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poetics

The Casualties of Walt Whitman

In a journal I kept the summer before moving to New York in 1990 to study creative writing at NYU, I find an odd entry about Walt Whitman. I had been reading D. H. Lawrence's essay “Whitman,” published in 1923, and I agreed with his statement that “Something is overdone in Whitman; there is something that is too much.” “I finally found someone,” I wrote, “who speaks sensibly about Whitman's exaggerated mass of deafening declarations!” I was then under the spell of Rilke and Yeats (so much so that in the list of qualities on the facing page that I found essential for a long-term relationship with a man, I find “European” at the top). Whitman hurt my ears—he sounded arrogant, brash, positively overwhelming in the length of his poems, in his long lists, his parallel structures, his biblical rhythms. I felt trapped by Whitman: once he hooked his voice in my head, I had a difficult time extricating it. Though this would soon change, especially after I met Galway Kinnell, who cites Whitman as his “principal master,” before I arrived at the writing workshop, I wanted to shrug off Whitman’s kisses and his forever-reaching arms, his beard, his boots, his surging afflatus, that open-collared shirt, and, oddly enough, his manly muscle.

“What a Filthy Presidentiad!”: Clinton’s Whitman, Bush’s Whitman, and Whitman’s America

 

United States presidents have usually gotten exactly the Walt Whitman they deserved. During his own lifetime, Whitman admired and disdained presidents with unusual passion, rising to some of his most sublime language to evoke Lincoln (“the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands”) and descending to some of his coarsest to describe Benjamin Harrison (“the scalawag who was and is . . . the shit-ass! God damn ’im”). There was a long foreground to Whitman’s Harrison-register of voice, brought on in the 1840s and 50s, while he watched helplessly as a whole line of hapless presidents allowed the country to slip toward civil war:

Whitman in Selected Anthologies: The Politics of His Afterlife

One extraordinary feature of Whitman's legacy is the variety of causes to which he has been summoned to lend support. The treatment of Whitman in mainstream academic anthologies aimed at U.S. high school and college students is a subject worthy of discussion on another occasion. Here I focus on the political uses of Whitman in anthologies intended for audiences outside U.S. schools and colleges—anthologies intended for workers and farmers, for soldiers, for children, for international students, and for a general American audience traumatized by the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. There are five publishing efforts in particular I wish to examine: first, several Whitman publications from the early 1920s in the "Little Blue Books" series brought out by the socialist publisher Emanuel Haldeman-Julius (1889–1951); second, the Armed Services Editions (ASE) volume A Wartime Whitman (n.d. [1945]) and the accompanying ASE version of Henry Seidel Canby's biography of Whitman (n.d. [1944]); third, Langston Hughes’s anthology for children, I Hear the People Singing (1946), which I contextualize by considering also his Poetry of the Negro (1949); fourth, a United States Information Agency (USIA) booklet, Walt Whitman: Poet of Democracy (1970); and fifth, a post-9/11 anthology, I Hear America Singing: Poems of Democracy, Manhattan, and the Future (2001). These five publishing efforts offer us a way to highlight central issues about Leaves of Grass and the public and—given the variety of political purposes underpinning them—about Whitman’s malleability. They clarify how Whitman has become a touchstone for addressing questions regarding the nature of the future and of democracy.

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.

In Whitman’s Country

I cannot imagine myself in America without Whitman.

Sometimes, in times of difficulty, when reinvention of the self is a fierce necessity—a time such as now—I think of myself as having been wafted here by Walt, a creature with a tumbling grey beard, cap askew, bony wings sprouting out of his corduroy jacket. 

There are bits of grass in his mouth, and when I am about to pass out, with all the air gushing through—we make a curious kind of airplane together—he pushes a few stalks into my mouth. The grass is filled with moisture, rather cold and glittery, and the bits of ice on the blades help moisten my tongue. I totter a little with the unsteadiness of it all. Am I on a “trottoir,” as he called it? Am I really in Mannahatta? 

On Whitman’s “To a Locomotive in Winter”

While Wordsworth and Crane express differing levels of anxiety about the relationship of poetry to the materiality of the industrial and modern eras, Whitman expresses none. “I will make the poems from materials,” he writes in “Starting from Paumanok,” “for I think they are to be the most spiritual poems.” Instead of reserving the sublime for Baillie’s “Vast objects,” Whitman argues for a sublime of “objects gross” that are “one” with “the unseen soul” (“A Song for Occupations”). In Wordsworth it is rare to come upon steamships, viaducts, and railways. And in Crane we find them used strategically. But in Whitman they are common and ordinary. He catalogs things, places, occupations, tools, machines, and all manner of modern objects the way Homer lists ships and warriors or the Bible tribes. From “Song of Myself” to “Song of the Broad Axe” and “A Song for Occupations,” Whitman “peruse[s] manifold objects” and finds that no two are “alike, and everyone good, / The earth good and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good” (“Song of Myself”). 

Elegy and Eros: Configuring Grief

I want to consider the configuration of the elegy, particularly the lyric elegy of the American 19th century, for I think it is a creature unto itself. At hand is the problem of Walt Whitman's great poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd.” I want first to remind us of the complex narrative structure of Whitman’s poem for his beloved deceased, and to unpack the poem’s dense sets of images, stories, locations, and most important, its figures. As I intend the term, a figure is not just a body, a human figure; and not just a trope or metaphor, a figure of speech; but also a number, a mathematical figure. Next, I will relate this poem to another central 19th-century American elegy, Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death.” Finally I will propose a paradigm shift in our thinking, and reading, about the American elegy.

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.”

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