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Saving Whitman

I have often said that in “saving” Whitman, the academia have marginalized his larger intent. Reviewing the last 60 years of Whitman scholarship I feel both gratitude for the discoveries and research but a sense of loss regarding the very little emphasis on Whitman’s spiritual intentions. We have made him into a great poet at the expense of his ideas regarding spirituality. I understand Whitman to be an innovative poet who transformed the form and structure of poetry and a deeply spiritual person who intentionally projected a meaning and new dimension to religion and spirituality among many other things. He intentionally set out to write “no ordinary book” and appears to be answering the call of Ralph Waldo Emerson to become the Poet who writes about America’s virtues and vices in an American vernacular.

The poet C.K. Williams cited my research in his excellent book, On Whitman, writes that, “unlike Rilke, Frost, Yeats where the biographers come to feel, consciously or not, a bit negative, demeaning, subtly diminishing the stature of the poet, asking in so many words how this banal, indeed contemptibly pedestrian personality managed to bring forth evidences of artistic genius.

This is something that hasn’t happened to Whitman. Beginning with William O’Connor’s Good Gray Poet, which compared Whitman to Jesus, until long after his death, there are those who all but worship Whitman, and more than a few who write books about him, this prophet, this saint, who in his moral grandeur was Whitman the mortal-immortal, the new link to the metaphysical, the divine, not Whitman the poet.”

This is something that rarely happens to poets, Williams writes. Blake was self consciously a prophet, he even called his book prophesies. Whitman was more interested in being the “Everyman” or the “divine average” than being a prophet…although his great sense of self wanted to be recognized as the divine Poet, that Ralph Waldo Emerson hoped would emerge from America.

Whitman saw himself as more than a poet and somewhat less than a saint or prophet. Like the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti he believed that we had to find our own path toward freedom or spirit. Whitman writes:

Not I, not anyone else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it yourself…

Essentially, Leaves of Grass, was for Whitman a record of his vision and his meditation was the tool that sparked his vision. Unfortunately, academia has nearly wholly neglected the great spiritual insight that drove Whitman’s voice and integral insight.