Monday, February 21, 2011

Guy Davenport on Walt Whitman: "he will shame us into becoming Americans again"

" 'Have you read the American poems by Whitman?' Van Gogh wrote to his sister-in-law in September 1888. 'I am sure Theo has them, and I strongly advise you to read them, because to begin with they are very fine, and the English speak about them a good deal. He sees in the future, and even in the present, a world of healthy, carnal love, strong and frank -- of friendship -- of work -- under the great starlit vault of heaven ... At first it makes you smile, it is all so candid and pure; but it sets you thinking for the same reason.' "

-- from a letter by Vincent Van Gogh, quoted from the essay "Walt Whitman" by Guy Davenport, in
The Geography of the Imagination.

This May 31 is the 192th anniversary of Walt Whitman's birth. He remains the singular American poetic invention even as the world he inhabited fades further from view. When
Leaves of Grass was originally published in 1855, the United States was largely an agrarian country building toward civil war whose image of itself was still mostly Calvinist in its outlook, and a land where "the future" was filled with unprecedented change. He lived from the age of buckboard to railroad; Robert Fulton invented the steamboat the year Whitman was born, and he died the year Ellis Island accepted its first immigrants. Thomas Edison had invented the incandescent light bulb 13 years before. Imagine that.

Guy Davenport, in his book of essays
The Geography of the Imagination, calls Whitman a symbol of American idealism "as bright and in many ways more articulate than Jefferson or Jackson." Yet his reputation these days seems more dim and more remote than ever. In some ways, Davenport suggests, this is because Whitman's poetic stride, the multitudes his poems contain, makes him a difficult figure to measure in full. Even the poets in the generation immediately following Whitman found his multifaceted catalogues too inclusive:

"Whitman, Yeats complained, was bad for the American spirit because it seemed to him that we indulged all too naturally in what Whitman urged us to wallow. (Max) Beerbohm caricatured this view of Whitman ('... inciting the American eagle to soar'), and the young Ezra Pound in his Pre-Raphaelite suit thought Whitman much too much, while intelligently suspecting that there was something there that that the critics weren't seeing."

More to the point, Whitman -- for all he has become in the American imagination, an almost mythological figure -- is still unmeasured because he changes form for each successive generation. He was not a poet of identifiable school -- no Transcendentalist, no singular Romantic strain, no Theosophist (he celebrated the triumphs of Man as much as the wonders of God). As Davenport writes,

"Young admirers fancied him an American Socrates, but of course he is the exact opposite. He was like those Greeks in love with the immediate, the caressable (always with the eye) and the delicious, who to St. Paul's distress, worshipped each other when free from placating and begging from a confusion of gods."

And there's the problem with Whitman these days: his disappearing wilderness (and his all-encompassing wildness) overwhelms the current American earnestness. The same free-spirited attitudes and easygoing American approaches that are hallmarks of his poems (and which are admired by readers around the world as essentially American) make Whitman a difficult oracle. As his country was displaced by industry, oil, and the railroad -- the very ingenuity he celebrated -- it became ever harder to see the country Whitman himself had seen, if it had indeed existed at all:

"In the distance the flowing glaze, the breast of the river, with a wind-dapple here and there;
With ranging hills on the banks, with many a line against the sky, and shadows;
And the city at hand, with dwellings so dense, and stacks of chimneys,
And all the scenes of life, and the workshops, and the workmen homeward returning."

(from "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd")

The national fracture that was the Civil War only escalated the end of agrarian America, and brought an end to the poet's bucolic vision of the country as essentially pure and even innocent, if not cohesive. If Whitman is read in schools these days it is most likely his rhyming trope of the Lincoln assassination, "O Captain! My Captain!" that resounds, rather than the far darker and more epic "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," and his Calamus poems -- with the intent "to sing no songs to-day but those of manly attachment" -- remain the Apocrypha of American poetry.

Still there is essentially a feeling that something irretrievable has passed in Whitman's poetry, a national ease of spirit that industrial America can not recover. Davenport again:
"Of the delights mentioned in 'A Song of Joys' most are accessible now only to the very rich, some are obsolete, some are so exploited by commerce as to be no longer joys for anybody except the stockbroker, two are against the law (swimming naked, sleeping with 'grown and part-grown boys'), and one is lethal ('the solitary walk.')"

Against such a catalogue of the currently lost and the forbidden in America, it hardly seems that we could be the same country, and indeed Whitman is as much suspect now as he was in the nineteenth century. (Emerson took pains to say he was not a close friend of Whitman's). Many disassociated themselves with the poet and his poetry even as they read his words, and civic pride had repeatedly to be adjusted in the naming of bridges and monuments in his honor over the objections of hometown patriots that his morals were "un-American."

Yet Walt Whitman remains inextricably, exuberantly American. In the rhyme and breath of his poetry the country he imagined still lives, and a good-natured democracy is possible; that is the power of his words. The nation he saw is yet building, and his country remains ours as well, difficult as it may be to discern. "Eventually," Mr. Davenport writes in his essay, "he will shame us into becoming Americans again." We have only to listen.

"And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,

And the cow crunching with depress'd head surpasses any statue,

And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels."

Leaves of Grass, 1855)

1 comment:

Beth said...

"all so candid and pure" Yup. Vincent would know about that. Another nice piece, Mark.