Poetry News

Walt Whitman: Disappointing, Overrated, or Just Not Good?

By Harriet Staff

In an interview at the New York Times, Joyce Carol Oates was asked: "What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?" And Oates answers... Walt Whitman!? Well, there is a caveat. Here's what Oates said:

I was trained to consider “disappointment” of this sort a character flaw of my own, a failure to comprehend, to appreciate what others have clearly appreciated. My first attempt at reading, for instance, D.H. Lawrence was a disappointment — I wasn’t old enough, or mature enough, quite yet; now, Lawrence is one of my favorite writers, whom I’ve taught in my university courses many times. Another initial disappointment was Walt Whitman, whom I’d also read too young (I know, it’s unbelievable, how could anyone admit to have been “disappointed” in Walt Whitman? Please don’t send contemptuous e-mails).

If a book I’ve committed myself to review turns out to be “disappointing” I make an effort to present it objectively to the reader, including a good number of excerpts from the text, so that the reader might form his or her own opinion independent of my own. (I don’t think that opinions are very important, in fact. Does it matter that a reader doesn’t “like,” in the trivial way in which one might not “like” Chinese food, a classic like “Beowulf”?)

Later on Oates talks about the possibility of meeting any author (dead or alive), and about replying to her fan mail (on a deadline):

If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know? Have you ever written to an author?

We would probably all want to meet Shakespeare — or so we think. (We could ask the man if he’d really written all those plays, or if, somehow, he’d acquired them from — who? — Sir Philip Sidney’s sister, perhaps? Wonder what W.S. would say to that.) Some of us have fantasized meeting Emily Dickinson. (The problem is, would either W.S. or E.D. want to meet us? Why?)

I’m afraid that I squander as much as 90 percent of my time writing letters — e‑mails — to authors, my writer-friends. The problem is that they write back, and so do I. And suddenly the morning has vanished irretrievably, or ineluctably (as Stephen Dedalus would say).

And I certainly receive many letters, a goodly proportion of them beginning bluntly: “Our teacher has assigned us to write about an American writer and I have chosen you, but I can’t find much information about you. Why do you write? What are your favorite books? Where do you get your ideas? I hope you can answer by Monday because my deadline is. . . . ”

Much more to savor here. Right now, we're working on our "contemptuous e-mail" about the whole Whitman thing. Joyce, if you could get back to us by our Monday deadline, that'd be great. Thanks.

Originally Published: September 7th, 2012
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