SUSAN SARANDON QUOTED HIM more than once in Bull Durham, a film about the great American pastime. He is mentioned with Thomas Wolfe in Sophie's Choice, by boy marvel and charmingly insane Nathan Landau. He was the darling of "The Beats," as they called themselves, particularly the poet, Allen Ginsberg, whose 1955 poem, "HOWL," is Whitmanlike in both audacity and form. Though not of their cloth, Walt Whitman is as American as Jefferson, Washington, or baseball, as radical a reformer as John Lennon or Martin Luther King, Jr. He was one of our first national poets.
In 1855, Whitman published a collection of poems titled LEAVES OF GRASS. The young poet paid for the printing, and did much of the typesetting himself. LEAVES was written as a response to Ralph W. Emerson's 1844 essay, THE POET, which called for a new American poetry. At that time, poetry and literature were bound by classical/conventional, that is, dying, forms. Emerson called for an American bard, an original voice, a call Whitman answered. After receiving a copy of LEAVES, Emerson wrote Whitman praising LEAVES OF GRASS as "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed." The great man added, "I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy."
The 1855 version of LEAVES OF GRASS is a masterpiece. It was organic. It made Whitman very little money, and sold only a few hundred of the roughly 750 copies printed. And not all of the reviews were good ones. One reviewer threw his copy of LEAVES OF GRASS into the fire upon reading it. Whitman was, after all, a new voice, with a new English. "He is not one of the chorus . . . he does not stop for regulations."
Inexplicably, he edited and revised this one book for the next thirty-seven years until his death. Though much of its greatness is preserved, the revision doused its original fire, or so some are convinced. One of the incidental lessons, perhaps? A study of excess and overreach, knowing when to stop?
I celebrate myself,
and what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you...
We shall witness this miracle you and I, he says. We will walk the heights together. You are as much the poet and the poem as I, he says.
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
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 either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.
His poetry is the poetry of emancipation, like the country he loves.
Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from the jambs!
What does Whitman have to teach the writer today? To the items already mentioned, I have listed five things. My commentary is intentionally spare. I invite you to come to your own conclusions as Whitman lights them up, one at a time. The first four points below are taken from the magnificent Preface of Whitman's 1855 version of LEAVES OF GRASS. The last item, #5, my personal favorite, from SONG OF MYSELF, is as grand a piece of poetry you will find in six words. "I am large. I contain multitudes." My hope is that this single passage will make the deepest impression, become the song in your head.
1. He [the poet] can make every word he speaks draw blood...
Whitman has awe for language and exercises that awe, investing it in every line. He brings electricity to his lines, a bend of thought and expression you may not have heard or considered before. Writing, he suggests, is the most democratic of all vocations; because the poet/writer is "outside." She can arouse/ignite the heart the way politicians or preachers have yet to figure out. From the Preface:
The greatest poet hardly knows pettiness or triviality. If he breathes into any thing that was before thought small it dilates (grows/blossoms) with the grandeur and life of the universe. He is a seer . . . he is an individual . . . he is complete in himself . . . the others are as good as he, only he sees it and they do not. He is not one of the chorus . . . he does not stop for regulations.
Of all mankind the great poet is the equable man (composed, well balanced, not easily disturbed or angered; calm and even tempered, not varying or fluctuating greatly). He bestows on every object or quality its fit proportions neither more nor less. He is the arbiter of the diverse and he is the key. He is the equalizer of his age and land . . . In war he is the most deadly force of the war. Who recruits him recruits horse and foot . . . he can make every word he speaks draw blood.
2. The cleanest expression is that which finds no sphere worthy of itself and makes one.
Tommy Roe, a sixties music legend, toured Europe often in his peak years. THE BEATLES, before they were THE BEATLES, were Tommy's warm-up act. When he returned to the US from one of his tours, Mr. Roe suggested to his record company executives that they sign this English group and quickly. The executive's response? "They'll never go over here." Short-sighted or just plain blind, the rest is, well, history.
The herd doesn't dictate fashion. They follow it. This lesson observes the master-the-rules-before-bending-them theory of the craft, but it suggests as well that for the sake of originality, most writer/poets will often have to circumnavigate convention and make their own place in this world.
3. The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters is simplicity. Nothing is better than simplicity . . . . nothing can make up for excess or for the lack of definiteness.
Coming from a poet, one who often trades in obscurities, this might seem suspect, but making his bones in the newspaper business, writing and selling penny papers, running a press, his first lesson as a writer was in speed and simplicity. And of all things literary, to achieve simplicity is anything but simple.
4. Who troubles himself about his ornaments or fluency is lost.
The lesson here is equilibrium, staying out front of ornamentation, of being clever for clever's sake alone, of forcing a joke that doesn't work, of crowding your metaphors or imagery, or overstating. "Staying out front of ornamentation," is the key, certainly, but not too far out front. Writing is an exercise in poise, in balance, in keeping within a rule, allowing "the writer" to recede gracefully into the background.
5. I am large. I contain multitudes.
Whitman speaks out of solidarity with all men and women everywhere, of all colors, shades, nations, and forms. His writing, warm and robust, is infected with this almost gospel-like charity. His optimism is imposing. He is large. He contains multitudes. He said so himself.
I love the possibilities written into such a line, both for my psychology and for the blank page.
The novelist shapes characters from stores of memory, of impressions made over the course of a lifetime. She has, as anyone has who sets thought to words, a wealth of resources inside her—some she may not have considered, others she is unaware of, and still others she has misprized—but they are within reach, hers to do as she pleases, as her fashion dictates.
I think I will do nothing for a long time but listen,
And accrue what I hear into myself . . . . and let sounds contribute toward me.
I hear the bravuras of birds . . . . the bustle of growing wheat . . . .
gossip of flames . . . . clack of sticks cooking my meals.
I hear the sound of the human voice . . . . a sound I love
Much more can be said. And it should be said. I know what it means for me, and I could add a few thousand words and prove it. But I would not lose you to the smoke and whirlwind of opinion. I have a lots of them. Like you, I am large. I contain multitudes.