might have heard brags on the wharves of Brooklyn or in the saloons of Manhattan, but most likely (they were a frontier phenomenon) it was on those boat rides along the Mississippi, at a day when the keelboatmen had been forced to work on steamers or coal flats or pine rafts.

Did Leaves of Grass have among its origins the brags of western boatmen? The mulish and bellicose tone has been sweetened (though braggadocio has its flare of comic lightness), the grotesque ornament and fancy have been toned down; yet in those brags Whitman could have found, before he knew even what to look for, the vulgar idiom, the plate-glassy style, the lack of twistified sentences. It is tempting to think the “barbaric finery” of a boatman’s “Song of Myself” rang in Whitman’s ears the moment he conceived his “barbaric yawp.”

Slang was key to his grand poem. He loved the real language of men and long after those journeys on the Mississippi wrote an essay called “Slang in America.” Its shrewd judgments lie beside a hilarious list of Civil War nicknames for men from different states—Gun Flints (Rhode Island), Wooden Nutmegs (Connecticut), Claw Thumpers (Maryland), Suckers (Illinois), Pukes (Missouri). He also recorded the slang overheard in Manhattan restaurants—stars and stripes (ham and beans), sleeve-buttons (codfish balls), mystery (hash). Slang, he wrote, “is the lawless germinal element, below all words and sentences, and behind all poetry,” as well as the “wholesome fermentation or eructation of those processes eternally active in language.” Whitman, who could be erudite when he chose (he was a magpie, but an erudite magpie), saw that in the “daring and license of slang” language perennially renewed itself. Many novel meanings died; but others cemented themselves onto English usage like barnacles, as metaphor had in the languages from which English drew—a “supercilious person was one who rais’d his eyebrows. To insult was to leap against. If you influenc’d a man, you but flow’d into him. The Hebrew word which is translated prophesy meant to bubble up and pour forth as a fountain.” (“The etymologist,” Emerson said, “finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture. Language is fossil poetry.”)

Whitman didn’t think poetry should minister to the blandness of speech; he wanted to hammer and fire and temper it. Free verse has dominated our poetry for the last century—it was supposed to grant greater freedom in language as well as form. Much American poetry has become so tepid, so slouch-hatted and dry as hardtack, so deprived of the fever and acid of American talk, you might think the vernacular was dead. Many poets now believe a proper style is humdrum, uncontroversial, without a thorny word in sight, its language so homely and suburban it makes Howl look like the clotted cream of Sir Thomas Browne.

American verse, now mostly shorn of meter (as field and factory have been stripped of singing, long replaced by the factory worker’s Muzak and the harvester’s sealed cab blaring country and western), might with profit listen to how men and women talk. Verse that pretends to be informal and conversational, whether in meter or not, is often just lazy, ignoring in its shim-shamming way the resources Whitman made available (it reminds us, or ought to, of everything he did well). Poetry that takes English on its own terms must not fall victim to the traps of colloquial verse—triviality, self-satisfied gaucherie, sentiment, self-pity, bridge-club agreeableness. Even Whitman sometimes fell victim to them; but he knew that the language offered much more, offered a vivacity, an invention, and a raw honesty literary language was too highfalutin’ for. How he would have loved the language that since his day has produced bimbo, megabucks, spam, doggy bag, jock, face time, rinky-dink, blowhard, cheesy, honcho, bad-hair day, car-jacking, couch potato, all-nighter, meltdown, wannabe, and clip joint. The last poet to use the hostile and cleansing radiation of American speech, to use it with the intensity of the poetic, was Robert Lowell.

Leaves of Grass
was, at the outset, anonymous. Its greatest invention was Walt Whitman himself, the character in the poem—the Whitman who wrote it was not a rough, not a man who had hunted polar furs or been raised in Texas, as Leaves of Grass would have us believe (how flustered he was when readers took him for the real thing), but a student of Hebrew etymology who saw that behind the metaphors of poetry lay slang, that a poem could be an engine to keep the language alive. “Language,” he wrote, “be it remember’d, is not an abstract construction of the learn’d, or of dictionary-makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations.” Here, at the end of his paper on slang, he left perhaps an accidental clue to his great poem, to the source he claimed “philologists have not given enough attention to”:

Then the wit—the rich flashes of humor and genius and poetry—darting out often from a gang of laborers, railroad-men, miners, drivers or boatmen! How often have I hover’d at the edge of a crowd of them, to hear their repartees and impromptus!

Their repartees and impromptus. Perhaps there, at the edge of a crowd, hovering as two men squared off to fight, as that earlier traveler along the Mississippi had cocked his ear to two boatmen squabbling over a Choctaw girl, Whitman heard his brags. Were they among the repartees and impromptus? (“Through me many long dumb voices,” he wrote.) If so, the brags’ pose of a rough among roughs, their native wit and sweetly gruesome metaphor, their dramaturgy and pretense, their indomitable American I lie somewhere behind the great stage curtain of Leaves of Grass. Perhaps American poets now don’t listen at the edge of crowds, because crowds are different. But I don’t think it is the crowds that have changed.


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