Walt Whitman was the first American poet who could plausibly claim that he had made a permanent break with English verse; and he was also the first (or the first with great artistic powers) who could plausibly claim that his poems were not just works of art but also quasi-sacred texts, embodiments of a person whose special powers could transform our lives. Ever since his death in 1892, readers have wondered how they can, and whether they should, disentangle the promises from the verbal performances within Whitman’s works.
The poet C. K. Williams is one such reader. If you need an introduction to Whitman’s poetry, On Whitman will do fine. Williams devotes short segments to topics familiar from Whitman’s life and career: early dealings with Emerson, mourning for Abraham Lincoln, sex, war, personal pronouns, “Nature,” “Mortality,” “Mortality Again.” We meet a poet who is gregarious yet evasive, forthcoming yet lonely. This Whitman has been prepared by his careers as a temperance writer and a newspaperman to bring forth, in 1855, Leaves of Grass. He championed sex and the free representation of sex, democracy and the ideals of democracy. He fell in love with men, and wrote about it, but he also praised the love of women. He comforted wounded soldiers during the Civil War; and he presented himself as something like a prophet, whose art and personality would do the work once done by religious doctrine.
Whitman, as Williams says, is one of “those poets who present a view of life inseparable from the methods and matter of their song”. So must we adopt the view, if we love the poems? Carefully, almost gingerly, Williams says no: the “state of unrestrained acceptance” that the poems recommend is not one that Williams can affirm. Worse yet, that view—embraced by generations of Whitman’s disciples—obscures his “ear for the smaller scales of language music,” even though it is his ear that has made the poems last: “it’s his music that compels everything else,” a music that Williams finds easy to praise but almost impossible to analyze.
Music: the term includes assonance and consonance, regular rhythms or the lack of them. But since this sort of “music” uses words, it may also include effects of tone, diction, description, the playing out—smooth or jarring, extended or sudden—of language over ideas, or against expectations. All these effects contribute to Whitman’s powers, and many of them respond more closely to fine-grained attention than Williams implies. Admiring “lines the precise meaning of which can only be guessed at,” Williams can be too quick to see mysticism, or uninterpretability, when research or patience could clear things up:
I do not snivel that snivel the world over,
That months are vacuums and the ground but wallow and filth,
That life is a suck and a sell, and nothing remains at the end but threadbare crape and tears.
Whimpering and truckling fold with powders for invalids.... conformity goes to the fourth removed,
I cock my hat as I please indoors or out.
(Here I quote the 1855 Leaves of Grass, with its four-dot ellipses, the version that Williams prefers; elsewhere I quote Whitman’s final authorized versions of 1891-92.) On this remarkable statement of aversion to many (but not all) received religions, Williams comments: “What? ‘...truckling fold with powders...’ What does that mean? It doesn’t matter—he’s singing himself... he’s like an abstract painter.”
No, he is not, at least not here. “Powders for invalids” came in folded packets, and the gerunds that should belong to the invalids are applied to the powders they crave. “Conformity” means a herd mentality (“fourth removed,” they experience nothing first-hand), but also (as the OED says) “conformity in worship to the form of religion legally established or publicly recognized,” a usage probably familiar to a poet raised among Quakers. Religious believers who hold that this world is a slough, and lachrymose mourners who find delight nowhere, are both to be found at funerals, amid “threadbare crepe,” and both are like malingerers, willingly sick: Whitman, defying their hatred of life, flaunts his health even in church, and even at funerals. There are wonderful poets who sometimes avoid prose sense, but Whitman was not one of them: he always means something, whether he is writing about knife-grinders or politicians or masturbation (Williams is good on Whitman’s masturbation odes) or about death, time, eternity.
As for music in the narrow sense—patterns of rhythm, patterns of sound—Whitman’s verse is more susceptible to description than his true and radical novelty lets us believe. I open to a random part of the 1855 version (then untitled) of the poem later called “Song of Myself” and find:
I become as much more as I like.
I become any presence or truth of humanity here,
And see myself in prison shaped like another man,
And feel the dull unintermitted pain.
Here are iambic pentameter; Homeric hexameter (as in Longfellow’s Evangeline); hexameter; and then another, and rather Miltonic, pentameter. In the late, short poem “To a Locomotive in Winter” (also chosen nearly at random) the prosody is kinetic, and mimetic: iambic hexameter (with one wind-buffeted anapest), then six, and then five regular iambs:
With storm and buffeting gusts of wind and falling snow,
By day thy warning ringing bell to sound its notes,
By night thy silent signal lamp to swing.
Whitman did not reject traditional prosody so much as he incorporated it, along with much else, in order to make something new.
For all that he notices Whitman’s various gifts, Williams ends up with a binary view of Whitman—contrast between the mystic-sublime-uninterpretable prophet-poet (about whom reasonable adults should have mixed feelings) and the great craftsman who made a new music with words. But Whitman—as Williams himself admits—had far more than two sides. The poems have a politics, and something like a religion, but they also offer simpler wisdom, as in this aside from “The Sleepers”: “(It seems to me that every thing in the light and air ought to be happy,/ Whoever is not in his coffin and the dark grave let him know he has enough.)“ Elsewehere in “The Sleepers,” which is partly a vision of corpses, Whitman represents his imaginative ambitions as supernatural powers: “I go from bedside to bedside,” he writes in “The Sleepers”; “I sleep close with the other sleeps each in turn,/ I dream in my dream all the dreams of the other dreamers,/ And I become the other dreamers.”
Some of the work (only some) within the great poems is the work of the sentimental novel, trying to get us to share the emotions of victims by showing us how the author has shared them himself: “Not a cholera patient lies at the last gasp, but I also lie at the last gasp,/ My face is ash-colored, my sinews gnarl.... away from me people retreat.” We might quote, instead, as Williams does, the great passage beginning “I am the hounded slave,” though we would then have to quote, beside it, Whitman’s declaration that “I am the poet of slaves and of the masters of slaves”—apparently the first line in all of Leaves of Grass that the poet composed in free verse, since it occurs in a notebook whose first entries begin in 1847. (The next line: “I am the poet of the body.”)
More than any other American poet—though William Carlos Williams comes close—Whitman did not often feel complete in himself or satisfied with his writings unless he could take an interest in somebody else. So it is with erotic experience, including experience that he could never have had (“I am she who adorn’d herself and folded her hair expectantly,/ My truant lover has come, and it is dark”). So it is with the professions, with menial labor, with adventure and peril and horror, sickness and health. “The pure contralto sings in the organ lot,/ The carpenter dresses his plank, the tongue of his foreplane whistles its wild ascending lisp,” and so on, one line per person, for sixty-odd lines in “Song of Myself,” until:
The old husband sleeps by his wife and the young husband sleeps by his wife;
And these tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them,
And such as it is to be of these more or less I am,
And of these one and all I weave the song of myself.
(Note, again, the hexameters.) A newspaperman before he became a great poet—and a diarist afterwards—Whitman did not merely prophesy and recommend: he also recorded the deeds and the feelings of other people, creating them as snapshots, as composites, from the unusually large and various set of Americans he had actually met.
Williams is right to detect, behind the gregariously ambitious poems, a “loneliness” that made them possible. We can see Whitman (especially in the Calamus poems, about love or sex between men) trying to use his loneliness as fuel, to make examples, so that we might transcend our own sad moments, as he has done:
Sometimes with one I love I fill myself with rage for fear I effuse unreturn’d love,
But now I think there is no unreturn’d love, the pay is certain one way or another,
(I loved a certain person ardently and my love was not return’d,
Yet out of that I have written these songs.)
Whitman could also be a poet of despair, and not only despair about politics. His passionate acceptance of everything could become (as Williams also sees) a passionate acceptance of death, the nothing that lies behind everything. Here is the whole of the poem called “A Clear Midnight”:
This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best,
Night, sleep, death and the stars.
Here Whitman feels (though he could never sound) like Larkin, the Larkin who concluded, “Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs.” Before “night, sleep, death,” those alluring strong syllables, Whitman’s diurnal efforts seem weak indeed, so weak that he need not care if they succeed, or if they are erased like schoolroom chalk.
On Whitman is an admirable homage to a poet without whom C. K. Williams himself would not write as he does, though Williams’ own aggressively long lines owe very little to Whitman’s sounds. It is also a small, short book with large type, big margins, and a preponderance of block quotes; some parts seem padded (“Eliot’s poetry in its scope and grand intentions surely owes much to Whitman’s example”; “it’s this balancing and equalizing of the conceptual and the particular that makes both resonate with a peculiar and unfamiliar richness”). Readers who want a less idiosyncratic, more biographical short introduction to Whitman might try his online account by the scholars Ed Fulsom and Kenneth Price. But perhaps no introduction is needed. Except for matters of historical background (which would not have been needed in Whitman’s own time), there are few things that any critic can say about Whitman that he has not somewhere said about himself. He wanted to be his own first and best critic (literally, in the case of his early, anonymous reviews of his own books), but he never wanted to be the last.
Stephen Burt is Professor of English at Harvard: he and David Mikics are the authors of the new book The Art of the Sonnet.