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The Seminal Whitman

The Seminal Whitman

The Seminal Whitman

 

Walt Whitman is widely considered to be America’s seminal, world-class poet, in the same league as Homer, Dante, Cervantes and Shakespeare. Webster defines “seminal” as “being the first or earliest of something that is later recognized as having been of primary influence, of essential importance; a) basic; central; principal b) crucial; critical; pivotal.”  If a poll was taken to determine which American poet was the most influential and well-read among both poets and general readers, Walt Whitman would win hands-down.  If the same poll was international, Whitman would still win.  His appeal was and is universal.  He embodies what a poet can and should be.   Leaves of Grass stands as the most influential poetry collection of all time. With any other poet, the above statements would be naive hyperbole, but in the case of Whitman, they are literally true.

He laid the foundations for whole literary movements to follow.  More importantly, Whitman pioneered the role of the poet as a force of humanitarian action in the world. Because space does not allow a complete list of all of the modern and post-modern poets influenced by Whitman, I will concentrate on only the most significant in this essay.  The poets mentioned have been chosen because they were themselves influential on contemporary poetics.

 

  1. Influences

Whitman’s own influences came more from world literature than from the poetry of his day.  He was probably most influenced by the long lines, stately cadences and rhetoric of the King James Bible. The language of the King James Bible influenced Whitman in a way that was contrary to his innovative free verse ideas because he adopted the use of archaic pronouns like “thee” and “thou.”  He probably felt that the archaisms enhanced the Biblical tone and dramatic sweep of his poems, but reading them today, after a century and a half of poets using progressively more colloquial words in poems, the Olde English words belie Whitman’s basic principle that common speech can and should be recognized for its poetic value.  Otherwise, his work is still relevant and emotionally evocative today.

His style also reflects the parallel structures and repetitions of key phrases of the Quaker preachers he was exposed to as a child.  He was a voracious reader from childhood, acquainting himself with the classic works of Homer, Dante, Milton and Shakespeare.  It is evident from the scope of his work that he was a keen observer with an expansive ego.  He incorporated everything he experienced into himself, then put it out again as poetry.  He let the world pass through him.  His great long poem, Song of Myself, has this process as its central theme.  His integrative intelligence is apparent in the width and depth of his themes and structures.  He was a poet of the Big Picture, yet his poems were filled with minute detail and nuance.  He embodied democracy, poetic freedom and social responsibility.

He immersed himself in the lectures and writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who stressed the values of self-reliance and spiritual transcendence over materialistic concerns.  Emerson was influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism. Whitman and Emerson first met in person right after Leaves of Grass was published.  Whitman’s exposure through Emerson to a non-Western world-view connected with his awareness of the social, personal and spiritual implications of new world democracy.  Although Emerson considered himself a poet, his poetry rhymed, tended toward the prosaic and lacked Whitman’s musicality.  Emerson excelled at prose, but it was Whitman who put the philosophy of American Transcendentalism into poetic form.

Whitman first heard Emerson lecture in 1842, thirteen years before the publication of Leaves of Grass.  Years later, he told his friend John Townsend Trowbridge: “I was simmering, simmering, simmering.  Emerson brought me to a boil.”

Years before the publication of Leaves of Grass, Whitman was a public supporter of the arts. He frequently attended operas, later incorporating their dramatic intensity into the poems he called “songs” to emphasize their musical qualities. His friendship with fellow poet William Cullen Bryant introduced him to many Hudson River School artists.  Whitman involved himself in New York’s growing arts scene during the mid-1800s as an advocate for the important impact of art on democracy.  He was nominated as President of the short-lived Brooklyn Art Union.  After Whitman’s poems were published, their deviation from traditional forms, passion for honesty, exploration of the full spectrum of human experience, and dedication to individualism influenced entire art movements.

The philosophy of ut pictura poesis (“as is painting so is poetry”) shaped Whitman’s aesthetics. He imagined visual artworks as being poems and his poems as paintings. He worked to capture the detail of visual art in language in his organization of Leaves of Grass. In poems such as Pictures, Whitman juxtaposes contemporary, historical, and imaginary scenes, after the model of large nineteenth-century art exhibits. His experience as a type-setter and printer also gave him a sense of the visual that he incorporated into his poetry.  As free verse developed, imagery was to emerge as its basic building block.

 

  1. Innovations

Whitman invented free verse. His typographical innovations led directly to the typographical style of e.e. cummings.  His passion for democracy led directly to Carl Sandburg.  His clustering of images led to Wallace Stevens.  The long-lined, personal poems of C. K. Williams have their model in Whitman. His emotional candor and long-lined Biblical cadences led to Allen Ginsberg.  His spirituality led to Galway Kinnell and Thomas Merton.  His environmentalism led to Gary Snyder. His influence was simply profound on the art of poetry.

Whitman revolutionized the contents of the long-poem.  Instead of the customary narrative, he used ideas illustrated by catalogs of diverse imagery delivered as a song or chant.  Pound’s Cantos, Ginsberg’s Howl, Hart Crane’s The Bridge, Eliot’s Four Quartets, Williams’ Paterson, Second Avenue by O’Hara and a long list of other modern and post-modern poems were freed by Whitman’s example from the narrative form that had dominated the art since Homer’s Odyssey.

Whitman had the courage of his convictions and was unafraid of breaking with tradition.  In the early 19th century, poetry always rhymed.  The long history of poetic convention in Europe limited a poet’s choice of style, form and content.  Even serious American poets of the day held fast to European literary values.  Whitman openly defied traditional European literary values.  He felt strongly that an American poet must identify with democratic values.  He presented himself as a working man who spoke to and for the so-called “common man.” This took enormous courage, because he advocated open-mindedness, equality between genders, races and socio-economic classes and unfettered free verse to upper-class, Yale and Harvard educated elitists with three names who read and/or wrote formal sonnets.

Whitman was intensely divergent in his approach to the art of poetry.  Not only did he expand the range of the long poem, but he also developed extremely short poems of one, two or three lines.  He did write a few straight narratives as well, but not in rhyme.  Although he rejected the convention that poems must rhyme, a few of his poems utilize partial or internal rhyme (i.e. O, Captain My Captain).

He anticipated Surrealism in his dream poems like The Sleepers, Confessionalism in poems like Song of Myself and most of the other modern literary movements to follow.

Whitman may also be said to be the father of the small press movement.  He set the type and printed the first edition of Leaves of Grass himself, and sent copies around to famous writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson.  When Emerson replied favorably, Whitman reprinted the letter in the second and third editions.  He gave numerous copies of his books away for free and continued the practice right up to his death.

Rejection of the superficial stylistic conventions of his contemporaries allowed Whitman to distill/deconstruct poetry to its essence.  A world of possibilities opened up for him and through him for the poets of the future.  He discovered that deconstruction often reveals what’s essential.  Whitman had the vision and confidence to recognize this important principle.

Although he was recognized and honored by some of the top intellectuals of his day upon the publication of Leaves of Grass (i.e. Emerson, Swinburne, Rosetti), the book was regarded by many as obscene and arrogant.  The book was banned in Boston on grounds of obscenity.  Whitman was fired from his clerical job of eleven years at the Department of the Interior soon after the book was published, when his boss discovered that he was the writer.

 

  1. Influence

An extensive list of the modern poets influenced by Whitman would include the most important poets of later generations, most significantly the major modern poets Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and T. S. Eliot, and the major post-modern poetic movements known as the New York School, the Beats, the Confessionalists and the Objectivists.

Pound addressed Whitman’s lifelong influence over him in his homage poem The Poet and in an essay titled “What I Feel About Walt Whitman,” in which he declared that “He is America.”  Pound himself was a major influence on the post-modern poetic movements of Projective verse (Olson, et al), Objectivism (Reznikoff, Oppen, Rakosi) and Symbolism (Eliot, Crane, Stevens).

Whitman’s departure from conventional metrics to base his work in the natural rhythms of colloquial American language influenced William Carlos Williams’ poetry “in the American grain.”   Williams’ “no ideas but in things” came directly from Whitman’s development of “list” or “catalogue” poems.  His epic poem Paterson was inspired and structured by Whitman’s own explorations of the relationship between populous cities and the consciousness of their inhabitants.  Critic Stephen Tapscott emphasizes that Williams was the leading modern exponent of Whitman’s expansionist and democratic poetic voice.  Other critics feel that it is their mutual recognition of the symbolic nature of places and objects that ties the two poets together.

Critic Harold Bloom asserts that the symbols used by T. S. Eliot in The Wasteland, as well as its structure, came directly from Whitman.  “Eliot takes from Whitman the song of the hermit thrush, the lilacs, the women mourning for Adonis – Lincoln – and the march down the open road with a third being, the thought of death and the knowledge of death.”

Whitman’s literary influence extended to post-modernist movements such as the New York School (O’Hara, Ashbery and Koch), the Beats (especially Ginsberg, Snyder, Whalen and Kerouac), the Confessionalists (Lowell, Plath, Sexton, Snodgrass) and the Objectivists (Reznikoff, Rakosi, Oppen).

 *

Walt Whitman’s investment in the art world and desire to merge visual art and poetry changed both genres of art, giving permission to artists to explore new expressions of personal and American identities.  He anticipated the New York School of poets and their exchange between poets and painters, expressed in poems like Frank O’Hara’s cubist Second Avenue. 

Frank O’Hara regularly acknowledged his debt to Whitman in his poems, critical statements and letters.  He referred to Whitman as “my great predecessor.”  In Personism: A Manifesto, O’Hara wrote: “. . .only Whitman and Crane and Williams, of the American poets, are better than the movies.”

Some critics feel that assessing O’Hara’s debt to Whitman is difficult because one gets the impression that all of his work comes out of Whitman.  To an extent, O’Hara’s Collected Poems is a memorization of Whitman’s poetry. Reading O’Hara with the purpose of tracking references to Whitman would prove frustrating because every poem seems to do so.

One of O’Hara’s later poems (Bill’s Burnoose) contains the line: “I feel just like Whitman said you should.”  In another (Dolce Colloquis) O’Hara wrote:

“O Sentiments sitting beside my bed

what are you thinking of?

of an ebony vase?

of a pail of garbage?

of memorizing Whitman?

 

            O’Hara is the inheritor of Whitman’s exuberance and his urban and confessional poetic modes, but does not take much from Whitman’s poems of nature and expansion of the soul.  Indeed, every major modern and post-modern poet “cherry-picked” from the many free verse modalities Whitman invented or discovered.

Another major poet of the New York School, Kenneth Koch, focused on Whitman’s technique.  In a panel discussion on Whitman at The Poetry Project in New York, Kenneth Koch said: “It seems to me that he’s been a powerful influence on a lot of great poets because of his technique, because of the way he used modern language, and because of the music and so on.”

            Critic Harold Bloom has repeatedly evoked Whitman’s influence over John Ashbery.  He wrote that Ashbery’s poem A Wave is the most obvious example of his debt to Whitman. Bloom feels that Ashbery’s work has been influenced primarily by Whitman’s juxtapositioning of symbols and images.  Even within particular schools of thought, different aspects of Whitman’s work have been expanded.

*

            As with the New York School poets, each of the Beat poets latched on to a different aspect of Whitman’s poetics, which is a comment on the richness and complexity of his vision and the many variations of it he used in his poems.

            Allen Ginsberg’s Howl mimics Whitman’s style of long, exuberant lines featuring parallel structures and repeated phrases.  The “moloch” section in particular is imitative of Whitman:

 

“Moloch who entered my soul early!  Moloch in whom I am a consciousness

without a body!  Moloch who frightened me out of my natural

ecstasy!  Moloch whom I abandon!  Wake up in Moloch!  Light

streaming out of the sky!

Moloch!  Moloch!  Robot apartments!  invisible suburbs!  skeleton trea-

suries! blind capitals! demonic industries! spectral nations! invin-

cible madhouses!  granite cocks! monstrous bombs!

                                                                                                                                          from Howl    

            It is no great stretch to recognize the debt Allen Ginsberg owed to Whitman.  His most famous poem Howl is an undisguised imitation of Whitman’s style and tone.  Some critics feel that Howl is actually a parody of Whitman.

            Whereas O’Hara seemed to use Whitman’s poetic principles to liberate himself, Ginsberg appears to be more of a captive of them.  O’Hara’s personality energized his poetry, similar to the way Whitman’s did, but Ginsberg never transcended Whitman’s influence.  Ginsberg seems to adapt to Whitman like a chameleon, using Whitman’s voice as his own, as protective coloration.

            Like O’Hara, Ginsberg makes frequent reference to Whitman in his poems, critical writings and interviews.  Ginsberg declared in an interview: “I am taking the word from our prophet Walt Whitman.  This is the tradition of the Founding Fathers, this is the true myth of America, this is the prophecy of our most loved thinkers – Thoreau, Emerson and Whitman.  That each man is a great universe in himself. . .”  In a letter, Ginsberg summarized Whitman’s primary accomplishment: “He was the first great American poet to take action in recognizing his individuality, forgiving and accepting himself, and automatically extending that recognition and acceptance to all.”

The original publication of Howl has an epigraph from Song of Myself:

            “Unscrew the locks from the doors!

Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!

 

            Jack Kerouac, like fellow Beat generation writer Allen Ginsberg, repeatedly claimed that his work was in Whitman’s direct lineage.  Gaining perspective from Whitman in high school and at Columbia University, Kerouac frequently spoke directly to the older poet as his muse, as in his popular On the Road (1955).  He alluded to Whitman in such poems as Berkeley Song in F Minor and Long Island Chinese Poem Rain.

Gary Snyder, the only Beat poet to win a Pulitzer, was influenced by Whitman’s environmentalism in poems such as Song of the Redwood-Tree and Song of the Rolling Earth.  Snyder belongs in that group of poets who took “noble action” in the material world, a principle held in common by both American Transcendentalism and the poetry of Zen Buddhism, Snyder’s other major influence.

*

            It was his confessional mode that got Whitman the ire of critics who felt that his candor about his sexuality was not a proper topic for poetry.  Whitman was insistent that any subject at all was a subject for poetry.  In poems like I Sing the Body Electric, he built the prototype for the Confessional movement.  Here’s an example of Whitman in Confessional mode:

 

“It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,

The dark threw its patches down upon me also,

The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious,

My great thoughts as I supposed them, were they not in reality

meagre?

Nor is it you alone who know what it is to be evil,

I am he who knew what it was to be evil,

I too knitted the old knots of contrariety,

Blabb’d, blush’d, resented, lied, stole, grudg’d,

Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I dared not speak,

Was wayward, vain, greedy, shallow, sly, cowardly, malignant,

The wolf, the snake, the hog, not wanting in me,

The cheating look, the frivolous word, the adulterous wish, not want-

ing,

Refusals, hates, postponements, meanness, laziness, none of these

wanting,”

from Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

 

The autobiographical candor of Leaves of Grass influenced Robert Lowell’s Life Studies a century later.  Whitman’s unabashed self-revelations eventually expanded the reading public’s acceptance of literary candor and led to the confessional mode developed by Lowell and his students William Snodgrass and Anne Sexton.

Compare these lines from Lowell’s Skunk Hour to Whitman in the above example:

“One dark night,

my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull;

I watched for love-cars.  Lights turned down,

they lay together, hull to hull,

where the graveyard shelves on the town. . .

My mind’s not right.

 

A car radio bleats,

‘Love, O careless Love. . .’ I hear

my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,

as if my hand were at its throat. . .

I myself am hell;

nobody’s here–”

 

Although the female Confessionalists (Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath) do not at first glance reveal Whitman’s stylistic influence, on a higher level of abstraction, the poetic and social freedom of women was championed steadily by Whitman in both his poetry and his public statements.

*

Whitman’s international influence has been widely diverse.  The great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and the world popular Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko were both Nobel Laureates who openly acknowledged their debt to Whitman.  Federico Garcia Lorca wrote of his debt to Whitman in his poem Ode to Walt Whitman. He developed his concept of duende from Whitman’s celebrations of death in poems like When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.  Here’s an example of Whitman in Duende mode:

 

“Come lovely and soothing death,

 Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,

 In the day, in the night, to all, to each,

 Sooner or later delicate death.

 

 Prais’d by the fathomless universe,

 For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious,

 And for love sweet love–but praise! praise! praise!

 For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death.”

                                    from When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d

 

Neruda’s poem Let the Railsplitters Awake mimics the structure of some of Whitman’s poems and also contains several references to Whitman and his themes.

Astonishingly, the multi-modal Whitman was aware of his own potential influence on poets of the future.  Here’s his message to us:

Poets To Come

 

Poets to come! orators, singers, musicians to come!

Not to-day is to justify me and answer what I am for,

But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than be-

fore known.

Arouse! for you must justify me.

 

I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future,

I but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back in the dark-

ness.

 

I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping, turns a

casual look upon you and then averts his face,

Leaving it to you to prove and define it,

Expecting the main things from you.

 

  1. The Poet as Humanitarian

Whitman had a strong social conscience and wasn’t content to talk the talk without walking the walk.  A number of important poets were influenced by his model as a humanitarian.

He became a schoolteacher at the age of seventeen and continued to teach for six years. Then he turned to journalism.  He founded a weekly newspaper (The Long-Islander) and later worked as an editor for several New York and Brooklyn newspapers.  At the age of thirty he left the Brooklyn Daily Eagle to become the editor of the New Orleans Crescent.  He witnessed the horrors of slavery in the New Orleans slave markets.  This had a profound effect on him.  He returned to Brooklyn in 1848 to found an anti-slavery newspaper called The Brooklyn Freeman.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Whitman vowed to live a “purged” and “cleansed” life.  He worked as a freelance journalist and visited the wounded at New York City-area hospitals.  He then traveled to Washington, D.C. in December 1862 to care for his brother George who had been wounded in the war.  Overcome by the suffering of the many wounded in Washington, he decided to stay on after George recovered and worked in the hospitals and lived in the city for eleven more years, ultimately catching tuberculosis from his constant close exposure to the sick.

Whitman devoted himself to comforting the wounded soldiers (from both sides) of the Civil War.  At the beginning of the war the makeshift “hospitals” were usually tents erected over bare ground.  The wounded were everywhere, on blankets or cold, bare ground.  They were greatly outnumbered by the sick, most of whom were contagious.  As with his many working-class friends, most of the soldiers he ministered to were unaware that he was a poet.  He read poetry to the soldiers but never his own.

During his long service as “wound-dresser,” he lived a frugal life, rooming in a small attic and spending the money he saved on gifts and treats for the wounded.  Even while he ministered to the wounded, Whitman found time to establish the library for the Treasury Department, stocking it himself with five hundred miscellaneous books.  He also regularly sent money from his small salary as a clerk to his mother and developmentally disabled brother. Eventually, over one hundred more permanent military hospitals were established in the Washington area, and Whitman visited them all.

In his book The Good Gray Poet, William O’Connor describes Whitman’s hospital visits: “For his daily occupation, he goes from ward to ward, doing all he can to hearten and revive the spirits of the sufferers, and keep the balance in favor of their recovery.  Usually, his plan is to pass, with haversack (today preserved in the Library of Congress) strapped across his shoulders, from cot to cot, distributing small gifts; his theory is that these men, far from home, lonely, sick at heart, need more than anything some practical token that they are not forsaken, that some one feels a fatherly or brotherly interest in them; hence, he gives them what he can; to particular cases, entirely penniless, he distributes small sums of money, fifteen cents, twenty cents, thirty cents, fifty cents, not much to each, for there are many, but under the circumstances these little sums are and mean a great deal.  He also distributes and directs envelopes, gives letter-paper, postage-stamps, tobacco, apples, figs, sweet biscuit, preserves, blackberries; gets delicate food for special cases; sometimes a dish of oysters or a dainty piece of meat, or some savory morsel for some poor creature who loathes the hospital fare, but whose appetite may be tempted.  In the hot weather he buys boxes of oranges and distributes them, grateful to lips baked with fever; he buys boxes of lemon, he buys sugar, to make lemonade for those parched throats of sick soldiers; he buys canned peaches, strawberries, pears; he buys in the market fresh fruit; he buys ice-cream and treats the whole hospital; he buys whatever delicacies and luxuries his limited resources will allow, and he makes them go as far as he can.”

Through his ministering to the wounded, Whitman harnessed the same energy that produced his poems, manifested in direct action in the world, because the humanitarian goals of both were the same.  In this, he recognized that the poet is a shaman who acts in the interest of mankind.  He anticipated the small but significant group of poets who have been poet-social workers, including myself.  I can say from experience that the creative energy behind both poetry and social work come from the same inner resource, the ability to identify and empathize with others, which is essential to both roles.

Some of the Objectivist poets stopped writing for long periods to practice social work.  Carl Rakosi had a Master Degree in Social Work.  He gave up writing poetry for twenty-six years in order to practice social work.  After his return to the literary scene, he published several award-winning collections.  He lived to be one hundred years old, and, like Whitman, is widely remembered as a kind and thoughtful man.

George Oppen quit poetry for twenty-eight years to organize actions supporting worker’s rights.  He began writing poetry again in 1958, and received the Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for his book Of Being Numerous.

Like Whitman, the quintessential Objectivist poet Charles Reznikoff spent many hours each day walking the streets of Brooklyn, interacting with its people.  Reznikoff averaged twenty miles a day, even in his eighties.  I can personally testify to his endurance and his warmth because he visited me at my home three years before his death, and he insisted that we take a long walk around the neighborhood before his reading that evening.  In his books By the Waters of Manhattan and Testimony, he documented the everyday experience and drama of everyday people from a humanistic (Whitmanian) point of view.

Like Whitman, Reznikoff type-set and printed his own books on a printing press he installed in his basement.  Here are a few lines from his long poem Early History of a Writer, which bears comparison to Song of Myself in theme and structure:

“I had been bothered by a secret weariness

with meter and regular stanzas

grown a little stale.  The smooth lines and rhymes

seemed to me affected, a false stress on words and syllables–

fake flowers

in the streets in which I walked.

And yet I found prose

without the burst of song and sudden dancing–

with the intensity which I wanted.

The brand-new verse some Americans were beginning to write–

after the French ‘free verse,’ perhaps,

or the irregular rhythms of Walt Whitman,

the English translations of the Hebrew Bible

and earlier yet, the rough verse of the Anglo-Saxons–

seemed to me, when I first read it,

right:

not cut to patterns, however cleverly,

nor poured into ready molds,

but words and phrases flowing as the thought;

to be read just as common speech

but for stopping at the turn of each line–

and this like a rest in music or a turn in the dance.”

As for me, I dropped out of the literary world for twenty years to become a social worker for disabled and emotionally disturbed children. I got a Master of Social Work degree and I stopped submitting my poems for publication during this period and only wrote when the urge was very strong and felt inevitable. The experience fed my humanity and my poetry, as I’m sure it did for others who have walked the path that Whitman did in his devout nursing of the Civil War wounded or his activism against slavery, the death penalty, organized religion and gender inequality.

  1. Relevance Today

The younger poets of today have largely been influenced indirectly through the modern and post-modern poets who were themselves directly influenced by Whitman.  Each has taken what he needed from Whitman, who contained multitudes.

Every poet, young or old, can benefit from a thorough reading of Whitman. His poetry taps into the font of shared archetypes and deep-seated values of the collective unconscious and reveals the potential of free verse.

Whitman’s great genius was in seeing the humanitarian potential of poetry and having the enormous talent and energy to actualize and articulate it in his work.  The true mark of greatness in a poet is the ability to speak, not only for himself, but to and for humanity.  The worth of a great poem is in its degree of universality.  Whitman intended his work to be universal, so he achieved a high degree of it:

“Come said the Muse,

Sing me a song no poet has yet chanted,

Sing me the universal.”

from Birds of Passage: Song of the Universal

Universality was both a theme and an avowed goal of Whitman’s poetry.  His lengthy catalogue poem Salut Au Monde! (Salute to the World), is a tour de force of places and scenes from around the entire world.  Although innovative in its juxtapositioning of place names, the poem must have required a great amount of deliberate research to realize the concept.  At least in this poem, the inspiration was in the idea, then it was fleshed out by his careful listing of places juxtaposed with brief scenes from those places.

Whitman died over a century ago, but his poems live on.   He tells us why in the final section of Song of Myself:

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,

I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

 

The last scud of day holds back for me,

It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow’d

wilds,

It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.

 

I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,

I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.

 

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,

If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

 

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,

But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,

And filter and fibre your blood.

 

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,

Missing me one place search another,

I stop somewhere waiting for you.”

 

 

Whitman’s life and work illustrate the important principle that poetry is foremost a vehicle of both personal and human progress.  His influence is so widespread that it can honestly be said that there is a little Whitman in each of us.

 

 

 

– Eric Greinke

 

 

 

 

 

5011 words

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sources

 

 

 

The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime; Harold Bloom; Spiegel & Grau; New York, New York; 2016.

 

Selected Poems – 1947-1995; Allen Ginsberg; Perennial Classics (imprint of HarperCollins Publishing); New York, New York; 2001.

 

Walt Whitman Panel at The Poetry Project; Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Koch and Ron Padgett; audiotape, rec. 13 May 1992 at Saint Mark’s Church, New York, New York.

 

Walt Whitman – The Song of Himself; Jerome Loving; University of California Press; Berkeley, Los Angeles, London; 1999.

 

Life Studies; Robert Lowell; Farrar, Straus and Cudahy; New York, New York; 1960.

 

The Good Gray Poet; William Douglas O’Connor; Bunce and Huntington; New York, New York; 1866.

 

The Selected Poems of Frank O’Hara; Frank O’Hara, Donald Allen, Ed.; Vintage Books; New York, New York; 1974.

 

Poems 1918-1975, The Complete Poems of Charles Reznikoff; Seamus Cooney, Ed.; Black Sparrow Press; Santa Rosa, California; 1989.

 

Leaves of Grass; Walt Whitman; Barnes & Noble Books; New York, New York; 1993.

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