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 cleanhair’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