Walt Whitman

Michigan Writers on the Air: Commentaries on Poetry

Walt Whitman
October 2010

You know, Aaron, there are two American poets who have come to stand for the shift in this country into what we call modern poetry, a shift that began near the middle of the 19th century. I talked about one of them a while back— Emily Dickinson. The other is Walt Whitman.

You might remember the line from one of Dickinson’s poems, “I am nobody, who are you?” –People like to contrast that with Whitman’s line, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Wow. And they’re on opposite ends of the spectrum in a lot of ways—Dickinson likes typical ballad stanzas with rhyme, although she writes them slant, never what we expect, never rhyming the way we expect.

On the other hand, Whitman’s lines tend to be so long they take a whole breath to get them out. He doesn’t often rhyme. But each of those poets, you know, goes deep into the psyche in a new way, into the kind of dream-like strangeness of life, its transitory quality, and the poems are determined to include both darkness and light.

Here’s what I’d say is the crux of the difference: Earlier poetry tends to be looking for a way to express meaning that’s already there; modern poetry tends to be in the process of making meaning, within itself. It doesn’t assume that meaning is out there to be had.

Whitman was self-taught—he read voraciously—Dante, Shakespeare, Homer, the Bible. He worked as a printer and eventually founded a newspaper in Brooklyn. Later he became editor of a paper in New Orleans, then he went back to Brooklyn to found an anti-slavery newspaper. His years as a reporter, collecting all those facts, as well as his love of the great rolling language of the Bible show up all over his poems. Listen to the beginning of the life-long collection of poem he eventually called “Leaves of Grass”

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full
hands;
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it
is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful
green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we
may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child. . . .the produced babe
of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow
zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the
same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people and from women, and
from offspring taken soon out of their mother’s laps,
And here you are the mother’s laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old
mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.
O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths
for nothing.

Here’s what the great poet Ezra Pound said about Whitman:

He is America. His crudity is an exceeding great stench, but it is America. He is the hollow place in the rock that echoes with his time. He does ‘chant the crucial stage’ and he is the ‘voice triumphant.’ He is disgusting. He is an exceedingly nauseating pill, but he accomplished his mission.

Entirely free from the renaissance humanist ideal of the complete man or from the Greek idealism, he is content to be what he is, and he is his time and his people. He is a genius because he has vision of what he is and of his function. He knows that he is a beginning and not a classically finished work.

I think Pound hit on exactly the quality that makes Whitman so modern. He is just who he is, a man of his time, always in the process of becoming, not finished.

Well, it is true that part of what Whitman gives us may stink, but listen to the beginning of my favorite Whitman poem, which turns out to be, if you read the whole poem, about the beginning of a poet’s sensibility—the love of listening and hearing that made the speaker a poet.

Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking

Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,
Out of the Ninth-month midnight,
Over the sterile sands and the fields beyond, where the child
leaving his bed wander’d alone, bareheaded, barefoot,
Down from the shower’d halo,
Up from the mystic play of shadows twining and twisting as
if they were alive,
Out from the patches of briers and blackberries,
From the memories of the bird that chanted to me,
From your memories sad brother, from the fitful risings and
fallings I heard,
From under that yellow half-moon late-risen and swollen as
if with tears,
From those beginning notes of yearning and love there in
the mist,
From the thousand responses of my heart never to cease,
From the myriad thence-arous’d words,
From the word stronger and more delicious than any,
From such as now they start the scene revisiting,
As a flock, twittering, rising, or overhead passing,
Borne hither, ere all eludes me, hurriedly,
A man, yet by these tears a little boy again,
Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves,
I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter,
Taking all hints to use them, but swiftly leaping beyond them,
A reminiscence sing.

Do you hear the chanting quality of the lines, the biblical quality that gives us a sense of great importance? We’re lulled by the lines, we’re almost in a trance.

But to end here on a sad but lovely note, I want to give you a small part of a poem that shows how well Whitman could write traditional rhyming verse, too. Here’s the beginning of a poem he wrote upon the death of Abraham Lincoln.Whitman’s newspapercareer had been spent fighting slavery, and he’d spent a great deal of time as a volunteer hospital worker in Washington, D.C., during the civil war. So his words come from deep personal sorrow at Lincoln’s assassination.

Beginning of O Captain! My Captain!

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
fallen cold and dead.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up- for you the flag is flung- foryou the bugle trills.