Category Archives: Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman: simplicity and complexity

 

 

 

“No one makes craft, carefully wrought, seem more casual than Walt Whitman.”

 

— Richard Rhodes, How to Write: Advice and Reflections (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1995), pg. 12

 

 

A former friend of mine, the poet Charles Pierre, made a comment to me — I wish I could remember exactly what he said — to the effect that Walt Whitman is actually very difficult. Difficult for the reader, that is. That he presents a level of difficulty that requires acute understanding of? I think Pierre would have said: an understanding of what Whitman is doing; of his poetic technique, of his originality, poetic genius, and ingenuity. That Whitman, who seems on the surface so simple, is not really simple.

And yet, I find Whitman to be easy to become acquainted with and comprehend without necessarily being (as in the case of myself) expert at poetry. I “got” his poetry almost right away.

 
— Roger W. Smith

   February 2019

New Yorkers

 

 

 

I was on a bus in Brooklyn a couple of weeks ago.

My eyes strayed to a seat across from me, and I saw that a young woman was smiling at me.

Beaming.

She had a five or six or year old boy in her lap. It was a bit different than holding a toddler in one’s lap. The boy was restless. But the mother and her son and seemed to be totally in sync.

“Is he going to school. Or he is too young for that?” I asked.

“No, he’s going to school,” she said, still smiling.

Then, I got off the bus. She waved at me and wished me a good day. It was as if we had been glad to meet.

This little encounter — unanticipated, most would say totally inconsequential — set me up for the rest of the day. It was as if somehow I had made her morning pleasurable. She certainly did that for me.

A reason I am writing about this is because this sort of thing happens to me very often in New York. I doubt such encounters would be as likely in the suburbs. (Certainly not if one were driving to work or an appointment.) Rubbing shoulders with others as a matter of course is something I love about living in NYC.

When I first moved to New York as a young man, everyone seemed to in a hurry, and the City seemed cold and impersonal.

It’s exactly the opposite. Many New Yorkers have told me that their experience has been the same.

 

 

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In his poem “Mannahatta,” Walt Whitman said something very similar:

 

Rich, hemm’d thick all around with sailships and
steamships, an island sixteen miles long, solid-founded,
Numberless crowded streets, high growths of iron, slender,
strong, light, splendidly uprising toward clear skies, …
The mechanics of the city, the masters, well-form’d,
beautiful-faced, looking you straight in the eyes,
Trottoirs throng’d, vehicles, Broadway, the women, the
shops and shows,
A million people–manners free and superb–open voices–
hospitality–the most courageous and friendly young
men,

 

 

Roger W. Smith

December 2018

“I knew a man”

 

 

 

 

 

I knew a man . . . . he was a common farmer . . . . he was the father of five sons . . .
and in them were the fathers of sons . . . and in them were the fathers of sons.

This man was of wonderful vigor and calmness and beauty of person;
The shape of his head, the richness and breadth of his manners, the pale yellow
and white of his hair and beard, the immeasurable meaning of his black eyes,
These I used to go and visit him to see . . . . He was wise also,
He was six feet tall . . . . he was over eighty years old . . . . his sons were massive
clean bearded tanfaced and handsome,

They and his daughters loved him . . . all who saw him loved him . . . they did not
love him by allowance . . . they loved him with personal love;
He drank water only . . . . the blood showed like scarlet through the clear brown
skin of his face;
He was a frequent gunner and fisher . . . he sailed his boat himself . . . he had a fine
one presented to him by a shipjoiner . . . . he had fowling-pieces, presented to
him by men that loved him;
When he went with his five sons and many grandsons to hunt or fish you would pick
him out as the most beautiful and vigorous of the gang,
You would wish long and long to be with him . . . . you would wish to sit by him in
the boat that you and he might touch each other.

 

 

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Written in free verse, “I knew a man,” by Walt Whitman, is part of “I SING THE BODY ELECTRIC.,” a poem with nine short subsections included in the original (1855) edition of Leaves of Grass.

It is a great example of the utter simplicity and non-literary character of Whitman’s poetry. (This aspect of Whitman’s poetry is analyzed and explained definitively in C. Carroll Hollis’s monograph Language and Style in Leaves of Grass [Louisiana State University Press, 1983]).

The poem is read here by the actor Ed Begley (1901-1970). Begley is, without question, the greatest reader, the greatest vocal interpreter, of Whitman’s poetry ever.
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Reflecting upon this poem, it occurs to me that I know, and have known (beginning with my parents), people eliciting such thoughts, such admiration from me.

People seemingly ordinary. Meaning not famous, or great as we commonly take great to mean when we speak of a great statesman, a great author, or any other person of such stature.

Ordinary people.

Yet remarkable people.

Men and women whose character, integrity, sincerity, kindness, thoughtfulness, unselfishness, fortitude, and so forth one is struck by over and over, almost daily. Of whom one finds oneself reminding oneself constantly what a privilege it is to know such persons. And of what they have to offer. To you or me.

Whitman stopped to admire a blade of grass. I often find myself, as did Whitman in this poem, “stopping to admire” ordinary people whom I meet and reflecting upon their wonderful qualities and, by extension, upon our common humanity.

 
— Roger W. Smith

  December 2018

 

an early take by Walt Whitman on his conception of himself as America’s poet

 

 

Walt Whitman began his writing career as a journalist. He was known early on for writing anonymous reviews of Leaves of Grass — in other words, reviewing himself, in laudatory terms. A motivation for his doing this was that he clearly felt his poetic endeavor would not be understood by the literati or his countrymen, and indeed his poetry initially baffled most and offended many because of its frankness, or what one might call lack of reticence when it came to topics not discussed in polite society. Even his own family seems not to have for the most part read his poetry or understood it.

Below is an unpublished puff piece by Whitman that was in his papers. It is not un-similar to anonymous reviews of Leaves of Grass he actually wrote. His conception of himself as a sort of literary gatecrasher is amusing. It has more than a grain of truth.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   August 2018

 

 

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We suppose it will excite the mirth of many of our readers to be told that a man has arisen, who has deliberately and insultingly ignored all the other, the cultivated classes as they are called, and set himself to write “America’s first distinctive Poem,” on the platform of these same New York Roughs, firemen, the ouvrier class, masons and carpenters, stagedrivers, the Dry Dock boys, and so forth; and that furthermore, he either is not aware of the existence of the polite social models, and the imported literary laws, or else he don’t value them two cents for his purposes.

 

Notes and Fragments, edited by R. M. Bucke; in Complete Writings of Walt Whitman, vol. IX (New York, 1902), pg. 70

“The Poet”

 

 

In the “Divinity School Address” [given at Harvard Divinity School in 1838, Ralph Waldo] Emerson at times made it sound as though his understanding of Christ had transformed that figure into a type of the artist, a man who … had seen “further” than others with more limited vision–An example is Emerson’s statement of how Christ recognized “that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his World.” … in his later essay “The Poet,” … [Emerson] lambasted contemporary theologians for thinking it “a pretty air-castle to talk of the spiritual meaning of a ship or a cloud, of a city or a contract.” Such men prefer, he noted sardonically, “to come again to the solid ground of historical evidence,” not realizing “the highest minds of the world have never ceased to explore the double meaning, or shall I say the quadruple or centuple or much more manifold meaning, of every sensuous fact.” If his friends were to be faulted for any religious shortcomings, then, it was because they … did not perceive the literal presence of the miraculous in nature’s commonplace facts.

One of Emerson’s most revealing paragraphs in this essay deals specifically with his sense of the poet as a universal Christ-figure. … In “The Poet” Emerson thought it important to suggest how much his contemporaries needed another redeemer, one whose grasp of language and symbol, as well as of divine truth, was comparable to Christ’s, or at least to others among the world’s great prophets. …

Throughout the essay Emerson elaborates the intended equation between Christ and the poet. Like Christ, who stood as ransom before his Father for the entire human race, so, too, the poet is “representative” and “stands among partial men for the complete man.” Further, like the Christ who freed mankind again to the possibility of entering heaven, so the poet is a liberator who “unlocks our chains and admits us to a new thought.” When men are exposed to the truths the poet expresses, they recognize how “the use of his symbols has a certain power of emancipation for all men.” And like the Savior who called all unto him as children, when the poet speaks men “seem to be touched by a wand which makes [them] dance and run about happily, like children.” “Poets,” Emerson brazenly declares, “are thus liberating gods.”

Indeed, throughout the essay Emerson intends to make his readers aware that he means no deception when he equates the work of the Sayer with a process of salvation, for the poet provides a feeling akin to what those of an earlier generation (and, indeed, what some evangelicals of Emerson’s own day) would have called a conversion experience. As he continues in this vein, Emerson sounds as though he were making a narration of the influence of saving grace upon his soul. “With what joy,” he exclaims, “I begin to read a poem which I confide in as an inspiration! And now my chains are to be broken; I shall mount above these clouds and opaque airs in which I live . . . and from the heaven of truth I shall see and comprehend my relations.” The “new birth” is complete, for at such moments, Emerson announces confidently, he becomes “reconcile[d]” to live, while all nature becomes “renovate[d].” “Life will no more be a noise” to him who has experienced the effects of the poet’s vision; and, as self-righteously as any of his seventeenth-century New England ancestors, Emerson claims that then is he able to “see men and women and know the signs by which they may be discerned fools and satans.” The rebirth of his soul is complete, for “this day [when the poet’s message is heard] shall be better than my birthday: then I became an animal; now I am invited into the science of the real.”

This remarkable reworking of the morphology of conversion into an aesthetic experience takes on more significance when the reader is aware of how closely the older forms of religious vocabulary have been melded with terms from the idealistic philosophy to which Emerson had been exposed: He details this dream-vision of transcendence with reference to an explicitly Coleridgean term. “This insight,” Emerson declares, “expresses itself by what is called Imagination” and is best understood not by reference to any religious terminology but as “a very high sort of seeing, which does not come by study, but by the intellect being where and what it sees . . . by sharing the path or circuit of things through forms … ” In the presence of the poet wielding his liberating symbols, man stands, Emerson mystically suggests, “before the secret of the world, there where Being passes into Appearance and Unity into Variety.”

But it is imperative that the poet also become the “Sayer or Namer” and openly declare what has been hidden from his contemporaries because of their imperfect nature and limited vision. “The world being thus put under the mind for verb and noun, the poet is he who can articulate it.” The secret of the universe, to paraphrase Robert Frost, literally sits in the middle of men, and the poet must do all in his power to make the secret apparent.

For through that better perception he stands one step nearer to things, and sees the flowing or metamorphosis; perceives that … within the form of every creature is a force impelling it to ascend into a higher form; and following with his eyes the life, uses the form which expresses that life, and so his speech flows with the flowings of nature.

For the poet the world becomes “a temple whose walls are covered with emblems, pictures and commandments of the Deity,” and it becomes his job to convey the meaning behind those emblems as evocatively as he can. … Emerson indeed believed that “Nothing walks, or creeps, or grows, or exists, which must not in tum arise and walk before him [the poet] as an exponent of his meaning.” Thus, the lessons from men like [the American Swedenborgian Sampson] Reed and {Guillaume] Oegger were assimilated, but along with the important corollary that man must not, like the self-centered mystic, “nail a symbol to one sense, which was a true sense for a moment, but soon becomes old and false.” The poet is he who knows that “all symbols are fluxional; all language is vehicular and transitive, and is good, as ferries and horses are, for conveyance, not as farms and houses are, for homestead.” When man reads the true poet’s works, Emerson believes, he finds himself on a version of Jacob’s ladder, the rungs of which are assembled from the world’s natural facts and by which he is to climb to view the world of spirit.

— Philip F. Gura, The Wisdom of Words: Language, Theology, and Literature in the American Renaissance

 
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I have been reading a fascinating and enlightening monograph: The Wisdom of Words: Language, Theology, and Literature in the American Renaissance by Philip F. Gura (Wesleyan University Press, 1981), from which the above passages are quoted.

Who is the poet whom Emerson foresaw and spoke of? Walt Whitman, as has often been noted.

 
— Roger W. Smith

   July 2018

house-building

The house-builder at work in cities or anywhere,
The preparatory jointing, squaring, sawing, mortising,
The hoist-up of beams, the push of them in their places, laying them regular,
Setting the studs by their tenons in the mortises according as they were prepared,
The blows of mallets and hammers, the attitudes of the men, their curv’d limbs,
Bending, standing, astride the beams, driving in pins, holding on by posts and braces,
The hook’d arm over the plate, the other arm wielding the axe,
The floor-men forcing the planks close to be nail’d,
Their postures bringing their weapons downward on the bearers,
The echoes resounding through the vacant building;
The huge storehouse carried up in the city well under way,
The six framing-men, two in the middle and two at each end,
carefully bearing on their shoulders a heavy stick for a
cross-beam,
The crowded line of masons with trowels in their right hands
rapidly laying the long side-wall, two hundred feet from front to rear,
The flexible rise and fall of backs, the continual click of the trowels striking the bricks,
The bricks one after another each laid so workmanlike in its place, and set with a knock of the trowel-handle,
The piles of materials, the mortar on the mortar-boards, and the steady replenishing by the hod-men;

 

— Walt Whitman, “Song of the Broad-Axe”

 

 

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As I told my students when I was teaching at St. John’s University, Walt Whitman the poet used the simplest words, images, and tropes he could find. He built his poems out of all-original materials that were, so to speak, close at hand (sort of like a bird using twigs on the ground to build a nest) — nothing was “literary” or derived.

Here we see minute observation.

The particular made universal. The concrete, the here and now, timeless.

Wonderful.

Whitman had a genius for using so called deverbal nouns, as is explained by James Perrin Warren in a fascinating book I have been reading: Walt Whitman’s Language Experiment (The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990).

 

 

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Walt Whitman’s father, Walter Whitman, was a carpenter and house builder. Whitman was living in Brooklyn when Leaves of Grass was first published. His father was making a living then as a house builder. It was there that Ralph Waldo Emerson called in the year 1855 upon the poet, who in the frontispiece to the first edition of Leaves of Grass was pictured as a common working man, a Christlike carpenter-poet.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   July 2018

“What is the grass?”

 

 

 

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photograph by Elisabeth van der Meer

 

 

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full
hands;
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it
is any more than he.

 

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful
green stuff woven.

 

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we
may see and remark, and say Whose?

 

Or I guess the grass is itself a child. . . .the produced babe
of the vegetation.

 

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow
zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the
same, I receive them the same.

 

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

 

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people and from women, and
from offspring taken soon out of their mother’s laps,
And here you are the mother’s laps.

 

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old
mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

 

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths
for nothing.

 

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men
and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring
taken soon out of their laps.

 

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
What do you think has become of the women and
children?

 

They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait
at the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.

All goes onward and outward. . . . and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and
luckier.

 

— Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

 

 

 

 

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I wish to thank Elisabeth van der Meer for sharing the above photograph with me, and for giving me permission to post it.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   July 6, 2018