I cannot fathom that Walt Whitman was the first to write on a variety of controversies typically attributed to “Song of Myself,” including the complexities of slavery, the overt hand of eroticism, and the soul beyond the confines of religion, atrocities of war, etc. In fact, a number of writers come easily to mind who preceded him on such matters (i.e. William Blake, Phillis Wheatley, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allen Poe).
It is my estimation that readers took offense to a primary feature that taste alone, presumably, should have dictated as unpopular: his form. Whitman’s stylings were, of course, the undoing of form as tradition dictated. As Allen Ginsberg noted, he ‘broke open the line,’ writing into the frontier, where no precedent had been set. Whitman’s was Gertrude Stein’s notion of “contemporariness” – his form was “ugly” in its sprawling. His non-adherence to tradition is as palpable as his lines are long utterances of street cadence. Nothing contains them except the page’s physical limitations – and even then, they stretch over from margin to margin and margin again. Whitman embraced the anarchy and energy of an abstracted American spirit, one that knew roots but reveled in where it could grow and co-habit with instead (“The Dude abides.”).
Despite the critics’ disdain, his work was read by the many. Whitman is known for “cataloging” as form — the catalog that wraps arms around the crowd and enters it, gently and with force, shaking hands where they work, wiping death in soldiers’ tears and encouraging the child-like steps of people out of tune. He asked individuals to exist aloud — for a lifetime. His “Song” carried on for reasons beyond, but to focus on the “problem” of his lines would have been a legitimizing force…
Whitman touched the world in a fashion unsanctioned. Or as Leonard Cohen puts such reverential reach in “Suzanne,” “Cause you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind.” For critics to make much over his blatant disregard for and implicit undoing of respected poets who laid the groundwork in “expert verse” for centuries would have appeared at once trivial as well as requiring the articulation of a vision that could inspire – ‘You mean, anyone can set off on their own without obedience to the motherland?’ — where fear still contained many. We were no longer Europeans, but what could we be without holding onto a history?
Thus, Whitman’s lines heralded a fantastic anarchy that was neither chaotic nor reactive – his form was simply unabashed and pressing and has since charged many with possibility where nothing has been outlined. I have quoted this sentiment elsewhere, but as it echoes in John Ashbery’s statement after reading Gertrude Stein, it is fitting again, “And if, on laying the book aside, we feel that it is still impossible to accomplish the impossible, we are also left with the conviction that it is the only thing worth trying to do.” Whitman, whether certain or unsure, continued publishing the catalog of as many Americans as he could fathom without respect for past guidelines — and in doing so, he articulated and determined a spirit that did not kowtow to the popularity of the day.
It is far easier to censor from moral grounds (i.e. sex and soul disrespected!) than it is to put work out of print that disobeys in a more oblique and revolutionary manner. In other words, one may remove or re-name pieces in the game at some risk, but to change the game entirely incurs greater efforts towards returning the offender to the original board. The critics would have none of this loose woman-man scrawling her lines in the name of America!
If Whitman had presented his catalog in rhymed couplets, his verse may have stood in line with the then-sanctioned poetry trajectory, appearing less remarkable and offensive. His would have been less dangerous, and who knows if we would know him now or not.
Of course, I am glossing over a host of other factoids that serve to enumerate accounts of why “Song of Myself” was so problematic and not ready to be consumed by the public-at-large: it has been debated that Whitman himself was homosexual. He wrote of slavery but was not an abolitionist. He self-published his now-famous “Leaves of Grass.” He published a letter from Emerson as his blurb without permission. Goddamn his lack of reverence! And thank the monkey-shining heavens for it.
Controversy over Whitman continues in almost-silly fashion these days, with folks like the Westboro Baptist Church protesting in his name. Perhaps they shudder that Whitman was so effortlessly feminine in contrast with how so many attempt to exhibit their masculine energy. The latter often flex for fear-inspired respect. Whitman’s muscular and emotional cataloging of people evokes a farther-reaching respect that holds both gendered energies in long embrace, an embrace that conflates and intensifies as the lines build and sing crudely and wax eloquent (Shakespeare was the soap opera lyricist of his day too, no?) – no wonder the church fidgets so loudly over his name: lines cross chasms that order the world and make sense to them.
What would happen if a conflating disorder descended and we were all suddenly able to dance across boundaries with our kilts in our hands and lady beards down to the soles of our boots – what if we entered churches, those public platforms, and criticized our leaders securing the natural order of inequality? Who could tell which power held then? How would essays and sense-making find their way back to security? My lines spilleth over; I am undone and undoing …
It is in his limbs and joints also, it is curiously in the joints of
his hips and wrists,
It is in his walk, the carriage of his neck, the flex of his waist
and knees, dress does not hide him,
The strong sweet quality he has strikes through the cotton and broadcloth,
To see him pass conveys as much as the best poem, perhaps more…
Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She serves on the executive board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and is co-editing with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She also co-edited the anthology Bettering American Poetry 2015 and is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.