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Walt Whitman

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.

Panes of Glass

America had many poets before Walt Whitman, but there was never an American poet before he held the country in the sea-to-sea embrace of his imagination, named its wonders like a latter-day Adam, proclaimed its common men and women to have lives of sparkling beauty and dignity, blessed it as good, and then revealed it to itself in all its bustling, fidgeting, trail-blazing, huckstering, big, booming, melting-pot panorama. He especially loved America’s social “turbulence,” which was its lifeblood and the perfect parallel to its wild, unbridled landscapes. Whitman’s portrait of America is rich with sensations and unnervingly complex, but he also saw it whole, as one democratic fabric, where “a great personal deed has room.”

 

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.

 

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. 

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.”

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.

Whitman’s Sparkles

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 L [...]

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 [...]

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.

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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