Whitman, I

2001-06-11

Although I'm now working my way chronologically through the prose dramas of Ibsen (I just finished A Doll's House), I figured I would take a "backward glance o'er travel'd roads" by reflecting on my reading last year of Walt Whitman. Following my usual path I recently re-read all the pages I had marked, and found much again to treasure in Whitman. His thought is quite gnostic in many places, and in no other author have I found such clear statements of human divinity as in Whitman. Much of what he writes strikes me as radical even today -- it must have been positively shocking in the nineteenth century!

Although Whitman stands alone, I find the contrast with Ayn Rand rather revealing (as far as I know, Rand never mentions Whitman in her writings -- a telling omission, given his towering stature in American letters). Their thought is similar in some ways (especially in celebrating the human individual), but Whitman applies his insights democratically whereas Rand, following Nietzsche, is more of an elitist. And obviously Whitman is more comfortable with nature and with a kind of natural, gushing expression that Rand would have found irrational or mystical, I'd bet. Many times reading Whitman I was struck by how American an author he is (indeed he sets himself the task of doing justice to the American experience), whereas Rand, despite her love for America, often strikes one as quite foreign to and disconnected from American life and history.

There is so much I could write about Whitman, I think I'll write an essay about him for the Monadnock Review sometime. Interestingly, while I value deeply much of what he writes, I don't especially value his poetic technique. I guess I'm more of a traditionalist with regard to poetic form (most likely as a result of my studies of Greek and Latin). I see what he was doing with regard to the craft of poetry and I can appreciate it, but I can't see myself writing that way. (Though I like to think that I, too, "started from Paumanok" given my early years on Long Island.)

As noted, I feel an essay inside me somewhere about Whitman, so I'm sure I'll be writing about him again. But in case I don't get to that project, here are some of the poems of his that I most liked (in roughly chronological order): To a Historian, I Hear America Singing, I Sing the Body Electric, Not Heat Flames up and Consumes, The Prairie-grass Dividing, Song of the Open Road, Song of Joys, Song of the Broad-Axe, A Song for Occupations, Myself and Mine, Gods, O Me! O Life!, By the Bivouac's Fitful Flame, Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun, How Solemn as One by One, As I Lay with my Head in Your Lap Camerado, O Captain! My Captain!, This Dust Was Once the Man, By Blue Ontario's Shore, There Was a Child Went Forth, To a Foil'd European Revolutionaire, Laws for Creations, I Was Looking a Long While, Quicksand Years, To a Locomotive in Winter, Manhatta, Excelsior, What I See Best in Thee, A Clear Midnight, Ashes of Soldiers, Thoughts (of these years I sing), As They Draw to a Close, The Pallid Wreath, When the Full-Grown Poet Came, Grand is the Seen, To Soar in Freedom and in Fullness of Power, and Says.

Much more to be said, I think I'll let my thoughts gestate for a while...


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