I WENT TO CAMDEN to visit Walt Whitman. It was a Saturday in early June, and my appointment to tour his house was the next day, so I decided to see his tomb first. Maybe it’s a more fitting place to begin, considering the poet’s obsession with death and literary immortality. After all, his grave had cost far more to build than the squat house in which he lived out his final years, long after he experienced his last great burst of poetic productivity.
Whitman designed his tomb himself, taking great pains to get his final resting place right. It’s an impressive facade, built from over 70 tons of granite, but the overall effect is of a country cottage turned to stone and nested into an embankment. A wreath of artificial flowers hung on the crypt’s heavy gate. On the surrounding birches, visitors have carved their names into the bark, recalling Whitman’s description of the grass as a “uniform hieroglyphic.” It sits isolated in a corner near the entrance of Harleigh Cemetery, which is old and beautiful but perhaps had seen better days. Nearby, a half-drained pond was strewn with litter, a beached rowboat was filled with debris. Despite this, there were small signs of the recent celebration of Whitman’s 200th birthday: a Xeroxed flier, some stones left on his doorstep.
At 200, Whitman’s place at the center American poetry is long settled — nearly everything has been written about him, including the idea that everything has been written about him. No book is more pivotal to American poetry’s history, its arguments with form and wildness and the everyday, than Leaves of Grass. To think Walt Whitman is to think the idea of America: its grand plans and its failures, its achievements and its atrocities.
But before I ever really thought about “America,” Whitman was the poet who fired my imagination, who had made me want to write. But it had been a while since I’d read him carefully — I felt a gap, something stifling in the dusty myth of “the good gray poet.” Whitman worked his whole life toward the creation of that wise, paternal image: he had as many photo portraits of himself taken as possible, exaggerated his sales, wrote anonymous reviews praising his own work. It was a poetic persona that had to be constructed so that the work (a persona of its own) could flourish in an often unresponsive world. But the myth has grown, as myths do, into a comfortable commonplace: you can listen to Whitman during a slow zoom of Ken Burns’s Civil War, or watch a Levi’s commercial in which carefree teens run through the forest to “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” I think the ad would have pleased him, or at least bemused him.
In the beginning, he wanted to be vivid. Whitman’s great announcement of his presence, the poem that would come to be known as “Song of Myself,” is a rejection of the tired spirituality of his time in favor of something new:
Why should I pray? why should I venerate and be ceremonious?
In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barley-corn less,|
And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them.
I know I am solid and sound,
To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow,
All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means.
Benedict Anderson writes in his seminal Imagined Communities that one element in the emergence of nationalism was the waning of the major world religions. Traditional religious thought, Anderson writes, “concerns itself with the links between the dead and the yet unborn, the mystery of re-generation. Who experiences their child’s conception and birth without dimly apprehending a combined connectedness, fortuity, and fatality in a language of ‘continuity’?” Whitman proposed a new source of this continuity: himself — who else? — and a poetry of everyone and everything: “[A]ll the things of the universe are perfect miracles, each as profound as any.”
For Whitman, this new faith was essentially American. In his preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman launched an argument for America’s greatness through poetry: “The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” The first of many contradictions opens up: all things are sacred, but America is first among equals. Walt Whitman is the poet of America’s endless growth, of American exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny.
His political failings are well known. In his younger years he supported America’s expansionist war with Mexico. He wrote in his journalism, “Who believes that the Whites and Blacks can ever amalgamate in America? Or who wishes it to happen? Nature has set an impassable seal against it. Besides, is not America for the Whites? And is it not better so?” Although the speaker of “Song of Myself” harbors the fugitive slave, Whitman believed the abolitionists of his time were too radical. Very well — he contradicted himself. His worst beliefs are explained but not justified by the times in which he lived. But not all contradictions are alike: it is one thing to express affinity with the prostitute and the convicted man awaiting execution, and another to found your poetics on the power of a state. Whitman’s deepest slippages exist between the said and the unsaid. Accepting all good and all evil as part of life’s miracle, Whitman has no meaningful vision of social change.
The question goes beyond whether or not Whitman should be banished from the literary forum, if such a thing were even possible. If America can be said to have a national poet, if “O Captain! My Captain!” is still memorized by schoolchildren, then the fact of Whitman is burned into America’s signature. Maybe Whitman requires reexamination at a time when children are being caged at the border and denied basic necessities, to take just one example of what should unsettle who Americans think they are. He is a fiercely nationalist poet, and we live in a time when nationalism is as intellectually discredited as it is politically potent. Maybe the knot is simply this: can you believe in Walt Whitman if you don’t believe in America?
Despite his claims to the universal and eternal, so much of Whitman’s poetic brilliance derives from his deep immersion in that world and time that formed him. His poetry is so full of this material: his attention to the rhythms of working people and of the injured in hospitals, his love of the opera and the then-emerging field of Egyptology, even his fascination with phrenology and his adoption of its pseudoscientific jargon. (Whitman had his head measured and, in Whitmanian fashion, later embellished his “scores.”) Pressing beyond this, he also actively worked to blur the boundaries between his life and his poetry:
Camerado, this is no book,
Who touches this touches a man,
(Is it night? Are we here together alone?)
It is I you hold and who holds you,
I spring from the pages into your arms — decease calls me forth.
In moments like these, a curious intimacy springs from the impersonal address. Who is “you”? Who is “we”? Whitman tests the instability of one person speaking to another and of one person speaking to many. In a loving but mocking essay, D. H. Lawrence critiqued this oversharing voice: “I AM HE THAT ACHES WITH AMOROUS LOVE … Walter, leave off. You are not HE. You are just a limited Walter.” Lawrence believed that Whitman’s sympathy, his “merging,” ultimately rang false, despite his powerful attempt to expand the soul’s range. Empathy quickly slipped into an egoism that misjudged itself: “Whitman came along, and saw the slave, and said to himself: ‘That negro slave is a man like myself. We share the same identity. And he is bleeding with wounds. Oh, oh, is it not myself who am also bleeding with wounds?’”
Whitman’s power as a poet derives from this supreme self-confidence. The idea that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” drove him to bring new language and new subjects into poetry, to reach omnivorously for any particle of experience he noticed. Though Lawrence is right that Whitman never completes his “merge,” and occasionally fails miserably, the imaginative sympathy that Whitman demonstrates in some of his best poems is still remarkable. I think of the description of the cab-driver’s funeral in “To Think of Time” or the tender voyeurisms of “The Sleepers,” among others.
Randall Jarrell, in his great essay about Whitman, wrote that the way to understand him was to quote him, to simply listen to the sheer inventiveness of his language. But it isn’t quite enough to collect verbal pyrotechnics and to forget their animating spirit. Whitman’s openness, his desire to speak into everything, is the engine of his “language experiment.” His overstepping is what allows his imagination to flare up. And isn’t that an American idea too (even if mistaken) that our experiences will somehow in the end be commensurable, that someone could “feel your pain”? It’s a fiction that Whitman’s consciousness can enter everywhere, but it is a powerful and provocative one, too. Perhaps what makes Whitman great is inseparable from what makes him problematic.
It’s been said that Whitman the man is remarkably absent in his poetry, that he clears space to let in those overwhelming catalogs of materials, sensations, and experiences. I’m not sure this is true, and it’s helpful to look at the places where the personal shows through the prophetic. In a poem like “There Was a Child Went Forth Every Day,” Whitman’s childhood becomes one of his multiple origin stories, one that comes closest to pinpointing the beginnings of the “merge”:
There was a child went forth every day,
And the first object he looked upon and received with wonder or pity or love or dread, that object he became,
And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day . . . . or for many years or stretching cycles of years.
The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass, and white and red morningglories, and white and red clover, and the song of the phœbe-bird,
And the March-born lambs, and the sow’s pink-faint litter, and the mare’s foal, and the cow’s calf, and the noisy brood of the barn-yard or by the mire of the pond-side . . and the fish suspending themselves so curiously below there . . . and the beautiful curious liquid . . and the water-plants with their graceful flat heads . . all became part of him.
From a child’s perspective, this incorporation seems almost natural. After all, our environment and family shape us, maybe more deeply than we ever know, and we carry those experiences with us for good. But there is a blurring here between “lilacs became part of this child” and the more forceful “that object he became.” The former is like seeing — the light enters into the eyes, appears upside-down on the back of our retina, becomes part of a vocabulary. The latter is more appropriative, even “acquisitive,” as Paul Zweig puts it, like the “noiseless, patient spider” who actively sends out his threads and attaches himself to the world. Clearly the poet has no intention of becoming just one lamb or just one fish, but rather anything and everything.
In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Whitman matches this desire to be all things by finding a perfect partner: the readers of the future. It’s a dispatch daring in its presumption: “What thought you have of me now, I had as much of you […] I consider’d long and seriously of you before you were born.” The proof of it seems to be brought into being by the act of reading: after all, you’re there with the book in your hands, aren’t you? The power lies again in its generality, but it requires trust in the poet, and a skeptical reader might feel the sleight of hand — have I really been “consider’d”? In addition, “Brooklyn Ferry” contains another of Whitman’s greatest contradictions, his ability to nest self-doubt within his own self-assurance:
It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,
The dark threw its patches down upon me also,
The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious,
My great thoughts as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre?
Nor is it you alone who know what it is to be evil,
I am he who knew what it was to be evil,
I too knitted the old knot of contrariety.
Just as his language seems most charged at its most idiosyncratic, Whitman also has the power to peel back the persona, to let his uncertainty show. This act of confession can feel incredibly powerful after such bravado, but also risks becoming another part of the performance. His admission of evil invites us in to commiserate, to suspend judgment and identify with him, even as he lays claim to more.
It’s easy to forget how much Whitman changed as a poet, how he weathered with exposure to the world’s judgments. The decade of immense productivity between the first Leaves of Grass in 1855 and Drum-Taps in 1865 demonstrates the bending of his initial brashness, “hankering, gross, mystical, nude.” After that first Whitman comes the longing, guarded, lonely Whitman of “Calamus” and its cryptic addresses. And then there’s the Whitman of Drum-Taps, who saw infinity differently when confronted with sick and dying soldiers.
He’s also the poet who spoke of universals because his most private feelings could find no adequate expression in his America. The queer Whitman who couldn’t fully “merge” his sexual desires into his work, who self-censored his poems by changing love for men into love for women, who wrote in journals of his love for streetcar conductor Peter Doyle in numbered code so as not to betray the excess of his passion. The image he wished to cultivate as the ultimate American was ultimately at odds with his most fervent longings — he saw part of himself that he did not see reflected in everyone. How else to explain the poem sequence “Live Oak with Moss,” left unpublished and expressing so much tenderness for an unnamed male lover? (Most of these poems would later be distributed into “Calamus,” concealing their individual focus.) He ached and struggled to use his newly invented form to sing himself, but even his silences became another part of the performance. His poetry became greater when he acknowledged that he could not make things whole.
In The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner writes of poetry’s inability to ever live up to its grand claims of perfection or immortality. Whitman is a key example in his argument, writing that “the Whitmanic program has never been realized in history, and I don’t think it can be.” On some level, these claims seem trivially true — those who expect poetry to singlehandedly create Utopia may deserve their disappointment. The rehearsal of wholeness has been crucial for poets, a need to push their imaginings to the limit in order to live inside each hard-won observation. Whitman succeeds more than he has any right to, forming a part of America’s fabric that has become so integral that it is difficult to imagine how it might unravel. It has become part of this tradition to believe that we stand unified, even as many remain unrepresented and unspoken for. In the most specific parts of his language, maybe he reminds us of the need to create an imperfect poetry, a poetry that can live with its brokenness, beyond grand narratives. Hints emerge in some of his deepest poems, where all of the cosmic material is turned back on itself, and comes to rest on a secret:
We are what the atmosphere is, transparent, receptive, pervious, impervious,
We are snow, rain, cold, darkness, we are each product and influence of the globe,
We have circled and circled till we have arrived home again, we two,
We have voided all but freedom and all but our own joy.
Even with all the beauty he created, the poet living in our consciousness is part fraud, inextricable from the hack journalist he was in his working life. This presents difficulties for those who wish for simple transcendence, a papering-over that feels typically American, too. In Democratic Vistas, Whitman’s somewhat-unconvincing affirmation of the democratic project, he admits the project’s incompleteness, calling democracy “a great word, whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted.”
Whitman’s house, a small, gray, wooden structure, lovingly preserved by New Jersey as a historic site, retains much of its original contents: the cartes de visite and mementos that lined his mantel, the flowered wallpaper echoing nature, the bed in which Whitman planned the final edition of Leaves, and in which he died. Walking through its rooms, it presented a portrait of a man who found some pleasure in late fame, despite being in near-constant bodily pain (his famous rude health had deserted him years before).
I went out into the garden, which was green and full of well-tended flowers. A cat climbed down from the wisteria and rubbed against our legs. Many of the nearby houses were boarded up. Where does Camden, a city known for its long-term economic decline, high crime rate, and history of racial injustice, fit into Whitman’s “greatest poem”? Across the street from Whitman’s house today is a prison — the Camden County Correctional Facility. Men in yellow jumpsuits paced in the yard. In 2017, the prison settled a class-action lawsuit, in which the plaintiffs alleged serious overcrowding and unsanitary conditions.
Perhaps the most lasting thing in Whitman isn’t bold self-assertion, but rather the moments of greatest difficulty, when the earth becomes terrible, and his language works hard to persist. Standing in the flowers outside his house, I thought of his poem “This Compost,” (“O how can it be that the ground itself does not sicken? / How can you be alive you growths of spring?”) his ode to the refuse humans leave and the power of the earth, despite everything, to regenerate itself.