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Walt Whitman

Old Papa Cosmos

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.

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

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. 

Reflections on Whitman in Age

Yet even the “world” itself is imagination, simply “the length of a human life,” as its etymology defines. The 150 years since Whitman's Leaves of Grass was first published is a moment in any world so conceived, and the bridges to and from such world are not determined by rational judgments or understanding. One knows, as is said—one recognizes the footprints on the floor of the caves in the Dordogne, dating back to the Upper Paleolithic—so very far, finally, from any intellectual understanding or resolution, however insistently attempted. 

Section 26 of “Song of Myself” and Whitman’s Listening

Whitman is a poet of all the senses, but listening, it seems, engaged him with special force: many of his work's best-known passages set down what had come to him through the ear. No gesture of style so pronounced can be accidental, and I would guess that the turn toward hearing was a necessary counterweight to Whitman's extroversion. To listen means to be quiet oneself. It is an action demanding inaction, requiring reception. For a person whose genius was kinetic, whose artistic ambition was virtually all-consuming, to listen was to renounce the bounding realms of ego. The ears hear what comes from outside the self. We cannot choose to open or close them, and the sounds of the earth come to us, entering our bodies and touching the ears’ attuned bones and hairs. Whitman’s listening, then, is a kind of synecdoche for his passion: through it he invites inside himself all of existence.

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.

On Whitman, Civil War Memory, and My South

  O magnet-South! O glistening perfumed South! my South!O quick mettle, rich blood, impulse and love! good and evil! O all dear to me! — Walt Whitman   I. The New SouthA few years ago I was interviewed for the Atlanta Journal-Constitu [...]

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 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.

A Kind of Solution


The writer was drinking himself to death. In his first flush of freedom—he had come to Iowa from a land ruled by a military dictatorship—he drowned himself in vodka, and when for the third day running he was rushed to the emergency room with a blood alcohol level that would have killed another man, he was committed for observation. The date was September 10, 2001. That evening, more than eight hours after his last drink, the writer was still dead drunk. The judge who signed his commitment order called the next day, incredulous.

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