Whitman’s Challenge To Future Poets

It is my habit to read a chunk of Walt Whitman‘s poetry in the spring when the first warm days of summer allow me to sit in the yard in a comfortable chair and in typical Whitmanesque fashion “lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.”

For me, Whitman’s poetry should be read outside and, if possible, amid the banter and bang of everyday commerce. He once said, “I am nearly always successful with the reader in the open air.” I enjoy reading Whitman at sidewalk cafes on side streets without too many cars yet amid plenty of bustle. Outdoor food courts with lots of pedestrian traffic are wonderful. The only better locations involve the excited voices of ten or more children at play. In such places it seems easier to take in the breadth of Whitman’s long lines which brim with the boisterous American scenes. Add the sun’s heat and an occasional unruly breeze and Whitman’s sweet lines go down like sipped ice tea.

As the year ends, I’ve taken up Whitman again. Despite being practically cloistered indoors, I can see and hear his re-creation of the 19th century street scenes with its wide glance across a variegated human realm. On more than one occasion the thought crossed my mind that Whitman might have been some kind of alien probe sent from some far galaxy. How else to explain his radical turn in American poetry. He immortalized the street, the commoner, and the everyday.  They were as holy to him as the most glorious church or pious saint. How else to explain the gargantuan ego filled with tender solicitude for his fellow man? Whitman was a poet as big as the American landscape yet surprisingly he know well his limitations.

Early on he knew he could not complete his great poetic experiments. Early on Whitman floated the idea that his poetry was but a beginning and would later be finished by others. In the poem, “Poets To Come,” he speaks directly to the poets of the future. “But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than before known,//Arouse! For you must justify me.” “Leaving it to you to prove and define it,//Expecting the main things from you.”

I don’t see merely egotistical motives that Whitman sees future poets expanding and completing his work. I see this more magnanimously. Whitman had opened up the poetic landscape to include any and every subject. He was criticized and shunned by critics for this magnanimous vision. They said he was too sensual, too pedestrian, too crude, too inclusive, too romantic, too transcendental but they couldn’t put the genie he conjured back in the box. Whitman could not be contained (though he could be co-opted as this commercial did) but also he could only do what one man can do.

Other poets followed him and began to expand his work. Poets do this every time they write in a line longer than 10 metrical beats or write in free verse. They do it whenever they struggle to free themselves from formulaic boxes — whether metrical or thematic.  Whitman fought many poetic battles. He transcended the naysayers, both internal and external, by remaining true to himself. In, “Song of Myself,” he sings, “I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you,//And you must not be abased to the other.”

Are you one of Whitman’s future poets? Is the other you not at war with your Soul? Can we expect “the main things from you.”?

Let me know. Comment below.

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