Back Down to Earth: On Walt Whitman's Preface to the 1855 Leaves of Grass
Walt Whitman’s Preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, now celebrating its sesquicentennial, is the strongest advice I know against Language Poetry, now exerting a force unequal to its achievement in current American poetry. For all its virtues, including a radical emphasis on sonic qualities of ever-various, orgiastic and intoxicating American language, and what Paul Hoover terms its "challenge to the male-dominant hierarchy" and its "actuality in words," Language Poetry’s denunciation of the human behind the words is its dangerous (and, likely for its practitioners, enticing) legacy.1 As Jorie Graham states, one often sees in language poets "the dismantling of articulate speech," the goal of which appears (distressingly) to be " a language free of its user."2 If any poet ever wished to be irrefutably associated, inseparably married to his use of language, it was the body and soul of Walt Whitman.
Since perhaps the mid-eighties, language poetry has gained influence over younger poets, especially those graduating from creative writing programs and publishing in literary journals. The direction that influence has taken has been to focus these youthful works on a lack of narrative, a rejection of closure, an emphasis on textuality, and extreme attention to the material physicality of the shape and sound of words (or even letters) at the expense of what Muriel Rukeyser, a quintessential Whitmanian, terms "a triadic relation" of "the poet, the poem, and the audience."3 Many of our literary magazines now (and increasingly so) contain work that is divorced from daily life, from politics, and—most distressing of all—from the reader whom one presumes is the reason for publishing it in the first place. The result is an onanism that threatens to rob air from the fire of the creative process. Language poetry, which takes its genesis from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, with links perhaps to Ezra Pound (and James Joyce’s linguistic creations?), may also be seen as having ties to surrealism and other mostly European innovations, such as Dadaism and, in its experimentation with typography, Concrete Poetry à la Apollinaire. Perhaps, though this is a stretch, it may reach as far back as George Herbert’s "Easter-wings." Our poets, who Whitman describes as those able to "make every word he speaks draw blood," appear to be dangerously close to creating a bloodless enterprise.
Our poetry, like our culture in general, suffers from obsession with the new. Though of course all poets should work toward the unsaid, the undepicted, innovative form and subject matter, it doesn’t mean that we lose sight of the meaning embodied in the language. "Go west young man,"4 "Make it new,"5 "[N]o ideas but in things"6—are all verbal imperatives to deliberately turn from tired European forms and genteel composition. Yet we now have in our popular music, in our sports, in our nightly sitcoms and staple reality hate-fests and, alas, in what passes for remarkable poetry in today’s climate of crash-and-burn-as-you-publish-or-perish academia, a myopia of the contemporary. Ironically, in the highly sophisticated techno world of global communication, we have lost sight of global, humanitarian vision. It’s as if our memories contain information only as far back as 1950 (or is it 2001?). We focus, for example, on contributions by the living and thereby give less credence to the dead who built the roads we walk on, the houses we live in. In saying that "American poets are to enclose old and new" Whitman perceived (and early on refuted) our current short-sighted practice. For the American poet must "enter the essences of the real things and past and present events." Yes to experimentation (Leaves of Grass being, especially in its earliest incarnations, one of the great poetic experiments in American literature, in both form, with long-lined lyric masquerading as epic, and content, the inclusion of the dispossessed, such as forthright treatment of homosexual emotional bonds, women and blacks). Yes to the things of the world (and Whitman’s copious lists provide us with ample indications of what he meant by things). No to cleverness, surface luminosity, trickery, language for its own sake—attributes disdained by America’s least ironic poet but now often touted as the next "new" thing.
I had a bitter taste of language poetry in the first literary magazine I bought, the November/December 1985 issue of American Poetry Review. Leslie Scalapino was on the cover, but it was the Sharon Olds poems that I craved. It was misfortunate for my sense of language poetry that I came to Scalapino’s "that they were at the beach—aeolotropic series" after I’d read Olds’ frighteningly powerful "I Go Back to May 1937" and early scalp-raising versions of poems that would appear in The Father (1992). Scalapino’s work, by comparison, was emotionally flat, unengaging, uneventfully bland, as in the following excerpt:
taking a cab, the driver seems frightened, seen by him not speaking to me—
stemming from his job—unfamiliar because of the streets"7
This wasn’t my idea of any poetry I wanted to live by—so I packed my bags and moved to New York to study with Sharon Olds. At NYU, I found that Olds, along with her colleague Galway Kinnell, was enamoured of Whitman, precisely because he advocated exploration of the minute. "If [the poet] breathes into any thing that was before thought small it dilates with the grandeur and life of the universe," Whitman says in his preface. This must have been sheer miracle to read for Olds, who told us that she once went to Russia, got out of her plane and into her hotel room where she sat at a window sill, believing that if she stared long enough at a single speck of dust, she would know Russia. Think of Olds' use of the single moment in "The Exact Moment of My Father's Death" and "The Moment the Two Worlds Meet." Think of Kinnell's "Daybreak," Audre Lorde's "To My Daughter the Junkie on a Train," Rukeyser's great love poem "Looking at Each Other," Ginsberg's "Sphincter," Essex Hemphill's "Black Beans," Alicia Ostriker's remarkable series of harrowing and hopeful moments in "The Mastectomy Poems," the luminous moments of Marilyn Hacker’s sonnet sequence, "Cancer Winter." Think of the barely contained rage of Lucille Clifton’s "Jasper, Texas, 1998" and Paul Monette's brilliant Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies for Rog, which led forward a whole generation of AIDS love poems. These poems take their inception from Whitman's admonition to make the small large "with the grandeur of life of the universe." Thus Whitman conceived (in both senses of that word) the best that American poetry has to offer.
And yet there has been a sense in the magazines, prizes, and writing programs since I bought that first APR, that Whitman’s bold program for American poets is to be disparaged. He is, the argument goes, passé, too forthright, doesn’t use language that glimmers on the page, is (God forbid) narrative, unformed as new-dug clay. Whitman’s poetry of the body politic, a poetry of particular importance to gay Americans and feminists alike (despite the very white, heterosexual, privileged opinion of some critics who believe that the soul, and not the body, is the exclusive poetic domain), is at odds with the aesthetics of language poets. Whitman’s promiscuous "phallic procession," his "climax of my love grip" and "manly affection" and "long-dwelling kiss," his "bright juice suffus[ing] heaven" and his desire to give voice to the voiceless and to suffer with the wounded, his gender swaps and constant desire to connect, body to body and soul to soul with all persons who pass in his wake is the essential kernel of Whitman’s preface and poetry.8
Whitman is interested in surface beauty only insofar as it encompasses his principle goal of connecting human to human. "The poetic quality is not marshalled in rhyme or uniformity or abstract addresses to things," Whitman declares. ". . . the gaggery and gilt of a million years will not prevail. . . . The great poets are also to be known by the absence in them of tricks and by the justification of perfect personal candor." No matter how beautiful, ornate, delicate, industrious, alluring or colorful a surface, no matter the sophistication of clever forms neat as parlor puzzles, if the poem does not connect with soul through body it cannot link person to person, and is therefore in Whitman’s eyes utter failure. "Who troubles himself about his ornaments or fluency is lost," Whitman warns. And to contrast "ornaments" Whitman immediately gives the "poets of the kosmos" advice: get thee to the world of experience. "Love the earth," Whitman writes, "and sun and animals. . . stand up for the stupid and crazy. . . reexamine all you have been told at school, or church or in any book [including presumably his own], . . . dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem."
Whitman requires that the poet be no better than the common man. O, how far we are from that ideal! Often when I read the literary journals of today, I have a sense of the writer placing her- or himself above the fray, in a position of superiority. Look how smart I am, the poems declare, how clever and crafty, and how I can make you feel baffled and disengaged. This is the exact antithesis of what Whitman required of poetry. I think if he were here today he would boldly state that we are pursuing the wrong course and would bow his head in perplexity, not only at the state of our art and what passes for superior poems, but also because of our current political state (something that language poets, arguing that their use of language in baffling ways is their politics, ignore or approach so obliquely as not to be discernable.)
In an increasingly unstable world out of control on many fronts—from war to global warming to human rights—it is now clear that we need a poetry of supreme engagement, a poetry of the mind, body and soul. Experimentation is key, and there are many modes of experiment, Language Poetry being merely one. Whitman’s advice may still—150 years after this preface was first published—influence us with the best example of a manifesto opposed to beauty for its own sake, art in genuflection to its own solipsistic tendencies.
1Hoover, Paul, Ed. Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994, xxxiv, xxxvi.
2Graham, Jorie, Ed. & Lehman, David, Series Ed. The Best American Poetry 1990. New York: Macmillan, 1990, xxi.
3Rukeyser, Muriel. The Life of Poetry. Ashfield, Massachusetts: Paris Press, 1996, 174.
4A favorite saying of Horace Greeley (1811-72)
5Ezra Pound’s slogan
6Williams, William Carlos. Paterson, bk. 1, "The Delineaments of the Giants," sct. 1, l. 14.
7Scalapino, Leslie. "that they were at the beach—aeolotropic series." American Poetry Review, November/December, 1985, 25.
8Whitman, Walt. Selected Poems 1855-1892. Ed. Gary Schmidgall. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.