14 February, 2011Issue 15.3PoetryWriters

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Song of Himself

Rachel Abramowitz

On WhitmanC.K. Williams
On Whitman
Princeton UP, 2010
208 Pages
£13.95
ISBN 978-0691144726


It is an ominous sign when C.K. Williams, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and essayist, opens his “small book on Whitman” by relating that when he told a friend he was planning to write it, the friend answered, “What in heavens [sic] name is left to say?” There has indeed been much written on Whitman: Williams mentions, among others, Paul Zweig’s Walt Whitman: The Making of a Poet (1985) and David S. Reynolds’s Walt Whitman’s America (1996), both excellent and extensive studies. And regardless of a writer’s energy, the task of squeezing another volume (however tiny) onto such a crowded shelf is a necessarily daunting one. Williams counters his friend’s scepticism by contending that the motive behind his book on Whitman was to “clear the air…to try to reestablish and reconfirm the raw power of the poetry in the context it was making for itself on the page, not in the range of all that lay behind it”; in other words, to get back to the poetry itself, to rediscover the “sheer revelation, sheer wonder” of reading it.

A noble intention, but unfortunately Williams ends up validating his friend’s suspicions. One should not, as Updike says, “blame [the author] for not achieving what he did not attempt”, but Williams front-loads his book with promises he simply does not keep. At the beginning, at least, Williams seems to ask the right questions: “How could this come to pass? This stupendous, relentless surge of poetic music with its intricate and constantly surprising combinations of sound?” The answers to these questions might have formed a complex portrait not only of Whitman, but of Williams himself, a poet renowned for his Whitmanian long poetic line and personal candor. However, the unfortunate result of this academic detox, especially when performed in a tone of such false modesty and condescension, is irritating at best and embarrassing at worst. Even if the book did not claim to be a “personal reassessment” of Whitman’s poetry, a non-academic look at Leaves of Grass (1855)—along the lines of, say, Michael Wood on Nabokov—could have been illuminating.

But we never know where and when Williams’s personal impressions will assert themselves. He will disappear for chapters, and then, just as an objective critical tone seems to establish itself, he will resurface with an irrelevant aside: “Now one of those passages that, despite my deep disbelief in anything like eternal life, brings me thrillingly close to something like Wordsworth’s intimations of immortality”. If interjections like these had been woven and developed throughout, that would be one thing; but at this point, toward the end of the book, such a statement seems intrusive and oddly patronizing.

Some such remarks are downright obnoxious. After noting that “All along…Whitman did have Longfellow”, Williams cannot resist adding (in a footnote) that he “should probably mention that I had Longfellow, too.” To put it rather crudely, so what? By way of demonstrating the acuteness of this “having”, he then “recites” some Longfellow, exclaiming after this display of poetic retention, “My goodness, it’s still there” (presumably he did not have a copy of Longfellow to hand when he penned this passage). It seems we should thank our lucky stars that he has graciously bestowed upon us hoi polloi a guide to this overwhelmingly rich poetry.

And guide us he does, mostly by “introducing” long copied-out passages from Leaves of Grass with one-sentence paraphrases. Why not just direct us to open Leaves of Grass instead? Teeming it is; abstruse it is not. Rarely does a writer show too much and tell too little, but Williams somehow manages it. In his essay collection, Poetry and the Age (1953), Randall Jarrell writes that “to show Whitman for what he is one does not need to praise or explain or argue, one needs simply to quote.” It worked for Jarrell, but it only works once. Williams may be trying for his own exuberant Jarrellian homage, but one can only lament Whitman’s “reputation” among non-poetry-readers, in between overlong quotations, so much before it begins to sound redundant and more than a bit pompous.

And Williams began so well, with such admirable critical enthusiasm, reminding us that “it’s essential to keep in mind that in poetry the music comes first, before everything else, everything else: until the poem has found its music, it’s merely verbal matter, information.” This seems broadly true, and is one of the smallest flickers of a compelling meditation on the music of not only Whitman’s poetry, but poetry in general. But Williams soon extinguishes these flickers by arguing that “because the evidence [surrounding Whitman’s life and literary production] is so meager, there’s a point at which we have to have recourse to the notion of ‘genius’.” This a dubious claim even by non-specialist standards, and, even worse, it immediately thwarts the complexity and contradiction—something Whitman knew a thing or two about—engendered by humble, genuine inquiry. The abandonment of such inquiry implies that the reader, regardless of whether or not he or she is encountering Whitman’s poetry for the first time, is too dense to understand even its basic subject matter.

On top of all this, some of Williams’s reasoning, however unacademic and personal, is downright faulty: in one of the footnotes scattered throughout the book, he determines that “Song of Myself” directly, if ironically, influenced Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” because both poems have songs in the title and involve an “I” and a “you” (a more likely candidate for this distinction is Kipling’s “The Love Song of Har Dyal”). Williams seems to delight in his position as a critical maverick, going so far as to call Eliot a “bloviating…liar” (he generously “hopes” these lies are “unconscious”) for daring to besmirch Whitman’s divine and mysterious genius. In the next breath, he links Four Quartets (1944) with Whitman’s lyric meditation “To Think of Time” while ignoring the differences between secular and religious spiritualism. This is not to deny the link between Whitman and Eliot; Harold Bloom, for instance, has made the Whitman-Eliot connection (Eliot’s lilac-breeding cruel April has its roots in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”), which here goes unreferenced. It would have been more interesting for Williams to ask what Eliot noticed and was responding to when he says that “Whitman’s style is of [an] excrescent, abortive kind”, and to explore how Whitman’s American transcendentalist-inspired spirituality has been transmuted by modernism. But by this point we know what not to expect from this book.

In all, Williams’s pseudo-reading-journal sounds like nothing so much as a rather enthusiastic book report written by a pretentious undergraduate. From such promisingly complex beginnings emerges a hackneyed list of topics Williams has identified as important to this colossus. Whitman writes about America: check. Whitman writes about women: check. Transcendentalism: check. Likely bisexuality: a timid check, posing as political correctness. Relationship to Baudelaire, Hugo, Longfellow, Eliot, Pound: here we are offered a tortuous argument about influence eventually discarded for the unsinkable genius-in-a-divine-vacuum conclusion. If this book is, indeed, a personal reintroduction to Whitman, why not take us on your journey with him instead of treading, heavily, these well-worn paths? Or better yet, include a voucher good for one copy of Leaves of Grass.

Rachel Abramowitz is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at Christ Church, Oxford.