The first three in the American Poets' Corner
Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Washington Irving are the first writers to be honored in an American Poets' Corner similar in concept to the centuries-old Poets' Corner in London's Westminster Abbey. The following essay on Whitman, with its reference to Dickinson, is published to coincide with this evening's formal dedication of the American Poets' Corner in the Arts Bay of New York's Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. On the opposite page are the words of Irving presenting an early American view of the original Poets' Corner - which now loses its ''unique distinction,'' as the Dean of Westminster Abbey genially noted in expressing his delight over the American counterpart.
The selection of Irving was made earlier to commemorate the bicentennial of his birth in 1783. The selection of Dickinson and Whitman was in the hands of a committee of electors (including such writers as Robert Penn Warren, Richard Wilbur, and Eudora Welty), as the future selection of two writers a year will be.
WHITMAN. Walt Whitman. There's poetry even in the upbeat, alliterative name. It is a romantic name, calling forth a personification of America's vigorous literary youth as a genial, self-styled sage with flowing white mane and felt sombrero who embraced everything, from moths to mountains, and - with a glorious , undiscriminating sweep of the pen - proclaimed all beautiful and great.
Along with Emily Dickinson, it was Whitman who ''broke the new wood'' of American verse. Most modern poets in English owe a debt to these two figures, whose literary breakthroughs brought poetry into the 20th century.
The two could not have been more unalike. Where Emily Dickinson stayed well concealed behind her Amherst curtains, Walt Whitman was schooled outdoors along the solitary seacoast of Long Island and among the faces and hubbub of his million-footed Manhattan. If Dickinson was intensely shy and uncertain about her work, Whitman was positively in love with his, and acted shamelessly as his own promoter.
Certainly there is a difference in their art. One almost senses, in the strange fire of Dickinson's spare, complex verse, that these were poems written while the poet was holding her breath. They are completely internalized. Whitman's gushy prose-poems, in contrast, are a kind of literary hyperventilation. Some are veritable catalogs of the exterior world. But that was Whitman. He was immersed in the fresh, democratic spirit of the New World, where all was abundance. The recent biographical exploration into the personal problems Whitman struggled with does not undercut the buoyancy of his craft. He saw, and wrote about:
The earth expanding right hand and
The picture alive, every part in its
The music falling in where it is
wanted, and stopping where
it is not wanted,
The cheerful voice of the public
road . . .
At the center of it all was ''Leaves of Grass.'' This book of poems, his ''principal object - the main life work . . . ,'' was his treasure, the gold he would polish and expand upon from 1855, its first edition, to 1892, its ninth and final. It was as if, in this book, Whitman stepped into the vortex of all the unleashed forces of his land and day - the budding industrialism, the frontier spirit, the religious fervor, the transcendental debate, the reporting every day of vast new resources and wonders, the recognition of the uniqueness and importance of the American democratic experiment in world history - and anointed himself Poet.
And if there was a heart to ''Leaves of Grass,'' it had to be New York. ''Mannahatta! How fit a name for America's great democratic island city! The word itself, how beautiful! how aboriginal!'' The city was Whitman's muse. Manhattan was to Whitman what Chicago would be to Sandburg - as the spirit swept across the country - and what San Francisco would be to Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and the Beats. The diversity and energy of New York captivated Whitman, and he spoke of ''the glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings, on/ the walk in the street and the passage over the river.''
In ''Song of the Broad Axe'' he went further:
The place where a great city stands is
not the place of stretch'd
wharves, docks, manufactures,
deposits of produce merely . . .
Where the city stands with the
brawniest breed of orators and
Where the city stands that is belov'd
by these, and loves them in
return and understands them,
Where no monuments exist to heroes
but in the common words and
deeds . . .
There the great city stands.
Of course, this poetry was suspect in Whitman's day. Literary persons were not appreciative of brawny styles or common topics. It wasn't respectable - or rather it wasn't respected in Europe, where the Americans took their cues. Yet Whitman's words were not going to correspond with European scholarship but with American experience. His orator and bard would be the common man. His celebration would be the passions, labors, and visceral energy of the People. His poetry would be efficacious, active - not meant merely to complement the clinking of china teacups or to be agreeable with the mild couplets and iambs of his time. His were elemental forces. His sense of nature, for example, was not ''the smooth walks, trimmed hedges, butterflies, posies, and nightingales of the English poets, but the whole orb, with its geologic history, the Kosmos, carrying fire and snow, that rolls through the illimitable areas, light as a feather though weighing billions of tons.''
Whitman would undoubtedly agree with his contemporary Margaret Fuller when she wrote, ''Books which imitate the thought and life of Europe do not constitute an American literature. Before such can exist, an original idea must animate this nation . . . .'' Yet what enabled Whitman, who was something of a literary hack until 1853, to write the completely original ''Leaves''?
Enter Ralph Waldo Emerson. If Manhattan was the heart of ''Leaves of Grass,'' Emerson was the mind. Whit-man's discovery of Emerson's thought brought about an intellectual rebirth. ''I was simmering, simmering,'' Whitman wrote; ''Emerson brought me to a boil.'' It was in Emerson's writings - ''Nature,'' ''The American Scholar,'' and his ''Essays'' - that, in lucid calculus, the American equation was being worked out. Emerson felt his country was the new Holy Land, and when he wrote ''. . . the true romance which the world exists to realize will be the tranformation of genius into practical power . . . .'' he sensed it would happen in America. And he was waiting for that poet to appear who would have enough practical power to write sacred scripture and walk about the countryside enlightening all manner of men.
But while Whitman wanted to be Emerson's ideal Poet almost as much as Emerson wanted him to be, in the end Whitman simply couldn't pack the goods. Almost all of his significant themes - immortality, magnanimity, individuality - are borrowed. His was the originality of song and presentation, not ideas. His sprawling poetry lacked the intellectual rigor, bite, and inquiry to be found among the New England transcendental luminaries.
Still, today Whitman has assumed nearly patriarchal importance and, like Thoreau, is a source of inspiration for the political and social avant-garde.
One poem I always return to is one of the first of Whitman's I read: When I heard the learn'd astronomer, When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me, When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them, When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room, How soon unaccountable I became
tired and sick, Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself, In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.
Here is a classically Whitmanesque poem. How, Walt might ask, can anyone experience the rapture of creation by listening to a pompous lecture in a stuffy classroom? How dare this ''expert'' tell us how to see! Does he feel what you feel? Or does he actually have more reverence for his own learning than for the stars themselves?
Despite the events and attitudes that separate us from Whitman today, there is something exactly right (timeless?) about a poet standing alone under a gleaming swath of stars and being so moved by their presence that he cannot stare but must instead only look up humbly at them ''from time to time.''