David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: Identity v. Identification


T. R. Hummer has a comely piece up on Slate, “The Intimacy of Walt Whitman’s ‘America,'” about the influence and pleasures of Walt Whitman, plus an alleged recording of Whitman reading lines from “America,” made by Thomas Edison:

Hummer argues that readers create their own versions of Whitman. Or, what Hummer means is, Whitman insists that you create your own version of him out of yourself. Hummer wonders too why Whitman’s style has been set adrift in the last hundred years by American poets, even though so many poets profess to follow him and proclaim their allegiance to him.

One answer might be that Whitman’s style is impossible to imitate; well, not impossible to echo, but impossible to write after him and not sound exactly like him; Allen Ginsberg, for a time, found his own sound from Whitman’s. There may be others; in their fashion, both Thomas and Campbell McGrath, say, or Hart Crane for the yawp, Denise Levertov for the intimacies, same with William Carlos Williams (I’m thinking of the “Asphodel” poem), David Ignatow for the fearsome urban alleys, perhaps even John Ashbery in his walk-around-looking-at-New-York-darkly-jocuse poetics, and, by my estimate, Adrienne Rich above all is the most Whitmanic post-Whitman American poet. Surely you would add other nominees (and I invite you to do so in the comments section below).

What I find most interesting in Hummer’s essay is his observation that American poets want to praise Walt Whitman but more often than not appropriate William Wordsworth:

“Where are the poets who flock to Whitman’s transubstantiation? Mostly, we lack the visionary strength to follow him there. For most of us most of the time, Wordsworth’s “What is a poet? He is a man speaking to men,” when translated out of its gender-specific form, is a much more congenial model, and for the most part there we American poets rest, paying lip service to Whitman, but following Wordsworth. We lack the power to “spring from the pages into your arms” from “decease.” But how we love it when Whitman says it; how we long for him to do it.”

I think I generally agree with this point. But only as it pertains to scale. I mean, Wordsworth is so much a poet invested in his own ability to identify:

There are in our existence spots of time
Which with distinct pre-eminence retain
A fructifying virtue, whence depressed
By trivial occupations…
Are nourished, and invisibly repaired

Look at those lines, and whole passages of Wordsworth elsewhere, for instance in “Tintern Abbey” or in the “Intimations” ode, where Wordsworth is head over heals with empathizing, with activating a correlative, with rendering appreciation and judgment, with feeling after thought. Doesn’t that sound like four major characteristics of decades of American poetry after Modernism? Check, check, check, check.

This represents, as Hummer implies, a humanist tenderness at the heart of American poetry. A tenderness that imitates in order to participate in another reality. A tenderness that reanimates the original in order to mimic emotional significance. A tenderness that even sometimes exceeds the reality of the actual. A tenderness whereby identification with the other discloses the poet’s own yearning. A tenderness that awards connection over disconnection.

On the other hand, Whitman is interested less in feeling after thinking and more in modes of being. He does not mimic:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul…

Here are lines of self-determining estimations, no? These are rough cuts of disposition and semblance (that is, rough cuts from “one of the roughs”). We don’t very often see today a poet who wants to place himself or herself within an American democratic ideal like this, as well as wanting to exploit that ideal to create a universal identity.

Poetry, for Whitman, is not a report of a life, as it sometimes seems with Wordsworth and his children of confessionalist identification (not that I have any problem with confessionalist identification). Instead, poetry for Whitman is a model for what culture and society and democracy can be. Whitman speaks with the identity of one America and is not intent on identifying or empathizing with the scattered ephemera of American life.

Naturally, to a fair degree, this art of identity (and here I don’t mean racial, gender, or sexual identity) makes Whitman’s verse bound to its political times. Worth asking: Can Americans ever be that optimistic again? And noting: It’s not hard to see where Whitman’s ideal becomes didactic, self-congratulatory of American exceptionalism.

So our poets avoid that stance, do they not (as Hummer says), not to mention avoiding a steady discomfort in self-governance, which Whitman’s entire poetics embodies?

I’m wondering if one reason so few poets can reanimate the Whitman coherences is that there are many Whitmans: Whitman the provocateur. Whitman the patriot. Whitman the partisan. Whitman the huckster. Whitman the self-reliant. Whitman the Romantic. Whitman the devotee of Manifest Destiny. Whitman the surrealist. Whitman the Lincolnite. Whitman the everyman. Whitman the book. Whitman the identity more than the individual.

I wonder if American poets have simply selected the Whitman that fits.

But that last one is not quite right, is it? Because Whitman often dissolves as much as he sustains. In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” for instance, he locates himself in the future and disintegrates from the present, disintegrates from time. The movement is away from defining reality (Wordsworth-style) to approximating it. He doesn’t identify with the finiteness of time. He assumes the identity of time itself.

That’s a big rock to carry. Maybe this why Hummer sees that American poets say to themselves, do not try this at home.


Poetry Wire salutes the New York Review of Books on the occasion of its 50th anniversary: Joseph Epstein sweetly captures the serendipity at the heart of the founding of the NYRB during the infamous New York newspaper strike of 1963: “We wanted a book review worthy of its subject, in which writers we admired—and who agreed with us that books were the ongoing critique, the sine qua non of civilization— would have a place to write at adequate length for readers like themselves and us.” Check. Did that.

David Biespiel is a poet, literary critic, memoirist, and contributing writer at American Poetry Review, New Republic, New York Times, Poetry, Politico, The Rumpus, and Slate, among other publications. He is the author of numerous books, most recently The Education of a Young Poet, which was selected a Best Books for Writers by Poets & Writers, A Long High Whistle, which received the 2016 Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction, and The Book of Men and Women, which was chosen for Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the 2011 Oregon Book Award for Poetry. More from this author →