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Walt Whitman’s poetic line:
by Galway Kinnell
I’d like to talk about Walt Whitman and, in particular, about Walt Whitman’s poetic line. Every poet of my generation in America started out writing formal poetry, and nearly every one of us ended up writing free verse. Each of us needed help in turning to free verse. For me the help came from Walt Whitman.
Whitman wasn’t, in fact, my greatest hero. My two supreme heroes were Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville, but I got no help from either of them directly in this matter. Both of them, like Whitman, wanted to put into poetry physical reality — the actual physical world; and both of them, unlike Whitman, wrote in traditional rhymed stanzas. There is something contradictory about this undertaking. Raw physical reality does not fit in these rhymed rectangles. Both Thoreau and Melville failed in the attempt.
The failure was not entirely technical, however. I want to read a passage from Walden about a gravel bank along a railway embankment; when the frost thaws in the spring the gravel begins to flow:
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Walt Whitman᾿s poetic line
Thoreau goes on at a great deal of length and with great intelligence developing the poetics of this sandbank. But in this meditation on the sandbank something lacks, something lacks which keeps that passage at the level of prose and not poetry. It is of course the music which lacks. But the music of poetry would represent a breaking open of that fastidious, puritan self; the music would imitate and flow with the excremental shapes he found. Instead, the self remains intact and observes the shapes from a distance. The music would also signal the possibility of finding among those shapes not merely excrements of all kinds, but also life-producing and sexual shapes.
I want also to read a passage from Melville which to me is as close as you can come in prose to poetry. In fact, it is poetry. It is from Moby Dick, a little chapter called ‘A Squeeze of the Hand’. Some sailors are sitting around on the deck, squeezing what’s called ‘case’, which was thought to be the sperm, the actual sperm of the whale. They squeeze the lumps out of it.
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And he says later on: ‘In thoughts of the visions of the night, I saw long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti’.
Melville wrote true poetry here. But he didn’t know it. He needed someone to point it out to him. He needed Whitman’s friendship and advice. The isolation of writers in America in the nineteenth century was extraordinary. The three best poets of that century, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, never met each other. Two of them, Dickinson and Tuckerman, though they were about the same age and lived in towns about fifteen miles from each other, Amherst and Greenfield, never even heard of each other. As for the web of poetry workshops and reading circuits that exist in America at the present time, it is clear what need it is designed to fill — whatever harm it may or may not do to our poetry. Melville should have met Whitman, he should have been schooled by Whitman, he should have even taken a workshop run by Whitman. Because all Melville needed was to understand how very close he was, how with one small step he would be writing poetry.
Thoreau is a different case. Thoreau did know Whitman. He read Whitman’s poetry with some amazement and a little horror. He met Whitman and was fascinated and impressed by Whitman, especially by the first visit, when he came down to Brooklyn where Whitman lived with his family. Whitman showed Thoreau up to the little third floor room where, he, Whitman, and his retarded brother slept. Thoreau saw
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Walt Whitman᾿s poetic line
the two sags in the one small bed. He saw dirty clothes thrown all over the floor; he saw the unemptied chamber-pot sitting there while the two of them engaged in — on Whitman’s part, unembarrassed — literary conversation. For this spectacle Thoreau regarded Whitman as the greatest democrat of all.
Thoreau probably needed the presence of women in his life; and probably he needed sexual love in his life. His teacher should have been Emily Dickinson.
Whitman’s line wasn’t merely a technical accomplishment. Whitman wasn’t saying to us to let the line go out as long as it wants to. It was something else: the line expresses a relationship with reality, a relationship with reality different from that set up by the iambic line everyone else was writing. Whitman’s line was a linguistic imitation of ‘what is’. It is like body English or, since it was written, like English body, I suppose.
The most puzzling part of Whitman’s poetry, the part that disturbs critics like R.P. Blackmur and many another who regard Whitman as a hopelessly disorganized and sloppy writer, is the catalogue, those enormous lists of names he gives, names which are interchangeable. It is obvious that you could take any part and put it at any other point of the catalogue and it would make no difference. What kind of writing is that? A mere list. Yet it seems to me that these catalogues are extremely interesting. They seldom use similes, and they never use symbols. They do not reduce anything into the service of something else or make it represent something else. And in the best catalogues, there is always a feeling of suspense, as though something is going to happen, although you know very well this is impossible, since the parts are interchangeable. I will read a bit from a catalogue:
Where the rattlesnake suns his flabby length on a rock… where the otter is feeding on fish,
Where the alligator in his tough pimples sleeps by the bayou,
Over the sharp-peaked farmhouse with its scalloped scum and slender shoots from the gutters;
This is all one sentence, and I’m leaving out great chunks of it.
Where the bat flies in the July eve… where the great gold-bug drops through the dark;
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Where cattle stand and shake away flies with the tremulous shuddering of their hides,
Where the cheese-cloth hangs in the kitchen, and andirons straddle the hearth-slab, and cobwebs fall in festoons from the rafters;
Where trip-hammers crash… where the press is whirling its cylinders;
Where the she-whale swims with her calves and never forsakes them,
Where the mockingbird sounds his delicious gurgles, and cackles and screams and weeps,
Where the bull advances to do his masculine work, and the stud to the mare, and the cock is treading the hen,
Where the sundown shadows lengthen over the limitless and lonesome prairie,
Where herds of buffalo make a crawling spread of the square miles far and near;
Pleased with the native and pleased with the foreign… pleased with the new and old,
Looking in at the shop-windows in Broadway the whole forenoon… pressing the flesh of my nose to the thick plate-glass,
Wandering the same afternoon with my face turned up to the clouds;
My right and left arms round the sides of two friends and I in the middle;
Coming home with the bearded and dark-cheeked bush-boy… riding behind him at the drape of the day;
Solitary at midnight in my back yard, my thoughts gone from me a long while,
Backing and filling, appearing and disappearing,
I tread day and night such roads.
(Song of Myself)
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Walt Whitman᾿s poetic line
To me the repetition is like rubbing two sticks together to make a fire. Every stroke is like every other stroke, there is no progression. And yet, eventually, when circumstances are right, suddenly there’s an incandescence. Suddenly through all this repetition, suddenly reality bursts into presence. We notice, in the passage I read, the repeated syntax, the repeated phrases, the repeated structure of thought. That is, repetition is characteristic of all incantatory poetry, of all religious poetry, of all prayer, because when the mind is thinking in a certain profound concentration with a kind of reverence, it begins to think in grooves, and so it naturally expresses itself in parallel syntax.
Whitman became a skilful craftsman in parallel structure. Here is a passage from the last great, long poem he wrote, ‘When Lilacs last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’. In this passage he has a vision of the Civil War; the four years go by in minutes and in complete silence.
And I saw askant the armies,
I saw as in noiseless dreams hundreds of battle-flags,
Borne through the smoke of the battles, and pierc’d with missiles I saw them,
And carried hither and yon through the smoke, and torn and bloody,
And at last but a few shreds left on the staffs, (and all in silence,)
And the staffs all splinter’d and broken.
I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,
And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them,
I saw the debris and debris of all the slain soldiers of the war,
But I saw they were not as was thought,
They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer’d not,
The living remain’d and suffer’d, the mother suffer’d,
And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffer’d
And the armies that remain’d suffer’d.
In formal poetry, the variations come as pleasing surprises; in ‘free verse’, it is the repetitions and echoes which come as surprises.
It took an enormous amount of daring to create Whitman’s line. There was no precedent whatsoever in any poetry known to Whitman, for such a manner of writing, unless it was in some way — in some
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intuitive way — the Bible, which perhaps Whitman understood even through the translation. Far from being, I repeat, a technical feat, it was a leap of understanding. That free-flowing loosely cadenced line was a way of understanding, a vision. Its music, as I suggested, comes from a disposition towards reality, from physical life, from whatever surges through ‘what is’, from sexuality, from the breaking-open of the integrity of the self, from the giving away of the self to the life of the earth and the life of the body.
D.H. Lawence found in Whitman his greatest model. Whitman taught Lawrence what poetry is. Because of that instruction Lawrence became one of the great poets of our century, a much better poet than he was a novelist:
I remember when I was a boy,
I heard the scream of a frog, which was caught with his foot in the mouth of an up-starting snake;
I remember when I first heard bull-frogs break into sound in the spring;
I remember᾿hearing a wild goose out of the throat of night
Cry loudly, beyond the lake of waters;
I remember the first time, out of a bush in the darkness, a nightingale’s piercing cries and gurgles startled the depths of my soul;
I remember the scream of a rabbit as I went through a wood at midnight;
I remember the heifer in her heat, blorting and blorting through the hours, persistent and irrepressible;
I remember my first terror hearing the howl of weird, amorous cats;
I remember the scream of a terrified, injured horse, the sheetlightning,
And running away from the sound of a woman in labour, something like an owl whooing,
And listening inwardly to the first bleat of a lamb,
The first wail of an infant,
And my mother singing to herself,
And the first tenor singing of the passionate throat of a young collier, who has long since drunk himself to death,
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Walt Whitman᾿s poetic line
The first elements of foreign speech
On wild dark lips.
And more than all these,
And less than all these,
Strange, faint coition yell
Of the male tortoise at extremity,
Tiny from under the very edge of the farthest far-off horizon of life.
The wheel on which our silence first is broken.
— (‘Tortoise Shout’)
The naked body, possible in painting, was taboo in poetry. It had been taboo for a long time before Whitman, and it remained taboo for a long time after Whitman. Nevertheless, Whitman found it necessary to fulfil what he regarded as his mission — to strip, so to speak, in his poetry. And he does this in this unprecedented passage. He blurs the parts of the body with aspects of the landscape; at times you are not sure if he is talking about eggs or testicles, winds or breath. He doesn’t do this to make things symbolic; rather he wants to talk on both levels at once. The passage does have a certain narcissistic quality to it. It is his own body he describes. Yet, at the end, he turns outward in a startling and saving gesture of outward-going love.
If I worship any particular thing it shall be some of the spread of my body;
Translucent mould of me it shall be you,
Shaded ledges and rests, firm masculine coulter, it shall be you,
Whatever goes to the tilth of me it shall be you,
You my rich blood, your milky stream pale strippings of my life;
Breast that presses against other breasts it shall be you,
My brain it shall be your occult convolutions,
Root of washed sweet-flag, timorous pond-snipe, nest of guarded duplicate eggs, it shall be you,
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Mixed tussled hay of head and beard and brawn it shall be you,
Trickling sap of maple, fibre of manly wheat, it shall be you; Sun so generous it shall be you,
Vapors lighting and shading my face it shall be you,
You sweaty brooks and dews it shall be you,
Winds whose soft-tickling genitals rub against me it shall be you,
Broad muscular fields, branches of liveoak, loving lounger in my winding paths, it shall be you,
Hands I have taken, face I have kissed, mortal I have ever touched, it shall be you.
(Song of Myself, 24)
At one moment, you’re sure he’s describing a landscape, at another, you’re sure he’s talking about a human body. In other lines you know he’s talking about both. A little later on come those lines: is this an actual daybreak or is it orgasm:
To behold the daybreak!
Hefts of the moving world at innocent gambols, silently rising, freshly exuding,
Scooting obliquely high and low.
Something I cannot see puts upward libidinous prongs,
Seas of bright juice suffuse heaven.
The traditional Christians thought Darwin had written a wicked book, which alienated the human being from God. Traditional literary figures thought Melville and Thoreau and Whitman had written wicked books too. But The Origin of Species teaches that we are children of this earth. Far from alienating us, it brings us home in a way we could never have been otherwise. In the same spirit Whitman writes. It is a kind of Darwinian poetry. Plato’s ladder, as described in the Symposium, shows the progression upward from what Plato called the pollutions of mortality, the ordinary, dying particular things — through the more general, the more abstract, toward absolute beauty. Whitman takes the Platonic ladder and turns it around. Then he climbs down it. He finds salvation at the bottom. This is the direction modernists have tried to take ever since. Yeats’ great poems were precisely a struggle as
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Photo of Walt Whitman
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Walt Whitman᾿s poetic line
to whether to transcend or descend. Even Eliot, the one who disdained the earth, who disliked bodily life most, who gave the last gasp — it’s too mild a word — the last blast of the Puritan spirit in the twentieth century, even Eliot, at the end of The Waste Land, where he asks himself — ‘what have we given’ — gives a Whitmanesque answer:
The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed
Then, of course, in his next poem he goes on to write more poetry of an age of prudence.
Near the beginning of Leaves of Grass there is a moment of surrender but there is nothing awful nor daring about it, nor, as in Eliot, desperate or singular. It is easy and peaceful — even if only in the imagination, for I don’t know what Whitman’s life was like. It is Section 5 of Song of Myself:
Loafe with me on the grass… loose the stop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want… not custom or lecture, not even the best,
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice.
I mind how we lay in June, such a transparent summer morning;
You settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my barestript heart,
And reached till you felt my beard, and reached till you held my feet.
Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and joy and knowledge that pass all the art and argument of the earth;
And I know that the hand of God is the elderhand of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the eldest brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers… and the women my sisters and lovers,
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And that a kelson of the creation is love;
And limitless are leaves stiff or drooping in the fields,
And brown ants in the little wells beneath them,
And mossy scabs of the wormfence, and heaped stones, and elder and mullen and pokeweed.
So, these lovers feel an illumination. Through love they have understood something which all the theologies can’t tell them. They understand something about the life-force, or God, or whatever you want to call it: the core of existence. And then they dream forth, down the ladder into the weeds and the pebbles. It is one of those passages of extreme happiness, one of those passages that has a halo around it, as though ecstatic libido rayed out from it. It verifies Jung’s statement that ‘psychic energy is our immortality — the link through which men feel inextinguishably one with the continuity of all life’.
All that is the line of poetry. The line of poetry is empty. You can take Whitman’s line, you can write, of course, nothing with it. His great pupils could take Whitman’s line and write the greatest work of our century. Lawrence is one of those great pupils; so is Neruda. Neruda knew English but not extremely well. And yet there’s something about poetry which transcends language, there is a music in it which comes through even though you only vaguely grasp what it is saying. If you’ve heard poetry read in a foreign tongue, sometimes you will have been quite gripped by it — you will not have understood what it was saying yet it connected you to the continuity of all life. There is a music that drives right through it and touches us.
Well, where did Whitman find his music — the music of his poetry? He didn’t have any predecessors. Partly he found it through hearing those sounds that D.H. Lawrence describes — those primal, mostly sexual sounds: ‘The blorting and blorting of the heifer in heat … ’ and so on. And partly he found it in kindly voices, and partly he found it in the music, the crooning that went on between him and his mother, that music which, like poetry in translation, transcends words, and the child, who does not know the meaning of the words the mother is speaking, and the mother who does not know if those are words or not, rock together in total oneness, in total communication.
I also think that there is in existence some kind of rhythmic motion which is the beginning, and that poetry is the effort to bring it back into our bodies, into our mouths, and to unite it with our intelligence in a way the other arts don’t quite do.
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It is clear that the wolf and the whale, being mammals, speak in voices that we can relate to in some way. Yet there is something in both the wolf and the whale that is out of reach of our understanding, something spectral which is beyond us. They know something about existence that we don’t know. It is also true that we know something about existence that they don’t know. I suppose neither the whale nor the wolf knows that it dies. At least they don’t know it in the way we know it. And it gives a peculiar quality to the human voice, and to human poetry — the knowledge that it is an entirely mortal art. That tragic note Lorca called duende, the peculiar and indefinable note which goes beyond nature and beyond beauty.
So, anyway, Whitman’s line. Here is a poem by him, one of the most loving and sad ever written. It is called ‘Reconciliation’:
Word over all, beautiful as the sky,
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost,
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soil’d world;
For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead,
I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin — I draw near,
Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.
This poem could have come into existence only in Whitman’s long, flowing lines — a foolish remark, I know, since no poem could have come into existence except in the form it actually did take. But more than that, we feel in the music an exact correspondence to our feelings, and we become one with the grieving spirit of ‘what is’.