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This article is taken from PN Review 249, Volume 46 Number 1, September - October 2019.

Whitman at 200
Ventures on an Old Theme
Don Share
This is the text of Don Share’s keynote lecture on the last day (24 May) of the ‘Whitman 200’ conference held at the University of Bolton.


‘So you want an essay about American National Literature, do you? Well, if you will let me put down some melanged cogitations regarding the matter, haphazard, and from my own points of view I will try.’ Thus Walt Whitman, introducing a talk on both American literature and his own work, which he saw as the blueprint for American poetry to come. Now that it has been 200 years since his birth, here are a few gathered thoughts about us, his American heirs and readers.

When my predecessor, Poetry’s founding editor Harriet Monroe, created not only a monthly magazine for contemporary poetry but the idea of a monthly magazine for contemporary poetry over a century ago, she was following in the bootheels of Walt Whitman, who arguably created the idea of contemporary poetry itself. In Whitman’s time, as well as hers, contemporary, even modern, poetry was not on any school curriculum either in the United States or UK. There was not yet, as Monroe put it, a place for contemporary poetry as there surely was for the opera, symphony, modern and other art, and cinema. She created that place in 1912, and when her first issue was published in October of that year, and in others for years to come, Poetry carried a motto, sometimes on the title page, more often on the magazine’s back cover, which consisted of a curious and contrarian sentence written by Walt Whitman: ‘To have great poets, there must be great audiences, too.’ (Harriet’s influential ‘foreign correspondent’ and first-issue contributor Ezra Pound notably demurred from her use of it, perhaps making his famous ‘pact’ with him in the wake of his disapproval of its sentiment: ‘I wish to God you’d take that advertising motto off the magazine’, he wrote her in 1913.)

That motto, in any case, was not from a poem, but from the ending of Whitman’s essay, ‘Ventures, on an Old Theme’, published in a selection of his ‘Notes Left Over’. An old theme for Whitman, perhaps, but pretty new, I imagine, for most others in his day. ‘In my opinion the time has arrived to essentially break down the barriers of form between prose and poetry’, he says in this essay. And he says, ‘If the United States havn’t grown poets, on any scale of grandeur, it is certain they import, print, and read more poetry than any other one person in the world’: we received approximately 170,000 poems at Poetry last year, and without readers or interns, one colleague and I read them all. In addition to these, I of course read books and journals and read poems that only live on the internet. I’m not sure that it’s distinctly American for me to read so much poetry, but perhaps it is. As Fernando Pessoa, for one – or two – (in the guise of Álvaro de Campos) put it in his famous ‘Salute to Walt Whitman’, ‘I could never read all your verses through’. But I could. And so, in this, Walt Whitman’s bicentennial birth year, I read every poem and prose piece of Whitman’s included in the definitive Library of America volume, which amounts to 1,369 thinly printed pages. It was the least I could do.

This task included my examining the 1855 version of Leaves of Grass as well as the 1891–92, along with many other assorted works of poetry and prose, and it took, as you would expect, a long time, from January until this very month of May. I have reached a conclusion or two. The first conclusion, of course, is that my reading all this work, annotating lines and drawing in margins along the way, resulted in my rendering a pristine handsome book worthless to anybody but me. I defaced the book, because despite advances in technology which might have either delighted or horrified Whitman, scrawling lines with an old pencil just as he’d have done remains the best way to register a reader’s real thoughts. Another conclusion, a more useful one for the purposes of this essay, is one I wrestled with gravely. Reluctantly, I conclude that Whitman’s prophecy and poetry of democracy is both deeply flawed, and of not much use to us here in the twenty-first century – though it will be again in the future, if we survive some of the ideas he, like so very many Americans, espoused. His work, I have decided, vividly highlights failures of American democracy which he could have foreseen, but preferred, or seemed, not to. He closed the door to dystopian visions, and this is probably just as well, because it ensured that he is and will always be singular. Scarcely an American poet today could or would write of our national life and situation so unironically and fervently. His lifelong body of literary work, it seems to me, consists of ‘end of history’ stuff avant la lettre. And we all know how the end of history turned out: darkly, dangerously, leaving us few guideposts to the history that actually followed. At the same time, Whitman opened the door to what we now call ecopoetics, about which more in due course – although crucially, his rapt attention to ecological features of the American continent, which were embodiments – more accurately re-embodiments – of a new nation, did not extend to imagining a time when their seemingly infinite powers could be endangered, or would endanger us, in hitherto unforeseen ways as a direct result of man’s own expanding political and technological power, which he celebrated. ‘We have thus far exhausted trillions of winters and summers, / There are trillions ahead, and trillions ahead of them’, he imagined, incredibly, in ‘Song of Myself’.

Stepping back from all this for a moment, the question arises of how to take on someone as vast as Whitman in this birthday year, or any other. I read his work in bulk, but can’t speak of it in anything like the profusion it deserves, or according to him, requires. Of Leaves of Grass in particular, Whitman said that it ‘does not lend itself to piecemeal quotation: can only find its reflection in ensemble, ensemble: cannot be rendered by any selection of pretty lines, strange allusions, passages from here and there: it belongs to bulk, mass, unity:’ – and I’ve even curtailed my quotation of him here! ‘Quoting,’ he also said, ‘is a thing that gets to be a disease.’ But there’s no way around quoting him to reassess his work, and if we take to heart his comment that, ‘The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem’, then we’ve no choice but to talk about parts of Whitman’s body of work to see where we are with him, and he with us.

So, thinking of his work as something of an assemblage of disparate parts, I’d like to quote Whitman in what follows with regard to what I might call several states in his work. Not bibliographical states, though that’s more than pertinent – such work has copiously been done, and by people better trained than I. But rather, regions of his writing and thinking and feeling that appear to be, at least in hindsight, where all criticism lives, well-defined and clearly bordered. One such state consists of passages relating to democracy. Another consists of what I can call his ecopoetics, as I’ve mentioned. Then there’s something that’s not so clearly definable, and so may have to exist in our thoughts as a region, or time zone: and that’s his ambivalence about something very specific and resonant: the American Presidency. And I’d like to pay some attention to a state that in the USA is now already receiving heated attention, his views on race.

Recently, for instance, there was an essay by the writer Lavelle Porter entitled ‘Should Walt Whitman Be Cancelled?’ I probably don’t have to explain what we call, back home (back home being the US, Twitter and Facebook), cancel culture; it is what it says on the tin, and more. As Porter notes with regard to the idea that ‘problematic artists’ need to be ‘cancelled’, the idea of ‘cancelling someone’ is really about ‘checking certain problematic and powerful men who we know damn well aren’t going anywhere’. But he adds that ‘these conversations [sic] can be valuable if they lead us toward honest reckoning with the past, and honest reckoning with our culpability in the atrocities of the present’. And he points out that confronting Whitman’s racism is not about erasing him, but rather a form of ‘engaging in communication across time and space that the poet himself encouraged in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”’ – though he may not quite have foreseen Tweet storms. In any case, the thought of ‘cancelling’ Whitman because of his views and writings concerning slavery, imperialism, colonialism and other matters of concern to our own age, is itself a venture on an Old Theme. June Jordan, for example, addressed these views, way back in her 1980 essay, ‘For the Sake of People’s Poetry: Walt Whitman and the Rest of Us’. In Porter’s words, it called attention to ‘Whitman’s outsider status, as queer, working class, uneducated, [and] as a renegade writer who rejected traditional poetic forms’. But the other side of this reverence is the risk of being – or even seeming to be – complacent about or indifferent to the difficulty readers can have reading Whitman through contemporary eyes, as we all must do. A much-admired, much-loved American poet recently declined to write about Whitman for Poetry for this reason, despite objecting to ‘cancel culture’; he said that he wasn’t able to think through the difficulties Whitman poses today without sounding like an apologist for them. To his credit, he readily acknowledged having to navigate a slippery slope as a reader of Whitman, which is an honest vantage point from which to read him. But it feels like a sad state of affairs, and so in effect, what follows is in part an elegy for Whitman’s lost, cancelled, or disappearing readership.

Whether a reader is inclined to cancel, forgive, or simply tell the truth about Whitman’s flaws, when I was reading all of his poetry, I had to notice things he said on certain subjects that were made conspicuously and unavoidably important by these conversations, and in a way, they dominated my attention throughout. Having read the poems previously from what would now be called my position of privilege, this was for me a new way of reading him. Perhaps it’s a new way of reading all poetry. And yet this way of reading has its roots in an old theme of Whitman’s; in his introduction to the 1855 Leaves of Grass, he looks toward the future, saying, at least of America, that ‘the soul of the nation also does its work. No disguise can pass on it… no disguise can conceal from it’. However, if it’s true that, as he also says there, ‘The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it’, our conception of what a poet means to his country has changed as a consequence of the very divisiveness that Whitman thought, after the Civil War, was healing in our nation.

As embodied in a characteristic passage that begins, ‘Come closer to me…’, Whitman’s poetics is founded on the principle that the nation’s work of reading and writing poetry – like all work – happens off the page; and if nothing else, his poems are continual and capacious reminders of the materiality of both his poetics and our politics (in which I include the politics of working life, warfare, and the work of the soul and human emotions): ‘I pass so poorly with paper and types… I must pass with the contact of bodies and souls.’ Whitman didn’t have social media in mind here, but he would certainly have understood and welcomed controversy, contradiction and division. And he’d have loved how much he is quoted, albeit in bits, around the clock there. ‘[I] see and hear you, and what you give and take; / What is there you cannot give and take? […] I see not merely that you are polite or whitefaced,’ he writes revealingly in the earlier text of Leaves. ‘There is something that comes home to one now and perpetually, / It is not what is printed or preached or discussed […] It eludes discussion and print, / It is not to be put in a book [….] It is not in this book […]’.

What’s not in his book is the kind of president that we find in Donald Trump. As has been noted in critical works, Whitman made references to every President he could have known about from George Washington to Benjamin Harrison (who he called a ‘shit ass’, according to Horace Traubel; see Nathan Faries, ‘Whitman and the Presidency’). It’s telling, and sad, that Whitman could say, ‘I never knew a President to totally fail […] In all the lines of Presidents I do not think we have had one absolute failure – I think every President so far has made more or less honest use of the office.’ In particular, Whitman’s worship of Lincoln (‘the Redeemer President’) and to some extent that of his seventh cousin, Ulysses S. Grant, and the great possibilities of presidential power for the nation, obscured the dangerous downside of democracy. This doesn’t mean that Whitman was blind to that dark potential. He’d surely have known of de Tocqueville, who came to America when the poet was twelve years old; but whose interests anticipated Whitman’s (e.g., ‘One must therefore not expect poetry in democratic peoples to live on legends, to be nourished by traditions and ancient memories […] It lacks all these resources; but man remains, and he is enough for it.’ Man ‘will become the principal and almost unique object of poetry for these peoples’) predicted these dangers, of which Whitman would surely himself have been well aware – that democracy can tend to degenerate into ‘soft despotism’ and risks fomenting a ‘tyranny of the majority’. Regardless, he was lucid enough to be able to say: ‘Great is today, and beautiful, / It is good to live in this age […] there never was any better. / Great are the plunges, throes, triumphs, falls of democracy, / Great the reformers, with their lapses and screams […]’. And at least in this passage, admittedly and significantly from ‘To a Foiled European Revolutionaire’, he observes that ‘When liberty goes out of a place, it is not the first to go, nor the second or third to go, / It waits for all the rest to go – it is the last.’

We might ask: what would Whitman’s poetry be like had there been a Trumpian President in a nineteenth­-century White House? It boggles the mind, of course – the twenty-first-century mind, that is; and my reading of the poet’s work unavoidably involved contrasting things Whitman wrote about presidents with what we now know about them. For instance, in the preface to the 1855 Leaves, he talks about the ‘manly tenderness and native elegance of soul…’ the ‘good temper and open-handedness of citizens’, but also ‘the terrible significance of their elections’, in which ‘the President’s taking off his hat to them not they to him’ – a political process he calls a kind of ‘unrhymed poetry’. The ‘largeness of nature or the nation were monstrous without a corresponding largeness and generosity of the spirit of the citizen’, he says. And here one feels that democracy as Whitman experiences and imagines it has let us down. The ‘fullsized men’ of Leaves begat blowhards, pundits and violence. But one might also glimpse the Tocquevillian tyranny now unfolding as a descendent of that taking off of the Presidential hat to the masses. It’s even true now, arguably, that, ‘Of all nations the United States with veins full of poetical stuff most need poets’, as Whitman says; as everybody knows poetry is having a ‘moment’ in Trump’s America. (I don’t actually believe this, but this is what the media repeatedly tells the masses.) ‘The President is up there in the White House for you […] It is not you who are here for him […]’. Congress convenes every year ‘for you’ also, he writes. ‘Their Presidents,’ Whitman says of the citizenry, ‘shall not be their common referee so much as their poets shall.’ And here Whitman evokes an equanimity in poets specifically and humanity in general that isn’t legible at present. In the 1891–92 Leaves, there’s a curiously resonant passage that’s dishearteningly – and revealingly – almost in Trump’s voice. ‘We have had ducking and deprecating about enough, / I show that size is only development. // Have you outstript the rest? are you the President?’

I’m not criticising Whitman; as with every great poet who took an interest in politics (Pound, Yeats, Geoffrey Hill, even), the best of him wins out over the worst, and his expressions of disgust with and excoriation of pre-Lincoln officeholders like the poem, ‘To a President’, illuminate one of those famous contradictions Whitman contained within himself:
ALL you are doing and saying is to America dangled mirages,
You have not learn’d of Nature – of the politics of Nature you
    have not learn’d the great amplitude, rectitude, impartiality,
You have not seen that only such as they are for these States,
And that what is less than they must sooner or later lift off
    from these States.

As he says more clearly in the prose piece ‘The Eighteenth President’: ‘Much waits to be done. First, people need to realise who are poisoning the politics of These States.’ And this is from ‘To the States, To Identify the 16th, 17th, or 18th Presidentiad:’ – ‘WHY reclining, interrogating? Why myself and all drowsing? / What deepening twilight! Scum floating atop of the waters!’ Still, for Whitman the great hero Presidents elevated citizens, especially ones who were like him, poets; the bad Presidents just dragged them down. The poets and Presidents are supposed to embody and unify the nation. After all, as he says in ‘By Blue Ontario’s Shore’:
[…] America is only you and me, / Its power, weapons, testimony, are you and me, / Its crimes lies, thefts, defections, are you and me […]

And –
It is not the earth, it is not America, who is so great,
It is I who am great, or to be great, it is You up there, or any one,
It is to walk rapidly through civilisations, governments, theories,
Through, poems, pageants, shows, to form individuals.

Underneath all, individuals,
I swear nothing is good to me now that ignores individuals!
The American compact is altogether with individuals,
The only government is that which makes minute of individuals,
The whole theory of the universe is directed unerringly to one
    single individual – namely, to You.

For better or worse, we can now see; the problem is that the democrat, as Tocqueville predicted, becomes an autocrat. In the end, even Whitman could not enthuse, and though he wrote a poem on Election Day, November 1884, like a lot of Americans in 2016, he didn’t even vote that day.

*

Still, as Whitman exhorted us in ‘To the States’, Resist much, obey little. ‘Once unquestioning obedience, once fully enslaved, / Once fully enslaved, no nation, state, city of this earth, ever afterward resumes its liberty.’ And here I can relate to him a bit better, by pulling back the focus from the Presidency in which he placed his faith, to democracy itself, in which he held onto hope, as – still – may we. If he believed in anything, Whitman believed in the future. If the planet survives – no small question, and one I’ll take up shortly – what will the poetry of that future be? Astonishingly, Whitman’s answer in an 1881 prose piece (‘Poetry To-Day in America’) was given in the present tense: it is akin, he says there, ‘to outside life and landscape… real sun and gale, and woods and shores – to the elements themselves – not sitting at east in parlor or library […]’. This is prescient, and forms the basis of his own ecopoetics, which sets Man, rather than Nature, as the ‘rule and demesne of poetry’; it’s an ecopoetics not of the exterior but of the interior, and involves ‘the imperative need of a race of giant bards in the future […] to dauntlessly confront greed, injustice, and all the forms of that wiliness and tyranny whose roots never die’. And so ecojustice is another contemporary lens through which I found myself obliged to read Whitman’s poetry, with all its vistas, Democratic and otherwise, and copious, dazzled description.

After nearly a dozen lines, Whitman slips in the give-away plot line of ‘Our Old Feuillage’:
ALWAYS our old feuillage!
Always Florida’s green peninsula – always the priceless delta of
    Louisiana – always the cotton-fields of Alabama and Texas,
Always California’s golden hills and hollows, and the silver moun-
    tains of New Mexico – always soft-breath’d Cuba,
Always the vast slope drain’d by the Southern sea, inseparable with
    the slopes drain’d by the Eastern and Western seas,
The area the eighty-third year of these States, the three and a half
    millions of square miles,
The eighteen thousand miles of sea-coast and bay-coast on the
    main, the thirty thousand miles of river navigation,
The seven millions of distinct families and the same number of
    dwellings – always these, and more, branching forth into
    numberless branches,
Always the free range and diversity – always the continent of
    Democracy;
Always the prairies, pastures, forests, vast cities, travelers,
    Kanada, the snows;
[Etc. etc.]

‘Kosmos’ addresses boldly and directly a cosmos, ‘WHO includes diversity and is Nature, / Who is the amplitude of the earth’, and so on. Yet again we find the link between landscape, the body and the body politic: ‘Who, out of the theory of the earth and of his or her body understands by subtle analogies all other theories, / The theory of a city, a poem, and of the large politics of these States […].’

Who, who, who, each line begins. Repetition signals the relentless force of nature for Whitman, as in Leaves, with page after page of its whos and ‘Where, where, where’s:
Where the mocking-bird sounds his delicious gurgles, cack-
    les, screams, weeps,
Where the hay-rick stands in the barn-yard, where the dry-
    stalks are scatter’d, where the brood-cow waits in the hovel,
Where the bull advances to do his masculine work, where
    the stud to the mare, where the cock is treading the hen,
Where the heifers browse, where geese nip their food with
    short jerks,
Where sun-down shadows lengthen over the limitless and
    lonesome prairie,
Where herds of buffalo make a crawling spread of the square
    miles far and near,
Where the humming-bird shimmers, where the neck of the
    long-lived swan is curving and winding,
Where the laughing-gull scoots by the shore, where she
    laughs her near-human laugh,
Where bee-hives range on a gray bench in the garden half hid
    by the high weeds,
Where band-neck’d partridges roost in a ring on the ground
    with their heads out […]

Make no mistake: this expansive and almost Paul Bunyanesque stance forms a larger-than-life notion of nature that is as idealising, and thus disturbing to us now, as is his other now-controversial views. It’s eerie to read, say, ‘Song of the Redwood Tree’, without coming away daunted, not by the prospect of all those towering redwoods, gravely threatened by global warming, but by the prospect of what he calls a ‘new society at last, proportionate to Nature’. ‘We are Nature, long have we been absent, but now we return, / We become plants, trunks, foliage, roots bark’, he says in ‘We Two, How long We Were Fool’d’, but if that is really so, we’re in big trouble right now. The poem ends: ‘We have voided all but freedom and all but our own joy’, which is all too true. Here as with his views on the Presidency, optimism occludes a darker reality that the poet really does sometimes recognise, as in ‘A Song of the Rolling Earth’:
The earth does not argue,
Is not pathetic, has no arrangements,
Does not scream, haste, persuade, threaten, promise,
Makes no discriminations, has no conceivable failures,
Closes nothing, refuses nothing, shuts none out,
Of all the powers, object, states, it notifies, shuts none out.

If only it were otherwise. But the ecological crisis we find ourselves in is surely due to our being, as he puts it in ‘Birds of Passage’, ‘Master or mistress in [our] own right over Nature…’.

Whitman does concede that the implications of taking on Nature, let alone mastering it, are unfathomable: ‘I perceive I have not really understood anything, not a single object, and that no man ever can, / Nature here in sight of the sea taking advantage of me to dart upon me and sting me, / Because I have dared to open my mouth to sing at all.’ (‘As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life’). There’s even a splendid ambivalence in ‘Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun’, where in part 1 of the poem he asks for Nature (‘Give me the splendid silent sun with all his beams full-dazzling, etc’) and in part 2 sends it packing (‘Keep you splendid silent sun, / Keep your woods O Nature’) – but whether he takes it or leaves it, the human takes precedence. Arguably, the most enduringly successful conflation of nature and the human in Whitman’s work occurs in the gorgeous and enduringly poignant ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed’, though it’s a pastoral elegy and so nature here basically serves as an objective correlative: ‘By one of those caprices that enter and give tinge to events without being at all a part of them, I find myself always reminded of the great tragedy of that day by the sight and odor of these blossoms. It never fails.’ In a way, the most appealing and salutary views of nature in Whitman’s poetry arise in ‘This Compost’. What chemistry, he writes:
[…] That when I recline on the grass I do not catch any dis-
    ease!
Though probably every spear of grass rises out of what was
    once a catching disease.
Now I am terrified at the earth! it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless
    successions of diseased corpses,
It distils such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
It renews with such unwitting looks, its prodigal, annual,
    sumptuous crops,
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leav-
    ings from them at last.

‘What we believe in’, as he says in the very next poem in Leaves – the aptly positioned ‘To a Foil’d European Revolutionaire’, is itself a kind of compost: it ‘waits latent forever through all the continents, / Invites no one, promises nothing, sits in calmness and light, is positive and composed, knows no discouragement, / Waiting patiently, waiting its time’. This composting of his own views on nature and politics leads me to one more state, or theme, I confronted as a bulk reader of Whitman’s poetry. And that’s the state I guess I’ll call the state of migration.

‘See, in my poems immigrants continually coming and landing,’ he reminds the reader in section 18 of ‘Starting from Paumanok’. In this section, the word ‘see’ is repeated, as it is in section 4 of ‘Salut Au Monde’, as ‘hear’ is in section 3. It’s too long to quote, but he hears, among others, Australians, Spanish, English, French, Italians, Syrians, Copts, Arabs, Christians, Cossacks, Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, Hindoos; and sees people from all over the world. And among the things he hears are their ‘liberty songs’. But this is when he’s saluting the world. At home in America, things are different. Turning his senses to the likes of Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia, the songs are not of liberty, but rather, as in ‘Our Old Feuillage’ (why the French word, I wonder?), those of the ‘negros at work in good health’, the ‘slaves busy in the coalings, at the forge, by the furnace-blaze, or at the corn-shucking’. In these places, there’s dancing to the sound of the banjo or fiddle – and the sounds of the mocking-bird, ‘the American mimic, singing in the Great Dismal Swamp’.

The bodies of these American ‘Children of Adam’ are problematically invoked. Though he says that ‘the man’s body is sacred and the woman’s body is sacred / No matter who it is’, he sees:
A man’s body at auction,
(For before the war I often go to the slave-mart and watch the
    sale,)
I help the auctioneer, the sloven does not half know his business.

Gentlemen look on this wonder,
Whatever the bids of the bidders they cannot be high enough
    for it.

                                                   *

A woman’s body at auction.
She too is not only herself, she is the teeming mother of
    mothers,
She is the bearer of them that shall grow and be mates to the
    mothers.

This notion of the sacredness of bodies, like his sense of the sacredness of nature, obtains so long as it’s at man’s disposal, and ultimately depends upon the value it contributes to the American political and economic experiment. Perhaps a great exception to this is Whitman’s veiled by still transparent and powerfully available vision of queer bodies, about which so much has usefully been said in recent years. Recently, for example, Jeremy Lybarger pointed out that despite once describing Leaves as ‘essentially a woman’s book’, Whitman’s was ‘the first great queer gaze in American poetry’; if the poet successfully invoked, or imaginatively invented, any sort of nation, destiny or utopia, it is that of the queer nation. (As a contemporary reader himself, Lybarger is troubled by Whitman’s love for the bodies of young boys, while noting ‘take away the boys, and you’ve lost Leaves of Grass; take away Whitman’s queerness, and you’ve lost his ideal of the United States as a land of possibility’.) But equally striking is Whitman’s inchoate view of Native American bodies, which seems to change from his earliest and more sympathetic, activist years to his last more complacent ones, a span during which violent assaults against native people were an intrinsic part of white settlement of the continent. The decimation of Native bodies and Native cultures was something Whitman was always well aware of, and thought about. But as Ed Folsom notes, his ‘cataloguing’ of their ‘inevitable disappearance – sometimes sentimentalised with grief, sometimes with indifference’, remains a troubling aspect of his imagining and championing of the American experiment. Again, this is striking because he sees empathetic poetry as part of that experiment: ‘Human bodies are words, myriads of words’, as he says in ‘A Song of the Rolling Earth’. But the Native role was to be subsumed within our democracy – at any cost.

So. Here I find myself circling back to where I began, as a reader, one who can’t quite ignore Whitman’s limitations even given the limitations of reading in the way I have described, looking up from the pages of the book into the news of the country in which I, and all of Whitman’s descendants, now live. As Folsom wrote in his essay, ‘Talking Back to Walt Whitman’, ‘He constructed the ideal democratic poet, the absorptive and nondiscriminating future American, as an idealised version of himself, not as an actual reflection of his life, a nineteenth­-century life that was still wrapped in nineteenth­-century attitudes’, despite his best impulses. My litany today therefore has not the purpose of discrediting a great poet, as that cannot be done. Rather, it is to continue his exploration of the very territory he himself set out to document, invoke, memorialise and idealise. He would wish to be, and is, in communication with me, dissenter though I may find myself, feebly and sadly, to be. After all, in ‘I Hear It Was Charged against Me’, he anticipates readers like me:
I HEAR it was charged against me that I sought to
    destroy institutions;
But really I am neither for nor against institutions;
(What indeed have I in common with them? – Or
    what with the destruction of them?)
Only I will establish in the Mannahatta, and in every
    city of These States, inland and seaboard,
And in the fields and woods, and above every keel
    little or large, that dents the water,
Without edifices, or rules, or trustees, or any argument,
The institution of the dear love of comrades.

My disillusionment is not with Walt Whitman, with whom I have been dearly in love since I could first read poetry – but with the America whose coming into maturity he so joyously and hopefully witnessed. We have – at least for now – failed to become the idealised future Americans that Whitman conjured with such capacious and grandiose genius. Perhaps his own heart would sorrow were he with us today – as he, in fact, is. Whitman asked, in his verse, ‘Who is he that would become my follower? / Who would sign himself a candidate for my affections?’ I would. But I let my hand go from his shoulders, as he asked. ‘The way,’ he said, ‘is suspicious, the result uncertain, perhaps destructive’ (‘Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand’).

As I release him now, and depart on my way, let me end with one of his own songs of parting, ‘Years of the Modern’:
YEARS of the modern! years of the unperform’d!
Your horizon rises, I see it parting away for more august
    dramas,
I see not America only, not only Liberty’s nation but other
    nations preparing,
I see tremendous entrances and exits, new combinations,
    the solidarity of races,
I see that force advancing with irresistible power on the
    world’s stage,
(Have the old forces, the old wars, played their parts? are
    the acts suitable to them closed?)
I see Freedom, completely arm’d and victorious and very
    haughty, with Law on one side and Peace on the other,
A stupendous trio all issuing forth against the idea of caste;
What historic denouements are these we so rapidly
    approach?
I see men marching and countermarching by swift
    millions,
I see the frontiers and boundaries of the old aristocracies
    broken,
I see the landmarks of European kings removed,
I see this day the People beginning their landmarks, (all
    others give way;)
Never were such sharp questions ask’d as this day,
Never was average man, his soul, more energetic, more like
    a God,
Lo, how he urges and urges, leaving the masses no rest!
His daring foot is on land and sea everywhere, he colonises
    the Pacific, the archipelagoes,
With the steamship, the electric telegraph, the newspaper,
    the wholesale engines of war,
With these and the world-spreading factories he interlinks
    all geography, all lands;
What whispers are these O lands, running ahead of you,
    passing under the seas?
Are all nations communing? is there going to be but one
    heart to the globe?
Is humanity forming en-masse? for lo, tyrants tremble,
    crowns grow dim,
The earth, restive, confronts a new era, perhaps a general
    divine war,
No one knows what will happen next, such portents fill the
    days and nights;
Years prophetical! the space ahead as I walk, as I vainly try
    to pierce it, is full of phantoms,
Unborn deeds, things soon to be, project their shapes
    around me,
This incredible rush and heat, this strange ecstatic fever of
    dreams
O years!
Your dreams O years, how they penetrate through me! (I
    know not whether I sleep or wake;)
The perform’d America and Europe grow dim, retiring in
    shadow behind me,
The unperform’d, more gigantic than ever, advance,
    advance upon me.

Now is the time, just as it has always really been the time, for new ventures on Walt Whitman’s old and enduring themes.


Note: I write as a reader, only. For the responses of poets to Whitman from his time to ours, please see ‘Talking Back to Walt Whitman’ by Ed Folsom in the volume, Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song (Holy Cow! Press, 3rd edition, 2019).

Jeremy Lybarger’s essay, ‘Walt Whitman’s Boys’, can be found online at the
Boston Review.

This article is taken from PN Review 249, Volume 46 Number 1, September - October 2019.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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