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Walt Whitman: Puerile Egotist Or Sage?

Updated on January 6, 2013

Commentary On Whitman: part 2

Calcified literary critics will be quick to briefly honor Whitman's pioneering verse and then proceed to berate him like a child who has failed to clean his bedroom. Ezra Pound even said in one poem addressed to Whitman, "I have hated you long enough." That's not my view. Pound had his role, too, but there's more to poetry than poetry itself --there's the window into the awareness that rests with the writer behind the words. This is Whitman's greatest gift; the form takes shape only as a secondary afterthought. He follows a pulse, somewhere, perhaps the ebb and flow of the east coast tide or the eternal tide, but the words spring from that. Seeming paradoxes, apparent random questions, whispered to the reader as if the book in your hands is inconsequential and irrelevant and this is the man himself, talking to you, knowing you again as he has known you always. Whosoever touches this book touches a man, Whitman says, comradero this is no book.

But none of this is a question for anyone touched by his words at a particular age or for a lifetime. The question that interests me is whether or not Whitman really had some sort of enlightened supra-awareness of the unseen world or if he was just a dreamer who wrote his momentary glimpses of the vision on inspirational binges. That's the question worth asking.

A Zen monk could be meditating on negation, a pragmatic Buddhist on clearing away divisions between unity and division; Whitman does neither. His mysticism is of the brotherhood working for a common purpose, in harmony with the earth but pointed towards a greater good and a greater dream. In short, it's the noble vision of America, what calls people here, gives them the love of the soil and the cities, and keeps them here. But it's also the impossible bar we can never live up to, and politicians unfortunately continue to hold us to it. Or at least, they're quick in big speeches to say a version of the American dream ethos similar to Whitman's, but every election each candidate says, "we're not living it now, but under my leadership, we can."

Of course it never happens, and Bruce Springsteen's new Wrecking Ball album screams his frustration between the gap of what the American dream proclaims and the reality of it falling short over the course of The Boss's life. This, then, is why Whitman can be justifiably criticized: reality and time have proven him wrong. His anthem is not the-world-as-it-is, or as it has ever been. It's a broken, imperfect world, with both glory and agony. And while there is agony at times in Leaves Of Grass, there is never absolute tragedy. We suffer together, according to Whitman, or at least, the poet is suffering with us as if any state of mind of any other person is another fun drug. I am not alone in my victimhood, amigos. I, too, am the ant that gets stepped on by the neighbor's foot. I too am dirt in the kitchen. How far does he really want to take this? No one feels such connection all the time; mystics and saints may have a pervasive sense of oneness, but it's a stillness, not a rejoicing at dirt in the kitchen.

Still, though, it's not the important thing here, his hyperbolic distortions, his lifting off the ground of reality and flying somewhere into a non-stop endorphin rush. The fact of the matter is that Whitman could not have written Leaves Of Grass unless he had achieved higher states; good poets can point at transcendent beauty, but if they don't really live in it, if they don't embody it with every pore of their skin, it will show. Whitman lives in it; he's there. He sees too much, and his vision is connecting with a deep current that only openness of temperament can access. He will stand the test of time, because what measures literary criticism and commercial popularity will be different 50 years from now than it is today. At some point in the future, poetry will be measured to by the words on the page, but on the frequencies behind the words. Whitman will be there, near the top, with Lao Tzu and St. John of the Cross.


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