Whitman and the Post-Avant

In Ron Silliman’s explanation of how to teach poetry, he made a comment about Whitman and the P-A movement:

Anyone – anyone! – who argues that either Dickinson or Whitman leads you to the School of Quietude (tho they won’t call it that) is a fraud. Tho it is worth noting that Dickinson & Whitman will lead you to very different parts of the post-avant spectrum.

I already linked to Joseph Hutchison’s response that this type of statement creates a “you vs. me” sentimentality where “me” is always right. I would assert that while Whitman was writing things in a completely new way (another element of P-A: newness, pushing the envelope, etc.), he does not point the attitude often presented by the P-A crowd. Whitman himself tried to imitate the long line structure of the Psalms, so that wasn’t entirely new. He wrote very openly about his sexuality, which was new in America but not necessarily in literature. He wrote about the self (not just sexuality) with complete openness, which was a bit risque for the time and culture. Maybe combining all of these into one explosion of lawn snippings is one reason for his revolutionary style of writing. However, Whitman’s poetry does not maintain or condone the attitude presented by many P-As.

Some examples:

Song of Myself

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you….


I am the poet of the woman the same as the man,
And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man,
And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men

I chant the chant of dilation or pride,
We have had ducking and deprecating about enough,
I show that size is only development.

Have you outstript the rest? are you the President?
It is a trifle, they will more than arrive there every one, and still pass on.

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,…


I do not call one greater and one smaller,
That which fills its period and place is equal to any


Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

This doesn’t include “One Self I Sing” or “I Hear America Singing.”

Whitman was P-A in his time because of his “newness” and his controversial statements (What? Men and women can be equal???). However, time and time again his poetry suggests the unity of things, each profession, each poet, each artist playing his/her part in the greater song. There wasn’t a voice too quiet, a job too old fashioned, a poem too new that couldn’t fit into the impending symphony.

Finally, this quote from John Gallaher in the comment section of the same article:

“Ultimately the poems you or anyone will write will be the poems you (or anyone) needs.”

Well, I posit that there are some poems are not poems anyone needs, and actually block what poetry can do. I’ll go way out there and say an easy example of that would be the poetry (and theory) of Ted Kooser. The less said the better.

And from Whitman’s Song of Myself 16:

I resist any thing better than my own diversity,
Breathe the air but leave plenty after me,
And am not stuck up, and am in my place.

(The moth and the fish-eggs are in their place,
The bright suns I see and the dark suns I cannot see are in their place,
the palpable is in its place and the impalpable is in its place.)

I wonder if this whole discussion of these parties is simply a microcosm, a separate peace.


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