The only American poet whose name designates a kind of poetry, or for that matter a complete social and political vision, Whitman, to paraphrase Marianne Moore, is our father. Before the man whose huckstering boosterism equals his accomplishment in Leaves of Grass, there are poets in America but there are no American poets. Tennyson remarked of Whitman that “he is a great big something. I do not know what.” One still nods in agreement.
I was recently asked to speak of a favorite Whitman poem, a task which made me question and reverse myself repeatedly, for what value waits in a man who writes he is “stucco’d with quadrupeds and birds all over”? Well, which of us has not written badly? I think no American has written better than Whitman at his abundant best, and only Whitman gave us permission and confidence to be whatever selves we might make, with surety we matter, and our vision matters. If Uncle Walt can be oily and unctuous, if even his darkest Civil War poems strain unto a good spin of Emersonian doctrine, his heroic urging, his virtuosity with parallelism that replaces narrative momentum, and his mortaring with American idioms was, as it is, enough to make a new, distinctive poetry possible.
I chose first from “Song of Myself.” Then from Drum-Taps the great “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” But I was nagged by the lesser-known beauty of his 1871 lyric “Sparkles from the Wheel.” Whitman’s central accomplishment, I think, was to employ lyric materials to compose an epic structure, and we are naturally directed to his macro form at the expense of his exquisite micro organization. This poem shows everything Whitman does in the paced way that he does it. The entire scene appears in the first four of sixteen lines. But with telescoping of particular details, a tension ensues, an act of ordinary consequence becomes mythical. Deft two- and three-stress phrases welded into half lines, with or without caesura, affirm the rhythmic momentum that is abetted and controlled by almost every poetic device we might name.
In the 1855 preface, he had written, “Nothing is better than simplicity.” How intricate, complex, molecular, artful, mysterious that simplicity was in the making, he left us to discover (Whitman’s loquacious prefaces, unlike Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition,” which created a subgenre for poets, never address applied technique, only strategy in broad terms). The linking, lapping, generative, and extrapolative deployment of image and phrase is as procreative as the America he imagined. Here, brilliantly calling forth that child he counts on in each of us, is a complete scene, utterly alive, as objective as early motion photography, but with the Man slyly there, a phantom, as he said. “Sparkles from the Wheel” enchants with the buoyant and raw excitement, slowly released, that makes us draw in our breath and watch because we know this is the great experiment of Being, this is the angel of making at work:
Where the city’s ceaseless crowd moves on the livelong day,
Withdrawn I join a group of children watching, I pause aside with them.
By the curb toward the edge of the flagging,
A knife-grinder works at his wheel sharpening a great knife,
Bending over he carefully holds it to the stone, by foot and knee,
With measur’d tread he turns rapidly, as he presses with light but firm hand,
Forth issue then in copius golden jets,
Sparkles from the wheel.
The scene and all its belongings, how they seize and affect me,
The sad sharp-chinn’d old man with worn clothes and broad shoulder-band
Myself effusing and fluid, a phantom curiously floating, now here absorb’d
The group, (an unminded point set in a vast surrounding,)
The attentive, quiet children, the loud, proud, restive base of the streets,
The low hoarse purr of the whirling stone, the light-press’d blade,
Diffusing, dropping, sideways-darting, in tiny showers of gold,
Sparkles from the wheel.