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This item is taken from PN Review 248, Volume 45 Number 6, July - August 2019.Editorial
Two centuries ago Walt Whitman was born. His life and legacy are being widely celebrated and interrogated. In Bolton, Lancashire, where he inspired a band of admirers, the Eagle Street Scholars, near the end of his life, his anniversary was marked by a two-day academic and creative conference. Poetry editor Don Share’s keynote lecture will be included in PNR 249. A portion of the PNR editor’s lecture provides the editorial for this issue of the magazine.
WHEN GERTRUDE STEIN WAS EIGHTEEN, Walt Whitman died. She is one of his most lucid readers, not as a critic but as a mentee. She’s not alone, of course: his impact on English-language writing (and Spanish, Russian, Italian, Portuguese, etc) remains decisive – on Stevenson, the Pre-Raphaelites, on Hopkins (a reluctant witness), on Lawrence, on Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, on Ted Hughes and their successors, on our contemporaries and juniors. Stevenson called William Michael Rossetti’s selection of Whitman (which the poet himself later described as a ‘dismemberment’), ‘a book of singular service, a book which tumbled the world upside down for me, blew into space a thousand cobwebs of genteel and ethical illusion, and, having thus shaken my tabernacle of lies, set me back again upon a strong foundation of all the original and manly virtues. But it is, once more, only a book for those who have the gift of reading.’
Stevenson is interested in thematics and effects. ‘Whether he may greatly influence the future or not, he is a notable symptom of the present.’ And he adds,
He conceived the idea of a Literature which was to inhere in the life of the present; which was to be, first, human, and next, American; which was to be brave and cheerful as per contract; to give culture in a popular and poetical presentment; and, in so doing, catch and stereotype some democratic ideal of humanity which should be equally natural to all grades of wealth and education, and suited, in one of his favourite phrases, to ‘the average man’. […] He does not profess to have built the castle, but he pretends he has traced the lines of the foundation.He has not made the poetry, but he flatters himself he has done something towards making the poets.
About the actual writing he has this to say:
Something should be said of Whitman’s style, for style is of the essence of thinking. And where a man is so critically deliberate as our author, and goes solemnly about his poetry for an ulterior end, every indication is worth notice. He has chosen a rough, unrhymed, lyrical verse; sometimes instinct with a fine processional movement; often so rugged and careless that it can only be described by saying that he has not taken the trouble to write prose.
He is wise to observe that no one will ‘appreciate Whitman’s excellences until he has grown accustomed to his faults’.
Gertrude Stein is not interested in Whitman’s faults, or rather, does not regard them as such. She is minutely engaged by the poetry, by its language and the formal strategies that Whitman gives us. She notes how Whitman avoids names: he ‘wanted really wanted to express the thing and not call it by its name’. To call it by its name is to place it outside the poem, evoking it is to bring it inside. Thus in the catalogues and throughout Leaves of Grass we encounter the plethora of definite articles; thus the insistent parataxis and present tense. The definite article frees a subject to fulfil a variety of roles: ‘The clean-hair’d Yankee girl works with her sewing-machine or in the factory or mill…’ In Leaves of Grass section 17, the poem makes its purpose clear:
These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me,
If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next to nothing,
If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they are nothing,
If they are not just as close as they are distant they are nothing.
Some years ago a sculptor described an enormous lumb or chimney he had seen which he wanted to make into a sculptural space. Open to the heavens, the chimney also had light filtering in through chinks. To stand inside the base of the chimney and look up released one’s small self to exist in, fill out, this larger dimension. The self was invested with or investing in it. The sculptor wanted to expand our physical freedoms. He was not expressing himself, even when his own body was the model for his sculptures, a model reproduced so often that it became anonymised. Everyman and woman are included. In not expressing himself the artist gives amplitude to the observer, if the observer ‘be sound and vigorous’ and equal to the gift.
This is not unlike what Whitman does in Leaves of Grass. A lover of opera, Whitman provides a libretto for everyone, anyone, written in a language of universal access and in what the American poet Mark Strand called a ‘democratic’ syntax, the paratactic ‘nonsubordination of the clauses’. This is surely a key to his even, accruing power and to the way he repels poets reared in Browning’s dramatic, climaxing school. Whitman is all about access: to experience, to language, to one another. Poetry spreads in space, into vistas, and the movement is in space, in a present we share in 2019 as much as in 1855. The I who sings his poems is the readers. We are in a new world: the chorus displaces the lead singer, the chorus becomes the lead singer.
Whitman’s sense of freedom consisted in leaving the text firmly on the page, available to any voice, not claimed by his own. Those who insist on his orality are wrong. The poem has its orality; the poem is not ‘spoken by a poet’s voice’ and does not generally follow the patterns of speech. What Carl Sandburg and Allen Ginsberg and in a different spirit Robinson Jeffers do with this open legacy is to close it, or enclose it, personalise it. The impersonality – or universality – of Whitman’s I could hardly be more emphatic. Langston Hughes, D.H. Lawrence and Gertrude Stein seem to get it creatively. His work displaces conventional notions of the author in a poem. He guided Christopher Middleton, writing in these pages in 1979 (PNR 10, ‘The Viking Prow’):
To recapture poetic reality in a tottering world, we may have to revise, once more, the idea of a poem as an expression of the ‘contents’ of a subjectivity. Some poems, at least, and some types of poetic language, constitute structures of a singularly radiant kind, where ‘self-expression’ has undergone a profound change of function. We experience these structures, if not as revelations of being, then as apertures upon being. We experience them as we experience nothing else.
Middleton’s line of reasoning is appealing, it draws back the corner on a creative possibility that looks new but is in fact (to use Stein’s phrase) ‘at the bottom of all creative activity’.
Jorge Luis Borges translated from Leaves of Grass, describing it as the epic of American democracy. He imagines Whitman reflecting on the inadequacy of earlier, feudal epics. ‘My epic […] must be plural, it must declare or take as its premise the incomparable and absolute equality of all mankind.’ Whitman is, as Borges says, ‘each one of us and all those who will populate the earth’. Here is a great liberating pattern book – liberating to the common reader, liberating to the writer; liberating in theme, and liberating in form and style. With whom does Whitman collaborate? With Blake, perhaps, with the King James Bible, with America before, during and after the Civil War, and with his many successors.
Thom Gunn reads ‘Whitman’s self’ as ‘both exceptional and average, representative and individual, a rich young lady and Walt Whitman, one of the roughs and Jesus Christ. Each merges into the other, like leaves of grass into the prairie or individuals into a visionary democracy.’ He applauds Whitman’s ‘juxtaposition and improvisation’ as though he anticipates modernism and jazz and much else: Whitman’s verse is ‘revelatory (and even interpretative) but not explanatory’. Not explanatory. Poetry is a language different in construction from prose, different in purpose and usage. Poetry is process, even when it is written down, printed, and folded inside a book. When the book is almost over, the reader is immediately addressed by it. It lies in our lap and speaks to us, it asks us to respond. The ‘I’ here is the book we have been holding.
The past and present wilt - I have fill’d them, emptied them.
And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.
Listener up there! what have you to confide to me?
Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening,
(Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute longer.)
This item is taken from PN Review 248, Volume 45 Number 6, July - August 2019.