The OF Blog: Walt Whitman, Poetry and Prose

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Walt Whitman, Poetry and Prose


I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond
     to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the
     charge of the soul.

Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own
     bodies conceal themselves?
And if those who defile the living are as bad as they
     who defile the dead?
And if the body does not do full as much as the soul?
And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?

– opening section of "I Sing the Body Electric" (p. 250, Library of America edition)

Every so often, there comes along a literary genius who makes a genre sui generis.  Shakespeare, talented as he was, was in his lifetime merely one of several gifted English playwrights.  Goethe was a master of many trades, yet his impact on prose, drama, and poetry, while profound, did not mark as much of a break with German literary tradition as did the singular work of a 19th century American poet, Walt Whitman.  What Whitman accomplished over the course of thirty-six years of revisions of his seminal Leaves of Grass is truly remarkable.  Although there were other, earlier American poets, such as Edgar Allan Poe, who created memorable poems, there were none who captured the collective ethos of the burgeoning American republic to the depth and breadth of Whitman.

Reading Leaves of Grass is more of an experience than a passive activity.  It does not follow older poetic traditions of metre and rhyme; it often contains clashes of styles and insights within its verses (not for nothing does Whitman state in section 51 of "Song of Myself" the following:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.) (p. 246))
 Yet there is something within this occasionally bombastic collection that makes such poetic conventions seem restrictive, if not outmoded.  Whitman's poems are at once personal and epic, yet without an over-reliance upon Greco-Roman or English historical themes.  One example of this can be found in "O Captain!  My Captain!," which dealt with the assassination of President Lincoln.  The opening stanza is full of metaphors for his leadership during the American Civil War, yet there is nothing that immediately rises to the grandiose:

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. (p. 467)

In reading this poem, at first I saw not a myth, not an Olympian figure that might be found in the Romantic poetry of the 19th century, but a man, one chained by duty to something that afflicts him.  Lincoln's conduct of the war, this "vessel grim and daring," guided by his steady, unrelenting demeanor, is presented in a vivid, yet grounded fashion; Lincoln is merely a worker, albeit one who has achieved greatness not due so much to any preternatural gifts but because of a steadiness to him that reflects the character of the young, divided nation that he helped guide through the turmoils of the War of Secession. 

Yet as moving of an elegy as "O Captain! My Captain" is (and certainly it has been referenced frequently in the following 150 years), I think it is an outlier compared to the other poems that appeared in the various editions of Leaves of Grass.  It (and by extension, the other poems in the section "Memories of President Lincoln") is more somber, less full of the joie de vivre found in earlier sections, such as the more erotic Calamus poems.  Those, such as "We Two Boys Together Clinging," in content and form presage the works of the Beat Generation a century later:

We two boys together clinging,
One the other never leaving,
Up and down the roads going, North and South excursions making,
Power enjoying, elbows stretching, fingers clutching,
Arm'd and fearless, eating, drinking, sleeping, loving,
No law less than ourselves owning, sailing, soldiering, thieving, threatening,
Misers, menials, priests alarming, air breathing, water drinking, on the
     turf or the sea-beach dancing,
Cities wrenching, ease scorning, statutes mocking, feebleness chasing,
Fulfilling our foray. (p. 282)
This perhaps is not one of Whitman's more famous poems, but within this litany of rakish acts I sensed a spirit of raw newness, something that isn't shaped by societal conventions or past models as much as it is testing those bounds, yearning to burst free and to live and by so living create experiences different from those that came before.  This yearning quality in Whitman's poetry does not always work (there are several poems that feel more like sketches of great works than anything substantial), but I would argue that even these relative "failures" make Leaves of Grass a staggering work, precisely because we can see the poet's work not as a polished work but instead as something whose flaws and virtues have blended together to create something that feels almost alive, replete with its own literary warts and scars.

The second half of Poetry and Prose, Whitman's numerous essays, letters, and various ruminations on contemporary events and the experiences that he distilled later into his poetry, is a fascinating read in its own light.  Whitman does not shy away from making strong comments about other writers (see his comment on Edgar Allan Poe in "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads):

Toward the last I had among much else look'd over Edgar Poe's poems – of which I was not an admirer, tho' I always saw that beyond their limited range of melody (like perpetual chimes of music bells, ringing from lower b flat up to g) they were melodious expressions, and perhaps never excell'd ones, of certain pronounc'd phases of human morbidity. (The Poetic area is very spacious – has room for all – has so many mansions!)  But I was repaid in Poe's prose by the idea that (at any rate for our occasions, our day) there can be no such thing as a long poem.  The same thought had been haunting my mind before, but Poe's argument, though short, work'd the sum out and proved it to me. (p. 665)

But more so than his literary commentaries Whitman's diary of his time as a nurse during the Civil War makes his prose works a worthy read in their own right.  He notes several conversations with wounded soldiers from both sides of the conflict, with several entries presenting in just a few lines deep insights into these soldiers' lives and their world-views.  Almost the entirety of Specimen Days is fascinating to read and consider at length.

Poetry and Prose is ultimately one of those works that is virtually impossible to review in depth in a single article under 2000 words.  There are so many poems that are worthy of deeper investigation than was possible in a short review such as this.  In composing this post, I decided that perhaps it would be better to just quote a few snippets of works that intrigued me and to discuss briefly things within them that I liked.  Hopefully those who have not read Whitman's poetry (or at least not beyond the usual suspects reproduced in literature survey anthologies) will find themselves wanting to read more.  Those who have read and enjoyed his works but who have not yet read his prose (such as myself before earlier this year) will want now to investigate those as well.  Whitman certainly is an American literary treasure, one who consciously refused to follow contemporary literary conventions.  In breaking with the literary past, Whitman ended up creating works that differed significantly from those of his peers and his influence on American poets over the past 160 years has been immeasurable.  Poetry and Prose is an excellent one-volume collection of his literary output, as it is an edition that presents the entire breadth and depth of Whitman's writing without overwhelming readers with too many citations and footnotes.  It certainly is worth the time and money spent.

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