For other uses, see Leaves of Grass (disambiguation).
Leaves of Grass is a poetry collection by the American poetWalt Whitman (1819–1892). Although the first edition was published in 1855, Whitman spent most of his professional life writing and re-writing Leaves of Grass, revising it multiple times until his death. This resulted in vastly different editions over four decades—the first, a small book of twelve poems and the last, a compilation of over 400.
The poems of Leaves of Grass are loosely connected, with each representing Whitman's celebration of his philosophy of life and humanity. This book is notable for its discussion of delight in sensual pleasures during a time when such candid displays were considered immoral. Where much previous poetry, especially English, relied on symbolism, allegory, and meditation on the religious and spiritual, Leaves of Grass (particularly the first edition) exalted the body and the material world. Influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalist movement, itself an offshoot of Romanticism, Whitman's poetry praises nature and the individual human's role in it. However, much like Emerson, Whitman does not diminish the role of the mind or the spirit; rather, he elevates the human form and the human mind, deeming both worthy of poetic praise.
With one exception, the poems do not rhyme or follow standard rules for meter and line length. Among the poems in the collection are "Song of Myself", "I Sing the Body Electric", and "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking". Later editions included Whitman's elegy to the assassinatedPresidentAbraham Lincoln, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd".
Leaves of Grass was highly controversial during its time for its explicit sexual imagery, and Whitman was subject to derision by many contemporary critics. Over time, however, the collection has infiltrated popular culture and been recognized as one of the central works of American poetry.
Publication history and origin
Leaves of Grass has its genesis in an essay called The Poet by Ralph Waldo Emerson, published in 1844, which expressed the need for the United States to have its own new and unique poet to write about the new country's virtues and vices. Whitman, reading the essay, consciously set out to answer Emerson's call as he began working on the first edition of Leaves of Grass. Whitman, however, downplayed Emerson's influence, stating, "I was simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil".
On May 15, 1855, Whitman registered the title Leaves of Grass with the clerk of the United States District Court, Southern District of New Jersey, and received its copyright. The first edition was published on July 4, 1855, in Brooklyn, at the printing shop of two Scottish immigrants, James and Andrew Rome, whom Whitman had known since the 1840s. The shop was located at Fulton Street (now Cadman Plaza West) and Cranberry Street, now the site of apartment buildings that bear Whitman's name. Whitman paid for and did much of the typesetting for the first edition himself. The book did not include the author's name, and instead offered an engraving by Samuel Hollyer depicting Whitman in work clothes and a jaunty hat, arms at his side. Early advertisements for the first edition appealed to "lovers of literary curiosities" as an oddity. Sales on the book were few, but Whitman was not discouraged.
The first edition was very small, collecting only twelve unnamed poems in 95 pages. Whitman once said he intended the book to be small enough to be carried in a pocket. "That would tend to induce people to take me along with them and read me in the open air: I am nearly always successful with the reader in the open air", he explained. About 800 were printed, though only 200 were bound in its trademark green cloth cover. The only American library known to have purchased a copy of the first edition was in Philadelphia. The poems of the first edition, which were given titles in later issues, were "Song of Myself", "A Song for Occupations", "To Think of Time", "The Sleepers", "I Sing the Body Electric", "Faces", "Song of the Answerer", "Europe: The 72d and 73d Years of These States", "A Boston Ballad", "There Was a Child Went Forth", "Who Learns My Lesson Complete?", and "Great Are the Myths".
The title Leaves of Grass was a pun. "Grass" was a term given by publishers to works of minor value, and "leaves" is another name for the pages on which they were printed.
Whitman sent a copy of the first edition of Leaves of Grass to Emerson, who had inspired its creation. In a letter to Whitman, Emerson wrote, "I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed." He went on, "I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy."
There have been held to be either six or nine editions of Leaves of Grass, the count depending on how they are distinguished. Scholars who hold that an edition is an entirely new set of type will count the 1855, 1856, 1860, 1867, 1871–72, and 1881 printings. Others add in the 1876, 1888–89, and 1891–92 (the "deathbed edition") releases.
It was Emerson's positive response to the first edition that inspired Whitman to quickly produce a much-expanded second edition in 1856, now 384 pages with a cover price of a dollar. This edition included a phrase from Emerson's letter, printed in gold leaf: "I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career." Emerson later took offense that this letter was made public and became more critical of the work.
The publishers of the 1860 edition, Thayer and Eldridge, declared bankruptcy shortly after its publication and were almost unable to pay Whitman. "In regard to money matters", they wrote, "we are very short ourselves and it is quite impossible to send the sum". Whitman received only $250, and the original plates made their way to Boston publisher Horace Wentworth. When the 456-page book was finally issued, Whitman said, "It is quite 'odd', of course", referring to its appearance: it was bound in orange cloth with symbols like a rising sun with nine spokes of light and a butterfly perched on a hand. Whitman claimed that the butterfly was real in order to foster his image as being "one with nature". In fact, the butterfly was made of cloth and was attached to his finger with wire.
The 1867 edition was intended to be, according to Whitman, "a new & much better edition of Leaves of Grass complete — that unkillable work!" He assumed it would be the final edition. The edition, which included the Drum-Taps section, its Sequel, and the new Songs before Parting, was delayed when the binder went bankrupt and its distributing firm failed. When it was finally printed, it was a simple edition and the first to omit a picture of the poet.
In 1879, Richard Worthington purchased the electrotype plates and began printing and marketing unauthorized copies.
The eighth edition of 1889 was little changed from the 1881 version, although it was more embellished and featured several portraits of Whitman. The biggest change was the addition of an "Annex" of miscellaneous additional poems.
As 1891 came to a close, Whitman prepared a final edition of Leaves of Grass, writing to a friend upon its completion, "L. of G. at last complete — after 33 y'rs of hackling at it, all times & moods of my life, fair weather & foul, all parts of the land, and peace & war, young & old". This last version of Leaves of Grass was published in 1892 and is referred to as the "deathbed edition". In January 1892, two months before Whitman's death, an announcement was published in the New York Herald:
Walt Whitman wishes respectfully to notify the public that the book Leaves of Grass, which he has been working on at great intervals and partially issued for the past thirty-five or forty years, is now completed, so to call it, and he would like this new 1892 edition to absolutely supersede all previous ones. Faulty as it is, he decides it as by far his special and entire self-chosen poetic utterance.
By the time this last edition was completed, Leaves of Grass had grown from a small book of 12 poems to a hefty tome of almost 400 poems. As the volume changed, so did the pictures that Whitman used to illustrate them—the last edition depicts an older Whitman with a full beard and jacket, appearing more sophisticated and wise.
Whitman's collection of poems in Leaves of Grass is usually interpreted according to the individual poems contained within its individual editions. The editions were of varying length, each one larger and augmented from the previous version, until the final edition reached over 400 poems. Discussion is often focused also upon the major editions of Leaves of Grass often associated with the very early respective versions of 1855 and 1856, to the 1860 edition, and finally to editions very late in Whitman's life which also included the significant Whitman poem "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd". The 1855 edition is particularly notable for the inclusion of the two poems "Song of Myself" and "The Sleepers". The 1856 edition included the notable Whitman poem "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry". In the 1860 edition, Whitman further added the major poems "A Word Out of the Sea" and "As I Ebb'd With the Ocean of Life". The specific interpretation of many of Whitman's major poems may be found in the articles associated with those individual poems.
Particularly in "Song of Myself", Whitman emphasized an all-powerful "I" who serves as narrator. The "I" tries to relieve both social and private problems by using powerful affirmative cultural images. The emphasis on American culture helped reach Whitman's intention of creating a distinctly American epic poem comparable to the works of Homer. In a constantly changing culture, Whitman's literature has an element of timelessness that appeals to the American idea of democracy and equality, producing the same experience and the same feelings within people living centuries apart. Originally written at a time of significant urbanization in America, Leaves of Grass responds to the impact urbanization has on the masses. However, the title metaphor of grass indicates a pastoral vision of rural idealism. The poem "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" is Whitman's elegy to Lincoln after his death. Whitman was a believer in phrenology (in the 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass he includes the phrenologist among those he describes as "the lawgivers of poets"), and borrowed its term "adhesiveness", which referred to the propensity for friendship and camaraderie.
Whitman edited, revised, and republished Leaves of Grass many times before his death, and over the years his focus and ideas were not static. One critic has identified three major "thematic drifts" in Leaves of Grass: the period 1855 to 1859, from 1859 to 1865, and from 1866 to his death. In the first period, 1855 to 1859, his major work is "Song of Myself" and it exemplifies his prevailing love for freedom. "Freedom in nature, nature which is perfect in time and place and freedom in expression, leading to the expression of love in its sensuous form." The second period, from 1859 to 1865, paints the picture of a more melancholic, sober poet. In poems like "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" and "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd", the prevailing themes are of love and of death. From 1866 to his death, the ideas Whitman presented in his second period had experienced an evolution. His focus on death had grown to a focus on immortality, the major theme of this period. Whitman became more conservative in his old age, and had come to believe that the importance of law exceeded the importance of freedom. His materialistic view of the world became far more spiritual, and Whitman believed that life had no meaning outside of the context of God’s plan.
While Whitman has famously proclaimed his poetry to be "Nature without check with original energy" in "Song of Myself", scholars have discovered that Whitman borrowed from a number of sources for Leaves of Grass. He, for instance, lifted phrases from popular newspapers dealing with Civil War battles for his Drum-Taps and condensed a chapter from a popular science book into his poem "The World Below the Brine".
Critical response and controversy
When the book was first published, Walt Whitman was fired from his job at the Department of the Interior, after Secretary of the InteriorJames Harlan read it and said he found it offensive. Poet John Greenleaf Whittier was said to have thrown his 1855 edition into the fire.Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote, "It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote Leaves of Grass, only that he did not burn it afterwards."The Saturday Press printed a thrashing review that advised its author to commit suicide. Critic Rufus Wilmot Griswold reviewed Leaves of Grass in the November 10, 1855, issue of The Criterion, calling it "a mass of stupid filth", and categorized its author as a filthy free lover. Griswold also suggested, in Latin, that Whitman was guilty of "that horrible sin not to be mentioned among Christians", one of the earliest public accusations of Whitman's homosexuality. Griswold's intensely negative review almost caused the publication of the second edition to be suspended. Whitman included the full review, including the innuendo, in a later edition of Leaves of Grass.
An early review of the first publication focused on the persona of the anonymous poet, calling him a loafer "with a certain air of mild defiance, and an expression of pensive insolence on his face". Another reviewer viewed the work as an odd attempt at reviving old Transcendental thoughts, "the speculations of that school of thought which culminated at Boston fifteen or eighteen years ago." Emerson approved of the work in part because he considered it a means of reviving Transcendentalism, though even he urged Whitman to tone down the sexual imagery in 1860.
On March 1, 1882, Bostondistrict attorney Oliver Stevens wrote to Whitman's publisher, James R. Osgood, that Leaves of Grass constituted "obscene literature". Urged by the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice, his letter said: "We are of the opinion that this book is such a book as brings it within the provisions of the Public Statutes respecting obscene literature and suggest the propriety of withdrawing the same from circulation and suppressing the editions thereof." Stevens demanded the removal of the poems "A Woman Waits for Me" and "To a Common Prostitute", as well as changes to "Song of Myself", "From Pent-Up Aching Rivers", "I Sing the Body Electric", "Spontaneous Me", "Native Moments", "The Dalliance of the Eagles", "By Blue Ontario's Shore", "Unfolded Out of the Folds", "The Sleepers", and "Faces".
Whitman rejected the censorship, writing to Osgood, "The list whole & several is rejected by me, & will not be thought of under any circumstances." Osgood refused to republish the book and returned the plates to Whitman when suggested changes and deletions were ignored. The poet found a new publisher, Rees Welsh & Company, which released a new edition of the book in 1882. Whitman believed the controversy would increase sales, which proved true. Its banning in Boston, for example, became a major scandal and it generated much publicity for Whitman and his work. Though it was also banned by retailers like Wanamaker's in Philadelphia, this version went through five editions of 1,000 copies each. Its first printing, released on July 18, sold out in a day.
Not all responses were negative, however. Critic William Michael Rossetti considered Leaves of Grass a classic along the lines of the works of William Shakespeare and Dante Alighieri. A woman from Connecticut named Susan Garnet Smith wrote to Whitman to profess her love for him after reading Leaves of Grass and even offered him her womb should he want a child. Though he found much of the language "reckless and indecent", critic and editor George Ripley believed "isolated portions" of Leaves of Grass radiated "vigor and quaint beauty".
Whitman firmly believed he would be accepted and embraced by the populace, especially the working class. Years later, he would regret not having toured the country to deliver his poetry directly by lecturing. "If I had gone directly to the people, read my poems, faced the crowds, got into immediate touch with Tom, Dick, and Harry instead of waiting to be interpreted, I'd have had my audience at once," he claimed.
Leaves of Grass's status as one of the most important collections of American poetry has meant that over time various groups and movements have used it, and Whitman's work in general, to further their own political and social purposes. For example:
- In the first half of the 20th century, the popular Little Blue Book series introduced Whitman’s work to a wider audience than ever before. A series that backed socialist and progressive viewpoints, the publication connected the poet’s focus on the common man to the empowerment of the working class.
- During World War II, the American government distributed for free much of Whitman's poetry to their soldiers, in the belief that his celebrations of the American Way would inspire the people tasked with protecting it.
- Whitman’s work has also been claimed in the name of racial equality. In a preface to the 1946 anthology I Hear the People Singing: Selected Poems of Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes wrote that Whitman's "all-embracing words lock arms with workers and farmers, Negroes and whites, Asiatics and Europeans, serfs, and free men, beaming democracy to all".
- Similarly, a 1970 volume of Whitman's poetry published by the United States Information Agency describes Whitman as a man who will "mix indiscriminately" with the people. The volume, which was presented for an international audience, attempted to present Whitman as representative of an America that accepts people of all groups.
Nevertheless, Whitman has been criticized for the nationalism expressed in Leaves of Grass and other works. Nathanael O’Reilly in an essay on "Walt Whitman’s Nationalism in the First Edition of Leaves of Grass" claims that "Whitman’s imagined America is arrogant, expansionist, hierarchical, racist and exclusive; such an America is unacceptable to Native Americans, African-Americans, immigrants, the disabled, the infertile, and all those who value equal rights." 
In popular culture
- Leaves of Grass plays a prominent role in the American television series Breaking Bad. Episode 5.8 (titled "Gliding Over All" after poem 271 in the book), pulls together many of the series' references to Leaves of Grass, such as the fact that Walter White has the same initials as Walt Whitman (as noted in episode 4.4, "Bullet Points", and made more salient in "Gliding Over All"), that leads Hank Schrader to realize Walt is Heisenberg. Numerous reviewers have analyzed and discussed the various connections among Walt Whitman/Leaves of Grass/"Gliding Over All", Walt, and the show.
- In the BYUtv series Granite Flats Season 3, Episode 8, Timothy gives Madeline a first-edition copy of Leaves of Grass as a Christmas gift. Many of Walt Whitman's poems are quoted in season 2 and 3.
- In The Simpsons Season 25, Episode 13, Lisa Simpson and Sideshow Bob discover their mutual interest in Walt Whitman after Sideshow Bob quotes a poem from Leaves of Grass and Lisa finishes the quote.
- Other uses
- ^Miller, 57
- ^Reynolds, 82
- ^ abKaplan, 198
- ^Reynolds, 310
- ^"A Gesture in Cranberry Street". Brooklyn Daily Eagle. June 1, 1931. p. 18. Retrieved 27 October 2015 – via Newspapers.com.
- ^"MTA Neighborhood Maps: Downtown Brooklyn & Borough Hall"(PDF). mta.info. Metropolitan Transportation Authority. 2015. Retrieved 2 August 2015.
- ^ abCallow, 227
- ^Reynolds, 305
- ^ abLoving, 179
- ^ abcReynolds, 352
- ^Reynolds, 311
- ^NNelson, Randy F. (1981). The Almanac of American Letters. Los Altos, California: William Kaufmann, Inc. p. 144. ISBN 0-86576-008-X.
- ^ abcMiller, 27
- ^ ab"Leaves of Grass". World Digital Library. 1855. Retrieved 2013-08-03.
- ^Callow, 236
- ^Reynolds, 343
- ^Reynolds, 405
- ^Kaplan, 250
- ^"Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass". The Library of Congress Exhibitions: American Treasures.
- ^Reynolds, 474
- ^Loving, 314
- ^Reynolds, 475
- ^Miller, 55
- ^Reynolds, 586
- ^ abcMiller, 36
- ^Kaplan, 51
- ^Reynolds, 324
- ^Miller, 155
- ^Fisher, Philip (1999). Still the New World: American Literature in a Culture of Creative Destruction. Harvard University Press. p. 66.
- ^Reynolds, 332
- ^Mackey, Nathaniel. "Phrenological Whitman", Conjunctions, 29, Fall 1997 http://www.conjunctions.com/archives/c29-nm.htm
- ^ ab"A study of thematic drift in Whitman's Leaves of Grass". www.academia.edu. Retrieved 2015-11-13.
- ^Genoways, Ted. "Civil War Poems in 'Drum-Taps' and 'Memories of President Lincoln,'" A Companion to Walt Whitman, ed. Donald D. Kummings. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006: 522-538.
- ^""The Ever-Changing Nature of the Sea": Whitman's Absorption of Maximilian Schele de Vere". Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 30 (2013), 57-77. Retrieved 2016-09-01.
- ^Broaddus, Dorothy C. (1999). Genteel Rhetoric: Writing High Culture in Nineteenth-Century Boston. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press. p. 76. ISBN 1-57003-244-0.
- ^"Loving Whitman". The New York Times.
- ^ abLoving, 184
- ^Reynolds, 347
- ^ abLoving, 185
- ^Reynolds, 348
- ^Loving, 186
- ^Reynolds, 194
- ^Loving, 414
- ^"Rare Books and Special Collections". University of South Carolina Libraries. Retrieved 5 July 2016.
- ^"The Walt Whitman Controversy: A Lost Document". VQR Online. Retrieved 5 July 2016.
- ^Loving, 416
- ^Reynolds, 543
- ^Loving, 317
- ^Reynolds, 404
- ^Crowe, Charles (1967). George Ripley: Transcendentalist and Utopian Socialist. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press. p. 246.
- ^Reynolds, 339
- ^ ab"Whitman in Selected Anthologies: The Politics of His Afterlife". VQR Online. Retrieved November 30, 2015.
- ^Nathanael O’Reilly, Imagined America: Walt Whitman’s Nationalism in the First Edition of Leaves of Grass, Irish Journal of American Studies
- ^"Tropico - Single by Lana Del Rey on iTunes". iTunes. Retrieved 5 July 2016.
- ^Weinert-kendt, Rob (2016-01-06). "Lauren Gunderson on 'I and You,' a Play With an Explosive Twist". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-10-31.
- ^Folsom, Ed. "In Memorium: Robert Strasburg 1915-2003". Walt Whitman Quarterly Review. University of Iowa Press, Volume #21, November 3, 2004: 189–191
- ^"Tropico - Single by Lana Del Rey on iTunes". iTunes. Retrieved 5 July 2016.
- ^Ryan, Maureen (3 September 2012). "'Breaking Bad' Finale: Poetic Justice". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 25 May 2017.
- ^Caldwell, Stephanie. "'Breaking Bad' Takes Mid-Season Break". StarPulse. Retrieved 5 July 2016.
- ^Thier, Dave (12 September 2012). "Breaking Bad "Gliding Over All:" There's No Redemption for Walter White". Forbes.com. Retrieved 10 September 2012.
- ^"All Truths Wait in All Things". BYUtv. 4 April 2015. Retrieved 5 July 2016.
- ^"Special Report: Clinton Accused". The Washington Post. Retrieved 5 July 2016.
- Callow, Philip (1992). From Noon to Starry Night: A Life of Walt Whitman. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee. ISBN 0-929587-95-2.
- Kaplan, Justin (1979). Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0-671-22542-1.
- Loving, Jerome (1999). Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-22687-9.
- Miller, James E., Jr. (1962). Walt Whitman. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc.
- Reynolds, David S. (1995). Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 0-679-76709-6.
Walt Whitman’s Preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, now celebrating its sesquicentennial, is the strongest advice I know against Language Poetry, now exerting a force unequal to its achievement in current American poetry. For all its virtues, including a radical emphasis on sonic qualities of ever-various, orgiastic and intoxicating American language, and what Paul Hoover terms its "challenge to the male-dominant hierarchy" and its "actuality in words," Language Poetry’s denunciation of the human behind the words is its dangerous (and, likely for its practitioners, enticing) legacy.1 As Jorie Graham states, one often sees in language poets "the dismantling of articulate speech," the goal of which appears (distressingly) to be " a language free of its user."2 If any poet ever wished to be irrefutably associated, inseparably married to his use of language, it was the body and soul of Walt Whitman.
Since perhaps the mid-eighties, language poetry has gained influence over younger poets, especially those graduating from creative writing programs and publishing in literary journals. The direction that influence has taken has been to focus these youthful works on a lack of narrative, a rejection of closure, an emphasis on textuality, and extreme attention to the material physicality of the shape and sound of words (or even letters) at the expense of what Muriel Rukeyser, a quintessential Whitmanian, terms "a triadic relation" of "the poet, the poem, and the audience."3 Many of our literary magazines now (and increasingly so) contain work that is divorced from daily life, from politics, and—most distressing of all—from the reader whom one presumes is the reason for publishing it in the first place. The result is an onanism that threatens to rob air from the fire of the creative process. Language poetry, which takes its genesis from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, with links perhaps to Ezra Pound (and James Joyce’s linguistic creations?), may also be seen as having ties to surrealism and other mostly European innovations, such as Dadaism and, in its experimentation with typography, Concrete Poetry à la Apollinaire. Perhaps, though this is a stretch, it may reach as far back as George Herbert’s "Easter-wings." Our poets, who Whitman describes as those able to "make every word he speaks draw blood," appear to be dangerously close to creating a bloodless enterprise.
Our poetry, like our culture in general, suffers from obsession with the new. Though of course all poets should work toward the unsaid, the undepicted, innovative form and subject matter, it doesn’t mean that we lose sight of the meaning embodied in the language. "Go west young man,"4 "Make it new,"5 "253o ideas but in things"6—are all verbal imperatives to deliberately turn from tired European forms and genteel composition. Yet we now have in our popular music, in our sports, in our nightly sitcoms and staple reality hate-fests and, alas, in what passes for remarkable poetry in today’s climate of crash-and-burn-as-you-publish-or-perish academia, a myopia of the contemporary. Ironically, in the highly sophisticated techno world of global communication, we have lost sight of global, humanitarian vision. It’s as if our memories contain information only as far back as 1950 (or is it 2001?). We focus, for example, on contributions by the living and thereby give less credence to the dead who built the roads we walk on, the houses we live in. In saying that "American poets are to enclose old and new" Whitman perceived (and early on refuted) our current short-sighted practice. For the American poet must "enter the essences of the real things and past and present events." Yes to experimentation (Leaves of Grass being, especially in its earliest incarnations, one of the great poetic experiments in American literature, in both form, with long-lined lyric masquerading as epic, and content, the inclusion of the dispossessed, such as forthright treatment of homosexual emotional bonds, women and blacks). Yes to the things of the world (and Whitman’s copious lists provide us with ample indications of what he meant by things). No to cleverness, surface luminosity, trickery, language for its own sake—attributes disdained by America’s least ironic poet but now often touted as the next "new" thing.
I had a bitter taste of language poetry in the first literary magazine I bought, the November/December 1985 issue of American Poetry Review. Leslie Scalapino was on the cover, but it was the Sharon Olds poems that I craved. It was misfortunate for my sense of language poetry that I came to Scalapino’s "that they were at the beach—aeolotropic series" after I’d read Olds’ frighteningly powerful "I Go Back to May 1937" and early scalp-raising versions of poems that would appear in The Father (1992). Scalapino’s work, by comparison, was emotionally flat, unengaging, uneventfully bland, as in the following excerpt:
taking a cab, the driver seems frightened, seen by him not speaking to me—
stemming from his job—unfamiliar because of the streets"7
This wasn’t my idea of any poetry I wanted to live by—so I packed my bags and moved to New York to study with Sharon Olds. At NYU, I found that Olds, along with her colleague Galway Kinnell, was enamoured of Whitman, precisely because he advocated exploration of the minute. "If [the poet] breathes into any thing that was before thought small it dilates with the grandeur and life of the universe," Whitman says in his preface. This must have been sheer miracle to read for Olds, who told us that she once went to Russia, got out of her plane and into her hotel room where she sat at a window sill, believing that if she stared long enough at a single speck of dust, she would know Russia. Think of Olds' use of the single moment in "The Exact Moment of My Father's Death" and "The Moment the Two Worlds Meet." Think of Kinnell's "Daybreak," Audre Lorde's "To My Daughter the Junkie on a Train," Rukeyser's great love poem "Looking at Each Other," Ginsberg's "Sphincter," Essex Hemphill's "Black Beans," Alicia Ostriker's remarkable series of harrowing and hopeful moments in "The Mastectomy Poems," the luminous moments of Marilyn Hacker’s sonnet sequence, "Cancer Winter." Think of the barely contained rage of Lucille Clifton’s "Jasper, Texas, 1998" and Paul Monette's brilliant Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies for Rog, which led forward a whole generation of AIDS love poems. These poems take their inception from Whitman's admonition to make the small large "with the grandeur of life of the universe." Thus Whitman conceived (in both senses of that word) the best that American poetry has to offer.
And yet there has been a sense in the magazines, prizes, and writing programs since I bought that first APR, that Whitman’s bold program for American poets is to be disparaged. He is, the argument goes, passé, too forthright, doesn’t use language that glimmers on the page, is (God forbid) narrative, unformed as new-dug clay. Whitman’s poetry of the body politic, a poetry of particular importance to gay Americans and feminists alike (despite the very white, heterosexual, privileged opinion of some critics who believe that the soul, and not the body, is the exclusive poetic domain), is at odds with the aesthetics of language poets. Whitman’s promiscuous "phallic procession," his "climax of my love grip" and "manly affection" and "long-dwelling kiss," his "bright juice suffus[ing] heaven" and his desire to give voice to the voiceless and to suffer with the wounded, his gender swaps and constant desire to connect, body to body and soul to soul with all persons who pass in his wake is the essential kernel of Whitman’s preface and poetry.8
Whitman is interested in surface beauty only insofar as it encompasses his principle goal of connecting human to human. "The poetic quality is not marshalled in rhyme or uniformity or abstract addresses to things," Whitman declares. ". . . the gaggery and gilt of a million years will not prevail. . . . The great poets are also to be known by the absence in them of tricks and by the justification of perfect personal candor." No matter how beautiful, ornate, delicate, industrious, alluring or colorful a surface, no matter the sophistication of clever forms neat as parlor puzzles, if the poem does not connect with soul through body it cannot link person to person, and is therefore in Whitman’s eyes utter failure. "Who troubles himself about his ornaments or fluency is lost," Whitman warns. And to contrast "ornaments" Whitman immediately gives the "poets of the kosmos" advice: get thee to the world of experience. "Love the earth," Whitman writes, "and sun and animals. . . stand up for the stupid and crazy. . . reexamine all you have been told at school, or church or in any book [including presumably his own], . . . dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem."
Whitman requires that the poet be no better than the common man. O, how far we are from that ideal! Often when I read the literary journals of today, I have a sense of the writer placing her- or himself above the fray, in a position of superiority. Look how smart I am, the poems declare, how clever and crafty, and how I can make you feel baffled and disengaged. This is the exact antithesis of what Whitman required of poetry. I think if he were here today he would boldly state that we are pursuing the wrong course and would bow his head in perplexity, not only at the state of our art and what passes for superior poems, but also because of our current political state (something that language poets, arguing that their use of language in baffling ways is their politics, ignore or approach so obliquely as not to be discernable.)
In an increasingly unstable world out of control on many fronts—from war to global warming to human rights—it is now clear that we need a poetry of supreme engagement, a poetry of the mind, body and soul. Experimentation is key, and there are many modes of experiment, Language Poetry being merely one. Whitman’s advice may still—150 years after this preface was first published—influence us with the best example of a manifesto opposed to beauty for its own sake, art in genuflection to its own solipsistic tendencies.
1Hoover, Paul, Ed. Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994, xxxiv, xxxvi.
2Graham, Jorie, Ed. & Lehman, David, Series Ed. The Best American Poetry 1990. New York: Macmillan, 1990, xxi.
3Rukeyser, Muriel. The Life of Poetry. Ashfield, Massachusetts: Paris Press, 1996, 174.
4A favorite saying of Horace Greeley (1811-72)
5Ezra Pound’s slogan
6Williams, William Carlos. Paterson, bk. 1, "The Delineaments of the Giants," sct. 1, l. 14.
7Scalapino, Leslie. "that they were at the beach—aeolotropic series." American Poetry Review, November/December, 1985, 25.
8Whitman, Walt. Selected Poems 1855-1892. Ed. Gary Schmidgall. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.