On Whitman

by C. K. Williams

Princeton, 208 pp., $19.95

Back in the 1840s, when he still called himself Walter Whitman Jr., the future poet of Leaves of Grass composed verse such as this:

O, beauteous is the earth! and fair

The splendors of Creation are:

Nature’s green robe, the shining sky,

The winds that through the tree-tops sigh, All speak a bounteous God.

Not bad, really, but entirely conventional, no different from a thousand other poems published at the time. How in the world did we get from that to this in 1855?

You sea! I resign myself to you also—I guess what you mean,

I behold from the beach your crooked inviting fingers,

I believe you refuse to go back without feeling of me;

We must have a turn together, I undress, hurry me out of sight of the land,

Cushion me soft, rock me in billowy drowse,

Dash me with amorous wet, I can repay you.

When Ralph Waldo Emerson received those lines in the mail, he blinked in amazement and wrote to Whitman the famous congratulations, wondering what miraculous “long foreground” could have produced it. The same question is the starting point for C. K. Williams in this readable little commentary, the second entry in a series by Princeton University Press entitled Writers on Writers. Williams is a distinguished poet and creative writing professor at Princeton, winner of Pulitzer and National Book awards, amply qualified for the series format which “seeks to pair two esteemed literary luminaries together in print to create a personal dialogue.”

Accordingly, Williams speaks openly as a poet-reader, not as a critic, scholar, or teacher. He shuns academic style—no jargon, no bibliographical machinery, no “situating oneself within current thinking in the field”—which we’ve had too much of lately. The Modern Language Association Bibliography lists some 2,800 books, dissertations, essays, reviews, and other items devoted to Whitman in the last 40 years, recent titles including “Going Native, Becoming Modern: American Indians, Walt Whitman, and the Yiddish Poet,” “Man Enough: Fraternal Intimacy, White Homoeroticism, and Imagined Homogeneity in Mid-Nineteenth-Century American Literature,” and “The Good Gray Poet and the Quaker Oats Man: Speaker as Spokescharacter in Leaves of Grass.” At this point, one can hardly imagine professional academics saying many fresh and compelling things about the meaning and context of the poems. They write to and for one another, their manners and mores too coded and cliquish to appeal beyond the experts.

On Whitman offers something else, a conversational votary expounding what Whitman means to him and others. Right off, Williams accepts the wonder of Whitman’s advent, casting Leaves of Grass as a “blazing burst,” a “surge of language sound” to be heard and experienced, not theorized, politicized, and demystified, for “we don’t know where his music came from.” Williams ranges through the poetry in short chapters of quotation and paraphrase, some but a few pages long. We have headings by theme (“Sex,” “Woman”), biography (“The Man Before the Poems,” “Life After”), and literary legacy (“The Modern, Two: Eliot and Pound,” “Lorca, Ginsberg, and ‘The Faggots’ ”). Sprinkled throughout are pertinent and pat summations of major concerns.

On death:

What Whitman does is overwhelm death with acceptance, obliterate it with example, with instance, with obsessively reiterated reassurance.

On homosexuality:

Love among men occurs again and again in the poems, sometimes as expressions of comradely affection, sometimes seeming to state frankly and passionately homosexual experiences.

On his country:

He aestheticizes and spiritualizes America and its people; and he tells what a fully conscious American would see and feel if he could share Whitman’s genius.

Scholars have written 300-page monographs on each one, but Williams breezes through and past them. What really matters in his “dialogue” isn’t Whitman’s ideas or judgments, but the “musical language” in which they unfold. Williams acknowledges, for instance, that Whitman’s initial pronouncement “I celebrate myself” has been understood as “a metaphysical stance, a sociopolitical identification, the proclamation of a new vision of culture and art,” but the “most important” thing it does is reaffirm “the lyric ‘I.’ ” Repeatedly, the lyricism stands out: “voluptuousness of sounds,” “radiant detail,” “his singing, his cadence,” “dances of vowels.” Reviewing Whitman’s sexual scenes, Williams finds that “most remarkable to me .  .  . isn’t their social-revolutionary implications, but rather their exultant sensual exuberance.”

Fair enough, and the emphasis on the aesthetics of Leaves of Grass nicely contrasts with the professionalized fixations on race, sexuality, and politics in academic criticism. But as the observations pile up, suffused with marvel at the verbal craft, and as we move hastily through Whitman’s actual beliefs, one begins to wonder whether the writer-on-writer approach doesn’t produce the opposite effect. Instead of unveiling the poet’s power and purpose, it limits the endeavor to the dexterous performance of a creative writer. All too frequently, the commentary sounds less like a contemporary poet fired with the meaning of the bard than a creative writing instructor pinpointing for MFA students this word and that image and that rhythm and affirming how effective they are.

Ironically, this is a domestication of poetry that Whitman renounced when he spoke contemptuously of “schools” and “salons.” Yes, Williams cites the contents of Whitman’s vision, but they appear in brief and hollow assertions, such as “he really did want his poetry to help, or compel, what he thought America could be.” He doesn’t take seriously enough the moral and political import of Whitman to pursue them. Whitman declares in the preface to Leaves of Grass that poets “are the voice and exposition of liberty,” and a few sentences onward adds, “Come nigh them awhile and though they neither speak nor advise you shall learn the faithful American lesson.” What does Williams think? Those and other statements about America equal the fulminations of “a schoolboy, like a youth in an unquestioning patriotic frenzy.”

But Whitman does question his country, as in this passage one page later in the Preface:

When the swarm of cringers, suckers, dough-faces, lice of politics, planners of sly involutions for their own preferment to city offices or state legislatures or the judiciary or congress or the presidency obtain a response of love and natural deference from the people whether they get the offices or no .  .  . when it is better to be a bound booby and rogue in office at a high salary than the poorest free mechanic or farmer with his hat unmoved from his head and firm eyes and a candid and generous heart .  .  . then only shall the instinct of liberty be discharged from that part of the earth.

Tea Partiers would appreciate that equation of office-seeking and the loss of liberty, but the writer-on-writer isn’t interested. Like thousands of other writers who work in more than 250 creative writing degree programs in the United States today, he cares about .  .  . writing. Perhaps it’s inevitable for a professor-poet. When any writer who spends so much time thinking and doing and talking and teaching creative writing is asked to write a book about another writer—and to write it as a writer—the result will emphasize, precisely, the creativity of the writing. This is, once again, refreshing change from academic criticism, but it misses too much. As one commentator, Joel Chandler Harris of “Uncle Remus” fame, put it in a symposium in Chicago just after Whitman’s death:

Those who are merely literary will find little substance in the great drama of Democracy, which is outlined by Walt Whitman in his writings,—it is no distinction to call them poems.

Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory, is the author, most recently, of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30).

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