Introduction, context and background:
1. When Whitman died in the spring of 1892, the New York Herald reported, “A large majority condemn his writings as ‘beastly,’ as a ‘gathering of muck,’ and a ‘crazy outbreak of conceit and vulgarity,’” opposing his poetry on moral grounds, but also because it lacked form.
2. Early supporters of Whitman’s work actually supported him for the same reasons his detractors found fault: the absence form.
a. Hamlin Garland, who went to see Whitman as a very old man, wrote: “Formless as the book [Leaves of Grass] appeared, its deeply patriotic spirit, its wide sympathy with working men and women and especially its faith in the destiny of ‘these States’ exalted me.” (A move here from form to ideas).
b. Leonard Abbot, writing in defense of the so-called “New Poetry” in 1912, wrote: “The great value of Walt Whitman lies in his Influence as an emancipator … He was first of all a liberator in the art-form he adopted.”
c. Oscar Wilde, in 1889, wrote that “in his very rejection of art Walt Whitman is an artist.”
3. Whitman himself endorsed and encouraged this idea of his poetry as natural, organic, and almost a kind of “anti-poetry.”
a. He told the St. Louis Dispatch (in 1876), “The whole tendency of poetry has been toward refinement. I have felt that was not worthy of America. Something more vigorous, al fresco, was needed and then more than all I determined from the beginning to put a whole living man in the expression of a poem, without wincing.”
4. Whitman was wrong – or at least he had an understanding of what he was doing that was limited by his time and his Transcendentalism, and his account of what he did is not satisfactory.
a. It’s not natural to go around saying how natural you are; you’re not naïve if you say you’re naïve; there’s an “authenticity” paradox to Whitman’s account of Whitman’s poetry.
b. Whitman actually used and/or pioneered a number of innovative/experimental formal techniques, including:
i. Syntactic parallelism
ii. Repetition: anaphore (use of a word that means the same thing as a previous word, e.g., a pronoun), apastrope (repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of a clause), epistrophe (repetition of a word or phrase at the end of a clause), and symploce.
iv. Varied, flexible line length (governed by something other than meter).
v. Direct address/illocutionary speech
vi. Poem clusters
c. There is good evidence that Whitman used various types of speech and discourse as formal models for his poetry, including:
ii. The translated Hebrew poetry and prophets in the King James Bible.
5. From a present philosophical and theoretical position, both the idea of a perfectly formed poem and a natural, unformed poem are flawed.
6. Though it would be pointless to attack Whitman or his early critics for being defined by their time, it is still common for Whitman scholars to accept his account of his own poetry, and, generally, to treat questions of form, structure, and prosody – that is, the poetry of his poems3 – as if they were only of exoteric interest and peripheral importance.
7. This is the larger thesis: It is generally the case that Whitman scholars are focused on his ideas and subjects, as if poems were made out of ideas, rather than words, but the question of form should be taken central and primary to understanding Whitman.4
8. This is exactly the point made by William Carlos Williams’ insightful and unique critique of Whitman – that he fails to thoroughly think through the theoretical implications of his revolutionary innovations, misunderstanding the substance of poetry.
a. Williams5 says Whitman’s formal innovations were courageous and far-seeing, but he ultimately failed to follow through with he program.
b. Williams says that because Whitman “took his eye off the words themselves which should have held him,” the forces of conservative, reactionary poetics eventually defeated the new, free, American poetry to which Whitman had given birth (and Williams very much conceives of this in terms of a moral battle), saying, “Men went about congratulating themselves as upon the disappearance of something that had disturbed their dreams; and indeed it was so – the dreams rigt-thinking students of English verse had long been disturbed by the appearance among them of the horrid specter of Whitman’s free verse. Now it was as if a liberator, a Saint George, had come just in the nick of time to save them. The instructors in all the secondary schools were grateful.”
c. Williams says Whitman is distracted by his ideas, forgetting that “after all, poems are made out of words not ideas,” too often conflating poetry with something else.6
9. This is the scaled back thesis (which may eventually serve to support the broader thesis’ assertion of form as pivotal to an understanding of Whitman): Using Williams’ insight and looking at the way poetry appears in Whitman’s poems, we see that:
a. He has trouble concentration on or thinking about poetry as such, often conflating poetry with other things;
b. his conception of poetry is self defeating;
c. The idea of poetry, for Whitman, is inflicted with anxiety.
1. This presentation will focus on four poems, “Starting from Paumanok,” “Song of Myself,” “Eighteen Sixty-One,” and “Beat! Beat! Drums!,” taken in chronological order as they appear in the final edition of Leaves of Grass and using the movement through the poems to construct a dynamic that reveals the conflating, self-defeating and deeply anxious figure of “poetry” in the poetry.
2. “Starting from Paumanok” consistently conflates or confuses poetry with other things, using poetry as a metaphor, but then losing the thing itself.
a. In the very first line, “Starting from fish-shape Paumanok,” poet and poem are conflated, so that “Starting” is simultaneously the start of the poem and that of the author/poet. If you look, for instance, at “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” and “From Paumanok Starting I Fly Like a Bird,” which we don’t have time to do here, and “Starting from Paumanok 11,” you see Whitman also presents Paumanok as the start of his theory of poetry.
b. In 18, lines 253 – 258, the poem is presented as the same as America – as a metaphor, but also as almost completely overlapping spaces, sharing all of the same dimensions, all the same properties (and property), which makes them, logically, identical.
c. In 17, lines 246 – 248, the description of the country is also a description of the poem, and the two are the same.
d. In 6, lines 74 and 75, 78 and 79, the poem, “song,” is “for these States,” first, and then it’s the organizing principle of the States, keeping them in their proper place, “that there shall be comity by day and by night” and then, finally, the song is composed of “the One form’d out of all,” and is, thus, inseparable, indistinguishable for other things.
e. These metaphors should not be understood as simply metaphors, but in the context of Transcendentalist language theory, which Whitman embraced and was thoroughly familiar with, which says that language is an “activity of the spirit,” that language is a “vehicle for concrete facts,” and that there is, in fact, not supposed to be a separation between words and things; words, for Whitman, really are conflated, are manifestation of spiritual relaties, which is why he, as Tyler Hoffman writes, “ repeatedly reads American English through a political lens,” and why he wasn’t, for example, being merely fancy and metaphorical when he said a great poet “would make words sing, dance, kiss, do the male and female act, bear children, weep, bleed, rage, stab, steal, fire cannon, steer ships, sack cities, charge with calvery and infantry, or do any thing, that man or woman or the natural powers can do.”
3. “Song of Myself” presents three versions of poetry: one called “poetry,” which is dead, inanimate and bad, one called “voice,” which is limited and anxious, and one called “singing,” which is alive and untranslatable, something like a bird’s signing (so not a communication but as equal to and one with existence itself), the famous “barbaric yawp.”
a. In lines 30 – 37, “poetry” is presented as a form of dead knowledge, something to reject.
b. In line 49, explanations of details, which are connected to the refinement Whitman says has been the wrong-headed tendency of all poetry, is said to be of “no avail, learn’d and unlearn’d feel that it is so.”
c. Poetry is then contrasted with “voice,” with “talking,” which is better and more natural than “poetry,” but is tainting (from the start) with an anxiety:
i. In 3, the poet-author says “I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end,” which he then clarifies is something he does not want to do, “But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.”
ii. “Voice” is presented as something that cannot be quite trusted, since it can be silenced, as in line 164, where it is “buried” – as though dead, like poetry – and “restrain’d by decorum” – also like poetry – even though it is, by nature, something that “is always vibrating” and howls.”
iii. “Voices,” in line 508, are something that have been made “long dumb,” which Whitman, through a different type of speech is liberating: he knows, line 506, “the password primeval,” the “sign of democracy”; he can “Unscre the locks from the doors!/Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!”, line 501 and 502; through him, dead voices are resurrected, as he says, “Through me forbidden voices,/Voices of sexes and lusts, voices veil’d and I remove the veil,/Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigur’d” lines 516 – 518.
iv. The poet himself starts talking, 25, line 564 – 581, “Speech is the twin of my vision,” but then starts to almost fight with speech, is provoked by speech, and rejects it as “artifactual.”
d. Whitman, then, is doing something more than mere talking – he is engaged in this different kind of poetry, “singing.”
i. Right after Whitman rejects “voice” as insufficient, he discovers music, 26, starting with the birds (the same birds he heard as a child on fish-shaped Paumanok) and then concluding, “I hear the chorus, it is a grand opera,/Ah this indeed is music – this suits me.”
ii. Following the revelation of music, Whitman’s lists become longer, more exuberant, e.g. 33, as if, the poetry worked out, the justification of the poem itself established, Whitman is free.
iii. The next time speech appears in “Song of Myself,” it is a statement against “voice”: In line 869 and 870, Whitman writes, “Again gurgles the mouth of my dying general, he furiously waves with his hand,/He gasps through the clot Mind not me – mind – the entrenchments,” presenting speech as a) difficult, b) involved with death, c) as something we and the poet should ignore, for the sake of the speaker.
iv. Whitman further presents, in this poem, a whole number of people who do not sing, but use “voice,” e.g., preachers and scientists, the sea captain, people whom he does not want to reject, but whom he, with his singing can surpass in the manifestation or the realization of their spirit: “Music rolls,” Whitman says, “but not from an organ,” line 1061, and again, line 1086, “Not words of routine this song of mine.”
v. This brings us back to the title of the poem, “Song of Myself,” and what is perhaps the famous couplet, line 1332 and 1333: “I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,/I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”
A. This is Whitman’s idea and ideal of poetry.
B. Note that he says “too,” which refers to the hawk – again with the birds – from the line above.
C. It is untranslatable because it is the thing itself.
D. He critics, for the most part, start here, as if there were no theory, no form behind this “yawp,” as if it simple emerged as it is, al fresco, al la carte, a noble savage verse.
4. “Eighteen Sixty-One” presents a conception of (refined) poetry to reject and a new idea of (vital, virile) poetry – new times calling for new forms – but it’s so wrapped up and intertwined in a metaphor that the conception is vague and indistinguishable.
a. This poem begins with “dainty rhymes”, line 2, and “some pale poet seated at a desk lisping cadenzas piano,” line 3, and ends with the “determin’d voice launch’d forth again and again,” “that suddenly sang by the mouths of the round-lipp’d cannon,” line 14, 15, presenting very clearly Whitman’s ideas of what poetry should and should not be.
b. The argument here, besides the innuendos and insinuations, is hat new times call for new forms, which is basically the argument of every writer who experiments with form – Whitman is declaring 1861, the start of the America Civil War, as a new era.
c. However, again there is a conflation – a metaphor that can’t quite be untangled – and, as Williams said, Whitman can’t quite focus on the thing he has just given birth to, and so, for a poet, for anyone interested in taking up this challenge, there are a lot of unanswered and only half-asked questions: What kind of form is being proposed? What would this new poetry look like, besides being strong and forceful and manly? Whitman says, “I repeat you,” but what does it mean to repeat the song of a cannon, why isn’t the song of the cannon enough for itself?
5. “Beat! Beat! Drums!” (continuing off of what started to happen in “Eighteen Sixty-One”) reverses the metaphor of “Starting from Paumanok,” so that instead of poetry standing for the country, etc., here something else, i.e., booming canons, stand for poetry, presenting perhaps the clearest idea of poetry as such, but also showing how the idea is self-defeating.
a. The militaristic music is now the liberating force that Whitman’s song once was, standing in here for Whitman’s song, the two being the same at this moment: “Through the windows – through doors – burst like ruthless force …” line 2.
b. The bugles and drums then overwhelm, and make other “music” pointless, impossible to hear, not expressing it, but suppressing the city, the wheel sin the streets, etc., and unlike Whitman, they “stop for no expostulation”, line 15, and “mind not” lines 16, 17, exactly the things Whitman had previously minded to.
c. The overpowering bugles and drums make even singing pointless – returning us to the anxiety Whitman had about talking: “Would he talkers be talking?” he asks, “would the singer attempt to sing?/Would the lawyer rise in the court to state his case before the judge?/Then rattle quicker, heavier drums – you bugles wilder blow” line 12, 13.
6. In “Beat! Beat! Drums!” and, to a lesser extent, “Eighteen Sixty-One,” there is a way in which poetry, even the “singing” sort of poetry, is rejected, and the anxiety that was associated with “voice” in “Song of Myself” here reemerges.8
a. In philosophy (and this is not new philosophy) if two terms share all the same properties, time, space, color, causal power, etc., then they are identical, they are the same, and we can abandon the one term, reducing it to the other: if Whitman’s poetry is a repetition of the cannon, conflated with the country, they why have it all?
b. Whitman seems to be, in some ways, trapped by his Transcendentalism, and almost exuberantly takes a position against himself.
c. Because he embraces this idea of poetry as anti-poetry, he can’t think through the formal problems of his theory, since theory is a betrayal of the natural, spontaneous poetry theory – again the “authenticity” paradox (which is not surprising, since this is Transcendentalism).
d. If, however, we follow Whitman’s account of Whitman, like Oscar Wilde does, we find ourselves in the same quandary, though we have the ability to avoid it, if we put form and structure questions at the center.
e. Underneath that, though, he seems to be actually worried about poetry, and he does want to think about it but doesn’t totally know how – he’s haunted in the same way Williams said the good English pupils were – what to do with this howl, this yawp?
1. Walt Whitman is trapped in his Transcendental theory of language and poetry, a theory which, as it gives birth to radical and innovative forms – Whitman is a credit to his philosophy – also limits the possibility of and even prevents thoroughly thinking through the theory and its implications.
2. Whitman’s account of his own poetry is limited, and flawed, but scholars need not blindly accept and repeat his romanticism.
3. Williams is right, Whitman does “wince,” (Whitman’s word), and to truly understand what’s valuable about Whitman, what’s important here, and also what’s limited or lacking, we need to, again, assert the priority of form, as something central, not peripheral, critical, not esoteric.9, 10
Notes and criticisms
1. For Dr. Clark Maddux, Early American Literature, Eberhard-Karls-Universität Tübingen Englisches Seminar, Abteilung für Amerikanistik, June 29, 2010. Self crit.: Completely Capt. Ahabed this. It's too big, too ambitious, more than slightly crazy. But it is what it is.
2. Prof. crit./comment: The other "O" is oratory.
3. Self crit.: The sticking point here is my idea of poetry and what poetry is, which I don't defend, and would need another paper to defend. If someone thinks of poetry as a content carrier, though, with form only meant to serve the function of delivery, then there's no argument.
4. Self crit.: A slide -- went from critics circa 1876 - 1912 (who see no form) to all critics, many of whom talk about form and structure, though I don't think they do it (for the most part) correctly.
5. Other possible paper: Compare Williams' reading of Whtiman to Pound's, look at American avant garde/post-avant garde reception.
6. Fellow student crit.: But what is poetry? Is Williams right? Why do you (I) assume he is?
7. Other possible paper (probably the one I need to write for the term paper): The Anxious Yawp: Supressed worry over form and theory in Walt Whitman.
8. Self crit.: I think this is actually the worthwhile insight of this work. If everything else falls away and I focus here, I can work with/use Whitman's actual theory and the work that's been done with his formal innovations, while making a narrow and very specific (and I think original) claim.
9. Fellow student crit.: Aren't you just inverting this?
10. Prof. crit./comment: Don't you accept all these binaries that experimental, innovative poetry actually challenges and contests, like form/content, poetry/prose?