On Whitman

On Whitman

by C. K. Williams


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In this book, Pulitzer Prize–winning poet C. K. Williams sets aside the mass of biography and literary criticism that has accumulated around Walt Whitman and attempts to go back to Leaves of Grass as he first encountered it—to explore why Whitman's epic "continues to inspire and sometimes daunt" him. The result is a personal reassessment and appreciation of one master poet by another, as well as an unconventional and brilliant introduction to Whitman. Beautifully written and rich with insight, this is a book that refreshes our ability to see Whitman in all his power.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691176109
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 01/31/2017
Series: Writers on Writers , #3
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 1,267,064
Product dimensions: 4.50(w) x 7.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

C. K. Williams (1936–2015) won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. He taught creative writing and translation at Princeton University.

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Copyright © 2010 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-14472-6

Chapter One


* We know that as he wandered the streets, as he rode in the omnibuses, probably as he sat in lectures and in the opera, he scribbled in small notebooks and on scraps of paper he stuffed in his pockets. We know he then transcribed them, ordered them, wrote them down, then set the type for the first editions of his great work himself.... And there it was, on the page.... We know, we know, we know....

"He was learning his craft," we like to think. Always with the notion of craft comes the implication of progress, improvement. The very word craft seems to have inherent in it the precept that the more you practice your art, the more you labor at it and study it, the more craft you'll have, the better you'll be able to effect your poetry, or anything else. This can be quite a debilitating credo-I've known poets who for all intents and purposes spent their life learning their art, preparing to write poems, but never getting around to actually doing it. Similarly, critics will sometimes make up a lengthy biography for poets whose precociousness seems to be a denial of the normal evolution of the attainment of knowledge. It can seem completely unfeasible to believe that Keats or Rimbaud didn't somehow do something practical to absorb all they had to in the preparation of their poetic activities. I once read an article about Rimbaud that set out to prove that his very unlikely knowledge of so many matters of the history of poetics, and of history itself, had to have been the result of the thousands of hours he'd spent in the Bibliothèque Nationale, sneaking off presumably from the rather bohemian time-wasting that comprised most of the actual life of the seventeen-year-old he was when he wrote his greatest poems.

Whitman's craft, his skill, was supreme during that first blazing burst when he was compiling the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass and adding to it in the nearly as inspired years afterward. But though he had been for some years a productive journalist, there's still no way really to account for how he accumulated in such a short time so many singular methods, so many facets for the expression of his talent; there was no place he could have "learned" his craft: it evolved along with his identity, with his very self.

The new way of composing must have come all at once; I imagine it must have felt like some kind of conversion experience. There are very few signs before the 1855 edition that this great thing was about to occur. It's as though his actual physical brain went through some incredible mutation, as though-a little science fiction, why not?-aliens had transported him up to their spaceship and put him down again with a new mind, a new poetry apparatus. It is really that crazy.

And, most important, we don't know where his music came from; though there are isolated lines in the notebooks that offer clues, we'll never really know when he first fully intuited, and heard, and knew, that surge of language sound, verse sound, that pulse, that swell, that sweep, which was to become his medium, his chariot-just to try to imagine him consciously devising it is almost as astounding as it must have been for him to discover it.

It's essential to keep in mind that in poetry the music comes first, before everything else, everything else: until the poem has found its music, it's merely verbal matter, information. Thought, meaning, vision, the very words, come after the music has been established, and in the most mysterious way they're already contained in it. Without the music, there's nothing; thought, merely, ideation; in Coleridge's terms, not imagination, just fancy; intention, hope, longing, but not poetry: Wait, Muse! Let me sing it to you, wait! That might be what drives poets to desperation, or worse: the waiting, the wanting, the sensing of the cadences, the melodies, but being unable to force them. It's also probably what tends poets towards manic-depressiveness, because when the music does finally arrive, the mix of relief and exaltation is unreal, beyond self, ego, consciousness, and conscience.

Usually the music seems to come along simultaneously with the words and the matter, but not always. Mandelstam spoke of hearing the music for a poem, feeling it, before it had any words at all. Pavese said: "By means of murmuring, I gave a rhythm to my poems." Poetry is song and language at once. Neuroscientists say now that there are separate areas in the brain, individual "modules," for one and the other. Poetry's splendor, its seduction, its addictive potential surely resides in this bringing of separate psychic realms together in one mental and emotional speech-act, thought-act. Dante has the poets in Limbo going off together alone to speak of things that are not to be revealed to others, even in his Comedy of revelation. What could these things be other than that most profound and most blatant secret of the poets: that only they can generate this unlikely marvel, language music-in great poets a music immediately recognizable and resolutely unique?

In "Song of Myself," Whitman chants aloud the secret to himself:

My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach, With the twirl of my tongue I encompass worlds and volumes of worlds. Speech is the twin of my vision.... it is unequal to measure itself.

The Past

* When and how Whitman first heard his music is a mystery still, perhaps the mystery. What he had heard and had read meant either a great deal or, probably more likely, not terribly much. There were influential voices around him, some orators, some religious texts, that might be conceived of as generically similar to the voice he devised. There's the poet Samuel Warren, whose The Lily and the Bee Paul Zweig cites as having possibly influenced Whitman, but Warren's music, though metrically loose, is notably clunky and inelegant; it would have been for Whitman more of an example to be avoided then emulated.

And of course there were voices in the tradition of poetry that had to have helped him forge his language mechanism into the shape it finally achieved. Macpherson's Ossian is sometimes mentioned, and John Milton's work. Whitman spoke with admiration of Milton, but Milton wasn't the influence for him he had been, say, for Keats, a master, a teacher, so that some of Keats's early sonnets sound at first as though Milton might have composed them. "When I consider how my life is spent...." "When I have fears that I may cease to be...."

Whitman's break with the past was much more radical, more like Christopher Smart's, whose "Jubilate Agno" certainly would, in its frank assertion of verse improvisation, have offered hints to Whitman of how he came to use phrase and clause as organizing principles. But at least as far as I can discover, Whitman seems never to have heard of Smart. Blake, another radical innovator? Whitman was introduced to Blake by his adoring would be lover-wife, then good friend, Anne Gilchrist. Gilchrist, who came from England to marry Whitman but quickly realized he wasn't husband material yet stayed close to him, had completed her husband Alexander Gilchrist's biography of Blake after Alexander died, but her advent in Whitman's life was long after he had devised the music for his poems.

Many commentators compare the cadences of the poems and their use of parallelisms with those of the King James Bible, and surely those rhythms would have been resonating somewhere in Whitman's musical poetic psyche, but I'm not convinced. Whitman certainly did use some of its parallel structures, but the Bible has few instances of sentences laden with as many phrases as those with which Whitman charged his, which is one of the singular characteristics of his music. As great and influential as the King James Bible is, and as much as Whitman surely would have had to have been influenced by his experience of it, I think he used as many of Shakespeare's chromatic rhythms and rhetorics as the Bible's.

I remember long ago working for hours with some other young poets trying different systems of verse analysis that counted stressed and unstressed syllables, most notably that devised by George Stewart in his still useful Techniques of English Verse, that we thought might help situate Whitman in the tradition of English poetic rhythms. But Leaves of Grass always resisted, and, though it was fun for awhile, we never found a satisfying way to account for Whitman's finally unpredictable music. And of course there are dozens of critics who have tried to do the same thing, most successfully Gay Wilson Allen,* but in the end the results are always inconclusive.

There are hints about Whitman's sources, though: poets in the throes of precomposition will often resort to existing poems-usually great ones but not always-to inaugurate, impel, a sound, a movement, any sound, any movement, beyond the obdurate plod of prose. Sometimes this glance to other poetry works, though oddly enough the music that begins to be realized will often bear no resemblance to the winged Pegasus that led the way. With Whitman, because the evidence is so meager, there's a point at which we have to have recourse to the notion of "genius." Art most often evolves in what appear to be cautious increments, but there are those figures who innovate more quickly and forcefully and ultimately mysteriously than that.

We have to give Whitman's genius its due: he did something that the evidence is in no way able to predict no matter how scrupulously we scour through his predecessors. It's reasonable to try to account for the innovations Leaves of Grass makes, but at some point all that speculation has to be suspended so we can simply appreciate with gratitude the huge gift Whitman made to the universe of poetry. As with certain other geniuses-Shakespeare, Dante, Homer-his sources are simply absorbed, or wrenched, into the sheer originality of the poetry. If we are to use the term "influence" about Whitman, what's most remarkable is the influence his work more than any other poet's has had on poets all over the world, rather than that which may or may not have conditioned his own work.

Let that initial gasp of amazement at the splendor of the work lead us to the exhalation of gratitude that all this could have come about.


* We'll never know either what the lines were in which Whitman first heard his music. The lines that begin the poem?

I celebrate myself, And what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belong to me as good belongs to you.

Perhaps, though it doesn't feel likely somehow. Turn to any page in that first Leaves of Grass ...

I hear you whispering there O stars of heaven, O suns.... O grass of graves.... O perpetual transfers and promotions.... if you do not say anything how can I say anything?

That? Why not? Poets traditionally look to the stars, don't they? And look to the ground then, and in the ground is death. Or this:

I have heard what the talkers were talking.... the talk of the beginning and the end, But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.

And then a little leap, of sense and music.

There was never any more inception than there is now, Nor any more youth or age than there is now; And will never be any more perfection than there is now, Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

And another abrupt tonal shift, characteristic of Whitman's work, but where did it come from?

Urge and urge and urge, Always the procreant urge of the world.

Shiftings and leaps: unlogical, ungrounded, unconnected, from one theme, one image, one anecdote, one sound to another. Surely his original method, that gathering of scraps in notebooks and scraps in his pockets, must have gone far towards permitting-once he gave in to them-the music, and that peculiar system of connection, that wonderfully gappy unorganized organization.

If he was like other poets I know, when he felt, heard, knew that music, the first question he would have asked himself was how long he'd be able to stay in it, to, as jazz musicians say, ride it. The music was so forceful, so engrossing, so generative, that it couldn't have taken him long, a few instants, a few months at most, to realize he'd discovered a musical system that was magically encompassing and had within it echoes of other singings, the Bible, oratory, opera, even some older poetry, but was entirely unique as well. Then it might have taken him some other gigantic moment to realize that not only would his world, his entire world, fit within it, but that the music would take him to places of imagination and intellect and spirit he would have never have dreamed without it.

He must have been-no, surely was-in a state of bliss that lasted for years, through all the miserable trials of his family in the 1850s, through all the anguish of having to watch a nation prepare to sunder itself: he was still listening to his music, scribbling, assembling. He'd have lived within the music, exulted in it. Dizzying to think of it.

It was a music, and a musical-poetic vision, that flourished abundantly, wildly. A music so satisfying, so irrepressible that even when some twenty years or so later he realized it had left him, had left him even years before that, he expressed no great grief, though he surely had had no inkling during those early blazing years that it ever might wane. In those first years he projected the number of poems en route in the hundreds-he spoke of 365 for the third, 1860 edition-and if he didn't quite generate that number, there were still dozens and dozens of new poems, almost all splendid.

But, sadly, at some point it did go bad for him. He lost the connection to his music, not knowing at first that he had. Trying to keep it going, after the 1860s, into the '70's and '80's, he kept making new poems, but his locutions become odd and awkward, his rhythms uncertain, his diction sometimes almost primitive. As Galway Kinnell writes in the introduction to his Essential Whitman: "By the mid-sixties his work began to fill up with the very poeticism and archaisms he had started off by excluding-'o'er,' 'e'en,' 'erewhile,' 'i,' 'tis,' 'ope,'...."

And often he couldn't in his endless tinkering and revising hear himself as he had, and he all but untuned the original power of his symphony. He was having fatal trouble sounding like himself, the poet he had been, whose music was diluted now, and weary, maybe because his body itself had begun to be prematurely sick and weary and old. In some of the later poems there are moments, too many, of a kind of dutiful ecstasy. This is a cardinal sin for artists, sham inspiration, but perhaps Whitman has to be forgiven for this because his method itself was so much involved with the ecstatic. If his inspiration sometimes no longer fulfilled the fiery needs of his method, we have to be grateful for the many times it had.

And there came a time when he knew himself he'd lost it. Speaking of a sketch someone was making of him, he was quoted as saying: "The devil in artists is to keep pegging away at a thing after it is all done-pegging away at it done, till it is undone." Fortunately we still have those earlier, unpegged-away-with editions.


* But how wildly exciting, how really exalting it must have been to him when his poetry first offered him a way to see and record so much-it can feel like everything. Just reading it, the brilliance of the moments of inspiration are like raw synaptic explosions, like flashbulbs going off in the brain, in the mind: pop, pop, pop. The images, the ideas, the visions, the insights, the proclamations, the stacks of brilliant verbal conjunctions, the musical inventiveness and uniqueness: one after the other, again and again, in a form that reveals them naked, unmodulated, undimmed by any apparent resort to the traditional resources of poetic artfulness. Reading it, being in it, as in the work of terribly few poets, there's a kind of inspirational elation: the world in the poems and the world we live in, the cosmos that's ours-all of it imbued with significance.


Excerpted from ON WHITMAN by C. K. WILLIAMS Copyright © 2010 by Princeton University Press . Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Preface vii
Note xiii
The Music 1
The Past 5
Beginnings 9
Vision 14
Depths 21
The Man Before the Poems 23
Self-Made 27
The Notebooks 36
Emerson and the Greatest Poet 40
The Greatest Poet Submits a Poem for Publication 47
"I" 48
A Dare 54
"You" 57
America 65
The Modern, One: Baudelaire 74
Hugo and Longfellow 80
The Modern, Two: Eliot and Pound 83
Others 87
The Body 91
Sex 101
Woman 112
Lorca, Ginsberg, and "The Faggots" 119
Nature 129
Prophets 139
Imagination 149
Mortality 153
Mortality Again 163
The Sad Captain 171
Lines 172
The Voice 178
Life After 181
What He Teaches Us 184

What People are Saying About This

Chang-rae Lee

C. K. Williams captures Whitman with the impassioned erudition and discernment that only a master poet can deploy. Yet what's perhaps most remarkable is how it feels as if Williams has somehow captured our 'private' Whitman as well, the Whitman who has vivified every American writer and reader after him. Through Williams's electric, intimate encounter with the work and life of the 'lovely old man,' we feel that we are poetically partaking of Whitman's genius and soul in this inspiring, enlivening, and unexpectedly moving volume.
Chang-rae Lee, author of "Native Speaker"

Alicia Ostriker

Respondez! Respondez! is what Walt Whitman demands of his readers, and C. K. Williams has responded indeed. With a poet's own astonishment and delight, imagining what it must have been like for Whitman to experience out of the blue the 'stupendous, relentless surge of poetic music' that made Leaves of Grass possible, Williams deals happily with Whitman's hugeness and his intimacy, his sexuality and his metaphysics, his equal celebrations of life and death, and his gigantic role in our literary history—but above all with 'the sheer, ever amazing power of the poems themselves.' On Whitman is a book written with infectious joy, and will bring joy to its readers.
Alicia Ostriker, author of "Dancing at the Devil's Party: Essays on Poetry, Politics, and the Erotic"

Robert Pinsky

This is the exuberant, true book of a poet, of two poets: a personal, illuminating, and beautiful demonstration of the truest reading.

Michael Robertson

C. K. Williams is widely regarded as one of our most Whitmanesque poets. Now he offers his reflections on a lifetime of reading his great predecessor. On Whitman is elegant, witty, and unfailingly illuminating. It seems certain to become one of the handful of essential books about Whitman.
Michael Robertson, author of "Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples"

From the Publisher

"Respondez! Respondez! is what Walt Whitman demands of his readers, and C. K. Williams has responded indeed. With a poet's own astonishment and delight, imagining what it must have been like for Whitman to experience out of the blue the 'stupendous, relentless surge of poetic music' that made Leaves of Grass possible, Williams deals happily with Whitman's hugeness and his intimacy, his sexuality and his metaphysics, his equal celebrations of life and death, and his gigantic role in our literary history—but above all with 'the sheer, ever amazing power of the poems themselves.' On Whitman is a book written with infectious joy, and will bring joy to its readers."—Alicia Ostriker, author of Dancing at the Devil's Party: Essays on Poetry, Politics, and the Erotic

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