Sunday, May 18, 2008

Reading Whitman

The year is 1993; it is summer; I am in Taiwan. I have recently bought a copy of Leaves of Grass. It is very hot, and at first I am very reluctant to sing the body electric. I had read a few poems in high school and seen Dead Poet’s Society, and Whitman had always reminded me of Rococo revival, of class oral reports that lasted way too long, of Steven Spielberg movies, of anything that involved a great deal more inspiration than perspiration. I believe in editing. I thought Whitman didn’t.

Still, the English-language offerings in the city where I lived were limited, and at the time I could not handle Taiwan. Later I would learn to read; I would study calligraphy and learn about hot springs, order better food and find nicer lodgings. I would in the woods meet a bamboo python. I’d hang out with art dealers.

All that was later, pre-Whitman. For the moment I am deliriously unhappy as I read:

Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power,
Cheerful, for freest action form’d under the laws divine,
The Modern Man I sing

And I think, once again, “Who is this clown?” He reminds me of the American bike-dealers who had lived in the city for decades and never bothered with a word of Chinese. The words seem more than ugly – they seem rude and stupid and delusional. I still think that.

But then I read “Vigil Strange I Kept On The Field One Night”, about spending the night next to a dead friend. It finishes

Vigil for comrade swiftly slain, vigil I never forget, how as day brighten’d
I rose from the chill ground and folded my soldier well in his blanket,
And I buried him where he fell

I decided I could handle depressed Whitman.

The Civil War gave Whitman plenty to brood over. It induced a phantasmagoria of a different order from his earlier work. The Artilleryman’s Vision, for example, describes a peacetime moment of hallucination for the artilleryman:

The skirmishers begin, they crawl cautiously ahead, I hear the irregular snap! snap!
I hear the sounds of the different missiles, the short t-h-t! t-h-t! of the rifle balls

This battle is more horrifying in retrospect, for the war never ends. Whitman is a poet of predawn visions. His language creates an alternate world that is sometimes fantasia and often hell. I’d always imagined his reveries as obnoxious, public affairs, chants before the crowd in the matter of preacher or cadre. In Taiwan I came to think of him differently, as a poet of the moments when nobody else is around, when talking about yourself is talking to yourself, when sense and nonsense are not entirely clear.

That’s what I felt like for a time in Taiwan. I was awake at the wrong hours, speaking the wrong language, moving in nonsensical rhythms. It lasted about three months. It rained a lot. I tried to teach English, tried to learn Chinese, tried to pay attention to the world at hand. It was useless. I was mostly alone, and all I had with me was Whitman. I couldn’t generate his passion, but in those moments when it felt like I was beyond any point of contact, it was nice to have a travel companion. Finally, after three months, I moved, and began to talk to people instead of myself, or Whitman. I’ve always been grateful for his help.


LentenStuffe said...
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Ted Burke said...

Walt Whitman is a writer I've had to revisit more than once since college because he's a reference one cannot ignore (nor pretend never existed) and because his writing poses such a challenge to one's idea of form, balance, and grace. Even by standards provided by latter day poets Charles Olson and Ginsberg and a host of others who bragged of their bodies and their abilities to contain generational and continental aspirations, Whitman is more than what we're used to, so much ego, energy, unashamed self-seeking in the name of sensation. I too believe in editing, and think that a good many of his poems are rants and curious love letters to himself that should have remained in the Bible he might have carried with him, camp to camp, but his mission was, of course, to flex his muscle and personality across boundless plains and attempt to inhabit a national personality. His forgettable verse outweighs his strongest work, but there is in Whitman's best writing a rapturing rhetoric that sweeps you along and sets you down finally many psychic miles from where you started; you find youself a little changed for the experience.

august said...


"Experimental" is not a word I like to use about writing, but it's a word that get's used a lot about people trying things that don't always make a lot of sense but that are trying to create something new. I think Whitman in his day would count as experimental. I agree that there's a lot that I have to flip through, but the best work is so haunting. What I was trying to say was that I don't like him when he is being the Voice of America (which he seems to have felt was more or less the same as the Voice of God), but in his more solitary moments.

Also, I really like "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry".

Your reading seems to me on the money. I'd just add that without Whitman, English-language poetry would not be any better, and likely much worse, than it is now.