Walt Whitman in 1891. Photo: Samuel Murray. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
There are poets who find their strength in brevity, who use as few words as possible, arranged in the minimum number of lines, to evoke sense perception, emotion, and idea. Walt Whitman, it goes without saying, is not one of those. He is most comfortable on a broader scale. His great poems—“Song of Myself,” “The Sleepers,” “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed”—straddle hundreds of lines, providing the poet with room to catalogue particulars (The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings, he calls them), to stack up parallel statements, to address his reader, to depart from and return to his argument, and to construct a kind of poetic architecture designed to be mimetic of the process of thinking, and thus draw us more intimately near. This is why his shorter poems often feel like parts of a larger, more encompassing one; even satisfyingly complete shorter pieces such as “To You” and “This Compost” might be seen as outtakes, or gestures in the direction of some overarching intention.
One reason for this is perhaps the speed at which Whitman composed. He said he’d been simmering, before Emerson’s New York lecture of 1848, then Emerson’s passionate call for a distinctly American poet had set him to boil. Nonetheless, it was seven years before the first edition of Leaves of Grass appeared, containing twelve poems. Fired by the book’s publication, Whitman began to work faster; his second edition, only a year later, contained twenty new poems. One of them, “Sun-Down Poem,” later to be retitled “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” is one of the great poems written in English in its century or any other.
The new look of the second edition is telling. The oversize production of the first, destined for the parlor, its intricately wrought title stamped in gold, gave way to a more streamlined look, perhaps because he was no longer bound to use the large paper his first printer had provided. But I suspect he had recalibrated his sense of audience in a way more suited to his mission; the green book was now sized to fit in a pocket of one of those work jackets Whitman liked to wear, meant to be carried everywhere, and read in the open air every season of every year of your life. Hefty, encyclopedic in its proportions, the book came more to resemble the new gospel that Whitman intended, a book that would convince us that the known universe has one complete lover and that is the greatest poet.
The third edition, of 1860, included 146 new poems—a nearly unbelievable number! Some sixty-eight of these were written between the appearance of the second edition, in 1856, and June 1857, when the poet was clearly in a kind of creative fever, one that essentially did not subside until the 456-page third collection was headed for the press. This third volume was produced by a commercial publisher, and is indeed more traditional in design. Dropping the models of coffee-table book and portable testament, it looks more like most mid-nineteenth-century books of poems, with small line drawings and ornamental flourishes around the poems’ titles. The frontispiece presents the poet in an engraving taken from an oil portrait, Walt Whitman with lush but not yet prophetic locks and a stylish cravat, more Romantic spirit than one of the roughs. Somewhere between two thousand and five thousand copies were printed, and the book was largely well reviewed, and fared better in the marketplace than the earlier editions.
I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Whitman had abandoned his practice of expanding and rearranging his book. Why not write one collection, set it aside, and write another? This is one of the primary ways poets progress; looking at a book you’ve finished, you don’t want to pursue exactly that same path again. A new collection invites us to vary form and tone, try on a new stance, strike out in a new direction and thus view familiar territory from another vantage point. In truth, our obsessions, our ways of making meaning, even our signature vocabulary and syntax often stay remarkably close to where we began; if we’re lucky, we just get better at using them. But, as we move from book to book, serious attention to the matters at hand can help to widen the embrace of our work a bit, and just a bit can prove plenty. Suppose Whitman had decided to bring a thread that had been recessive in one book—the abject self-doubt he reveals in the chilling final section of “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life,” for instance—and bring it more into the foreground in the next? What unexpected, potentially rich poems we might have had!
Or maybe not. I can see reasons why Whitman would have wanted to go on cultivating the singular field of “leaves” that comprised his book. In a way that is true of no other great poet, his poems were a tool to make something happen; the change he wished to effect, and sometimes believed he could, was more important to him than art. This is why he could later say he wished he’d been an orator instead, when he’d written at least two of the greatest poems in the language. Of course poets themselves don’t get to know if they have written anything that will last, but Whitman tells us, in no uncertain terms, that he will be read after his death, by men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence. I can confidently say that, had I written “Song of Myself” or “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” I would not be wishing I’d chosen another career.
It’s in the 1860 edition that the poet first begins to arrange his poems in clusters, making thematic clumps, breaking one off here and adding another there. He would go on remixing the order for the rest of his life.
This was largely a mistake. It results, at the worst, in sections of poems about the sea, or winter, and this kind of organization inevitably diminishes the work. “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” takes place on a beach, but it is not “about” the sea, because great poems are not “about” in this way; they are profound reaches into that “furnace of meaning,” and they use whatever is at hand—the sea, a ferryboat ride, an unruly field of grass—to get to where they need to go. The “subject” matters until the furnace is lit, and then the poem almost seems to burn its ostensible occasion clean away.
It may be that Whitman arranged and fiddled because he came to understand, over time, that he was losing the capacity to create the magnificent, visionary odes that had launched his career. He would suffer from poverty, and from anxiety over his reception and reputation; as an outsider who both wanted and did not want to be on the inside, he was in a position of near-constant instability. He saw the boys he adored, the ones he hoped might base a newly energized democratic order on their affection for each other, tear one another apart on the battlefield instead, in a war of mind-bending brutality. He wandered from bed to bed for five years in makeshift hospitals, in appalling conditions, offering what comfort and witness he could, and destabilized his own health in the process. He suffered a massive stroke and required help for the rest of his life. How could I expect him to go on writing great poems when he’d already created ones that no one had known how to write in the first place, poems that sail right past what we thought a poem could do?
Mark Doty is the author of more than ten volumes of poetry and three memoirs. His many honors include the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, a Whiting Award, a Lila Wallace–Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award, and, in the UK, the T. S. Eliot Prize. He is a professor at Rutgers University and lives in New York City.
Excerpted from What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life. © 2020 by Mark Doty. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
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