Wednesday, May 5, 2010

on Walt Whitman

One of the biggest fights Laurie and I have had in the course of our marriage was about Walt Whitman. That's the kind of people we are.  We don't fight often, but when we do, it's about literature.

We were talking about Walt Whitman and Laurie asked me if I thought Walt Whitman was a pantheist.  I said, "Well, I wouldn't say that.  I would say that he was a Transcendentalist."  And off we went.

Laurie's point is that Transcendentalism is pantheistic, which I don't deny.  My point was that Whitman was more specifically and more importantly a Transcendentalist or, at least, highly influential to and seeped in that school of thought if not specifically a card-carrying club member.  What I meant to say is that pantheism is far down the list of adjectives I would assign to Mr. Whitman if called upon to list important information about the man.  Also, I think Transcendentalism is more to the point and encompasses the pantheistic accusation.

In short, we were talking past each other.  We laugh about it now.

The catalyst was an interview on Fresh Air with former Poet Laureate Robert Hass who has edited an anthology of Walt Whitman (which seems to me a bit like writing a biography of Anais Nin or Spalding Gray.  Whitman's main work is an anthology of his poetry and there are very good reasons why people don't read, for example, his early temperance novel.  The man's own work precludes any need for further anthologies.  Of course, not having looked into the Hass text, I should probably reserve judgment... but I won't.)   Hass seems to have some distinct opinions and agendas regarding Whitman.  I daresay I came away from the interview thinking that Hass is attempting to remake Whitman in his own image or, at the very least, one he can feel comfortable setting on the pedestal and bowing to.  The Hass Whitman seems to be sort of a pantheistic, gentle, Buddha-like man whose feet were pink and uncalloused because he floated everywhere about six inches above the ground.  A god-like proto-hippie in the style also bestowed upon John Muir (who also had a beard and a funny hat.)   

This is not the first time someone has attempted to put Whitman into a non-Whitman shaped hole.  George Fetherling wrote about his forthcoming novel, which my blood pressure is only just now recovering from, taking great pains to express his claim that Whitman was equal to a modern, flag-waving, red meat eating, woman-hating, right-wing conservative (a Log Cabin Republican no doubt.) Fetherling's evidence for these claims are parsimonious to the point of arousing suspicion that his basis may be closer to "because I say so!"
"When I set out to write a novel that would use Walt Whitman as a conduit for a parable about Canada, I disliked him intensely. His flag-waving (flag-raving, you might almost say) had long driven me crazy. He seemed to me the precursor of everything that Fox News, for example, symbolizes in our own day."
I would point out to Mr. Fetherling the burden of proof he still bears to draw any credible lines to support that claim.  Really?  Walt Whitman was the precursor to Fox News?!!?  I mean, I don't want to fall all over myself making apologies for a man almost 100 years dead when I was born and who I will never meet should current time-travel technology trends continue indefinitely.  I'm sure Walt Whitman had grumpy days and, much like almost every other human I've met, I'm sure he held some opinions I would disagree with.  Granted, his views of abolition seem very confused to those of us assessing with the luxury of retrospect.  But I contend that there is a very thick line between loving one's country and blind, rabid nationalism (I suppose pointing out Mr. Fetherling's Canadian citizenship would open far too tangential of a can of worms at this point, so I'll keep it in the parentheses.)  Also between the political climate of America directly after the fall of Lincoln and Obama's America.  A Lincoln era Republican resembles a modern Republican about as much as a chicken resembles a dinosaur.  Mr. Fetherling has chosen to erase those lines and has roughed up the corpse of America's great poet of democracy from the sake of some book sales.  I say, "Boo!  Unfair!  Foul!"

I would also note that Hass's Whitman and Fetherling's Whitman sound like two men who could not be allowed in the same room together for certainty of one instantly biting through the other's carotid artery. Although I would also point out that neither view is utter madness.  They are to an absurd degree, but there are kernels of truth in each.

The other important aspect to my disagreement with these two scholars, in fact probably the most important point, is that what they are saying is not important.  Neither capture the super-objective of Whitman's body of work.  As with Shakespeare, having little to no knowledge about the life of the artist should have no bearing on our ability to enjoy their work.  In fact, as is so often the case, if either of them were correct, I fear knowing the life of the artist too intimately would actually serve to diminish my enjoyment of his work, as with Ezra Pound.

When I began talking to Laurie about Whitman, I started with Whitman as an American literary figure and a position I've held for some time that literature is one art form in which America has risen to the occasion.  In our short history, we have a glowing myriad of stars in that particular firmament.  I usually follow by pointing out that, in the grand scheme, we have not risen to some other art forms nearly as deftly.  Of course, there are arguments to be made for an Aaron Copland here or a Warhol there, but really I don't think we've risen to serious art music composition or painting and sculpture with the staying power or the peaks of genius that the history of Europe has produced... yet.  And, of course, there are emerging (or emerged) art forms in which we also hold our own in stomping on the Terra like fashion design or, well, the obvious one would be film.  And as for composition, one could make a fine argument for the distinctly American art form of "The Broadway Musical."

But we were talking about literature, weren't we?  And, although I am not blessed with the specific gift of prophecy, my point is that if America fell tomorrow (Heaven forfend) we will have produced hundreds if not thousands of works of literature which will be read for hundreds of years to come at minimum.  I think there are few and suspect scholars who would deny Whitman's place in that Venn Diagram.

Whitman revolutionized the poetic form by popularizing the form of free verse.  I would stress "the form."  Unfortunately, Whitman was also a bit of a Pandora.  One could make an argument that he made it look too easy in light of the third hand understanding of the care, craft and skill that went into Whitman's verse.  Oh, let's say Whitman filtered through Ginsberg filtered through Bukowski, spawning legions of slatternly poets.  But one cannot level an accusation like that with integrity.  So many great artists and thinkers have had their ideas perverted in generations that have followed them, from Nietzsche to Wagner to Plato to Luther to Marx to Spengler and I could waste a lot more of both your and my time listing many more.  Try to contain your shock, but I've even heard tell of incidents of such things happening with holy scripture!

But the man himself was a masterful poet.  That is the first part of why I love Walt Whitman so much.  He was a master at his art.  His lists are composed with great care as to the flow of the line, the sound on the tongue, the directional forces of his meter.  Like Picasso about 50 years after him, here was a man who was studied and such a master at his craft, but also possessed of such genius that he could reinvent everything.  With grace and beauty beyond description he attempts to sing everything and, while limited as any human, makes as good of any effort as any have.

My other main point about Whitman has more to do with content.  I am continually thunderstruck by his capacity for enthusiasm.  He falls into spontaneous ecstatic reveries about over life and its details.  I only wish I had his apparent capacity for such reveries for even holy things that he had for the mundane and temporal.  However, as I was stating to Laurie, oftentimes I can only enjoy his enthusiasm on a hyperbolic level as, yes, he does crank out some lines that would be deeply troubling were I to take them on a literal theological level.  I'm speaking specifically about "I see God, and in my own face in the glass" and "The scent of these armpits aroma finer than prayer."  Both are sentiments I found astonishingly beautiful, but troubling if I took them literally.  It is, however, a poem and I am, however, conversing with the recorded thoughts of a man long dead, allowing it to speak whatever it speaks to me.  Those who recall my Nietzsche post know that I strongly believe one can have just as fruitful an experience reading someone you disagree with (sometimes more so) than someone you agree with.

There are also a great deal of staggering lines from Whitman that I wholeheartedly embrace such as "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself , I am large, I contain multitudes."  But more to the point, I love Whitman's vastness, his celestial capacity for the gamut of human emotions, his reverence.  I think we could all do to learn from Whitman and that is why I would recommend his "Leaves of Grass" to every man, woman and child on Earth.  As he put it,

"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 toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine 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."   

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