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This article is taken from PN Review 21, Volume 8 Number 1, September - October 1981.

Reading the Americans: Apart and Together Jeffrey Wainwright

THAT there is a lout in Walt Whitman, as C. H. Sisson asserts (Parnassus, Spring/Summer 1978) is something few of his admirers would deny. The loiterer, the loafer, the awkward fellow, strolls through Song of Myself and much of his work, most notoriously sniffing his own armpits and generally displaying a crudity which, as Ezra Pound said, 'is an exceeding great stench'. This character is, as we say in England, all mouth. But there are other characters called Walt Whitman in that poetry. For ever identifying and expanding into other experience, there are yet moments of acute self-consciousness and an awareness of almost culpable detachment. 'I witness the corpse with its dabbled hair, I note where the pistol has fallen.' The adjective 'dabbled' with its suggestion of damp and of being messed with, is an instance of poetic precision not often enough associated with Whitman, though the reader's admiration of such delineation is at once questioned by the police-like impersonality of the evidential 'witness' and 'note'. Whitman is a less obtrusive observer, fascinated and generous, in the myriad impressions of common life that make up his long descriptions, lines which would furnish a whole poem for the succeeding miniaturists of imagism. There is too the compassionate observer of Drum Taps, never wholly at ease with his role as note-taker, but sadly faithful in the evocations of such poems as 'A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest' and 'Cavalry Crossing a Ford', and brave too in the beautiful rhetorical poem 'Reconciliation' ...


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