from The Threepenny Review, Spring 2010
WE KNOW that as he wandered the streets, as he rode in the omnibuses, probably as he sat in lectures and in the opera, he scribbled in small notebooks and on scraps of paper he stuffed in his pockets. We know he then transcribed them, ordered them, wrote them down, then set the type for the first editions of his great work himself. And there it was, on the page. We know, we know, we know ...
"He was learning his craft," we like to think. Always with the notion of craft comes the implication of progress, improvement. The very word craft seems to have inherent in it the precept that the more you practice your art, the more you labor at it and study it, the more craft you'll have, the better you'll be able to effect your poetry, or anything else. This can be quite a debilitating credo—I've known poets who for all intents and purposes spent their life learning their art, preparing to write poems, but never getting around to actually doing it. Similarly, critics will sometimes make up a lengthy biography for poets whose precociousness seems to be a denial of the normal evolution of the attainment of knowledge. It can seem completely unfeasible to believe that Keats or Rimbaud didn't somehow do something practical to absorb all they had to in the preparation of their poetic activities. I once read an article about Rimbaud which set out to prove that his very unlikely knowledge of so many matters of the history of poetics, and of history itself, had to have been the result of the thousands of hours he'd spent in the Bibliotheque National, sneaking off presumably from the rather Bohemian time-wasting which comprised most of the actual life of the seventeen-year-old he was when he wrote his greatest poems.
Whitman's craft, his skill, was supreme during that first blazing burst when he was compiling the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, and adding to it in the nearly-as-inspired years afterward. But though he had been for some years a productive journalist, there's still no way, really, to account for how he accumulated in such a short time so many singular methods, so many facets for the expression of his talent; there was no place he could have "learned" his craft: it evolved along with his identity, with his very self.
The new way of composing must have come all at once; I imagine it must have felt like some kind of conversion experience. There are very few signs before the 1855 edition that this great thing was about to occur. It's as though his actual physical brain went through some incredible mutation, as though—a little science-fiction, why not?—aliens had transported him up to their spaceship, and put him down again with a new mind, a new poetry apparatus. It is really that crazy.
And, most importantly, we don't know where his music came from; we'll never know when he first intuited, and heard, and knew, that surge of language sound, verse sound, that pulse, that swell, that sweep, which was to become his medium, his chariot—just to try to imagine him consciously devising it is almost as astounding as it must have been for him to discover it.
It's essential to keep in mind that in poetry the music comes first, before everything else, everything else: until the poem has found its music, it's merely verbal matter, information. Thought, meaning, vision, the very words, come after the music has been established, and in the most mysterious way they're already contained in it. Without the music, there's nothing; thought, merely, ideation; in Coleridge's terms, not imagination, just fancy; intention, hope, longing, but not poetry: Wait, Muse! Let me sing it to you, wait! That might be what drives poets to desperation, or worse: the waiting, the wanting, the sensing of the cadences, the melodies, but being unable to force them. It's also probably what tends poets towards manic-depressiveness, because when the music does finally arrive, the mix of relief and exaltation is unreal, beyond self, ego, consciousness, and conscience.
Usually the music seems to come along simultaneously with the words and the matter, but not always. Mandlestam spoke of hearing the music for a poem, feeling it, before it had any words at all. Pavese said: "By means of murmuring, I gave a rhythm to my poems." Poetry is song and language at once. Neuro-scientists say now that there are separate areas in the brain, individual "modules," for one and the other. Poetry's splendor, its seduction, its addictive potential surely resides in this bringing of separate psychic realms together in one mental and emotional speech-act, thought-act. Dante has the poets in Limbo going off together alone to speak of things that are not to be revealed to others, even in his comedy of revelation. What could these things be other than that most profound and most blatant secret of the poets: that only they can generate this unlikely marvel, language music—in great poets a music immediately recognizable and resolutely unique?
In "Song of Myself," Whitman chants aloud the secret to himself:
My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach,
With the twirl of my tongue I encompass worlds and volumes of
Speech is the twin of my vision .. .it is unequal to measure itself.
Shiftings and leaps: unlogical, ungrounded, unconnected, from one theme, one image, one anecdote, one sound to another. Surely his original method, that gathering of scraps in notebooks and scraps in his pockets must have gone far towards permitting—once he gave in to them—the music, and that peculiar system of connection, that wonderfully gappy unorganized organization.
If he was like other poets I know, when he felt, heard, knew that music, the first question he would have asked himself was how long he'd be able to stay in it, to, as jazz musicians say, ride it. The music was so forceful, so engrossing, so generative, that it couldn't have taken him long, a few instants, a few months at most, to realize he'd discovered a musical system that was magically encompassing, and had within it echoes of other singings, the bible, oratory, opera, even some older poetry, but was entirely unique as well. Then it might have taken him some other gigantic moment to realize that not only would his world, his entire world, fit within it, but that the music would take him to places of imagination and intellect and spirit he would never have dreamed without it.
He must have been—no, surely was—in a state of bliss that lasted for years, through all the miserable trials of his family in the 1850s, through all the anguish of having to watch a nation prepare to sunder itself: he was still listening to his music, scribbling, assembling. He'd have lived within the music, exulted in it. Dizzying to think of it ...
It was a music, and a musical-poetic vision, that flourished abundantly, wildly. A music so satisfying, so irrepressible that even when it began to leave him twenty or so years later, he expressed no great grief, though he surely had no inkling during those early blazing years that it ever might wane, or end. He projected the number of poems en route in the hundreds—he spoke of three-hundred-sixty-five for the third, 1860 edition; if he didn't quite generate that number, there were dozens and dozens of new poems, almost all splendid.
But, sadly, at some point it did go bad for him. He lost the connection to his music, not knowing at first that he had. Trying to keep it going, after the 1860s, into the '70s and '80s, he kept making new poems, but his locutions became odd and awkward, his rhythms cranky, his lines uncertain. As Galway Kinnell writes in the introduction to his Essential Whitman: "By the mid-sixties his work began to fill up with the very poeticism and archaisms he had started off by excluding—'o'er,' 'e'en,' 'erewhile,' 'i,' 'tis,' 'ope' ... "
And often he couldn't in his endless tinkering and revising hear himself as he had, and all but untuned the original power of his symphony. He was having fatal trouble sounding like himself, the poet he had been, whose music was diluted now, and weary, maybe because his body itself had begun to be prematurely sick and weary and old. In some of the later poems there are moments, too many, of a kind of dutiful ecstasy. This is a cardinal sin for artists, sham inspiration, but perhaps Whitman has to be forgiven for this because his method itself was so much involved with the ecstatic. If his inspiration sometimes no longer fulfilled the fiery needs of his method, we have to be grateful for the many times it had.
And there came a time when he knew himself he'd lost it. Speaking of a sketch someone was making of him, he was quoted as saying: "The devil in artists is to keep pegging away at a thing after it is all done-pegging away at it done, till it is undone."
BUT HOW wildly exciting, how really exalting it must have been to him when his poetry first offered him a way to see and record so much—it can feel like everything. Just reading it, the brilliance of the moments of inspiration can seem like raw synaptic explosions, like flashbulbs going off in the brain, in the mind: pop, pop, pop. The images, the ideas, the visions, the insights, the proclamations, the stacks of brilliant verbal conjunctions, the musical inventiveness and uniqueness: one after the other, again and again, in a form that reveals them naked, unmodulated, undimmed by any apparent resort to the traditional resources of poetic artfulness. Reading it, being in it, as in the work of terribly few poets, there's a kind of inspirational elation: the world in the poems and the world we live in, the cosmos that's ours—all of it imbued with significance.
And for him ... He walks through the streets, he stops on the seashore, he watches the city traffic, the people, the people; he thinks, he remembers, and he knows how fortunate he is, how thrilling it is. Later he'll write, in "Sparkles from the Wheel": "Myself effusing and fluid—a phantom curiously floating—now where absorb'd and arrested ... " That pure noticing, that registering, that accounting for, all for its own sake, and for the sake of his vision, begins a few pages into the "Song." Until then, the poem has primarily been a lengthy, digressive, poetically brilliant argument establishing the self who will be the person of the poem, what his relation with his attentive, ideal reader will be, and the images, even those that are fairly precise and seemingly off the point, are elements of that argument.
He introduces this new function of the poem at first in somewhat general terms:
Every kind for itself and its own .. for me mine male and female,
For me all that have been boys and love women,
For me the man that is proud and feels how it stings to be slighted ...
Then, after the famous line "Who need be afraid of the merge?"—infamous, for D. H. Lawrence—a few lines later begins the particularization that will become the mortar and underpinning of all the poem's conceptualizations. It starts with a tender scene of the poet with a child, and then moves on for the first time to define the characters, individuals, presences, who will populate from then on all the rest of Whitman's great and even lesser work.
The little one sleeps in its cradle,
I lift the gauze and look a long time, and silently brush away flies with
The youngster and the red faced girl turn aside up the busy hill,
I peeringly view them from the top.
("Peeringly"—what a crazily appropriate adverb.)
The suicide sprawls on the bloody floor of the bedroom.
It is so .. .I witnessed the corpse ... there the pistol had fallen.
And then even the "I" can be dispensed with; only the "eye" (and ear) are necessary now.
The blab of the pave ... the tires of carts and sluff of bootsoles and
talk of the promenaders,
The heavy omnibus, the driver with interrogating thumb, the clank of
the shod horses on the granite floor,
The carnival of sleighs, the clinking and shouted jokes and pelts of
For the rest of his writing life, he'll be this eye, this ear, this voracious devourer of the world. Whitman sometimes compared himself (with proper humility) to Shakespeare, and edged on toward Dante and even Homer. Of course he differs radically from all three, but in this sheer largeness, this huge digestion of numberless atoms and chunks of reality, he is in their camp, is one of them, with them.
ARCHILOCHOS BEGINS it, in the seventh century B.C., this odd, unreasonable, unjustifiable tradition of the poet speaking of him or herself, as though what happened to the poet, what he or she did, felt, thought, might matter to anyone else.
My ash spear is my barley bread,
My ash spear is my Ismarian wine.
I lean on my spear and drink
says Archilochos, translated by Guy Davenport (channeled, really): I lean on my spear and drink. And Whitman in the second stanza of his Leaves says:
I loaf and invite my soul,
I lean and loaf at my ease ... observing a spear of summer grass.
And who cares about either in their hanging around?
The opening of the original "Song of Myself" has been taken as an establishing of a metaphysical stance, a socio-political identification, the proclamation of a new vision of culture and art. And, truly, it's all of these things, and more. But it is also, in some ways most importantly, a reaffirmation of the lyric "I," a taking it back to its original audacity, its response to that absurd question of why, when Homer's epics already exist, with their cast of thousands, their battles, their emotional confrontations, their mass of history, anyone should bother to listen when this single sung voice, this Archilochos, this Sappho, moan of love, or war, or anger, or. .. leaning, loafing, drinking.
Why should it be that this enormous faculty humans possess, imagination, would be put to the use of embodying, enacting, singing, a single soul, rather than a nation's, an epoch's, a civilization's?
The atmosphere is not a perfume ... it has no taste of the distillation
... it is odorless,
It is for my mouth forever ... I am in love with it,
I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.
Undisguised and naked ... That was what Archilochos was as he presented himself, celebrated himself, as soldier, mercenary, sometimes even as coward; as lover, as whore-monger, sometimes whipped dog, groveler, bearer of unredeemed resentment, but, most importantly, as "I," and sometimes addressing another single person: a "you."
"You are too old for perfume," Archilochos says to some sad woman as he rejects her, some forlorn, utterly unknown, utterly forgotten woman who still exists, still exists, in her tiny fragment of what was probably a tiny poem. And,
Houses and rooms are full of perfumes … the shelves are crowded
with perfumes ...
writes Whitman, as though he heard Archilochos again, and reenacts again the meager, single, intellectually ungrounded self again: I breathe the fragrance myself, and know it and like it ...
What does the intellect have to do with any of this? How can mind sanction such a preposterous act of self-aggrandizement; call it egotism, narcissism, call it what you like, it's ridiculous; With that insignificant "I," introduced into the packet of Archilochos's poems, that strange phenomenon of language heightened to music, civilization changes, all human life changes: the person changes, perhaps the "person" in fact is brought into being—perhaps before that poetic "I" only kings and queens and war- or athletic-heroes had real persons. Might it finally have been the poets who gave the lover his or her "I"; the peasant, the ordinary soldier, the ordinary blacksmith, ordinary wife, adulterer, adulteress, each his or her "I"?
And might Whitman have been trying, in the largest sense (and the smallest), to revivify that lyric "I," to enlarge it, to make it grand again, make it more audacious, more authentic than ever by giving it the entire universe, physical and spiritual, as its domain? "I am mad for it to be in contact with me." Mad for it, mad for myself: "The Song of Myself" isn't even called that in the first edition, it would only be titled later, but it had to be there all along: Song of Myself, song of me, of me as you, song of me as everyone, and Whitman means it: everyone.
In the original preface he goes on at length about "democracy," "America," claiming for his poems a unifying, generating purpose somehow related to that, and he'll return to that theme throughout his life. But his preface moves quickly off to more general considerations of the ends he'll attempt: "The soul has that measureless pride which consists in never acknowledging any lessons but its own. But it has sympathy as measureless as its pride, and the one balances the other and neither can stretch too far while it stretches in company with the other."
This is the particular secret with which Whitman will inform his "I"—its sympathy. He is going to create a self which will be "I" in a way no one else had ever done it, not in lyric poetry anyway; the container and enactor and, he hopes, the redeemer of others' "I"s, others' selves, others' unacknowledged selves: really he wants to offer the lyric "I" to us all.
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
He doesn't mean that we inevitably share the atoms of the universe, as Democritus, and then the science of Whitman's time had recently proposed; he means rather that we share the atoms of ourselves, the smallest particles of what makes up our experience, our souls: he means that if we follow him, listen to him, maybe sing with him, we can be the poet of ourselves. And as Archilochos absurdly asked us to listen to his plaints and plights, and meant it, Whitman means this, too.
These are 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
If they do not enclose everything they are next to nothing,
If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they are
If they are not just as close as they are distant they are nothing.
And yet "I celebrate myself" has to be seen as more than a conventional prelude to a lyrical aesthetic event: it is a proclamation of poetic independence and uniqueness.
"And what I assume you shall assume" is a confrontation, really a challenge, a dare: what is being implied here is that the ordinary relationship between reader and poet, lyrical speaker, lyrical "I," will not be in effect. Something else is happening, something which, on the face of it, is presumptuous. An impertinence which is absurdly reinforced by the notification of a communion unlike any other in poetry: you are not merely listening to me, overhearing me—you are to be taken into my poem with me in a way no other poem has done it.
And furthermore—"For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you"—not only are we not to be in a conventional poet-reader relation, we will be in a conceptually unheard-of physical, then metaphysical (because we are dissolved beyond our elementary material identity into one another) connectedness. And, the poem goes on, now that our unique aesthetic affiliation has been established, we'll relax for a moment into a traditional lyrical-pastoral situation, this time with the reader dismissed for a moment from the concussion of our initial coming together. "I," just "I" alone, will repose now—"I loaf and invite my soul"—and allow you to consider for a few phrases what has just passed between us. I'll look around for a moment, while you observe me in the way you have always observed the poet in his poem.
But the poem will go on to establish in the next stanzas that there is, as seemed to be indicated, an "I" unlike any other that has ever existed in a poem; it is an identity that is at once intensely, almost overwhelmingly sensual, and self-consciously prophetic. Compared to this, even the personage Dante created for his poetic universe remains resolutely unpretentious: he is always Dante, the sensing, thinking, swooning maker of his verses, who trembles before the magnitude of the spiritual matters he confronts. He inhabits, in other words, the same poetic self as did Archilochos when he first devised the marvel of the "I" of a poem.
Whitman wants to surpass this. He is not only going to make a poem for us, but he is going to take us to the very source of poems, the mine from which poetry is tunneled out.
Have you practiced so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun ... there are millions
of suns left,
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand ... nor look through the eyes of the dead ... nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes, nor take things from me,
you shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.
The promise, the promise in much of the work, is that the vividness and grandeur of the poetic self who is making this poem will be so gravitationally magnetic that he will make poets of us all; we will not only be accounted for, we will learn to account for ourselves, and for everything else. We will be again first persons adequate to our greatest selves.
About the Author
C. K. Williams's On Whitman, from which this essay is drawn, is appearing this spring from Princeton University Press. His new book of poetry, Wait, will be out about the same time from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Editor and Publisher: Wendy Lesser
Deputy Editor: Kathryn Crim
Editorial Assistant: Alyson Tapp