August 2009

In the preface to the 1855 edition to Leaves of Grass, Whitman tells of the master poet. The qualities this poet is to have are numerous: American, embodying the American spirit, not slave to rhyme and meter, not veiling his poems in obscure language, etc. Is Whitman here speaking of what his work as a poet is to be or is he describing an ideal that he will strive to reach without expectation of success? To me, this preface does not describe what Whitman thinks his own poetry is to be. I believe that all the qualities he describes and the relationships between poet and non-poets are part of a great ideal that he himself wishes to measure himself against and strive for.
At the end of the preface, Whitman says “The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.” And America, as Whitman points out, is such a massive space, with so much that must be absorbed, that the task seems near impossible. Although he lists many things (for example, his listing of rivers on page 7), he is showing the enormous span that America has and conveying that even these lists only touch on the wonders of America.
The poet, says Whitman, is to be modest, but possessing of great powers. “In war he is the most deadly force of the war” (9). “The greatest poet hardly knows pettiness or triviality” (10). These and others build the vision of the great poet to dizzying heights of perfection. This great poet must not only know and sing of his country but be “complete lover” to the whole universe (11). Whitman distances himself from this identity by keeping this unnamed great poet at third person.
Despite the arm’s length at which he tries to keep his description of “the great poet”, Whitman is also listing qualities that he has decided to embody, especially those pertaining to writing and composing poems. His subject matter is the width and breadth of the American experience. He does sport simplicity, as his great poet claims “I will have nothing hang in the way, not the richest curtains”(14). He does not use “rhyme or uniformity or abstract addresses to things nor…melancholy complaints or good precepts” (11).

This preface seems to be presenting the reader with the criteria with which Whitman would like the works following to be judged. “This,” he seems to say, “is what I am striving for, not the traditional style of European poetry, or poetry in general.”While I don’t yet know (not having read much of Whitman’s body of works) to what extent he succeeds at all his lofty aims mentioned in the preface, I believe that they are definitely what I should keep in mind when reading his poems, even the later ones where his aims may have evolved.

Here I am, everyone!

Not that this helps with identification, but here's me as George Washington.

Not that this helps with identification, but here's me as George Washington.

Looking forward to tracking Walt Whitman this semester!