Why Poets Love Walt Whitman

(In their introduction to an anthology of 100 poems, Visiting Walt: Poems Inspired by the Life & Work of Walt Whitman, the editors, Sheila Coghill and Thom Tammaro, explain his enduring appeal. Here’s an excerpt.)

1865. Leaves of Grass. Has there even been a year or a book—before or after—so important, so vital, to the life of American poetry? And Walt Whitman. Has there ever been a poet—before or after—so central to the life of American poetry? Consider him sensational, mystical, erotic, and expansive; consider him the good gray poet, the moral crusader, the prophet of Democracy, and the enemy of social injustice; or consider him libertarian, lecherous, homosexual, perverted, unsavory, inconsistent, passionate, macho, masculine, feminine, androgynous, rebellious, ideological, controversial, or subversive (of course, he is all of these and he was aware of these assesments in his own time)–there is no getting around his genius for liberating poetry from the stultifying “emotional slither” (Pound’s indictment of Victorian poetry) of the nineteenth century. Whitman is the architect of American vers libre. As Annie Finch has written in her intriguing study The Ghost of Meter: Culture and Prosody in American Free Verse, “For American poets in general, Longfellow’s hexameters [in Evangeline] and Whitman’s triple rhythms were crucial in establishing a new freedom of resources, an enlarged metrical vocabulary. Remarkably quickly the ‘new’ metrical mode came to carry a connotative weight capable of balancing the four centuries of iambic pentameter’s hegemony.” Whitman holds the door open for generations of writers to pass through as they “simmer” their way toward true poetry. This anthology, we hope, represents a diverse group of writers who have come to terms with their “pig-headed father.”

Perhaps Walt Whitman remains imprinted in our minds because he is everywhere. He was never camera shy: we have over 130 photographic images of him, from the swaggering, youthful portraits of the 1840s to the pensive, meditative good gray poet images of the late 1880s and early 1890s. And perhaps he haunts us because he is likely the first recorded American poet. On an 1890 wax cylinder recording, a voice thought be Whitman’s reads his six-line poem “America” (asserting as always that America is the “Centre of equal daughters, equal sons”).

Whitman is the democratic poet par excellence and is everywhere accessible in his democratic immanence. Jorge Luis Borges recalls, “The smell of coffee and of newspapers /. . . lazily he fills / The weary mirror with his gaze. His eyes / See a face. Unsurprised he thinks: That face / Is me. . . . / His voice declares: / I’m almost gone and yet my verses scan / Life and its splendor. I was Walt Whitman.” And Pablo Neruda reconstructs a liberating first encounter with the poet: “I don’t remember / at what age / or where, / whether in the great wet South / or on the terrifying / coast, . . . / I touched a hand and it was / the hand of Walt Whitman.” Erica Jong captures Whitman’s ecstasy of being: “Unhappiness is cheap . . . / I say to hell with the analysts of minus & plus, / the life-shrinkers, the diminishers of joy. / I say to hell with anyone / who would suck on misery / like a pacifier / in a toothless mouth. / I say to hell with gloom.”

Never deliberately inscrutable, Whitman equally inspires imagining in a variety of contexts from the irreverent to the sublime. Thomas Lux memorializes Whitman’s dying wish as a bungled autopsy: “At his request, after death, his brain was removed / for science, phrenology, to study, and / as the mortuary assistant carried it (I supposed / in a jar but I hope cupped / in his hands) across the lab’s stone floor, he dropped it. . . . dropped and shattered, a cosmos, / on the floor. . . .” Frederico Garcia Lorca lovingly resurrects Whitman from a “New York of mud, . . . of wire and death” in his “Ode to Walt Whitman,” chanting “Not a single moment, old beautiful Walt Whitman, / have I stopped seeing your beard full of butterflies,” and sees him as an “old man beautiful as the cloud / who cried like a bird / with his sex pierced by a needle, / enemy of the satyr, / enemy of the vine / and lover of bodies under the heavy cloth.” And our contemporary, Sherman Alexie, envisions Whitman watching your Indian boys playing basketball: “stretches his calf-muscles / . . . His huge beard is ridiculous on the reservation / … He wants to run. He hardly has the patience to wait for his turn. / ‘What’s the score?’ he asks. . . . / Basketball is like this for Walt Whitman. He watches these Indian boys / as if they were the last bodies on earth. Every body is brown! / Walt Whitman shakes because he believes in God. / Walt Whitman dreams of the Indian boy who will defend him.”

Wildness multiplies in imaging Walt Whitman, for all that we can know about him and his poetry is what we can know about ourselves. Aliki Barnstone’s “Wild With It,” for example: “I am your underground river, flowing in the dark / beneath the earth’s skin, and I am your blood. / . . . I am a Greek island redolent with oregano and thyme, / dry salt air. I am the sea voluptuous against your naked thighs, / the sunlight drying the blond hairs on your legs and arms. / . . . I am your world wide web, I am your easy chair— / . . . I am I am I am. And in you I am, for you erase / and make new our two conjugating shapes.” Whitman is unruly, impertinent; he flaunts yet embraces all moods. If, as Howard Nemerov states in “A Modern Poet,” Whitman “given a Ford / Foundation Fellowship, he’d buy a Ford,” Sharon Olds’s “Nurse Whitman” sees him “move between the soldiers’ cots / the way I move among my dead / their white bodies laid out in line. / . . . You write their letters home. I take the dictation / . . . They die and you still feel them.”

Ever catalyzing, whimsically or calculatingly unapologetic, we cannot know, except to know that Whitman deliberately taunts us with the confidence of knowing so much about the world, the body, the self, the nation, the cosmos. Inevitably then, Whitman’s vastness makes itself known and felt in our poetry as the all-encompassing corrective to the Puritan via negativa transplanted in the American psyche. Transfiguring the shadows of democracy by saying them into being, Whitman invites America to examine its own boot soles, articulates a democracy so radical it leaves no room for sentimental patriotism, embraces every marginalized individual so thoroughly and in such a militant poetic voice writ large by shocking imagery that we often lose sight of the fact that his method was often a cultivated, hyperbolic posturing. He believed, as Whitman critic and biographer David Reynolds states in Beneath the American Renaissance, that “social corruptions . . . could be overcome only by passionate defiance. ‘Give us turbulence, give us excitement [Whitman] wrote.” And Whitman gives writers this excitement, this permission to go wild, to “turn and live with the animals.”

Ever endearing, dear Walt salutes us while we salute him! Lynn Emanuel expresses this impulse that many writers have, this mirroring need to acknowledge Whitman in their own reflections: “from the back streets of Pittsburgh / from the little lit window in the attic / of my mind where I sit brooding and smoking / like a hot iron, Walt, I salute you! / Here we are. In Love! In a Poem! / . . . My every dark and slanderous thought. Walt I salute you!” Whitman is dear to us because he is us and he lets us be ourselves. Anyone who aspires to write can at least pretend to be Walt Whitman as a starting point—without embarrassment and without self-consciousness! Strangely, or logically, we are all “one sap and one root” when we enter Whitman’s world.

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