Sometimes readers open literary anthologies only to find jewels in disarray. Such treasures, ill cared for, heaped in unattractive clumps, bespeak not so much a concern for literature or the reader as a new alchemy. Borrowed treasure turns to gold - the sort that clinks in publishers' pockets.
Not so this fine volume from Holy Cow! Press of Minneapolis.Out of America's heartland, the terrain celebrated in Whitman's ''Song of the Prairies,'' comes one of the most vital anthologies of recent time. Editors Jim Perlman, Ed Folsom, and Dan Campion of Iowa University have gathered here the often passionate responses of younger poets and essayists to the prodigious versemaker , responses invited by Whitman himself, when he wrote in ''Leaves of Grass'': Poets to come! orators, singers, musicians to come! Not to-day is to justify me and answer what I am for, But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than known, Arouse! for you must justify me.
Published to coincide with the centennial of what Whitman saw as the definitive (1881) edition of ''Leaves of Grass,'' this anthology demonstrates the influence he has exerted over writers of radically different voices since the first edition of his ever-evolving masterwork appeared in 1855.
In the 20th century, Hart Crane in his apocalyptic poem ''The Bridge,'' and Sherwood Anderson in a powerful 1933 essay on the poet, unabashedly invoke Whitman's vision of the sweet, broad land. With a different vision, Federico Garcia Lorca in ''Poet in New York'' contrasts images of the decay and corruption of innocence in his own era with Whitman's natural ideal.
Langston Hughes described Whitman as ''one of the greatest 'I' poets of all time.'' But his ''I,'' continued the black American poet, is not that ''of the introspective versifiers who write always and only about themselves.'' In embracing humanity as he did, Whitman gave poetry new meaning, enabling his heirs to conceive of their craft as paradoxically unselfish, yet self-assertive.
That debt, however, doesn't prevent some of the writers in this collection from dissent. Acknowledging Whitman as father, David Ignatow speaks for other poets as well when he declares his independence: ''My oppressor and I go separate ways.'' Grudging recognition is also apparent in Gerard Manley Hopkins's lament: ''I always knew in my heart Walt Whitman's mind to be more like my own than any other man's living. As he is a very great scoundrel this is not a pleasant confession.''
Many American minority and Latin American writers have found in Whitman, as does June Jordan, ''the only comfort in a Nordic array of dispositions.'' Native American Joseph Bruchac regards Whitman as the one white father who understood the natural world as completely as his Abenaki ancestors, and who knew what it meant to be in the world and not just to observe it.
The avowals and expressions in this fascinating anthology record the liberating power for other poets of Whitman's compassionate vision of a universalized self. In ''Recorders Ages Hence,'' which echoes his early rallying cry, Whitman asks future poets to consider him a friend ''Who was not proud of his songs but of the measureless ocean of love within him, and freely poured it forth.'' ''Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song'' is moving testimony to the willingness of many to do just that.