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Spring/Summer 2007, Volume 23.3

Essay

 

John SchwiebertPhoto of John Schwiebert.

News Flash: Walt Whitman Advises Teens to "Skip" Poetry?


John Schwiebert (BA, Carleton College; MA and PhD, University of Minnesota) is Professor of English at Weber State University. Author of The Frailest Leaves: Whitman’s Poetic Technique in the Short Poem, he has remained an avid reader of Whitman for many years. He also authored the highly successful textbook Reading and Writing from Literature (Houghton Mifflin). John lives in Salt Lake City with his wife Ann and his children Jack and Elizabeth.

 

As an English instructor I sometimes assign my students the following thought experiment: Write an account of everything you have done, thought, observed, and experienced during the last 24 hours. Then contrast this account (inevitably slender) with the nearly infinite variety of thoughts and impressions that dart through your mind during a mere five minutes. Through the experiment the students and I realize the impossibility of ever fully "capturing" our lives on paper. We can record, at best, a tiny fraction of our experience of a single day; how much more futile any effort to write the complete story of a human life.

If we seem to "know" a person’s life story we can be certain that we understand less of it than we suppose. We know, for instance, the story of Walt Whitman, the Long Island native who wrote one of the world’s most controversial and celebrated books, Leaves of Grass. We possess many facts about his family, his early adulthood, his journalism, his employment history, his heroic dedication as a volunteer nurse during the Civil War, his reverence for Abraham Lincoln, his extraordinary need for affection, his intimate relationships with men and women, his faith in himself and in his poetic mission…. And then a minor document surfaces and reminds us how little we really know about the inner Walt Whitman, despite the famously assertive and omnipresent "I" in his writings.

The document, discovered in early 2005 by Nicole Kukawski, a junior at the College of New Jersey, is a long buried interview of Walt Whitman. The interview took place in 1888, in Whitman’s home, four years before the poet’s death, and was conducted by two students from Kukawski’s school, then known as the New Jersey State Normal School, and published in the school newspaper. The interview is remarkable, because in it Whitman said something altogether uncharacteristic about poetry—namely, Don’t write it. What Whitman may have meant by this comment is the focus of this essay.

 

We can picture the scene: the two students, perhaps aspiring poets themselves, sit nervously in the old man’s bedroom, which doubles as a parlor, their pencils ready for some fast writing. They are excited to meet the aging poet, with his flowing white beard and velvet mystical eyes; the local eccentric—famous—said to be outspoken, something of a curmudgeon. Much of what the students hear is pretty expected: Write every day…. Don’t be afraid to break conventional models…. Carry pencil and paper at all times to record daily experiences…. Write concisely. But here is the particular statement that must have set the students spinning: "First, don’t write poetry; second ditto; third ditto. You may be surprised to hear me say so, but there is no particular need of poetic expression. We are utilitarian, and the current cannot be stopped." Astonishing! What was one of the great poets of world literature doing telling young people—no doubt eager, impressionable, and idealistic young people—not to write poetry?

Before turning to the question, we should get a sense of Whitman the man in 1888. He was, in his own words, "An old, dismasted, gray and batter’d ship," aged 69 but looking more like 80. For some 15 years the once hardy poet had been disabled by paralysis, hypertension, and other debilities, and he mainly got about now with the help of a cane or a strong supportive shoulder. His home was a two-story tenement in working class Camden, New Jersey—a place one acquaintance remembered as "sadly out of repair, and… the poorest tenement on the block." Visitors described the house as sparsely furnished yet cramped. Much of the floor space in the poet’s bedroom, where he received visitors, was buried under books, boxes, and papers: correspondence, bills, prose notes and poem drafts formed "a hillock of debris." Items were easily lost. One day Horace Traubel, the young disciple who visited Whitman daily during the last four years of the poet’s life, retrieved from the heap the original of the most famous letter in American literature, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1855 note greeting Whitman "at the beginning of a great career." The old poet had lost track of it.

By 1888 Whitman’s great work, Leaves of Grass, the most influential book of poems in modern times, bold in its free verse format and its treatment of controversial subjects (sex, the human body, slavery, prostitution, social outcasts, oddities, and misfits), had gone through six editions, drawing reviews that ranged from worshipful to scathing. Some people memorized Leaves of Grass; many more refused to read it. Even in old age Whitman earned only a modest royalty from sales of Leaves, and he had to supplement his income by selling poems and prose to newspapers and magazines.

Despite—and because of—the controversy surrounding his book, Whitman had become internationally famous. He and his loyal friends promoted himself and his book unceasingly. Letters poured in from several continents. Streams of visitors, famous and obscure, made pilgrimage to the house at 321 Mickle Street, and a small but growing menage of intellectuals, artists, and offbeat visionaries venerated Whitman the man and treated Leaves of Grass as sacred scripture. However, many literati in America continued to underrate or snub him; and most ordinary nonliterary people, whose love he especially craved, had never read his book. Members of Whitman’s own family shook their heads at Leaves of Grass, clueless as to its import. Whitman’s brother George even attacked the most sexual poems as being of "the whore-house order."

In short, the ageing Walt Whitman was a complicated figure: embattled yet optimistic, isolated but social, literary but wary of literary people and opinions, still publicly confident of his book’s eventual triumph yet dismayed that its reputation remained so much less than he knew it deserved.

Such was Walt Whitman when the two students from the New Jersey Normal School paid their visit. So what did he mean by his discouraging remarks to them?

Possibility number one is Whitman meant literally what he said: "Don’t write poetry." Having himself made so little money from poetry he may truly have concluded, ultimately, that time spent writing it was time wasted. Here I am, a battered wrecked old man, he might have thought; this is where my work has gotten me. I can endure this life, but it would kill you two boys. So my advice to you is to finish school and find work that pays. This possibility seems unlikely, however, because it suggests that Whitman had dismissed his entire life as pointless. Moreover, at other times he insisted that poetry is a necessity. For instance, in a notebook he wrote that poems "arouse the reason, suggest, give freedom, strength, muscle, candor" and assist vitally in the creation of "individuality."

Possibility number two is we know nothing personal about the two student interviewers except that they worked for the school newspaper and may, therefore, have been aspiring writers themselves who dreamed of one day being as famous and accomplished as Walt Whitman. Whitman might have sized up his audience quickly and tailored his remarks to them. Perhaps he read in their young faces naive dreams of literary fame and success that clashed with his own experience of the writer’s life as a relentless labor of suffering and neglect. Perhaps he thought: Here are these two young greenhorns and I love them. What do they know about writing? Just the dream of making a splash, of being admired and famous. Better get these fantasies out of their heads as fast as possible. Thus, even as he offered practical advice about how to write poems, he told the students not to write them at all. If the students were real writers, he might have thought, they would go on writing anyway; if they weren’t, they would turn to other interests.

A third possibility is Whitman was simply having a bad day, feeling sour and upset, distracted by his physical pains, and that at that moment poetry did seem valueless to him, though it might not have an hour or two later. Or perhaps, like many other famous writers before and since, he was fed up with receiving inquisitive worshippers and wanted to say something to shock them—tell them poetry is a waste of time. He might even have been experiencing writers’ nausea, as he was on another day when he complained to Horace Traubel: "Everybody is writing, writing, writing—worst of all, writing poetry. It’d be better if the whole tribe of the scribblers—every damned one of us—were sent off somewhere with toolchests to do some honest work."

For additional insights we must look closely at the last sentence in Whitman’s puzzling advice: The students should not write poetry, he says, because "We are utilitarian, and the current cannot be stopped." Historically, of course, utilitarianism is the social philosophy associated with the names of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, influential reformers in Victorian England. The classic aim of utilitarianism was to improve society by providing (in Bentham’s words) "the greatest good for the greatest number."

Whitman had no quarrel with the political ideals of the utilitarians, because they were advocates of democracy and equality, just like himself. Utilitarian-inspired social and economic reforms have been credited with helping England avoid the violent political revolutions that shook other European powers during the 1840s. In his long essay, Democrative Vistas, published in 1871, Whitman praised J. S. Mill and his "profound" writing On Liberty.

What Whitman would have found less congenial about the utilitarians was their worldview, symbolized for many readers in the character of Charles Dickens’s inhuman, efficiency-obsessed Thomas Gradgrind. Justly or unjustly, the utilitarians were identified as inveterate haters of imagination, social engineers obsessed with "facts," numbers, and probabilities, calculations of social benefits and social costs, the reduction of life to calculus. In short, what would have irritated Whitman was the stifling narrowness of the utilitarians. They seemed to take a wonderful and mysterious thing like life and reimagine it as a mathematical formula. Modern-day descendants of the utilitarian worldview (but not of Bentham and Mill’s idealistic egalitarianism) include behaviorists and social conditioners of all kinds.

The clearest evidence of the contrast between Whitman and the utilitarians is the title of Whitman’s great book. While Bentham and Mill saw life in terms of abstract sociopolitical categories and classes, Whitman always celebrated concrete particulars—from mountains and oceans to heaped stones, earth beetles, and blades of grass. When he named his book he tipped his hat to the most commonplace thing he could find—a blade of grass. The title Leaves of Grass is a three-word summary of reality as Walt Whitman knew it. In this luminous vision the most ordinary thing is so extraordinary that, if we truly see it, it should flatten us. When I teach Whitman in classes, I put it like this: most of us will walk out of this building and hurry to our cars or the bus stop without noticing the grass beneath our feet; to us it is just "sod." If Whitman were leaving the same building he might stop, astonished, at the first glimpse of the first blade. He might crouch down and touch it, or perhaps take up a few spears and curl them, amazed, between his fingers. Further on he might be waylaid by the sight of an aspen leaf or a pine needle glinting in the sunlight. In this way, it might take a 21st century Whitman half an hour to get from the building to the bus.

At this point someone in the class usually blurts out, "People must have thought he was on drugs!" (Scattered laughter.) The student, in spite of himself, is absolutely correct.

For Whitman a leaf of grass was a reality as large and baffling as the cosmos. By contrast, so far as I can tell, the topic of grass never comes up in the writings of Bentham and J. S. Mill. In effect, for the utilitarians, grass (Whitman’s mystical vision of reality itself) was not real; or it was less real than a number or a mathematical calculation (just as, for some present-day promoters of the utilitarian method, like the engineers of No Child Left Behind, a child is less real than a test).

Going back to the student interview: What is striking in Whitman’s comment, that "We are utilitarian, and the current cannot be stopped," is the use of the first person plural pronoun. We are utilitarian? Gaping at grass…utilitarian? Devoting your life to a commercially questionable book…utilitarian? Fearlessly inviting ridicule and scandal…utilitarian? I imagine a twinkle in Whitman’s eye as he speaks. His surface message is ambiguous; his subtext or real message is clear enough, and it goes something like this: The society you and I live in is utilitarian, numbers-crazy, and experientially deadening; but unless you are blind or know nothing about my life, you can see that I am obviously not utilitarian. Are you?

Both in his writings and his conversation, Whitman liked to provoke people, "agitate," get them thinking. Maybe at this moment he was trying to provoke the student interviewers: Who are you? Are you one of them? Or one of us? A so-called "rational" facts-person? A numbers and answers man? Or are you one of the astonished, drunk on small wonders? Whitman gave the two students something to think about, provided they were sensitive enough. And, thanks to Nicole Kukawski’s discovery of this interview, he gives us something to think about too.

So what can we conclude? I think of three points:

First, Whitman’s comments to the students probably involved a mix of motives, including some I have mentioned and others I have missed. Beneath his bluff exterior, Whitman was deep—or as G. K. Chesterton put it, bottomless.

Second, it is easy to read too much significance into anything Whitman said that day. In his last years Whitman said that he found himself talking more than ever. He may have just been (as he put it) "spouting" with the students, saying things he would contradict on another day. Whitman was proud of being inconsistent. After all, back in 1855 he had written, "Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself."

A third point is that Whitman made no apologies for poetry or for his unconventional life. While he implied that poetry is not utilitarian, that its astonished vision of life is not that of the majority, he did not tell the students that it ought to be utilitarian. He had what scholar Gary Schmidgall has called an "unflappability in the face of harsh criticism." When autopsied Whitman was found to have had an unusually large brain. To me this has always seemed a sign of his almost superhumanly large rhetorical sense: he could see his audience from all sides and himself from all sides, candidly and objectively. He seemed to know the precise significance of himself—both of his greatness and of his kinship with the dust and dirt—and the exact measure of his readers—their aspirations and nobility and prejudices. While it warmed his vanity to be compared to Jesus or Socrates, he was unsurprised and understanding when critics called him a "hog," an "escaped lunatic, raving in pitiable delirium," or worse. Some time before the interview by the New Jersey students a visitor to the Mickle Street house berated Whitman to his face for the sexually explicit poems in Leaves of Grass. Whitman’s parting words to his guest were an invitation to "Come again." He was not an apologizing or arguing sort of person. "I contain multitudes," he said; meaning: He welcomed opinions and influences, favorable and unfavorable, from all sides, sifted them, and grew. He could occupy a current that was moving hard in a utilitarian direction and roll quietly against it.

Finally, the interview leaves me thinking about Whitman’s legendary aplomb. How could a man sink a whole life into one book, witness its disasters and doubtful future, and remain essentially cheerful? Perhaps his vanity was to thank. A neurologist who examined Whitman noted that "He was the most innocently and entirely vain creature I ever knew. The perfect story of his vanity will, I fancy, never be written. It was past belief."

Yet, if vanity was important, humility was too: when you are amazed by brown ants and tree-toads, when you are chronically high on grass (and I don’t mean weed), how can you be dismayed by anything for more than a few minutes? Whatever meaning he meant to convey to the students from the New Jersey school, Walt Whitman himself kept writing poetry to the end.

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