“[My ambition is to] give something to our literature which will be our own.” — Walt Whitman

“I like to think that eventually he will shame us into becoming Americans again.” — Guy Davenport on Walt Whitman

Whitman is the organizing principle behind my review of Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue. Bob Dylan quotes Whitman all the time. If you put them together, it contextualizes the way we think about them both. Or at least that’s true for me.

More – lots more – about Whitman below the jump.


Whitman, born on this day, wrote in his famous preface to Leaves of Grass:

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence towards the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with th emothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, reexamine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.

Whitman was a self-involved poet, predicting the confessional poets of the 50s and 60s (there’s a reason he so resonated with them). At the time, the self-focus of his poems, not to mention the eroticism and sensual pleasure emanating from his lines, was seen as unseemly, unmanly – he was controversial instantly (never mind the fact that he self-published his initial work, and then sent copies to all the leading lights of the days. Many were turned off by his clear ambition: again, it was seen as unseemly. There were outliers though, men who read his work and instantly recognized the new-ness of it, which they found exciting.) Whitman looks inward, looks to see himself reflected in the outer world. He was one of the first major American poets to use the “I” in a powerful direct way. The “I” that speaks in Walt Whitman’s verse is not general, or even universal, or in any way a character or mask: it is a voice, it is the poet himself. And it was his quest to find – or express – the American voice. Europe was not appropriate for America’s burgeoning traditions. The celebration of self – of the “I” – is one of Walt Whitman’s greatest contributions.

Like everyone else in America, the Civil War impacted his life. He was pro-Union, but he traveled to Washington, to the battlefields, saw the carnage, and felt the agony of both sides. He worked in a hospital. He tended to wounded soldiers. This had a huge impact on him (“The Wound Dressers”). He was obsessed with Abraham Lincoln. He gave lectures on Lincoln after Lincoln’s death. Here is a ticket stub from one of those lectures I found online!

Whitman was celebrated and famous during his own lifetime. He was controversial. Even today, in our much more permissive world, Leaves of Grass reads as openly erotic. Imagine what it looked like to its very first readers.

Whitman did not live a life of tragedy, as Wilde did. Whitman became an elder statesmen of sorts. America was looked down upon by Europeans as an artistic backwater. Everyone in America was so industrious, it wasn’t a good place for artists! There wasn’t much homegrown literature here for the first centuries of our existence; there was just too damn much to do. In the 19th century all that began to change, and voices started to emerge. Voices not following in Europe’s tradition, but voices all their own. The American cadence. Hello, Emily Dickinson. Hello, Mark Twain. They are the Big Three of 19th century American literature. And they were contemporaries, born within 2 decades of one another. Amazing.

Whitman’s work was not neat, polite, or distant. You read his stuff and you can hear Robert Lowell, Allen Ginsberg, Anne Sexton … a century later, people. He was so far ahead of his time it’s incredible.

Crossing the Brooklyn Ferry” is my favorite of Whitman’s poems. One of the greatest expressions of the beauty and energy of New York, and, by association, all of America.

Often poets are silenced by war. Whitman was not. Here are a couple he wrote in 1865.

By the Bivouac’s Fitful Flame

By the bivouac’s fitful flame,
A procession winding around me, solemn and sweet and slow–but first I note,
The tents of the sleeping army, the fields’ and woods’ dim outline,
The darkness lit by spots of kindled fire, the silence,
Like a phantom far or near an occasional figure moving,
The shrubs and trees, (as I lift my eyes they seem to be stealthily watching me,)
While wind in procession thoughts, O tender and wondrous thoughts,
Of life and death, of home and the past and loved, and of those that are far away;
A solemn and slow procession there as I sit on the ground,
By the bivouac’s fitful flame.

Hush’d Be the Camps Today
May 4, 1865

Hush’d be the camps today,
And soldiers let us drape our war-worn weapons,
And each with musing soul retire to celebrate,
Our dear commander’s death.
No more for him life’s stormy conflicts,
Nor victory, nor defeat — no more time’s dark events,
Charging like ceaseless clouds across the sky.
But sing poet in our name,
Sing of the love we bore him — because you, dweller in camps, know it truly.
As they invault the coffin there,
Sing — as they close the doors of earth upon him — one verse,
For the heavy hearts of soldiers.

Walt Whitman wrote in his notebook on hearing of President Lincoln’s assassination, and walking through New York, all the buildings draped in black:

Lincoln’s death — black, black, black — as you look toward the sky — long broad black, like great serpents.


Camille Paglia, Break Blow Burn on “Song of Myself”:

The concept of sin has been banished: there is nothing obscene in Whitman’s poetry except failure of empathy.

Introduction to Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

The late nineteenth-century poets Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Gerard Manley Hopkins fall outside the period’s boundaries. Yet these three figures stand like giants at the threshold, precursors who heralded key developments in the early twentieth-century poetry that is generally called “modern.” Their groundbreaking poetry, disdained by or largely unknown to their contemporaries, found both readers and disciples in the twentieth century.

Richard Ellmann, in his biography of Oscar Wilde, describes Wilde’s visit to America in a whirlwind tour. Wilde stopped off to see Whitman. This encounter has been picked apart for over a century.

Wilde initiated the conversation by saying, ‘I come as a poet to call upon a poet.’ Whitman replied, ‘Go ahead.’ Wilde went on, ‘I have come to you as one with whom I have been acquainted almost from the cradle.’ He explained that his mother had purchased a copy of Leaves of Grass when it was published; presumably this was in 1868 (Wilde put it two years earlier), when William Michael Rossetti edited a selection of Whitman’s poems. Lady Wilde read out the poems to her son, and later, when Wilde had gone up to Oxford, he and his friends carried Leaves of Grass to read on their walks. Whitman, in pleased response, went to the cupboard and took out his sister-in-law’s bottle of homemade elderberry wine. Wilde drained without wincing the glass Whitman had filled, and they settled down to consume the rest of the bottle. ‘I will call you Oscar,’ said Whitman, and Wilde, laying his hand on the poet’s knee, replied, ‘I like that so much.’ To Whitman, Wilde was a ‘fine handsome youngster.’ Wilde was too big to take on his lap like other youngsters who visited the sage, but could be coddled if not cuddled…

The den was filled with dusty newspapers preserved because they mentioned Whitman’s name, and Wilde would complain later to Sherard of the squalid scene in which the poet had to write. It was hard to find a place to sit down, but by removing a stack of newspapers from a chair, Wilde managed to. hey had much to talk about. Whitman was eager to know about Swinburne, who had long ago been his English advocate and had written the tribute ‘To Walt Whitman Across the Sea’. Wilde knew Swinburne well enough to promise to relay Whitman’s message of friendship to him. …

Wilde pressed his advantage to ask what Whitman made of the new aesthetic school. Whitman replied with an indulgent smile befitting his sixty-three years, ‘I wish well to you, Oscar, and as to the aesthetes, I can only say that you are young and ardent, and the field is wide, and if you want my advice, go ahead.’ With comparable politeness Wilde questioned Whitman about his theories of poetry and competition. Prosody was not a subject on which Whitman had ever been articulate, except in relentlessly extolling free verse. He responded with wonderful ingenuousness, ‘Well, you know, I was at one time of my life a compositor and when a compositor gets to the end of his stick he stops short and goes ahead on the next line.’ He went on unabashed, ‘I aim at making my verse look all neat and pretty on the pages, like the epitaph on a square tombstone.’ To illustrate, h e outlined such a tombstone with his hands in the air. Wilde treasured the remark and the gesture, and re-enacted them to Douglas Ainslie some years later. But Whitman concluded with impressive simplicity, ‘There are problems I am always seeking to solve.’

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language:

Walt Whitman is a difficult poet–complex, evasive, subtle, hermetic–who wants his poetry to look easy. Democratic in ideology, Whitman personally was intensely private and elitest, and his open stance towards his readers is a rhetorical fiction.

Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets:

Whitman is all about access: to experience, to language, to each other.

Emily Dickinson, letter:

I never read his book – but was told that he was disgraceful.

Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae:

Hovering is always emotionally and sexually problematic. It is everywhere in the Late Romantic voyeur, Walt Whitman, who imagines himself wandering all night, “swiftly and noiselessly stepping and stopping.” He bends “with open eyes over the shut eyes of sleepers”; he listens to the quiet breathing of children; he passes his hands “soothingly to and fro” over the suffering and restless. Elsewhere, lifting the gauze over a cradle, he stares “a long time” at the infant and “silently” brushes away flies (The Sleepers; Song of Myself). When Wordsworth looks out from Westminster Bridge, the city’s sleepers are only inferred. Whitman’s sleepers are warm, sensuous bodies. Whitman’s all-embracing Rousseauist love is Romantic vampirism, scopophiliac tyranny. The poet’s eye is omnipotent, while its objects are passive and defenseless, without thought or identity. The nearness with which Whitman approaches the sleepers is predicated on their unconsciousness.

From G. Lowes Dickinson’s Appearances (1914):

What America imports from Europe is useless to her. It is torn from its roots; and it is idle to replant it; it will not grow. There must be a native growth, not so muc of America as of the modern era. That growth America must will. She has her prophet of it, Walt Whitman. In the coming centuries it is her work to make his vision real.

Oscar Wilde:

He is the grandest man I have ever met in my life. I regard him as one of those wonderful, large, entire men who might have lived in any age and is not peculiar to any people. Strong, true, and perfectly sane: the closest approach to the Greek we have yet had in modern times.

Jorge Luis Borges:

“Of course, I think Whitman is far more important than Sandburg, but when you read Whitman, you think of him as a literary, perhaps a not-too-learned man of letters, who is doing his best to write in the vernacular, and who is using slang as much as he can. In Sandburg the slang seems to come naturally… Another thing I find strange in Sandburg is that in Whitman – but of course Whitman is Sandburg’s father – Whitman is full of hope, while Sandburg writes as if he were writing in the two or three centuries to come. When he writes of the American expeditionary forces, or when he writes about empire or the war or so on, he writes as if all those things were dead and gone by.”

Camille Paglia, Break Blow Burn, on “Song of Myself”:

Infamous and lionized, Walt Whitman was the supreme poet of American Romanticism, Wordsworth’s heir as a celebrator of nature. Through impudent experiments with tone and form, he also radically advanced the modernization of poetic language begun by Wordsworth. From the slangy to the rhapsodic, Whitman’s poetry is in constant, restless change: his long lines pour out like a torrent or skitter in playful zigzags…In ambition and scale, Leaves of Grass is an epic, encompassing politics, nature, and the divine, as Whitman understood it. But the heroic narrative centers on himself–or rather the inflated superself of the Romantic poet, isolated and rapacious. That the first word of Song of Myself is an unmannerly “I” illustrates the American genius for self-advertisement, which has characterized our commercial life as well as our political history.

from “Cape Hatteras”
By Hart Crane

Yes, Walt,
Afoot again, and onward without halt,–
Not soon, not suddenly,–No, never to let go
My hand
in yours
Walt Whitman–

[Full poem here]

Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, December 12, 1958:

Old nineteenth-century New England must have been fearful–in what other country would Thoreau, Melville, Whitman and Dickinson have been so overlooked?

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language:

Whitman is nuanced and evasive, and most figurative where he proclaims he is literal.

Ezra Pound, “What I Feel About Walt Whitman’ (1909):

He is America. His crudity is an exceeding great stench, but it is America. He is the hollow place in the rock that echoes with his time. He does chant the crucial stage and he is the voice triumphant. He is disgusting. He is an exceedingly nauseating pill, but he accomplishes his mission. When I write of certain things I find myself using his rhythms… Mentally I am a Walt Whitman who has learned to wear a collar and a dress shirt … I think we have not yet paid enough attention to the deliberate artistry of the man, not in details but in the large … His message is my message.

A Pact
By Ezra Pound

I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman –
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
Who has had a pig-headed father;
I am old enough now to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root –
Let there be commerce between us.

Oh Ezra. Just relax, okay? Everything’s going to be all right. Although, in your case, it really wasn’t!

Harold Bloom, Best Poems in the English Language:

I find Whitman quite unrecognizable in nearly every reference Pound makes to him. Our greatest poet and our most elusive, because most figurative, Whitman consistently is literalized by Pound, as though the Whitmanian self could be accepted as a machine rather than as a metaphor.

Camille Paglia, Break Blow Burn, on “Song of Myself”:

“My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air”: Whitman’s American vernacular–eager, forthright, sometimes bumptious–was born in an alchemical melding of earth and air. His “tongue,” or drive to speak, pokes or erupts from the soil like a plant shoot. Nature, not Old World tradition, gives him his voice. Whitman responds to Emerson’s call for American cultural self-reliance by proudly rooting four generations of his family in the land: “born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same”. American writers have shed the distant past.

Ezra Pound, from “What I Feel About Walt Whitman” (1909):

I honour him for he prophesied me while I can only recognize him as a forebear of whom I ought to be proud … I read him (in many parts) with acute pain, but when I write of certain things I find myself using his rhythms. The expression of certain things related to cosmic consciousness seems tainted with this marasmus.

Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets:

Whitman’s “I” was indeed inclusive. It is not that he “spoke for America” but his voice included everyone. Whitman’s poetry is full of characteristic detail rather than specific imagery. He is the poem’s vehicle but not systematically its subject. He honors the body politic and its wounds hurt him; his own wounds he regards as trivial, beneath the dignity of the larger poem. America is registered through him.

Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae:

Whitman corrects Wordsworth’s benign maternalism without resorting to Coleridge’s horrific vampirism. By bardic instinct rather than learning, he revises the cosmology of the ancient mother cults. He imagines a turbulent world-pregnancy…Whitman is son-lover and priest of the hermaphrodite goddess, with whom he unites through impersonation. He wants to assimilate all being into the self, imagined as a capacious sac. The epic catalogs of Leaves of Grass are the poet’s gluttonous self-fecundation or female swelling, a portrait of the artist as Great Mother, a Universal Man-Woman.

Greil Marcus, 2016:

“I think the first thing I ever wrote about Bob Dylan was a college paper about Bob Dylan and Walt Whitman. All you really need to know about that topic is not what people said in the ’60s: If Walt Whitman were alive today he’d be playing an electric guitar. No. I think you could say, as Bob Dylan has certainly recognized, that Walt Whitman is his comrade. And Whitman would recognize Dylan as his ‘comerado,’ in his word.”

Vincent van Gogh, letter to his sister, 1888:

Have you read the American poems by Whitman? [his italics] I am sure Theo has them, and I strongly advise you to read them, because to begin with they are really fine, and the English speak about them a good deal. He sees in the future, and even in the present, a world of healthy, carnal love, strong and frank–of friendship– of work– under the great starlit vault of heaven a something which after all one can only call God– and eternity in its place above this world. At first it makes you smile, it is all so candid and pure; but it sets you thinking for the same reason. The “Prayer of Columbus” is very beautiful.

Camille Paglia, “Love Poetry”:

Whitman broke taboos in American poetry: he names body parts and depicts sex surging through fertile nature; he savors the erotic beauties of both male and female. Though he endorses sexual action and energy, Whitman appears to have been mostly solitary, troubled by homosexual desires, suggested in the “Calamus” section of Leaves of Grass.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language:

Whitman, with Emily Dickinson, is one of the two great American poet-originals. He does not have Dickinson’s cognitive originality; what is new in Whitman is expressed in gesture, nuance, rhetorical stance, the mythology of the self. No poet since Whitman, in any language I know, has anything like his largeness of being, his enormous consciousness of himself, of his time, and of his nation.

Henry David Thoreau:

He occasionally suggests something a little more than human.

Camille Paglia, Break Blow Burn, on “Song of Myself”:

Whitman wants to end covertness about sex as well as division and suspicion over money and property. He identifies privacy with greed and fear and presents nature as a vista of green mansions shared by the family of man. The unscrewed doors are the frames of Western logic and knowledge, rigid geometrics that Whitman will transform via fluid emotion and nature’s organic curves.

Ralph Waldo Emerson:

I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of Leaves of Grass. I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed … I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of treatment which so delights us, and which large perceptions only can inspire.

from 82nd Pisan Canto:
by Ezra Pound

“Fvy! in Tdaenmarck efen dh’ beasantz gnow him,”
meaning Whitman, exotic, still suspect
four miles from Camden
“O troubled reflection
“O Throat, O throbbing heart”
How dran, O GEA TERRA,
what draws as thou drawest
till one sink into thee by an arm’s width
embracing thee. Drawest,
truly thou drawest.
Wisdom lies next thee,
simply, past metaphor.

Where I lie let the thyme rise.

Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae:

Whitman has a Late Romantic sister-spirit in American literature. His Decadent voyeurism looks forward to the lubricious death-connoisseurship of Emily Dickinson. Unexpectedly, the hobo iconoclast and the spinster recluse share the same perverse sensibility.

James Baldwin:

One’s own experience is not necessarily one’s twenty-four-hour reality. Everything happens to you, which is what Whitman means when he says in his poem “Heroes,” “I am the man, I suffered, I was there.” It depends on what you mean by experience.

William Carlos Williams:

Whitman was on the right track, but then he switched to the English intonation, and followed the English method of recording the feet, he didn’t realize it was a different method, which was not satisfactory to an American. Everything started with Shakespeare.

Camille Paglia, Break Blow Burn, on “Song of Myself”:

Whitman wants to defeat habit and arouse a sense of the collective. By linking the “primeval” to modern “democracy,” he suggests that the intervening period was an epoch of oppressive hierarchies, when the social classes were at perpetual war. Poetry, the great unifier, is a secret word or sign (as in Freemasonry) welcoming intimates to nature’s pagan mysteries.

John Hollander:

[The poems’] formal nodes as well as their complex articulations of those modes are all in themselves subtle and powerful formal and metaphoric versions of more traditional ones.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language:

Whitman is far more an allusive poet than generally is realized. Shakespeare, Milton, Shelley, Keats, and Tennyson join Emerson and the Bible as his literary ancestors. The poet-speaker of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” identifies himself with Edgar in King Lear, and “Lilacs” shapes itself with Lycidas and Adonais as background.

Thomas Mann on Song of Myself:

…a great, important, indeed holy gift.

Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae:

Because of [Whitman’s] identification with the Great Mother, masculinity is the feeblest of Whitman’s personae. His pseudomale would pop like a birthday balloon. Swinburne, whose sensuous ocean mother was inspired by Whitman’s, has no sexual anxiety in the same situation. He welcomes male subordination to woman, probably because he has the authority of Sade and Baudelaire behind him. Upper-class Swinburne comes to poetry from the salon world of manners, but Whitman cannot escape his proletarian past, where a man is a man by labor and robustness.

Michael Schmidt:

The Bohemian dandy was a prophet, the voice of the single man was ready to speak for America. Leaves of Grass was conceived. What happened? Was it the grandeur of the landscapes that he saw, the variety of people and scenes (he returned via the Great Lakes, Niagara and the Hudson), or was it a love affair with a woman (the “Children of Adam” sequence in Leaves of Grass) — or a man (the “Calamus” poems)? Was it a religious reckoning? There is a kind of joyful mysticism in the verse, to which Emerson responded.

Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae:

[Whitman’s] poetry is far more populated than Wordsworth’s, yet he suffers the same anguished apartness. Like Swinburne’s melancholy Hermaphrodite, he is trapped in sexual solitude. His own androgyny, a privilege and a curse, keeps him from union with lovers male or female. There is no true intimacy in Whitman. His poetry is a substitute for intimacy and a record of the swerve from it.

Randall Jarrell:

Whitman, Dickinson and Melville seem to me the best poets of the nineteenth century here in America.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

Both Hart Crane and William Carlos Williams saw in Whitman’s poetry an alternative to T.S. Eliot’s pessimism about life, his reliance on external authority, and his suspect devotion to the iamb.

Algernon Charles Swinburne on “When Lilacs”:

…the most sweet and amorous nocturne ever chanted in the church of the world.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language:

The rough Walt and his unknown Soul can make their own pact, but the Real Me, “the other I am,” and the Soul are enemies, and can only abase themselves to one another. One sees why “Walt Whitman,” the fictitious Self, is necessary; he holds the antagonists apart.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, letter to Robert Bridges, October 18, 1882:

I have read of Whitman’s (1) “Pete” in the library at Bedford Square (and perhaps something else; if so I forget), which you pointed out; (2) two pieces in the Athenaeum or Academy, one on the Man-of-War Bird, the other beginning “Spirit that formed this scene”; (3) short extracts in a review by Saintsbury in the Academy: this is all I remember … This, though very little, is quite enough to give a strong impression of his marked and original manner and way of thought and in particular of his rhythm. It might be even enough, I shall not deny, to originate or, much more, influence another’s style: they say the French trace their whole modern school of landscape to a single piece of Constable’s exhibited at the Salon early this century.

The question then is only about the fact. But first I may as well say what I should not otherwise have said, that I always knew in my heart Walt Whitman’s mind to be more like my own than any other man’s living. As he is a very great scoundrel this is not a pleasant confession. And this also makes me the more desirous to read him and the more determined I will not.

…Prose rhythm in English is always one of two things … either iambic or anapaestic. You may make a third measure (let us call it) by intermixing them. One of these three simple measures then, all iambic or all anapaestic or mingled iambic and anapaestic, is what he in every case means to write. He dreams of no other and he means a rugged or, as he calls it in that very piece “Spirit that formed this scene” (which is very instructive and should be read on this very subject), a “savage” art and rhythm. …

The above remarks are not meant to run down Whitman. His “savage” style has advantages, and he has chosen it; he says so. But you cannot eat your cake and keep it: he eats his off-hand, I keep mine. It makes a very great difference. Neither do I deny all resemblance.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language:

His persistent title–Leaves of Grass–is a highly complex metaphor, difficult to work through fully. Isaiah and the Psalms proclaim that all flesh is grass, while there is a persistent secular fiction of the falling leaves of autumn as being emblematic of individual human lives. Homer, Vergil, Dante, Milton, Spenser, Shelley. Whitman intends to merge both images: falling human life in the leaves, all flesh in the grass.

That is the high sense (or part of it) of Whitman’s titular metaphor. But he intends something homelier: in nineteenth-century printers’ lingo, leaves are bundles of paper as well as our sense of pages, while grass can be just printers’ casual junk filling up the page. It is like Whitman to be sublime and throwaway simultaneously.

Walt Whitman, letter to Longfellow:

431 Stevens Street
Camden New Jersey
Feb: 20 ’81

My dear Mr Longfellow
A friend in Canada—to whom I am indebted for great personal kindnesses & affections—particularly desires your autograph1—Could you furnish it to me, to send? & much oblige

Walt Whitman

Pablo Neruda, NY Times, 1972:

We continue to live in a Whitmanesque age, seeing how new men and new societies rise and grow, despite their birth-pangs. Walt Whitman was the protagonist of a truly geographical personality: the first man in history to speak with a truly continental voice, to bear a truly American Name.

Robert Louis Stevenson:

A most surprising compound of plain grandeur, sentimental affection, and downright nonsense.

Randall Jarrell:

But something odd has happened to the living, changing part of Whitman’s reputation: nowadays it is people who are not particularly interested in poetry, people who say that they read a poem for what it says, not for how it says it, who admire Whitman most. Whitman is often written about, either approvingly or disapprovingly, as if he were the Thomas Wolfe of 19th-century democracy.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, letter to Whitman, July 21, 1855:

I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little to see if this sunbeam were no illusion, but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely, of fortifying and encouraging.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

The incantatory rhythms of the unrhymed lines [of “Song of Myself’], the catalogs of North Americans busy with their lives and occupations, the rapid alternations from joy to disaster (disaster sometimes natural, sometimes visited on men and women by their fellow human beings), the moving cinemalike eye that homes in on a detail, then springs back to survey a panorama, the speaker, sexually and socially undefined, never, despite the unabashed egocentricity of the poem’s title, to be isolated from his creation–all of this richness is evident in the poet from his beginnings.

Harold Bloom, Best Poems in the English Language:

Whitman once contrasted himself to Keats by rejecting negative capability and insisting instead that the great poet gave us the “powerful press of himself.”

Robert Lowell:

“I don’t think that a personal history can go on forever, unless you’re Walt Whitman and have a way with you.”

Oscar Wilde, letter to Whitman:

Tennyson’s rank is too well fixed and we love him too much. But he has not allowed himself to be a part of the living world and of the great currents of interest and action. He is of priceless value and yet he lives apart from his time. He lives in a dream of the unreal. We, on the other hand, move in the very heart of today.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

In his poems, Whitman appears as the archetypal overreacher: nothing human is alien to him.

Michael Schmidt:

What Pound loves in [Elizabeth Barrett] Browning is Italy and the play of voices (which Pound learns to weave together in the Cantos. “Sordello” is the threshold over which Pound passes, at last, into his great, contested work. It was in part Browning who made it possible for Pound to make peace with another voice of which he is made, his American precursor Walt Whitman. He resented and resisted Whitman; he read again, and resisted, but at last he makes a pact … For good or ill, Pound was made of Whitman, the American cadences ring in his ears.

Walt Whitman, letter, January 7, 1860:

[It is a] new style … necessitated by new theories, new themes…forced upon us for American purposes.

Frank O’Hara, famously:

Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with drippings (tears). I don’t give a damn whether they eat or not. Forced feeding leads to excessive thinness (effete). Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to, if they don’t need poetry bully for them. I like the movies too. And after all, only Whitman and [Hart] Crane and [William Carlos] Williams, of the American poets, are better than the movies.

Walt Whitman, letter, March 5, 1889:

I can hardly tell why but feel very positively that if any thing can justify my revolutionary attempts & utterances it is such ensemble–like a great city to modern civilization & a whole combined clustering paradozical identity, a man, a woman.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

There are also difficult poets who at first look easy, but are not. Walt Whitman proclaims his accessibility, but his best poems are subtle, evasive, Hermetic, and call for a heightened awareness of the nuances of figuration.

Walt Whitman, letter to William D. O’Connor, 1866:

[My ambition is to] give something to our literature which will be our own; with neither foreign spirit, nor imagery nor form, but adapted to our case, grown out of our associations, boldly portraying the West, strengthening and intensifying the national soul, and finding the entire fountains of its birth and growth in our own country.

Michael Schmidt, again:

[Hugh MacDiarmid’s] was an inclusive talent like Lawrence’s or Whitman’s, only more austere and particular, more Presbyterian, less subjective.

Allen Ginsberg saw himself in a continuum with William Blake and Walt Whitman, and “A Supermarket in California” is a tribute/dialogue/meditation on Whitman:

A Supermarket in California

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked
down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking
at the full moon.
In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon
fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at
night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!
–and you, García Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?

I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking
among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops?
What price bananas? Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you,
and followed in my imagination by the store detective.
We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy
tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the

Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in a hour.
Which way does your beard point tonight?
(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and
feel absurd.)
Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add shade
to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely.
Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automo-
biles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America
did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a
smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of

“By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.” – Walt Whitman, “The Soul of Democracy”
Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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5 Responses to “[My ambition is to] give something to our literature which will be our own.” — Walt Whitman

  1. Joe Markley says:

    Can’t resist adding a bit from D.H. Lawrence in his great, cranky Studies in Classic American Literature:

    “Whitman, the great poet, has meant so much to me. Whitman, the one man breaking a way ahead. Whitman, the one pioneer. And only Whitman. No English pioneers, no French. No European pioneer-poets. In Europe the would-be pioneers are mere innovators. The same in America. Ahead of Whitman, nothing. Ahead of all poets, pioneering into the wilderness of unopened life, Whitman. Beyond him, none…

    “Because Whitman’s camp is at the end of the road, and on the edge of a great precipice. Over the precipice, blue distances, and the blue hollow of the future. But there is no way down. It is a dead end.

    “Pisgah. Pisgah sights. And Death. Whitman like a strange, modern, American Moses. Fearfully mistaken. And yet the great leader.”

    • sheila says:

      Oh my gosh, Joe, that is fantastic!!

      // Over the precipice, blue distances, and the blue hollow of the future. But there is no way down. It is a dead end. //

      What is he talking about do you think? Like, future writers can’t “top” him? He’s the end?

    • sheila says:

      I haven’t read Lawrence’s book – it sounds wild. I imagine it all reads like that, yes?

      • Joe Markley says:

        You will love the Lawrence book–I’m delighted to bring it to your attention. It is brilliant and reckless, right up your alley.

        As you will find, he both admires Whitman and bemoans his universalizing tendency, which Lawrence sees as a betrayal of the individual ego.

        Thanks very much for your posts, which I’ve enjoyed tremendously!

        • sheila says:

          Brilliant and reckless – definitely up my alley!

          // which Lawrence sees as a betrayal of the individual ego. //

          Oh, D.H.

          I do love ideological literary beefs like this, even if I don’t come down on one or the other side.

          thanks so much for stopping by and for the rec!

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