Posted: April 4, 2011
A review of On Whitman , by C.K. Williams
book this slim promises a conciseness that its subject, Walt Whitman, rarely managed in prose or verse. Its author, C.K. Williams, a contemporary poet, writes succinctly yet compendiously of his predecessor and model's sprawling verse, and conveys a refreshing candid enthusiasm so different from the current criticism that reproves poets for failing to match their critics' acuity. Williams alternates abundant quotation with briefer, discerning readings, shrewdly distinguishing Whitman's successes as a craftsman from his banalities as a prophet. Williams's taste is evident in his decision to rely on the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass rather than the revisions and additions that, running through several subsequent editions, in almost every case dissipate the early vigor with reiterative moralizing. As he remarks, the revised Whitman offers only "dutiful ecstasy."
He also instructs Whitman's admirers in the poetic art that produced the early strength while confirming the reservations of readers who suspect Walt's con when he says, "I might not tell everybody but I will tell you." Williams helps us perceive how the poet's bravura serves dishonest ends even in the verse produced in the 1850s. Not that Williams means to indict (the early) Whitman; nonetheless, he helps a skeptical reader see clearly Whitman's impositions, early as well as late.
Consider Whitman's famous "Song of Myself" in its first version, where one encounters two voices, one mundane, the other mystic. The voice of the reporting stroller of streets and prairie engages and convinces. As mystic pontificator, Whitman strains. What is genuine and attractive in the poetry owes to its energy. And the energy owes to aptness of diction applied to subjects not, prior to Whitman, deemed sufficiently decorous for serious verse—commonplace people engaged in ordinary activities of a bodily sort within gritty urban settings, what Williams properly identifies as "non-symbolic materiality."
Williams doesn't pretend to have discovered the simple Whitman, but is unsurpassed in knowing how to exhibit him to best effect. Whitman causes his reader to take pleasure in witnessing the five senses played upon by familiar objects. Up to a point one feels more alive to that world we inhabit but do not apprehend without his borrowed eyes, ears, nose, palate, and touch. Only up to a point, however, because diminishing returns set in once we arrive at a threshold beyond which rational discriminations are called for—thought, reasoning, sorting out in accord with some standard of better and worse, noble and base, morally good and evil. Not that Whitman declines to venture beyond the sensate. He does so often—too often—but when he generalizes he blunders and stalls. He tiresomely reiterates. To the extent the poems succeed in rescuing themselves, they do so by returning to vivid reportage.
You might suppose Whitman's energy derives from a setting distinctly American, from the bustle and color generated by swift transition from scene to scene of free-market traffic in high gear. We glimpse teamsters, manual laborers, trappers, farmers, doctors, newspaper men, people in transit, people consuming the abundance produced by commerce. The shifting spectacle stirs a sense of the variety of activities liberated by enterprise in a society of citizens who are free to choose and change occupations. Though Williams associates Whitman's decline with his later consorting with "capitalists" and Whitman himself inveighed against traditional social hierarchies of every sort, he recognized what the diversity he celebrated owed to free exchange, free labor, and private investment. He gets up on his stilts when he thinks he must look beyond these energies to the transcendental.
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Fifteen years after Leaves of Grass, Whitman's Democratic Vistas announced a new religion of democracy, but already at mid-century he writes as one who expects to be credited with religious authority. Williams is right to say the poetry insists upon a devoted response. The Whitman who appeals by simply displaying the activity of a commercial republic demands also assent to his improbable gospel. He is a redeemer, the Redeemer long awaited:
Cycles ferried my cradle, rowing and rowing like cheerful boatmen;
For room for me stars kept aside in their own rings,
They sent influences to look after what was to hold me.
Yet there is nothing that can hold him: "I am large. I contain multitudes." We should not be put off by such apparent declarations of self-importance because Whitman's "I" includes "you" ("I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms"), as though imputing self-importance to the reader were not equally offensive, not to say ridiculous.
I'm sure Williams must grasp the techniques of inversion combined with co-optation Whitman employs to sustain his altitude. The former requires upending long established hierarchies: sometimes mere conventions of propriety ("I wear my hat indoors or out"), often old but baseless assumptions ("it is as great to be a woman as to be a man"). Or Whitman assails better grounded traditions of worship ("Dirt and dung more admirable than was dreamed / The supernatural of no account"), or subverts conventional morality ("What blurt is this about virtue and about vice?"). Or he levels the old inner subordination ("the soul is not more than the body") or the outer ("nothing, not God, is greater to one than one's self is") so that no self seems to deserve ranking above another ("I do not call one greater and one smaller / That which fills its period and place is equal to any...").
America's Declaration of Independence asserted equality as a principle of justice among men. Whitman weakens the force of that principle by metaphysical dissipation. All that is is equal. Since he boasts of sexual appetites, shows contempt for "geldings," and blesses procreation, he apparently retains something of the traditional estimate favoring living over non-living beings. He credits himself with "jetting the stuff of far more arrogant republics." But he disputes even the preference for life over death: "Has anyone supposed it lucky to have been born? / I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die." So after all this confounding you must wonder, can Whitman stomach any discrimination? What about these "sacs merely floating with open mouths for any food to slip in" who trail in a list of those he summons to hear his good news? They presumably come in by imputed merit as do those "priests "and "puritans" whom Whitman assures "I do not despise...." In this section of "Song of Myself," Whitman co-opts, by professing to embrace, all religions. He extends his devotion promiscuously to the Catholic mass, Congregationalist meetings, Islamic prayer, to unspecified rites of Brahma and Buddha, and to participating in human sacrifice with Incas and Aztecs.
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The co-opting does not surprise if we have followed Williams's appreciation, because in acceptance the author again locates the right word for the disposition Whitman praises without any qualification: "I accept Time absolutely.... I accept Reality and dare not question it." Of all the responses Whitman enjoins upon his reader, this one puzzles most. If we accept acceptance, or, for that matter if we do not, what follows either for time and reality, or for us? Williams makes much of this inconsequential imperative: "Morally, what he teaches is to be accepting, to be generous, unselfish; to refuse to reject anyone else's suffering, or pain, or joy either; to not fear sex, to revel in it, all of it, every permutation of it; to desire desire." And he accurately characterizes Whitman's second tablet, prescribing conduct toward others: "He wants us not to be afraid of ourselves, even of our dark, darkest, most doubting selves. To know that the weak and poor and even the patently evil are equal to us by the sheer fact of their existence."
The fact of existence seems a comprehensive solvent. When confronting the unsympathetic—"the only thing not equal to us is the mob, mindless and taunting"—some substituting of words might be required—from accepting to accounting. Yet even so, according to Williams, "He tells us to take even that into account, though, to take everything into account, to account for everyone and everything we possibly can."
Maybe we shouldn't expect consistency in applying the principle of non-discrimination. Anyway, not selective enforcement but the project itself poses the more serious problem. As once understood, the equality principle permitted distinguishing justly. It excluded rationally indefensible distinctions so as to retain only such distinctions that could establish their rational grounds. Whitman seems to think rational distinctions a concession damaging to universal sympathy, and Williams appears to agree.
Williams recommends Whitman as a moral teacher whom he believes bears comparison with Dante. He must mean no more than that Whitman resembles Dante in the high degree of seriousness he attributes to his moral teaching. If Dante is anything he is discriminating. Unlike Whitman, his poem of himself, the Divine Comedy, requires of himself as well as of his readers learning to love in proportion to the varying worth of the objects of love. Dante's education depends upon making judgments in accord with several criteria applied with exactitude. An intelligible God, not self, provides the only acceptable standard. God's creation reflects the splendor of its Creator in one place more, in another less. The soul determines its salvation or damnation according to its success or failure in bringing its various loves into conformity with justice. Dante's egalitarianism amounts to free will affording equal opportunity for unequal outcomes.
If Williams would give this difference between the two poets the weight it deserves he could better understand why Whitman, who announced himself spokesman for the common people, has never been popular. People pursuing occupations outside the academy—whom Whitman said he preferred to the bookish who've proved almost his only readers—attend to other pulpits, or none, because they are busy making their judgments, their discriminations. Whether decent, indifferent, or criminal, if they were coaxed to give Walt Whitman a hearing they would probably think him distant, impractical. For good or bad, judgment of good and bad must take precedence over other concerns because such judgments produce the most telling consequences. On firmer ground, Williams discerns Whitman's kinship with Baudelaire, another people's advocate unread by the people. Williams ought to have considered whether Whitman attempts to leverage extravagancies upon honestly acquired collateral earned as poet of the street.