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Prize-winning poet explains Walt Whitman to the general reader

Book Review: On Whitman by C. K. Williams

“Set a poet to catch a poet” seems to be the principle Princeton University Press used to get prize winning poet C.K. Williams to write the critique of Walt Whitman for their “Writers on Writers” series. On Whitman the little — both in size and in content — book he came up with is as much an appreciation as it is an analytical critical study. Its aim is to show readers less familiar with the poet’s work (the ones who were sleeping during their American Literature courses, although you have to wonder how many of them will be buying a study of Whitman, appreciative or not) what there is to love and admire in his work. Williams may point out a flaw here and there, but overall, On Whitman is a kind of love song to the poet who gave us “Song of Myself,” “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” and “When Lilacs Last on the Dooryard Bloomed.”

Not that Whitman isn’t deserving of some love, he is arguably the greatest poet America has produced, certainly the most original. Still, there is much in his body of work that could do with a little editing. Leaves of Grass, his major volume of poetry, was first published in 1855, but the poet tinkered and tinkered with it throughout the rest of his life. Unfortunately, as Williams notes and indeed is the general view, Whitman wasn’t always the best of tinkerers. Now while it is easy enough to tell readers to ignore the later editions and stick with the 1855, it would be a good idea to make sure they understand just what the problems with the later editions are. Besides, the fact that the poet wasn’t always able to leave well enough alone, would seem to be an indication that he at the very least might not have known great poetry when he saw it. A problem, unfortunately, not limited to Whitman. Poets aren’t always the best readers of their own work.

While there is some biographical information, it is very limited, the kind of thing you might get in an introduction to a collection of his poems. On Whitman focuses on the poetry. Williams organizes the book around general themes; each theme treated in short chapters usually with a fair selection of quotations to illustrate the points he is trying to make. Themes include “America,” “Voice,” “Sex,” “Nature,” “Immortality,” along with many others. Whitman has much to say on many subjects. Williams compares his work with contemporaries like Baudelaire and Longfellow. He compares Whitman’s treatment of themes with that of other poets. Whitman, for example, is more precise in his natural imagery, than a poet like Shelley. Tennyson’s elegiac mode is limited to one note; Whitman is more expansive in his Lincoln elegies. He discusses his influence on modern poets like Ginsberg, Lorca, T.S. Eliot and Pound among those best known. He focuses on the unique voice, the American voice that Whitman created for himself.

Here’s a sample. In the section on “The Music,” Williams considers the influences on the poet’s signature verse forms and offers most of the usual scholarly suggestions, and then concludes that we really don’t know where the music came from, but wherever it came from it is unique to Whitman and an “astounding” accomplishment. He gives examples; he talks about the music of other poets, but he really doesn’t do any analysis of the music. It’s not that he avoids technical terminology, after all this is a book intended for general audiences, not scholars; it’s more that what he does say is often couched in language that needs explanation. For example: “Thought, meaning, vision, the very words, come after the music has been established, and in the most mysterious way they’re already contained in it.” Even if this is true, I’m not sure how it helps to understand anything about this poet’s music.

Perhaps the best thing about On Whitman is that even in such a short work it does manage to include a good deal of poetry and even a few quotations from the poet’s prose. On the other hand, even though Whitman’s best poems are lengthy, it would have been nice to include a couple of poems in their entirety. Still Whitman in chunks is probably better than no Whitman at all.

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