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Archetypes: Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (Deathbed Edition)

December 20, 2008


“I wear my hat as I please indoors or out” – Song of Myself


            Carl Jung defined an archetype as a “universal and recurring image, pattern, or motif representing a typical human experience.”  As I apply the term, here and in the future, I include in the category those prototypical writers and works that have shaped who I am as a poet and an artist. They are the earth-shakers – the heroes and villains and outcasts and tricksters whose direct or indirect influence helped to shape who we are.  In the arts, we often refer to this relationship with other writers and other works under the category of “anxiety of influence.” Writers start out, most of the time, by copying the styles of writers they read – the people they think are “good.” At some point, however, if a writer scribbles and labors long enough, the individual voice emerges. This takes years; it is not an easy process, and the writer himself is not always aware when his voice actually cracks – though there are times in a writer’s development when he may think he has arrived at the precipice of his becoming; but this is most often delusion.  We always struggle against as well as feed on the literary traditions we most identify with. My development has been no different, and I continue to fight and to feed off the traditions that make me the writer I am still in the process of becoming. To be a poet in America is to recognize multiple roots – the roots of the form itself that predates literacy and what we think of as civilization, as well as the tradition that grew out of America’s Democratic impulse. And there is no poet that best personifies the true Democratic impulse than Walt Whitman.   Not only is he a champion of American ideals, he is a champion of the down and dirty nitty gritty America. He set us free of the limits that once kept poetry a purely European art and gives us lines and stanza as expansive as the America he himself saw in daily life; and without dear ol’ Walt, American poetry simply would not be the same. And neither would America.

            At the heart of our Democratic ideals is the notion that all men are created equal. It won’t escape even the most casual of observers that we are still trying to figure out exactly what that means and how we should apply it – and for all of our ideals, we still have much farther to go before equality truly dictates our laws and cultural practices. But the epigram for this piece, a line from part 20 of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” not only best describes our democratic ambitions, but also what it means to be an American Poet.  “I wear my hat as I please indoors or out” signifies that the poet is not bound by the rules of polite society that would restrain him; moreover, one of the common motifs through the long poem is that not only is he not bound by the same old rules and the same old cultural ties, but neither are we. Whitman’s representation of the poet as Bard is pretty common, and, as the new American Bard, he saw it as his duty to remind us that we are more than our last names, more than the place we are born, more than the social or economic class we are born into. We are not obliged to be polite if we deem it inappropriate, and we do not owe anyone an explanation. This is true equality – which, even now, we are struggling understand as individuals and a society that has lost touch with the power of that young country Whitman describes so clearly.

            One of the things this poem is known for is its extensive lists; it is as if Whitman simply looked out the window and included everything he saw in the body of his poem; I have had discussions with other writers, whose work and opinions I respect, that insist that the lists are so long that they become meaningless. One even told me that Whitman was a decent enough poet who simply needed an editor to curb his love of his own writing.  But the reader has only to live in between the lines of the poem, with it’s landscapes and broad stanzas, to realize that yes, Whitman may have been enamored by his voice. But, more importantly, he was enamored with America and with the life and the hope it represented. And, by trying to include everything, Whitman is saying, again, that we are all America, we are all equal, and we are all deserving of poetic memory.  This includes even those images we would prefer, as proper citizens, not to look at:


“The suicide sprawls in the bloody floor of the bedroom.

I witness the corpse with its dabbled hair, I note where the

pistol has fallen.” (Part 8 )


I remember reading in David Reynolds’s Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville that Whitman was intrigued with and influenced by Penny Pamphlets. These pamphlets were extremely popular at the time because 1) they were cheap, and 2) they were written about current court cases and described the grisliest crimes against other people. Murders. Rapes. Multiple murders. Multiple rapes. Suicides.  Americans have always had a taste for true crime stories, and this is still true today. It’s not surprising, then, that Whitman would pull not only from his everyday life of “loafe[ing] and invite[ing] [his] soul,” but from the media of the day that everyday Americans read. This contradicts the sometimes rampant notion, encouraged by the Hayes Codes and the naïve descriptions of some fundamentalist religious groups, that America was once this bright and shiny place where people behaved properly; men acted like John Wayne, women acted like June Cleaver, and the children were ornery little buggers, but ultimately harmless.  Consider also in part 15, where Whitman describes a prostitute as she “draggles her shawl, her bonnet bobs on her/tipsy and pimpled neck.” This isn’t June Cleaver’s poetry. Whitman not only recognizes the underbelly as a part of who we are, but shows it to us over and over again, insisting:


“What is commonest, cheapest, nearest, easiest, is Me

Me going in for my chances, spending for vast returns,

Adorning myself to bestow myself on the first that will take me,

Not asking the sky to come down to my goodwill,

Scattering it freely forever. (Part 14)


            In the spirit and intention of his art, as well as the craft of the form, Whitman set us free – free as poets, free as Americans – to become what we should become and not be tied to a past that no longer defined us. As a poet, reading Whitman is always refreshing. His work makes him more than a Bard; he is an Earth-shaker. A history maker. A shaper of this country’s artistic and egalitarian subconscious that we are still working to unearth as we strive to unearth the Democracy that his work describes with prophetic and visionary clarity. His vision is the vision of us all. As a poet, his lines remind me that a poem’s first obligation to communicate a vision, and, also, to shatter the old visions that no longer apply. Poetry is not a fragile thing; it is a heavy thing, a titan stomping through the world destroying and recreating, leveling and renewing. And as poetry and our ideas of it have continued to change, the thing I hold onto most in Whitman’s lines is that poetry does not simply belong to the academics, critics, and apathetic publishing houses that removed from the public’s conscious memory. Poetry belongs to everyone and I am obligated, as a poet, to try and bring poetry back to the place it belongs.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Allen Feibelman permalink
    January 1, 2009 8:37 am

    Hi Mick. I just love your writing. If I could write, I would write this stuff. You must be one of my soultwins (I made that up). Artists must have huge soul followings. The integrity and the honesty and the thoughtfulness (different from cleverness, craft and competence), that’s how you come across to me. I’m spoiled by having discovered you on the blog scene (and I just discovered the blog, social networking scene with your inviation). What a GREAT way to usher in the new year – it’s Jan 1 in the morning. Allen.

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