previous part
Introduction to Penguin Selected Whitman
next chapter

Introduction to Penguin Selected Whitman

One of the most lovely insistences in Whitman's poems seems to me his instruction that one speak for oneself. Assumedly that would be the person most involved in saying anything, and yet a habit of 'objective' statement argues the contrary, noting the biases and distortions and tediums of the personal that are thereby invited into the writing. Surely there is some measure possible, such would say, that can make statement a clearly defined and impersonal instance of reality, of white clouds in a blue sky, or things and feelings not distorted by any fact of one man or woman's intensive possession of them. Then there would truly be a common possibility, that all might share, and that no one would have use of more than another.

Yet if Whitman has taught me anything, and he has taught me a great deal, often against my own will, it is that the common is personal, intensely so, in that having no one thus to invest it, the sea becomes a curious mixture of water and table salt and the sky the chemical formula for air. It is, paradoxically, the personal which makes the common insofar as it recognizes the existence of the many in the one. In my own joy or despair, I am brought to that which others have also experienced.

My own senses of Whitman were curiously numb until I was thirty. In the forties, when I was in college, it was considered literally bad taste to have an active interest in his writing. In that sense he suffered the same fate as Wordsworth, also condemned as overly

Whitman, Selected by Robert Creeley , Poet to Poet series (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1973).


prolix and generalizing. There was a persistent embarrassment that this naively affirmative poet might affect one's own somewhat cynical wisdoms. Too, insofar as this was a time of intensively didactic criticism, what was one to do with Whitman, even if one read him? He went on and on, he seemed to lack 'structure,' he yielded to no 'critical apparatus' then to hand. So, as students, we were herded past him as quickly as possible, and our teachers used him only as an example of 'the America of that period' which, we were told, was a vast swamp of idealistic expansion and corruption. Whitman, the dupe, the dumbbell, the pathetically regrettable instance of this country's dream and despair, the self-taught man.

The summation of Whitman and his work was a very comfortable one for all concerned. If I felt at times awkward with it, I had only to turn to Ezra Pound, whom the university also condemned, to find that he too disapproved despite the begrudging 'Pact.' At least he spoke of having 'detested' Whitman, only publicly altering the implications of that opinion in a series of BBC interviews made in the late fifties. William Carlos Williams also seemed to dislike him, decrying the looseness of the writing, as he felt it, and the lack of a coherent prosody. He as well seemed to change his mind in age insofar as he referred to Whitman as the greatest of American poets in a public lecture on American poetry for college students. Eliot also changes his mind, as did James before him, but the point is that the heroes of my youth as well as my teachers were almost without exception extremely critical of Whitman and his influence and wanted as little as possible to do with him.

Two men, however, most dear to me, felt otherwise. The first of these was D. H. Lawrence, whose Studies in Classic American Literature remains the most extraordinary apprehension of the nature of American experience and writing that I know. His piece on Whitman in that book is fundamental in that he, in a decisively personal manner, first castigates Whitman for what he considers a muddling assumption of 'oneness,' citing "I am he that aches with amorous love . . ." as particularly offensive, and then, with equal intensity, applauds that Whitman who is, as he puts it, "a great charger of the blood in men," a truly heroic poet whose vision and will make a place of absolute communion for others.

The second, Hart Crane, shared with Whitman my own teachers' disapproval. I remember a course which I took with F. O. Matthiessen, surely a man of deep commitment and care for his students, from which Crane had been absented. I asked for permission to give a paper on Crane, which he gave me, but I had over-


looked what I should have realized would be the response of the class itself, understandably intent upon its own sophistications. How would they accept these lines, for example?

                                                                 yes, Walt,
A foot again, and onward without halt,—
Not soon, nor suddenly,—no, never to let go
        My hand
                        in yours,
                                        Walt Whitman—

If they did not laugh outright at what must have seemed to them the awkwardly stressed rhymes and sentimental camaraderie, then they tittered at Crane's will to be one with his fellow homosexual . But didn't they hear, I wanted to insist, the pacing of the rhythms of those lines, the syntax, the intently human tone, or simply the punctuation? Couldn't they read? Was Crane to be simply another 'crudity' they could so glibly be rid of? But still I myself didn't read Whitman, more than the few poems of his that were 'dealt with' in classes or that some friend asked me to. No doubt I too was embarrassed by my aunt's and my grandmother's ability to recite that terrible poem, "O Captain! My Captain!," banal as I felt it to be, and yet what was that specious taste which could so distract any attention and could righteously dismiss so much possibility, just because it didn't 'like' it? Sadly, it was too much my own.

So I didn't really read Whitman for some years although from time to time I realized that the disposition toward his work must be changing. Increasing numbers of articles began to appear as, for one example, Randall Jarrell's "Whitman Revisited." But the import of this writing had primarily to do with Whitman's work as instance of social history or else with its philosophical basis or, in short, with all that did not attempt to respect the technical aspects of his writing, his prosody and the characteristic method of his organization within the specific poems.

It was, finally, the respect accorded Whitman by three of my fellow poets that began to impress me as not only significant to their various concepts of poetry but as unmistakable evidence of his basic use to any estimation of the nature of poetry itself. I had grown up, so to speak, habituated to the use of poetry as compact, epiphanal instance of emotion or insight. I valued its intensive compression, its ability to 'get through' a maze of conflict and confusion to some center of clear 'point.' But what did one do if the emotion or terms


of thought could not be so focused upon or isolated in such singularity? Assuming a context in which the statement was of necessity multiphasic, a circumstance the components of which were multiple, or, literally, a day in which various things did occur, not simply one thing—what did one do with that? Allen Ginsberg was quick to see that Whitman's line was of very specific use. As he says in "Notes Written on Finally Recording Howl," "No attempt's been made to use it in the light of early XX Century organization of new speech-rhythm prosody to build up large organic structures." The structure of "Howl" itself and of subsequent poems such as "Kaddish" demonstrates to my own mind how much technically Ginsberg had learned from Whitman's method of taking the poem as a 'field,' in Charles Olson's sense, rather than as a discrete line through alternatives to some adamant point of conclusion.

In the work of Robert Duncan the imagination of the poem is very coincident with Whitman's For example, in a contribution to Poets on Poetry (1966) Duncan writes:

We begin to imagine a cosmos in which the poet and the poem are one in a moving process, not only here the given Creation and the Exodus or Fall, but also here the immanence of the Creator in Creation. The most real is given and we have fallen away, but the most real is in the falling revealing itself in what is happening. Between the god in the story and the god of the story, the form, the realization of what is happening, stirs the poet. To answer that call, to become the poet, means to be aware of creation, creature and creator coinherent in the one event . . .

If one reads the 1855 Preface to Leaves of Grass in the context here defined, the seeming largenesses of act which Whitman grants to the poet find actual place in that "immanence of the Creator in Creation" which Duncan notes. More, the singular presence of Whitman in Duncan's "A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar" is an extraordinary realization of the measure Whitman has given us:

There is no continuity then. Only a few
    posts of the good remain. I too
that am a nation sustain the damage
    where smokes of continual ravage
obscure the flame.
                                 It is across great scars of wrong
     I reach toward the song of kindred men
    and strike again the naked string
old Whitman sang from. Glorious mistake!
        that cried:


        "The theme is creative and has vista."
        "He is the president of regulation."

        I see always the under side turning,
fumes that injure the tender landscape.
        From which up break
lilac blossoms of courage in daily act
        striving to meet a natural measure.

Louis Zukofsky, the third friend thus to instruct me, recalls and transforms Whitman's Leaves again and again, as here:

The music is in the flower,
Leaf around leaf ranged around the center;
Profuse but clear outer leaf breaking on space,
There is space to step to the central heart:
The music is in the flower,
It is not the sea but hyaline cushions the flower—
Liveforever, everlasting.
The leaves never topple from each other,
Each leaf a buttress flung for the other.
(from "A" 2 , 1928)

I have no way of knowing if those lines directly refer to Whitman's Leaves of Grass and yet, intuitively, I have no doubt of it whatsoever. Zukofsky once told me that, for him, the eleventh section of "Song of Myself" constituted the American Shih King , which is to say, it taught the possibilities of what might be said or sung in poetry with that grace of technical agency, or mode, thereby to accomplish those possibilities. It presents . It does not talk about or refer to—in the subtlety of its realization, it becomes real.

It is also Zukofsky who made me aware of Whitman's power in an emotion I had not associated with him—a deeply passionate anger. Zukofsky includes an essay called "Poetry" in the first edition of "A" 1–12 , at the end of which he quotes the entire text of "Respondez!," a poem which Whitman finally took out of Leaves of Grass in 1881 but which I have put in this selection, as singular instance of that power and in respect to the man who made me aware of it.

Then, in the late fifties, I found myself embarrassed for proper academic credentials although I was teaching at the time, and so went back to graduate school, to get the appropriate degree. One of the first courses I took in that situation was called "Twain and Whitman," taught by John Gerber, who was a visiting professor at the University of New Mexico from Iowa State. One thing he did with us I remember very well—he asked us to do a so-called thematic


outline of "Song of Myself." The room in which we met had large blackboards on all four walls and on the day they were due, we were told to copy our various outlines on to the blackboards. So we all got up and did so. When we finally got back to our seats, we noticed one very striking fact. No two of the outlines were the same—which was Professor Gerber's very instructive point. Whitman did not write with a systematized logic of 'subject' nor did he 'organize' his materials with a logically set schedule for their occurrence in the poem. Again the situation of a 'field' of activity, rather than some didactic imposition of a 'line' of order, was very clear.

At that same time I became interested in the nature of Whitman's prosody and looked through as many scholarly articles concerning it as I could find in the university library. None were really of much use to me, simply that the usual academic measure of such activity depends upon the rigid presumption of a standardized metrical system, which is, at best, the hindsight gained from a practice far more fluid in its own occasion. Sculley Bradley (co-editor with Harold W. Blodgett of the best text for Whitman's poems available to my knowledge: Leaves of Grass , Comprehensive Reader's Edition, New York University Press, 1965) did speak of a variable stress or foot , that is, a hovering accent, or accents, within clusters of words in the line, that did not fall in a statically determined pattern but rather shifted with the impulse of the statement itself. This sense of the stress pattern in Whitman's poems was interestingly parallel to William Carlos Williams' use of what he also called "the variable foot" in his later poems, so that the periodicity of the line, its duration in time, so to speak, stayed in the general pattern constant but the stress or stresses within the unit of the line itself were free to move with the condition of the literal things being said, both as units of semantic information, e.g., "I am the chanter . . . ," or as units of sound and rhythm, e.g., "I chant copious the islands beyond . . ." It is, of course, impossible ever to separate these two terms in their actual function, but it is possible that one will be more or less concerned with each in turn in the activity of writing. More simply, I remember one occasion in high school when I turned a 'unit' primarily involved with sounds and rhythm into a 'unit' particularly involved with semantic statement, to wit: "Inebriate of air am I . . ." altered in my memory to read, "I am an inebriate of air . . ." My teacher told me I had the most unpoetic ear he'd yet encountered.

Remember that what we call 'rhyming' is the recurrence of a sound sufficiently similar to one preceding it to catch in the ear and


mind as being the 'same' and that such sounds can be modified in a great diversity of ways. In the sounding of words themselves the extension seems almost endless: maid, made, may, mad, mate, wait, say , etc. Given the initial vowel with its accompanying consonants and also its own condition, i.e., whether it is 'long' or 'short,' one can then play upon that sound as long as one's energy and the initial word's own ability to stay in the ear as 'residue' can survive. In verse the weaving and play of such sound is far more complex than any observation of the rhymes at the ends of lines can tabulate.

This kind of rhyming is instance of what one can call parallelism , and the parallelism which similarity of sounds can effect is only one of the many alternate sources of 'rhyming' which verse has at hand. For example, there is a great deal of syntactic 'rhyming' in Whitman's poetry, insistently parallel syntactic structures which themselves make a strong web of coherence. There is also the possibility of parallelism in the nature of what is being thought and/or felt as emotion, and this too can serve to increase the experience of coherence in the statement the poem is working to accomplish.

The constantly recurring structures in Whitman's writing, the insistently parallel sounds and rhythms, recall the patterns of waves as I now see them daily. How can I point to this wave, or that one, and announce that it is the one? Rather Whitman's method seems to me a process of sometimes seemingly endless gathering, moving in the energy of his own attention and impulse. There are obviously occasions to the contrary to be found in his work but the basic pattern does seem of this order. I am struck by the fact that William Michael Rossetti in the introduction to his Poems of Walt Whitman (1868) speaks of the style as being occasionally "agglomerative," a word which can mean "having the state of a confused or jumbled mass" but which, more literally, describes the circumstance of something "made or formed into a rounded mass or ball." A few days ago here, walking along the beach, a friend showed me such a ball, primarily of clay but equally compacted of shells and pebbles which the action of the waves had caused the clay to pick up, all of which would, in time, become stone. That meaning of "agglomerate" I think particularly relevant to the activity of Whitman's composition, and I like too that sense of the spherical, which does not locate itself upon a point nor have the strict condition of the linear but rather is at all 'points' the possibility of all that it is. Whitman's constant habit of revisions and additions would concur, I think, with this notion of his process, in that there is not 'one thing' to be said and, that done, then 'another.' Rather the process permits the material


('myself' in the world) to extend until literal death intercedes. Again, it is interesting to think of Zukofsky's sense that any of us as poets "write one poem all our lives," remembering that Whitman does not think of his work as a series of discrete collections or books but instead adds to the initial work, Leaves of Grass , thinking of it as a "single poem."

The implications of such a stance have a very contemporary bearing for American poets—who can no longer assume either their world or themselves in it as discrete occasion. Not only does Whitman anticipate the American affection for the pragmatic, but he equally emphasizes that it is space and process which are unremittingly our condition. If Pound found the manner of his poems objectionable, he nonetheless comes to a form curiously like Leaves of Grass in the Cantos , in that he uses them as the literal possibility of a life. Much the same situation occurs in Williams' writing with Paterson , although it comes at a markedly later time in his own life. Charles Olson's Maximus Poems and Louis Zukofsky's "A" are also instances of this form which proposes to 'go on' in distinction to one that assumes its own containment as a singular case.

Another objection Rossetti had concerned what he called "absurd or ill-constructed words" in Whitman's writing. One distinct power a poet may be blessed with is that of naming and Whitman's appetite in this respect was large and unembarrassed. One should read a posthumously published collection of notes he wrote on his own sense of words called An American Primer (City Lights, 1970), wherein he makes clear his commitment to their power of transformation. Whitman's vocabulary moves freely among an extraordinarily wide range of occupational terminologies and kinds of diction found in divers social groupings. Frequently there are juxtapositions of terms appropriate to markedly different social or occupational habits, slang sided with words of an alternate derivation:

I chant the chant of dilation or pride
We have had ducking and deprecating about enough . . .

Whatever the reader's response, such language permits Whitman to gain an actively useful diversity of context and tone. The toughness of his verse—what Charles Olson referred to as its muscularity , giving as instance "Trickle Drops"—can sustain the tensions created in its movement by these seeming disparities in diction. It is, moreover, a marked characteristic of American poetry since Whitman, and certainly of the contemporary, to have no single source


for its language in the sense that it does not depend upon a 'poetic' or literary vocabulary. In contrast, a German friend once told me that even a novelist as committed to a commonly shared situation of life as Günter Grass could not be easily understood by the workers whose circumstances so moved him. His language was too literary in its structure and vocabulary, not by fact of his own choice but because such language was adamantly that in which novels were to be written in German. An American may choose, as John Ashbery once did, to write a group of poems whose words come entirely from the diction of the Wall Street Journal , but it is his own necessity, not that put upon him by some rigidity of literary taste.

Comparable to this flexibility of diction in Whitman's writing is the tone or mood in which his poems speak. It is very open, familiar, at times very casual and yet able to be, on the instant, intensive, intimate, charged with complexly diverse emotion. This manner of address invites, as it were, the person reading to 'come into' the activity and experience of the poems, to share with Whitman in a paradoxically unsentimental manner the actual texture and force of the emotions involved. When he speaks directly to the reader, there is an uncanny feeling of his literal presence physically.

I have avoided discussion of Whitman's life simply because I am not competent to add anything to the information of any simple biography, for example, Gay Wilson Allen's Walt Whitman (Evergreen Books, London, 1961). I am charmed by some of the details got from that book. Apparently Mrs. Gilchrist, the widow of Blake's biographer, Alexander Gilchrist, was very smitten upon reading Whitman's poems and wrote accordingly:

Even in this first letter (3 September, 1871) Mrs. Gilchrist made it plain that she was proposing marriage. She hoped, she said, to hear, "My Mate. The one I so much want. Bride, Wife, indissoluble eternal!" And, "Dear Walt. It is a sweet & precious thing, this love: it clings so close, so close to the Soul and Body, all so tenderly dear, so beautiful, so sacred . . ."

It is simple enough to make fun of this lady and yet her response, despite Whitman's very careful demurring, is one that his poems are unequivocally capable of producing. It would be sad indeed if books could not be felt as entirely human and possible occasion.

More to the point, Whitman's life is a very discreet one, really. John Addington Symonds so pestered him concerning "the meaning of the 'Calamus' poems," that Whitman finally answered, "Though unmarried, I have six children." But whether or not that


was true, or untrue, or whether Whitman was homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual, has not primarily concerned me. In other words, I have been intent upon the writing and what there took place and that, literally, is what any of us have now as a possibility. We cannot haul him back any more than we can Shakespeare, just to tell us who he was. It would seem that he had , with such magnificent articulation one is almost persuaded there can be no end to him just as there is none to the genius of his writing.

Nor have I been able to do more than gloss the multiplicity of uses I find in the work itself. I wish there were time to think of Whitman as instance of what Allen Ginsberg pointed out as a great tradition of American poets, that of the crank or true eccentric. Surely his contemporaries often felt him to be. There is a lovely letter which Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote Bridges, in which he says that Whitman is closer to him in technical concerns than any other poet then writing—but also, that he is a veritable madman. So what does that make poor Hopkins? Or I would like to consider a suggestion of Duncan's, that possibly Williams' uneasiness with Whitman's writing had in part to do with the fact that Williams uses enjambment , or 'run-over' lines, very frequently whereas Whitman uses it not at all—wherein he is very like Ezra Pound. Or to trace more carefully the nature of Whitman's influence on American poetry—an influence I find as clearly in Frank O'Hara's poems as I do in Crane's or Ginsberg's.

Undertaking any of this, I felt a sudden giddiness—not at all self-humbling. This man is a great poet, our first, and it is unlikely indeed that his contribution to what it literally means to be an American poet will ever be equaled. But I do not want to end this note with such blatant emphasis. As Duncan says, Whitman is a deeply gentle man and, humanly, of great, great reassurance. If our America now is a petty shambles of disillusion and violence, the dreams of its possibility stay actual in Whitman's words. It is not 'democracy' that, of itself, can realize or even recognize the common need. It is only, and literally, people themselves who have that choice. So then, as Lawrence said: "Ahead of all poets, pioneering into the wilderness of unopened life, Whitman . . ."

Bolinas, California
January 30, 1972


previous part
Introduction to Penguin Selected Whitman
next chapter