Terry Teachout and Our Girl in Chicago had an ongoing discussion recently on the subject of writers and artists who are clearly important/great, but to whom they have never warmed. I think the most recent round was here, and it in turn will link you back through the series. In a similar vein, I have been revisiting one of my own particular blindspots recently: Walt Whitman.
I have been trying to grapple myself into more enthusiasm for Whitman for more than a quarter century, without success. When I was an undergraduate English major at Berkeley in the 1970's, I took a poetry course taught by Ron Loewinsohn -- a gentleman notable for a number of things, but I'll confess that I took his course in large part because Richard Brautigan had dedicated Trout Fishing in America to him.¹ The class was an odd cross-pollination incorporating a survey of [mostly] American Poetry -- starting at Poe and Whitman and proceeding by way of Pound, Eliot, Williams, Stevens [Hart Crane was on the syllabus, but we never actually read him], before leapfrogging via (inevitably) Sylvia Plath to then-contemporary work by Ted Hughes, James Wright and Gary Snyder -- with poetry writing exercises thrown in. One of the running themes of the class was the notion that the history of American poetry is really the history of a competition between the approach of Poe (this would be the oft-maligned "school of quietude," I suppose) and that of Whitman. Loewinsohn was pretty squarely on the side of Whitman, but he tried to give the alternative strain a fair shake. For my part, I was happy the day we put Whitman behind us.
Then and now, Walt Whitman simply does not Work for me, and it is not because (as even his supporters usually admit) he produced as much really mediocre work in his career as any major poet this side of Wordsworth. No, my problem is with what most agree are the genuinely good poems he produced, and above all with the core of the Whitman oeuvre, the "Song of Myself."²
I can recognize lines and passages in which Whitman did very well indeed. That long line of his, with its wholloping caesura smack in the middle, can be a fluid and powerful instrument, and his wide-ranging vocabulary is often effective in providing the sort of "music" that might otherwise be provided by, say, meter or rhyme.³ But those lists, those lists! "Song of Myself" seems above all a List of Lists, and each item on each list seems to require a counterbalancing item within that list or in another list. And Whitman is constantly proclaiming how all-encompassing he is: Not only am I This, I am also That, And I am This Other Thing, and Something Else Again. And on and on. And on.
Just as including every possible frequency only produces white noise, Whitman's efforts to include everything produce the impression in this reader that his poem is ultimately about nothing . . . or it would produce that impression if one could only stay awake through whole wearying incantatory thing.4
There. I've said it and I'm glad.
¹ I revisited Trout Fishing over the summer, and found that it holds up surprisingly well. Whatever his weaknesses as a person (mostly relating to alcohol), Brautigan could turn out sentences that are a pure pleasure to read, even if they are not exactly freighted with deep significance.
² Digression and Speculative Exercise: Did it strike anyone else that President Clinton's List of 21 Favorite Books, so provocative of much comment elsewhere, listed only Eliot and Yeats as favored poets, pointedly omitting Whitman's Leaves of Grass, a copy of which Mr. Clinton famously presented to a blushing young intern of his acquaintance? Would Leaves have made the President's list in, say, 1996 and, if so, which of the works currently included has replaced it?
³ I know that when I've written about poetry previously I have tended to focus on strongly metric or rhyming work, but I do not have a particular bone to pick with free verse as such. A poet who rejects the use of those tools is doing hirself no favors, but some at least have succeeded by other means.
4 Aaron Haspel quoting Yvor Winters, taking Yeats to task, provides a relevant observation:
'The bardic tone is common in romantic poetry; it sometimes occurs in talented (but confused) poets such as Blake and Yeats; more often it appears in poets of little or no talent, such as Shelley, Whitman, and Robinson Jeffers. For most readers the bardic tone is synonymous with greatness, for through this tone the poet asserts that he is great, in the absence of any (or sufficient) supporting intelligence.'I am also reminded of God's complaint when he appears to King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail:
God: What are you doing now?
Arthur: I'm averting my eyes, O Lord.
God: Well don't. It's like those miserable Psalms -- they're so depressing. Now knock it off!