The birthday today of Walt Whitman (born West Hills, New York, May 31, 1819)
Here’s Allen’s appreciation of Whitman that first appeared in Sulfur 31, Fall 1992 (and was subsequently reprinted in Deliberate Prose (2000))
Whitman’s Influence – A Mountain Too Vast To Be Seen
Like Poe, Whitman’s breakthru from official conventional nationalist identity to personal self, to subject, subjectivity, to candor of person, sacredness of the unique eccentric curious solitary personal consciousness changed written imaginative conception of the individual around the whole world, and inspired a democratic revolution of mental nature from Leningrad and Paris to Shanghai and Tokyo.
Like Poe, who introduced modern self-consciousness to Baudelaire and Dostoyevsky, so Whitman’s exposure of a new self of man or woman empowered every particular soul who heard his long breathed inspiration. ‘I celebrate myself, and sing myself/And what I shall assume you shall assume..’
This expansive persona and expanded verse line affected continental literary consciousness by the turn of the century. Emile Verhaeren in Belgian French, Paul Claudel later with extended strophic verse. The Russian Revolution adopted Whitman’s bold personsism – vide Mayakovsky’s “Cloud in Trousers”, Blok’s “The Twelve”, Khlebnikov‘‘s vocal experimentation. Perhaps thru the French, Japanese and Chinese poets reinvented verse forms and personality of poet – Guo Moruo and Ai Qing particularly, introduced Whitmanic afflatus and expanded verse line to China by 1919. And Ezra Pound also said, “I make a pact with you Walt Whitman” in introducing modernism to American English poetry by World War I – thereby catalyzing renewal of all world poetries. What was Whitman’s effect on Italian Futurists? On Marinetti and Ungaretti?
In Democratic Vistas, Whitman warned that unless American materialism were to be enlightened by some spiritual influence, the United States would turn into “the fabled damned of nations”. HIs spiritual medicine, or antidote to poisonous materialism was “adhesiveness”, a generous affection between citizens. In his Preface to Leaves of Grass he proscribed “candor” as the necessary virtue of “poets and orators to come”.
The Good Grey Poet’s own affection and candor led to the excellent tender erotic verse in the “Calamus” section of Leaves of Grass, prophesying a gay liberation for American and world literature.
His “Passage to India’ predicted a meeting of Eastern and Western thought in our twentieth -century, a pragmatic transcendentalism that’s come true with the flavor of meditation practice in American poetry as we approch the second millennium’s end.
His image of universal transitoriness in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” has transmitted itself across a century. As the Tibetan lama, the Venerable Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche remarked, Whitman’s writing equals Buddhist sutras in this perception.
And his “Sands at Seventy”, “Good-Bye My Fancy“, and “Old Age Echoes” are marvelous short poems of old age, describing with equanimity the”puerilities… constipation… wimpering ennui” of body and mind aproaching death, signalling farewell, waving goodbye, “garrulos to the very last”. These late lesser known poems are among his most vividly appealing, and prefigure the brief clear-eyed sketches of his poetic grandchildren the Imagist and Objectivist poets, William Carlos Williams and Charles Reznikoff. Such poems serve as candid models for my own verse to this day
January 28, 1992