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Culture

‘Good Verse, Bad Verse, and Chaos’

Walt Whitman in 1887 (Library of Congress)

I love reading Sarah Ruden, and I’ve enjoyed the attention given to Walt Whitman in these pages over the last few days.

Ruden gives the poet the back of her hand for being championed by — angels and ministers of grace, defend us! — intellectuals and professors, a poet “whom ordinary Americans most reviled (inasmuch as they noticed him) in the days when the genre was democracy’s main artistic expression, and ignored with the most determination thereafter.” Rather than Walt Whitman, We the People preferred more wholesome stuff: “It was Whittier’s ‘Barefoot Boy,’ ‘Barbara Frietchie,’ and Snow-Bound, Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha and Evangeline, and other nostalgic, patriotic, romantic, and moralistic poems that were read at firesides into the opening West and incorporated into readers for primary schools. Leaves of Grass would have fallen away had not professors like Mark Edmundson championed it.”

I am enchanted by the fact that Ruden took time between publishing translations of Apuleius and Petronius to speak up for American popular taste and to put those pointy-headed intellectuals back in their place. The last time I looked at a list of bestselling poetry books it was in the 1990s, and the list was led by A Night without Armor, by the pop singer Jewel. And that is why I’ve never again looked at such a list.

Ruden writes: “If he is the nation’s greatest poet, it’s odd that he never seems to be quoted spontaneously, for the sheer powerful pleasure of it or to make an urgent point.” That’s fair — but Americans in our time are not very much for poetry in general, and one rarely hears them quote any poet “spontaneously, to make an urgent point,” unless it is some half-understood Shakespeare — “doth protest too much,” etc. I cannot say I’ve ever heard anybody, anywhere, in joy or in exasperation quote from “Barbara Frietchie.” If we are going to leave it up to Democracy, then the poetry canon is going to consist almost exclusively of miniature biographies of old men from Nantucket.

(What we ought to be doing is smoking the old peace pipe with Longfellow: “I am weary of your quarrels / Weary of your wars and bloodshed / Weary of your prayers for vengeance / Of your wranglings and dissensions”. But I’d settle for getting through a Sunday morning without a hymn rhyming “love,” “dove,” and “above.”)

Ruden charges Whitman with being a sexual deviant. I suppose I should not hold out hope for a new translation of Catullus. (Ask your seventh-grade Latin teacher about that vocabulary for an awkward moment!) Heaven help us if we’re going to start “canceling” the poets because of their sex lives. Or the novelists. Or the painters . . .

A little more Ruden: “I’m not going to inveigh here against free verse” — but! — “and the relative difficulty with which its words register in the brain.” (All brains?) “In the right hands, free verse, like good prose rhetoric, is more piercingly memorable than formal verse with its sound maps, because to succeed without those requires a resounding eloquence, on the order of Stephen Spender’s ‘I think continually of those who were truly great,’ or Robert Lowell’s ‘My eyes have seen what my hand did,’ or Sylvia Plath’s ‘Her bare / Feet seem to be saying: / We have come so far, it is over.’”

I am more persuaded by T. S. Eliot’s argument about free verse — that it does not exist, that “there is only good verse, bad verse, and chaos.”

Perhaps We the People do not spontaneously quote Whitman very often, but I expect that literate English-speaking people, if any remain, will be “O captain! My captain!”-ing and “barbaric yawp”-ing and contradicting themselves and lollygagging on that “beautiful uncut hair of graves” for a century or three after Sylvia Plath’s tedious little bare feet finally have finished saying whatever it is that such feet feel they must say.

Whitman can be maddening. His is a poetry of cumulative effect; line-by-line, Whitman is often inattentive. Whitman’s greatest defect — and maybe this is what annoys readers such as Ruden — is that the sensations he champions are mostly adolescent, which is why the Whitman of Leaves of Grass so easily became the Whitman of Dead Poets’ Society.

(National Review published a justly savage review of that film, but I cannot find a link to it.)

Eliot judged Whitman “a great master of versification” but one whose “political, social, religious, and moral ideas are negligible.” That seems about right to me. But it is not difficult to hear the voice of Whitman in Eliot: “I think that the river is a strong brown god” is more Mississippi than Thames. We the People may not have thought much of Whitman, but I can think of no reason to treat their judgment as the last word.

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