David Haven Blake
On Whitmanby C. K. Williams
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In this book, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet C. K. Williams sets aside the mass of biography and literary criticism that has accumulated around the work and person of Walt Whitman, and attempts to go back to Leaves of Grass as he first encountered it, to explore why Whitman's epic "continues to inspire and sometimes daunt" him. The result is a personal reassessment and appreciation of one master poet by another, as well as an unconventional and brilliant introductionor reintroductionto Whitman.
In brief, thematic chapters with many quotations from Leaves of Grass, Williams explores the innovations, originality, and sheer genius of the poetry that has become, as he puts it, "the unconscious" of much of the poetry of America and the world. Williams pays particular attention to the music of Whitman's poetry, its blazing perception and enormous human sympathy, its affecting anecdotes, and its vast cast of characters, as well as to the radical nature of Whitman's first-person speaker, his liberating attitude toward sex, and his unconventional ideas about death. While conveying the singularities of Whitman's work, Williams also shows what Whitman had in common with other great poets of his time, such as Baudelaire, and the powerful influence Whitman had on later poets such as Eliot and Pound.
Beautifully written and rich with insight, this is a book that refreshes our ability to see Whitman in all his power.
David Haven Blake
John E. Alvis
The acclaimed poet C. K. Williams celebrates the energy, legacy, and artistry of Walt Whitman with astute and exuberantly abundant recourse to the bard's free and formidable verse.
"Whitman, the great New York poet, cries out for evangelization, not explication. Accordingly, in this sweet slip of a book, Williams, himself an eminent poet, lets Walt speak freely, filling many pages with favorite passages, most frequently from the original 'Leaves of Grass,' of 1855. Williams's own prose is chatty and loose, dipping into big categories like 'Nature' and 'America' with the casualness of a Sunday social call."Leo Carey, New Yorker
"One can see why C.K. Williams, a poet of wide-ranging curiosity and distinctive verbal 'music,' might have been drawn to write an introduction to Whitman. In his use of long, flowing linessometimes so long that his publishers have adopted unusually wide pages to accommodate themWilliams can seem to be an heir to Whitman's own poetic practice. There are times in his book on Whitman when Williams confides something that he knows as a poet."Christopher Benfey, New York Review of Books
"On Whitmanis an admirable homage to a poet without whom C. K. Williams himself would not write as he does."Stephen Burt, New Republic
"On Whitman is revelatory when it comes to explaining Whitman's poetic gifts. With generous quotations from Leaves of Grass, Williams returns us to Whitman's music, his remarkable fusion of language and song. . . . On Whitman is not simply a personal tribute to Williams' great forerunner. The book rethinks the ways the 'good gray poet' established a language and an identity for future poets."David Haven Blake, Philadelphia Inquirer
"Now, C. K. Williams has written a book on Whitman, and it arrives not a moment too soon. . . . In On Whitman, Williams takes an approach that's more innovative than it sounds: he keeps his focus on the poems. He wants to strip away the heavy theorizing and layers of biography that have accrued around his fellow poet. Williams's aim is to restore the strangeness and power he encountered when, at age 16, he made a Whitman anthology his first poetry purchase. 'For a young poet, reading Whitman is sheer revelation, sheer wonder, a delight bordering on then plunging into disbelief. How could all this come to pass?' His slender book offers a convincing answer."Jeremy McCarter, Newsweek
"On Whitman is a small, excellent look at the greatest poet that the United States has produced to date. . . . If you really don't know Whitman's poetry, except for a poem or two you encountered in high school or college, Williams is a gracious, welcoming guide. Even if you are already an avid reader, he is still apt to renew your wonder about the work. Williams knows he isn't able to explain how Whitman became the poet he did, any more than his biographers. But he is able to describe what makes his poetry great, and so readable, as well as anyone."Robert Pincus, San Diego Union-Tribune
"This little book is almost a book of devotion, so moved is the author, himself a poet, as he reads and re-reads Whitman. He writes that Whitman 'was the most spiritually perfect human being who ever lived.' His almost intimate reflections make this book a delight to read. Readers who think they know Whitman will learn much from C.K. Williams."Charles Stephen, Lincoln Journal Star
"An estimable poet in his own right, C.K. Williams has written an accessible, short study of Walt Whitman's poetry. Part of a writers-on-writers series recently launched by Princeton University Press, On Whitman is a slight book, an appreciative meditation rather than a critical study. Williams helps readers see Whitman's genius, especially his intuitive grasp of the existential and metaphysical demands of a radically democratic culture."R.R. Reno, First Things
"The acclaimed poet C. K. Williams celebrates the energy, legacy, and artistry of Walt Whitman with astute and exuberantly abundant recourse to the bard's free and formidable verse."Barnes and Noble Review
"Williams invites us to hop on as he takes us on an exhilarating ride through Whitman's poetry."Ed Folsom, Walt Whitman Quarterly Review
"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."John E. Alvis, Claremont Review of Books
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By C. K. WILLIAMS
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2010 Princeton University Press
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Chapter OneTHE MUSIC
* We know that as he wandered the streets, as he rode in the omnibuses, probably as he sat in lectures and in the opera, he scribbled in small notebooks and on scraps of paper he stuffed in his pockets. We know he then transcribed them, ordered them, wrote them down, then set the type for the first editions of his great work himself.... And there it was, on the page.... We know, we know, we know....
"He was learning his craft," we like to think. Always with the notion of craft comes the implication of progress, improvement. The very word craft seems to have inherent in it the precept that the more you practice your art, the more you labor at it and study it, the more craft you'll have, the better you'll be able to effect your poetry, or anything else. This can be quite a debilitating credo-I've known poets who for all intents and purposes spent their life learning their art, preparing to write poems, but never getting around to actually doing it. Similarly, critics will sometimes make up a lengthy biography for poets whose precociousness seems to be a denial of the normal evolution of the attainment of knowledge. It can seem completely unfeasible to believe that Keats or Rimbaud didn't somehow do something practical to absorb all they had to in the preparation of their poetic activities. I once read an article about Rimbaud that set out to prove that his very unlikely knowledge of so many matters of the history of poetics, and of history itself, had to have been the result of the thousands of hours he'd spent in the Bibliothèque Nationale, sneaking off presumably from the rather bohemian time-wasting that comprised most of the actual life of the seventeen-year-old he was when he wrote his greatest poems.
Whitman's craft, his skill, was supreme during that first blazing burst when he was compiling the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass and adding to it in the nearly as inspired years afterward. But though he had been for some years a productive journalist, there's still no way really to account for how he accumulated in such a short time so many singular methods, so many facets for the expression of his talent; there was no place he could have "learned" his craft: it evolved along with his identity, with his very self.
The new way of composing must have come all at once; I imagine it must have felt like some kind of conversion experience. There are very few signs before the 1855 edition that this great thing was about to occur. It's as though his actual physical brain went through some incredible mutation, as though-a little science fiction, why not?-aliens had transported him up to their spaceship and put him down again with a new mind, a new poetry apparatus. It is really that crazy.
And, most important, we don't know where his music came from; though there are isolated lines in the notebooks that offer clues, we'll never really know when he first fully intuited, and heard, and knew, that surge of language sound, verse sound, that pulse, that swell, that sweep, which was to become his medium, his chariot-just to try to imagine him consciously devising it is almost as astounding as it must have been for him to discover it.
It's essential to keep in mind that in poetry the music comes first, before everything else, everything else: until the poem has found its music, it's merely verbal matter, information. 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. Without the music, there's nothing; thought, merely, ideation; in Coleridge's terms, not imagination, just fancy; intention, hope, longing, but not poetry: Wait, Muse! Let me sing it to you, wait! That might be what drives poets to desperation, or worse: the waiting, the wanting, the sensing of the cadences, the melodies, but being unable to force them. It's also probably what tends poets towards manic-depressiveness, because when the music does finally arrive, the mix of relief and exaltation is unreal, beyond self, ego, consciousness, and conscience.
Usually the music seems to come along simultaneously with the words and the matter, but not always. Mandelstam spoke of hearing the music for a poem, feeling it, before it had any words at all. Pavese said: "By means of murmuring, I gave a rhythm to my poems." Poetry is song and language at once. Neuroscientists say now that there are separate areas in the brain, individual "modules," for one and the other. Poetry's splendor, its seduction, its addictive potential surely resides in this bringing of separate psychic realms together in one mental and emotional speech-act, thought-act. Dante has the poets in Limbo going off together alone to speak of things that are not to be revealed to others, even in his Comedy of revelation. What could these things be other than that most profound and most blatant secret of the poets: that only they can generate this unlikely marvel, language music-in great poets a music immediately recognizable and resolutely unique?
In "Song of Myself," Whitman chants aloud the secret to himself:
My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach, With the twirl of my tongue I encompass worlds and volumes of worlds. Speech is the twin of my vision.... it is unequal to measure itself.
* When and how Whitman first heard his music is a mystery still, perhaps the mystery. What he had heard and had read meant either a great deal or, probably more likely, not terribly much. There were influential voices around him, some orators, some religious texts, that might be conceived of as generically similar to the voice he devised. There's the poet Samuel Warren, whose The Lily and the Bee Paul Zweig cites as having possibly influenced Whitman, but Warren's music, though metrically loose, is notably clunky and inelegant; it would have been for Whitman more of an example to be avoided then emulated.
And of course there were voices in the tradition of poetry that had to have helped him forge his language mechanism into the shape it finally achieved. Macpherson's Ossian is sometimes mentioned, and John Milton's work. Whitman spoke with admiration of Milton, but Milton wasn't the influence for him he had been, say, for Keats, a master, a teacher, so that some of Keats's early sonnets sound at first as though Milton might have composed them. "When I consider how my life is spent...." "When I have fears that I may cease to be...."
Whitman's break with the past was much more radical, more like Christopher Smart's, whose "Jubilate Agno" certainly would, in its frank assertion of verse improvisation, have offered hints to Whitman of how he came to use phrase and clause as organizing principles. But at least as far as I can discover, Whitman seems never to have heard of Smart. Blake, another radical innovator? Whitman was introduced to Blake by his adoring would be lover-wife, then good friend, Anne Gilchrist. Gilchrist, who came from England to marry Whitman but quickly realized he wasn't husband material yet stayed close to him, had completed her husband Alexander Gilchrist's biography of Blake after Alexander died, but her advent in Whitman's life was long after he had devised the music for his poems.
Many commentators compare the cadences of the poems and their use of parallelisms with those of the King James Bible, and surely those rhythms would have been resonating somewhere in Whitman's musical poetic psyche, but I'm not convinced. Whitman certainly did use some of its parallel structures, but the Bible has few instances of sentences laden with as many phrases as those with which Whitman charged his, which is one of the singular characteristics of his music. As great and influential as the King James Bible is, and as much as Whitman surely would have had to have been influenced by his experience of it, I think he used as many of Shakespeare's chromatic rhythms and rhetorics as the Bible's.
I remember long ago working for hours with some other young poets trying different systems of verse analysis that counted stressed and unstressed syllables, most notably that devised by George Stewart in his still useful Techniques of English Verse, that we thought might help situate Whitman in the tradition of English poetic rhythms. But Leaves of Grass always resisted, and, though it was fun for awhile, we never found a satisfying way to account for Whitman's finally unpredictable music. And of course there are dozens of critics who have tried to do the same thing, most successfully Gay Wilson Allen,* but in the end the results are always inconclusive.
There are hints about Whitman's sources, though: poets in the throes of precomposition will often resort to existing poems-usually great ones but not always-to inaugurate, impel, a sound, a movement, any sound, any movement, beyond the obdurate plod of prose. Sometimes this glance to other poetry works, though oddly enough the music that begins to be realized will often bear no resemblance to the winged Pegasus that led the way. With Whitman, because the evidence is so meager, there's a point at which we have to have recourse to the notion of "genius." Art most often evolves in what appear to be cautious increments, but there are those figures who innovate more quickly and forcefully and ultimately mysteriously than that.
We have to give Whitman's genius its due: he did something that the evidence is in no way able to predict no matter how scrupulously we scour through his predecessors. It's reasonable to try to account for the innovations Leaves of Grass makes, but at some point all that speculation has to be suspended so we can simply appreciate with gratitude the huge gift Whitman made to the universe of poetry. As with certain other geniuses-Shakespeare, Dante, Homer-his sources are simply absorbed, or wrenched, into the sheer originality of the poetry. If we are to use the term "influence" about Whitman, what's most remarkable is the influence his work more than any other poet's has had on poets all over the world, rather than that which may or may not have conditioned his own work.
Let that initial gasp of amazement at the splendor of the work lead us to the exhalation of gratitude that all this could have come about.
* We'll never know either what the lines were in which Whitman first heard his music. The lines that begin the poem?
I celebrate myself, And what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belong to me as good belongs to you.
Perhaps, though it doesn't feel likely somehow. Turn to any page in that first Leaves of Grass ...
I hear you whispering there O stars of heaven, O suns.... O grass of graves.... O perpetual transfers and promotions.... if you do not say anything how can I say anything?
That? Why not? Poets traditionally look to the stars, don't they? And look to the ground then, and in the ground is death. Or this:
I have heard what the talkers were talking.... the talk of the beginning and the end, But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.
And then a little leap, of sense and music.
There was never any more inception than there is now, Nor any more youth or age than there is now; And will never be any more perfection than there is now, Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.
And another abrupt tonal shift, characteristic of Whitman's work, but where did it come from?
Urge and urge and urge, Always the procreant urge of the world.
Shiftings and leaps: unlogical, ungrounded, unconnected, from one theme, one image, one anecdote, one sound to another. Surely his original method, that gathering of scraps in notebooks and scraps in his pockets, must have gone far towards permitting-once he gave in to them-the music, and that peculiar system of connection, that wonderfully gappy unorganized organization.
If he was like other poets I know, when he felt, heard, knew that music, the first question he would have asked himself was how long he'd be able to stay in it, to, as jazz musicians say, ride it. The music was so forceful, so engrossing, so generative, that it couldn't have taken him long, a few instants, a few months at most, to realize he'd discovered a musical system that was magically encompassing and had within it echoes of other singings, the Bible, oratory, opera, even some older poetry, but was entirely unique as well. Then it might have taken him some other gigantic moment to realize that not only would his world, his entire world, fit within it, but that the music would take him to places of imagination and intellect and spirit he would have never have dreamed without it.
He must have been-no, surely was-in a state of bliss that lasted for years, through all the miserable trials of his family in the 1850s, through all the anguish of having to watch a nation prepare to sunder itself: he was still listening to his music, scribbling, assembling. He'd have lived within the music, exulted in it. Dizzying to think of it.
It was a music, and a musical-poetic vision, that flourished abundantly, wildly. A music so satisfying, so irrepressible that even when some twenty years or so later he realized it had left him, had left him even years before that, he expressed no great grief, though he surely had had no inkling during those early blazing years that it ever might wane. In those first years he projected the number of poems en route in the hundreds-he spoke of 365 for the third, 1860 edition-and if he didn't quite generate that number, there were still dozens and dozens of new poems, almost all splendid.
But, sadly, at some point it did go bad for him. He lost the connection to his music, not knowing at first that he had. Trying to keep it going, after the 1860s, into the '70's and '80's, he kept making new poems, but his locutions become odd and awkward, his rhythms uncertain, his diction sometimes almost primitive. As Galway Kinnell writes in the introduction to his Essential Whitman: "By the mid-sixties his work began to fill up with the very poeticism and archaisms he had started off by excluding-'o'er,' 'e'en,' 'erewhile,' 'i,' 'tis,' 'ope,'...."
And often he couldn't in his endless tinkering and revising hear himself as he had, and he all but untuned the original power of his symphony. He was having fatal trouble sounding like himself, the poet he had been, whose music was diluted now, and weary, maybe because his body itself had begun to be prematurely sick and weary and old. In some of the later poems there are moments, too many, of a kind of dutiful ecstasy. This is a cardinal sin for artists, sham inspiration, but perhaps Whitman has to be forgiven for this because his method itself was so much involved with the ecstatic. If his inspiration sometimes no longer fulfilled the fiery needs of his method, we have to be grateful for the many times it had.
And there came a time when he knew himself he'd lost it. Speaking of a sketch someone was making of him, he was quoted as saying: "The devil in artists is to keep pegging away at a thing after it is all done-pegging away at it done, till it is undone." Fortunately we still have those earlier, unpegged-away-with editions.
* But how wildly exciting, how really exalting it must have been to him when his poetry first offered him a way to see and record so much-it can feel like everything. Just reading it, the brilliance of the moments of inspiration are like raw synaptic explosions, like flashbulbs going off in the brain, in the mind: pop, pop, pop. The images, the ideas, the visions, the insights, the proclamations, the stacks of brilliant verbal conjunctions, the musical inventiveness and uniqueness: one after the other, again and again, in a form that reveals them naked, unmodulated, undimmed by any apparent resort to the traditional resources of poetic artfulness. Reading it, being in it, as in the work of terribly few poets, there's a kind of inspirational elation: the world in the poems and the world we live in, the cosmos that's ours-all of it imbued with significance.
Excerpted from ON WHITMAN by C. K. WILLIAMS Copyright © 2010 by Princeton University Press . Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This
Chang-rae Lee, author of "Native Speaker"
Alicia Ostriker, author of "Dancing at the Devil's Party: Essays on Poetry, Politics, and the Erotic"
Michael Robertson, author of "Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples"
Meet the Author
C. K. Williams's has won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. His most recent book of poetry is "Wait" from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. His other books include an essay collection, "Poetry and Consciousness", and a memoir, "Misgivings" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). He teaches creative writing and translation at Princeton University, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
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Steven B. Herrmann, PhD, MFT Author of "Walt Whitman: Shamanism, Spiritual Democracy, and the World Soul" C. K. Williams has written a wonderful book, "On Whitman," which may go down in history as one of the best studies on the poet, not because of its exceptional brilliance, but because of its remarkable attunement to Walt's music. The only book that equals Williams' ear for selection is F. O Matthiessen's 1941 masterpiece American Renaissance. "How could all this have come to pass?" Williams asks: "This stupendous, relentless surge of poetic music with its intricate and constantly surprising combinations of sound?" Williams fells that Whitman's embodiment and embedding of his visions and metaphysical speculations in poetry is what makes his spirituality more sonorous, for some, than "any religious texts" (ix). He says that there is no question in his mind of influence: with Whitman we are dealing with a phenomenon that is without question more "primitive" than influence (x). He argues adds that in Walt's poetry after 1860 the American Bard "diluted and diffused his first brilliant inspiration" (xiv). For this reason the author quotes only from the 1855, 1856, and 1860 editions of Leaves of Grass and ends with a few lines from his Civil War poems. In doing so, he unfortunately misses much of Whitman's later brilliance, inspiration, and final grand symphonies. The best thinking Williams does is in his repeated return to his thesis: "there was no place where he could have `learned' his craft: it evolved with his identity, with his very self." Whitman's new way of composing must have come all at once, he says, like a conversion experience (2). The leitmotif keeps repeating: "we don't know where his music came from" (3). Really? What might analytical psychology tells us that poetry cannot? (I have written about this elsewhere.) He repeats: "When and how Whitman first heard his music is a mystery still, perhaps the mystery" (5). Hs says it could only have taken a few instants, or a few months at most, for Whitman to realize that he had discovered a "musical system" and within this system all the earlier influences and other "singings" were somehow encompassed (17). The poet was surely in a state of "bliss" that lasted for years. Williams continues: Whitman lived in it, exulted in it, swam in the delight of it, and because he was so close to the source of bliss, "his rhythms, and his diction" is "sometimes almost primitive" (13). For all the book's virtues, in conveying a feeling for the early music, to say that the only original music is in the 1855-1860 period, with a couple of Civil War chants thrown in, is tragic. Neither "Passage to India," nor "Proud Music of the Storm," two of Whitman's most musical compositions, masterpieces of pure beautiful verse, are not even mentioned. These late poems are not Williams' concern, so much as his first "brilliant conjunctions" (14). Conjunctions! Here his theme is gaining on him. "Was he homosexual" Williams asks. "Surely," he replies. What about sex with women? No, he answers: "it's finally very unlikely" (25). "Something happened, some utterly mysterious thing happened in the psyche of the poet which still remains the unlikeliest miracle, and he discovered, created his me