Essay

For the Sake of People’s Poetry

Walt Whitman and the Rest of Us.

by June Jordan
In America, the father is white; it is he who inaugurated the experiment of this republic. It is he who sailed his way into slave ownership and who availed himself of my mother—that African woman whose function was miserable—defined by his desirings, or his rage. It is he who continues to dominate the destiny of the Mississippi River, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the life of my son. Understandably, then, I am curious about this man.

Most of the time my interest can be characterized as wary, at best. Other times, it is the interest a pedestrian feels for the fast traveling truck about to smash into him. Or her. Again. And at other times it is the curiosity of a stranger trying to figure out the system of the language that excludes her name and all of the names of all of her people. It is this last that leads me to the poet Walt Whitman.

Trying to understand the system responsible for every boring, inaccessible, irrelevant, derivative and pretentious poem that is glued to the marrow of required readings in American classrooms, or trying to understand the system responsible for the exclusion of every hilarious, amazing, visionary, pertinent and unforgettable poet from National Endowment of the Arts grants and from national publications, I come back to Walt Whitman.

What in the hell happened to him? Wasn’t he a white man? Wasn’t he some kind of a father to American literature? Didn’t he talk about this New World? Didn’t he see it? Didn’t he sing this New World, this America, on a New World, an American scale of his own visionary invention?

It so happens that Walt Whitman is the one white father who shares the systematic disadvantages of his heterogeneous offspring trapped inside a closet that is, in reality, as huge as the continental spread of North and South America. What Whitman envisioned, we, the people and the poets of the New World, embody. He has been punished for the moral questions that our very lives arouse.

At home as a child, I learned the poetry of the Bible and the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar. As a student, I diligently followed orthodox directions from The Canterbury Tales right through The Wasteland by that consummate Anglophile whose name I can never remember. And I kept waiting. It was, I thought, all right to deal with daffodils in the 17th century of an island as much like Manhattan as I resemble Queen Mary. But what about Dunbar? When was he coming up again? And where were the Black poets, altogether? And who were the women poets I might reasonably emulate? And wasn’t there, ever, a great poet who was crazy about Brooklyn or furious about war? And I kept waiting. And I kept writing my own poetry. And I kept reading apparently underground poetry: poetry kept strictly off campus. I kept reading the poetry of so many gifted students when I became a teacher. I kept listening to the wonderful poetry of the multiplying numbers of my friends who were and who are New World poets until I knew, for a fact, that there was and that there is an American, a New World poetry that is as personal, as public, as irresistible, as quick, as necessary, as unprecedented, as representative, as exalted, as speakably commonplace, and as musical as an emergency phone call.

But I didn’t know about Walt Whitman. Yes, I had heard about this bohemian, this homosexual, even, who wrote something about The Captain and The Lilacs in The Hallway, but nobody ever told me to read his work! Not only was Whitman not required reading, he was, on the contrary, presented as a rather hairy buffoon suffering from a childish proclivity for exercise and open air.

Nevertheless, it is through the study of the poems and the ideas of this particular white father that I have reached a tactical, if not strategic, understanding of the racist, sexist, and anti-American predicament that condemns most New World writing to peripheral/unpublished manuscript status.

Before these United States came into being, the great poets of the world earned their lustre through undeniable forms of spontaneous popularity; generations of a people chose to memorize and then to further elaborate these songs and to impart them to the next generation. I am talking about people; African families and Greek families and the families of the Hebrew tribes and all that multitude to whom the Bhagavad-Gita is as daily as the sun! If these poems were not always religious, they were certainly moral in notice, or in accomplishment, or both. None of these great poems would be mistaken for the poetry of another country, another time. You do not find a single helicopter taking off or landing in any of the sonnets of Elizabethan England, nor do you run across rice and peas in any of the psalms! Evidently, one criterion for great poetry used to be the requirements of cultural nationalism.

But by the advent of the thirty-six year old poet, Walt Whitman, the phenomenon of a people’s poetry, or great poetry and its spontaneous popularity, could no longer be assumed. The physical immensity and the farflung population of this New World decisively separated poets from suitable means to produce and distribute their poetry. Now there would have to be intermediaries—critics and publishers—whose marketplace principles of scarcity would, logically, oppose them to populist traditions of art.

Old World concepts would replace the democratic and these elitist notions would prevail; in the context of such considerations, an American literary establishment antithetical to the New World meanings of America took root. And this is one reason why the pre-eminently American white father of American poetry exists primarily in the realm of caricature and rumor in his own country.

As a matter of fact, if you hope to hear about Whitman your best bet is to leave home. Ignore prevailing American criticism and, instead, ask anybody anywhere else in the world this question: As Shakespeare is to England, Dante to Italy, Tolstoy to Russia, Goethe to Germany, Aghostino Neto to Angola, Pablo Neruda to Chile, Mao-Tse-Tung to China, and Ho Chi Minh to Vietnam, who is the great American writer, the distinctively American poet, the giant American “literatus?” Undoubtedly, the answer will be Walt Whitman.

He is the poet who wrote:
A man’s body at auction
(For before the war I often go to the slave-mart and watch the sale.)
I help the auctioneer, the sloven does not half know his business. . .
Gentlemen look on this wonder.
Whatever the bids of the bidders they cannot be high enough for it. (1)
I ask you, today: Who in the United States would publish those lines? They are all wrong! In the first place there is nothing obscure, nothing contrived, nothing an ordinary strap-hanger in the subway would be puzzled by! In the second place, the voice of those lines is intimate and direct, at once; it is the voice of the poet who assumes that he speaks to an equal and that he need not fear that equality. On the contrary, the intimate distance between the poet and the reader is a distance that assumes there is everything important, between them, to be shared. And what is poetic about a line of words that runs as long as a regular, a spoken idea? You could more easily imagine an actual human being speaking such lines than you could imagine an artist composing them in a room carefully separated from the real life of his family. This can’t be poetry! Besides, these lines apparently serve an expressly moral purpose! Then is this didactic/political writing? Aha! This cannot be good poetry. And, in fact, you will never see, for example, The New Yorker Magazine publishing a poem marked by such splendid deficiencies.

Consider the inevitable, the irresistible, simplicity of that enormous moral idea:
Gentlemen look on this wonder.
Whatever the bids of the bidders they cannot be high enough for it . . .
This is not only one man, this the father of those who shall be fathers
in their turns
In him the start of populous states and rich republics, Of him count-
less immortal lives with countless embodiments and enjoyments
Crucial and obviously important and, hence, this is not an idea generally broadcast: the poet is trying to save a human being while even the poem cannot be saved from the insolence of marketplace evaluation!

Indeed Whitman and the traceable descendants of Walt Whitman, those who follow his democratic faith into obviously New World forms of experience and art, they suffer from establishment rejection and contempt the same as forced this archetypal American genius to publish, distribute, and review his own work, by himself. The descendants I have in mind include those unmistakeably contemporaneous young poets who base themselves upon domesticities such as disco, Las Vegas, MacDonalds, and $40 running shoes. Also within the Whitman tradition, Black and First World* poets traceably transform and further the egalitarian sensibility that isolates that one white father from his more powerful compatriots. I am thinking of the feminist poets evidently intent upon speaking with a maximal number and diversity of other Americans' lives. I am thinking of all the many first rank heroes of the New World who are overwhelmingly forced to publish their own works using a hand press, or whatever, or else give it up entirely.

That is to say, the only peoples who can test or verify the meaning of the United States as a democratic state, as a pluralistic culture, these are the very peoples whose contribution to a national vision and discovery meets with steadfast ridicule and disregard.

A democratic state does not, after all, exist for the few, but for the many. A democratic state is not proven by the welfare of the strong but by the welfare of the weak. And unless that many, that manifold constitution of diverse peoples can be seen as integral to the national art/the national consciousness, you might as well mean only Czechoslovakia when you talk about the USA, or only Ireland, or merely France, or exclusively white men.

Pablo Neruda is a New World poet whose fate differs from the other Whitman descendants because he was born into a country where the majority of the citizens did not mistake themselves for Englishmen or long to find themselves struggling, at most, with cucumber sandwiches and tea. He was never European. His anguish was not aroused by thee piece suits and rolled umbrellas. When he cries, towards the conclusion of The Heights of Machu Picchu, “Arise and birth with me, my brother,” (2) he plainly does not allude to Lord or Colonel Anybody At All. As he writes earlier, in that amazing poem:
I came by another way, river by river, street after street,
city by city, one bed and another,
forcing the salt of my mask through a wilderness;
and there, in the shame of the ultimate hovels, lampless
and tireless,
lacking bread or a stone or a stillness, alone in myself,
I whirled at my will, dying the death that was mine (3)
Of course Neruda has not escaped all of the untoward consequences common to Whitman descendants. American critics and translators never weary of asserting that Neruda is a quote great unquote poet despite the political commitment of his art and despite the artistic consequences of the commitment. Specifically, Neruda’s self-conscious decision to write in a manner readily comprehensible to the masses of his countrymen, and his self-conscious decision to specify, outright, the United Fruit Company when that was the instigating subject of his poem, become unfortunate moments in an otherwise supposedly sublime, not to mention surrealist, deeply Old World and European but nonetheless Chilean case history. To assure the validity of this perspective, the usual American critic and translator presents you with a smattering of the unfortunate, ostensibly political poetry and, on the other hand, buries you under volumes of Neruda’s early work that antedates the Spanish Civil War or, in other words, that antedates Neruda’s serious conversion to a political world view.

This kind of artistically indefensible censorship would have you perceive qualitative and even irreconcilable differences between the poet who wrote:
You, my antagonist, in that splintering dream
like the bristling glass of gardens, like a menace of ruinous bells, volleys
of blackening ivy at the perfume’s center,
enemy of the great hipbones my skin has touched
with a harrowing dew (4)
And the poet who wrote, some twenty years later, these lines from the poem entitled “The Dictators”:
Lament was perpetual and fell, like a plant and its pollen,
forcing a lightless increase in the blinded, big leaves
And bludgeon by bludgeon, on the terrible waters,
scale over scale in the bog,
the snout filled with silence and slime
and vendetta was born (5)
According to prevalent American criticism, that later poem of Neruda represents a lesser achievement precisely because it can be understood by more people, more easily, than the first. It is also derogated because this poem attacks a keystone of the Old World, namely dictatorship or, in other words, power and privilege for the few.

The peculiar North American vendetta against Walt Whitman, against the first son of this democratic union, can be further fathomed if you look at some facts: Neruda’s eminence is now acknowledged on international levels; it is known to encompass profound impact upon North American poets who do not realize the North American/Walt Whitman origins for so much that is singular and worthy in the poetry of Neruda. You will even find American critics who congratulate Neruda for overcoming the “Whitmanesque” content of his art. This perfidious arrogance is as calculated as it is common. You cannot persuade anyone seriously familiar with Neruda’s life and art that he could have found cause, at any point, to disagree with the tenets, the analysis and the authentic New World vision presented by Walt Whitman in his essay, Democratic Vistas, which remains the most signal and persuasive manifesto of New World thinking and belief in print.

Let me define my terms, in brief: New World does not mean New England. New World means non-European; it means new; it means big; it means heterogenous; it means unknown; it means free; it means an end to feudalism, caste, privilege, and the violence of power. It means wild in the sense that a tree growing away from the earth enacts a wild event. It means democratic in the sense that, as Whitman wrote:
I believe a leaf of grass is no less than
the journey-work of the stars. . .
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger
sextillions of infidels (6)
New World means that, as Whitman wrote, “I keep as delicate around the bowels as around the head and heart.” New World means, as Whitman said, “By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.”

In Democratic Vistas, Whitman declared,
As the greatest lessons of Nature through the universe are perhaps the lessons of variety and freedom, the same present the greatest lessons also in New World politics and progress . . . Sole among nationalities, these States have assumed the task to put in forms of history, power and practicality, on areas of amplitude rivaling the operations of the physical kosmos, the moral political speculations of ages, long, long deffer’d, the democratic republican principle, and the theory of development and perfection by voluntary standards and self reliance.
Listen to this white father; he is so weird! Here he is calling aloud for an American, a democratic spirit. An American, a democratic idea that could morally constrain and coordinate the material body of USA affluence and piratical outreach, more than a hundred years ago he wrote,
The great poems, Shakespeare included, are poisonous to the idea of the pride and dignity of the common people, the lifeblood of democracy. The models of our literature, as we get it from other lands, ultra marine, have had their birth in courts, and bask’d and grown in castle sunshine; all smells of princes’ favors ... Do you call those genteel little creatures American poets? Do you term that perpetual, pistareen, paste-pot work, American art, American drama, taste, verse? ... We see the sons and daughters of The New World, ignorant of its genius, not yet inaugurating the native, the universal, and the near, still importing the distant, the partial, the dead.
Abhorring the “thin sentiment of parlors, parasols, piano-song, tinkling rhymes,” Whitman conjured up a poetry of America, a poetry of democracy which would not “mean the smooth walks, trimm’d hedges, poseys 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.”

Well, what happened?

Whitman went ahead and wrote the poetry demanded by his vision. He became, by thousands upon thousands of words, a great American poet:
There was a child went forth every day,
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became,
And that object became part of him for the day
Or a certain part of the day,
Or for many years or stretching cycles of years
The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass and white and red morning-glories,
and white and red clover, and the song of the phoebe-bird. . . (7)
And, elsewhere, he wrote:
It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation,
or ever some many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky,
so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river
and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet
hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried,
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the
thick-stemm’d pipes of steamboats,
I look’d. . . (8)
This great American poet of democracy as cosmos, this poet of a continent as consciousness, this poet of the many people as one people, this poet of diction comprehensible to all, of a vision insisting on each, of a rhythm/a rhetorical momentum to transport the reader from the Brooklyn ferry into the hills of Alabama and back again, of line after line of bodily, concrete detail that constitutes the mysterious the cellular tissue of a nation indivisible but dependent upon and astonishing in its diversity, this white father of a great poetry deprived of its spontaneous popularity/a great poetry hidden away from the ordinary people it celebrates so well, he has been, again and again, cast aside as an undisciplined poseur, a merely freak eruption of prolix perversities.

Last year, the New York Times Book Review saw fit to import a European self-appointed critic of American literature to address the question: Is there a great American poet? Since this visitor was ignorant of the philosophy and the achievements of Walt Whitman, the visitor, Denis Donoghue, comfortably excluded every possible descendent of Whitman from his erstwhile cerebrations. Only one woman was mentioned (she, needless to add, did not qualify). No poets under fifty, and not one Black or First World poet received even cursory assessment. Not one poet of distinctively New World values, and their formal embodiment, managed to dent the suavity of Donoghue’s public display.

This New York Times event perpetuated American habits of beggarly, absurd deference to the Old World. And these habits bespeak more than marketplace intrusions into cultural realms. We erase ourselves through self hatred. We lend our silence to the American anti-American process whereby anything and anyone special to this nation state becomes liable to condemnation because it is what it is, truly.

Against self hatred there is Whitman and there are all of the New World poets who insistently devise legitimate varieties of cultural nationalism. There is Whitman and all of the poets whose lives have been baptized by witness to blood, by witness to cataclysmic, political confrontations from the Civil War through the Civil Rights Era, through the Women’s Movement, and on and on through the conflicts between the hungry and the well-fed, the wasteful, the bullies.

In the poetry of the New World, you meet with a reverence for the material world that begins with a reverence for human life. There is an intellectual trust in sensuality as a means of knowledge, an easily deciphered system of reference, aspirations to a believable, collective voice and, consequently, emphatic preference for broadly accessible, spoken language. Deliberately balancing perception with vision, it seeks to match moral exhortation with sensory report.

All of the traceable descendants of Whitman have met with an establishment, academic reception disgracefully identical; except for the New World poets who live and write beyond the boundaries of the USA, the offspring of this one white father encounter everlasting marketplace disparagement as crude or optional or simplistic or, as Whitman himself wrote “hankering, gross, mystical, nude.”

I too am a descendant of Walt Whitman. And I am not by myself struggling to tell the truth about this history of so much land and so much blood, of so much that should be sacred and so much that has been desecrated and annihilated boastfully.

My brothers and my sisters of this New World, we remember that, as Whitman said,
I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate
itself or be understood,
I see that the elementary laws never apologize (9)
We do not apologize that we are not Emily Dickinson, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Robert Lowell, and Elizabeth Bishop. Or, as Whitman exclaimed, “I exist as I am, that is enough.”

New World poetry moves into and beyond the lives of Walt Whitman, Pablo Neruda, Aghostino Neto, Gabriela Mistral, Langston Hughes, and Margaret Walker. I follow this movement with my own life. I am calm and smiling as we go. Is it not written, somewhere very near to me:
A man’s body at auction . . .
Gentlemen look on this wonder.
Whatever the bids of the bidders
they cannot be high enough for it . . .
And didn’t that weird white father predict this truth that is always growing:
I swear to you the architects shall appear without fail,
I swear to you they will understand you and justify you,
The greatest among them shall be he who best knows you
and encloses all and is faithful to all,
He and rest shall not forget you, they shall
perceive that you are not an iota less than they,
You shall be fully glorified in them (10)
Walt Whitman and all of the New World poets coming after him, we, too, go on singing this America.


*Given that they were first to exist on the planet and currently make up the majority, the author will refer to that part of the population usually termed Third World as the First World.

Notes

1. from “I Sing the Body Electric,” by Walt Whitman
2. from Section XII of The Heights of Macho Picchu, translated by Nathaniel Tarn, Farrar Straus and Giroux: New York
3. from The Heights of Macho Picchu, translated by Ben Bolitt, Evergreen Press
4. from “Woes and the Furies,” by Pablo Neruda in Selected Poems of Neruda, translated by Ben Bolitt, p. 101
5. Ibid. “The Dictators,” p. 161
6. from “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman
7. from “There was a Child Went Forth” by Walt Whitman
8. from “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”
9. from “Song of Myself”
10. from “Song of the Rolling Earth”


From the book Some of Us Did Not Die: New and Selected Essays by June Jordan. Copyright 2002 by June Jordan. Reprinted by arrangement with Basic Civitas Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group (www.perseusbooks.com). All rights reserved.
Originally Published: August 15, 2006

COMMENTS (2)

On November 28, 2007 at 1:02am allana bourne wrote:
How incredible! A dear poet friend sent me the link to this because she knows, as do most of my friends, that I am a Whitmaniac.

On January 8, 2010 at 6:54am Charis Varnadore wrote:

I have been looking for these words, these ideas, this understanding and acclaimation for many days, many months...When will we wake up, arise and know and be who we really are instead of wearing the false masks of assumption and pretense? Bravo, Ms Jordon...

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 June  Jordan

Biography

One of the most widely-published and highly-acclaimed African American writers of her generation, poet, playwright and essayist June Jordan was also known for her fierce commitment to human rights and progressive political agenda. Over a career that produced twenty-seven volumes of poems, essays, libretti, and work for children, Jordan engaged the fundamental struggles of her era: over civil rights, women’s rights, and sexual . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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