The Magazine

A Whitman Sampler

One writer’s effort to bring the poet of democracy to life.

May 3, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 31 • By MARK BAUERLEIN
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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. 

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