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American poetry

Piano Fire

How she must have dreaded us and our sweaty coins, more
than we hated practice, the lessons, scales, the winter-hot parlor,

her arthritic hands, the metronome’s awful tick. She lectured

The Summer Houses

All winter long they are occupied only by their vacancy.
The paintings look out from the white walls.
The wicker beds and the wicker chairs are not taken.

The Most Contemptible Moth: Lowell in Letters

A man’s letters have a different claim on privacy than his poems and therefore a different claim on truth. Letters lie in the uneasy realm between writing published (the words, if not anonymous, a writer must stand by) and writing meant for no one else’s eye (the best diaries are often those published from the grave). Letters are usually directed to one person alone, like a whisper, though in some centuries they have been passed around like dime novels (when Nelson captured letters in which Napoleon grumbled over Josephine’s infidelities, he published them). The inky page, the homely sheet of paper itself, becomes the property of the receiver (in this way letters follow a peculiar byway of property law, but the words remain the writer’s, not to be published except where leave is given).

A Clear Midnight

Midnight: the witching hour, a haunted time, moment of epiphany. It is at this moment that our swaggering national bard, epic chanter of democracy, becomes a tender and delicate solitary, who addresses something wordless and imperishable inside himself, which he would free and let roam in the world.

Democracy, Self-Reviews and the 1855 Leaves of Grass

Most of this essay will be devoted to the prose surrounding Whitman’s poetry in the 1855 Leaves of Grass. But it is worth pausing for a moment over the volume’s first poetic sentence to see the negotiation between writer and reader at the center as well as the periphery of the work. 

I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

 

Give Me Life Coarse and Rank

As the American poet, Whitman is scrutinized, taken apart, reassembled, and categorized more than any other. Yet often he ends up in the wrong pigeonhole. Some readers type him as an American original who sprang fully formed from the brow of Ralph Waldo Emerson; others take him for a Civil War hippie, a no-holds bard playing tennis without a net or even a racket. In this essay, David Kirby connects Whitman to two traditions that tell a lot more about him and his poetry, the ancient tradition of dithyrambic verse and that of “the old, weird America.”

Form, Eros, and the Unspeakable: Whitman’s Stanzas

Whitman did not number the fifty-two sections in the 1855 version of the great, free-flowing outpouring that is “Song of Myself,” or even separate them by much. But he must soon have realized the reader's need for a helpful scaffolding, since he added stanza numbers in the edition of 1860, and section numbers in 1867. Of these sections, the briefest are two six-line units, utterly different from each other.

Whitman and Patriotism

What some might call Whitman's essentialism is only one of the features of his statement about the United States that might mark it, in some eyes, as dated, obsolete, historically confined and limited. Another is his use of the plural verb “are,” as opposed to the “is” that gradually became dominant after the American Civil War forever rearranged the notion of an American nation. Only 79 years into the American experiment in 1855, Whitman’s grammar reflects the evolving balance between, on the one hand, the plura of e pluribus and, on the other, the emerging unum under construction. In addition, without listening closely to history, or to various histories, we might not catch the note of desperate, even doomed, hopefulness behind the vatic pronouncement that the United States are essentially the greatest poem. With the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act the year before and the first virulent eruptions of the killing that would go on for more than a decade, Whitman is not so much swaggering and flexing as he is urgently speaking a spell or charm against social and political malignancy, even as it too rapidly metastasizes.

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