Walt Whitman—‘an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos’
‘Camerado, this is no book,
Who touches this touches a man’—Walt Whitman, ‘So Long!’
In the summer of 1945, a prisoner in the Disciplinary Training Center in Pisa, Ezra Pound, at the end of his tether (‘au bout de mes forces’), came across a copy of The Pocket Book of Verse, edited by Morris Speare and first published in 1940:
That from the gates of death
that from the gates of death: Whitman or Lovelace
found on the jo-house seat at that
in a cheap edition! [and thanks to Professor Speare]
hast’ou swum in a sea of air strip
through an aeon of nothingness,
when the raft broke and the waters went over me
In April 1913, Pound had published ‘A Pact’.
I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman—
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
Who has had a pig-headed father;
I am old enough now to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving
We have one sap and one root—
Let there be commerce between us.
Not exactly a ringing endorsement for a poet who will throw you a lifeline thirty years later. One can see why Pound was included in the list of those ‘arbiters of current taste’ that, in John Berryman’s words, ‘have generally now declared themselves in favour of Whitman; but always reluctantly and with a certain resentment or even contempt. I am not,’ Berryman goes on, ‘able to feel these reservations myself’, and then: ‘I like or love Whitman unreservedly’.
Randall Jarrell (never better than when he is enthusing about someone or something) wrote that: ‘To show Whitman for what he is one does not need to praise or explain or argue, one needs simply to quote.’ Jarrell does, at length and with great effect. And again, ‘Not many poets have written better, in queerer and more convincing and more individual language, about the world’s gliding wonders’. And again, ‘In modern times, what controlling, organising, selecting poet has created a world with as much in it as Whitman’s, a world that so plainly is the world?’ Perhaps just one more: ‘The thereness and suchness of the world are incarnate in Whitman as they are in few other writers.’
(Sylvia Beach 1919 by Claude Cahun, via http://www.artnet.fr/)
Sylvia Beach (proprietor of Shakespeare & Co., first publisher of Joyce’s Ulysses), wrote of her Aunt Agnes visiting Whitman in Camden, where manuscripts were strewn all over the floor. Her aunt was with a friend, Alys Smith, who later married Bertrand Russell. Earlier visitors had included Henry Thoreau who, on 10 November 1849, went to Brooklyn with Bronson Alcott to meet Whitman, while, according to one of Whitman’s biographers, Bram Stoker also paid a visit and later ‘used Whitman as the model for the murderous count in Dracula’.
It’s just short of 200 years since Walt Whitman was born, 31 May, at West Hills, Long Island; 162 since his copyright was registered (15 May 1855) and 795 copies of Leaves of Grass printed, 200 of them with embossed green cover and gilded lettering, while the remainder were bound more cheaply.
(Walt Whitman: via The Guardian)
He was prolific, sometimes heroic, sometimes verbose, sometimes ridiculous, often magnificent. I tend towards Berryman’s sentiment here: unreservedly, why not? Jarrell is not uncritical—‘only a man with the most extraordinary feel for language, or none whatsoever, could have cooked up Whitman’s worst messes’—but he grasps what is perhaps the salient point about Whitman: while we are too often steered towards ‘gems’, the glittering phrases, the quotable lines, some poets need to be approached and seen and held more largely. Quoting section 36 of Song of Myself, Jarrell comments: ‘There are faults in this passage, and they do not matter’. Yes. (It occurs to me at this juncture that, setting these three—Whitman, Berryman, Jarrell—together, I achieve not only an assembly of fine poets but a trio, a triumvirate, a trinity of profusely bearded Americans.)
(John Berryman; Randall Jarrell; both via Academy of American Poets (https://www.poets.org/): John Berryman photo credit: Tom Berthiaume)
Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.
‘If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles’, Whitman wrote towards the end of ‘Song of Myself’. And again: ‘Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, / Missing me one place search another, / I stop somewhere waiting for you.’
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
And he does. As we do, which is really the point.
There is a wonderful resource, the Walt Whitman Archive, at: http://www.whitmanarchive.org/
Co-directed by Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price and published by the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, it offers published works, letters, manuscripts, biography, criticism, pictures, Civil War notebooks and journalism, and much else. They have also digitized—good grief—the whole nine volumes of Horace Traubel’s With Walt Whitman in Camden.
 Song of Myself (1855 edition), printed as Appendix 4 of Walt Whitman: The Complete Poems, edited by Francis Murphy (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986), 698.
 Walt Whitman: The Complete Poems, 513.
 The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 512-513. The last lines refer to the sequence in The Odyssey (Book V) where Odysseus, having left Calypso’s island on a raft, is shipwrecked through the malice of the god Poseidon and saved through the intervention of the goddess Leucothea.
 Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations (New York: Library of America, 2003), 269.
 Berryman, ‘“Song of Myself”: Intention and Substance’, in The Freedom of the Poet (New York: Farrar. Straus & Giroux, 1976), 227.
 Jarrell, Poetry and the Age ( London: Faber & Faber, 1973), 107, 110, 119, 122.
 Sylvia Beach, Shakespeare and Company, new edition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991), 20; Jerome Loving, Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 422-426, 445.
 Paul Zweig, Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1986), 231.
 Jarrell, Poetry and the Age, 110, 116.
 Whitman, Song of Myself, Section 4. This is the 1891-1892 ‘deathbed’ edition, in Walt Whitman: The Complete Poems, 66-67.
 Song of Myself, Section 52; and the last lines: The Complete Poems, 124.
 Song of Myself, Section 51: The Complete Poems, 123.