Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song

Jim Perlman

Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song

Jim Perlman

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Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song Summary

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In Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song, editors Jim Perlman, Ed Folsom, and Dan Campion bring together a far-reaching and comprehensive look at Whitman's lasting literary and cultural impact upon the creative mind. The volume starts with contemporaries from Whitman's day and how the trailblazing prose and poetry he was creating at the time affected their own work. Though Walt Whitman was first published in 1981 by Holy Cow! Press, it has been updated as the decades have progressed, and later editions have included Whitman's influence from the 1850s all the way up to the mid-1990s. Ultimately, readers see Whitman's legacy in black and white, through the words of the writers, artists, and thinkers upon which he made an indelible impression.

In the introduction to this anthology, Folsom invites readers to savor the virtually endless ways Whitman has imprinted himself on the creative imagination, almost encouraging other artists to "talk back" to him. And talk back to them they have, in the form of poems, letters, essays, and entire books. The diversity of these encounters with Whitman speak to the great poet's universal appeal. Some of the encounters emulate Whitman's own voice, others study him as if he is at a distance or on a pedestal, and still others offer an analysis of his writing. This has opened, Folsom says, a "remarkable and unique dialogue, continuing now for over a hundred years."

After Folsom's lengthy investigation into the ever-evolving influence of Whitman, he lets the writers speak for themselves. The volume opens with an 1855 letter written by Ralph Waldo Emerson to Whitman right after he read Whitman's seminal poetry collection, Leaves of Grass. This is a gushing fan letter if ever there was one. "I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed," Emerson says.

Other writers from Whitman's own time who waxed philosophical about his talents include Henry David Thoreau, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Willa Cather.

In the twentieth century, the celebrated poet Ezra Pound is especially complimentary of Whitman. Whitman's style is prominent in Pound's poem "A Pact," and he is the subject of Pound's essay "What I Feel About Walt Whitman," both collected here. Pound's own pioneering voice in literary modernism clearly takes a page directly from Whitman's lifework. Other modernists also feel the hand of Whitman in the development of their styles and voices. D.H Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Edgar Lee Masters, Carl Sandburg, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Stephen Vincent Benet are among the early twentieth-century masters who not only drew inspiration from Whitman but wrote work directly to or about him.

As the 1950s come into focus, American letters start making a turn toward the countercultural. The Beat Movement works its way into the popular consciousness, and its wildness, its irreverence, its willingness to not just study but revel in the darker and more hedonistic sides of human nature are undeniably Whitmanesque in nature. Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Denise Levertov, and Jorge Luis Borges are just a handful of the writers whose words are gathered here, further illustrating the parallels between Whitman's work and their own. Important beat classics like Ginsburg's poem "A Supermarket in California" are as much an homage to Whitman as a bracing examination of modern American life. This, in the end, only lends credence to the larger point that Whitman's work is inextricable from the fabric of America.

Unexpected benefactors of Whitman's influence appear in these pages as well. The acclaimed Chilean poet Pablo Neruda pens an early-1970s poem about Whitman, the title of which could well be something any writer—past or present—still puts into practice: "I Begin By Invoking Walt Whitman." Neruda also draws comparisons between the literature and culture of his day and the world of Whitman's time in the essay "We Live in a Whitmanesque Age." Another surprising name is that of Henry Miller, author of bawdy classics like Tropic of Cancer; he too has an essay about Whitman. In it, Miller writes about just how much of an outsider Whitman was, neither "understood…or accepted," and it was this position from outside the mainstream that made Whitman—and, by extension, all poets—"seers." Miller also views Whitman as not a distinctly American writer at all, but a man of the world, a human of all nations and times, an ageless and placeless being.

As the century continues, so too does Whitman's inspiration on writers of all stripes. Sharon Olds, Adrienne Rich, and Sherman Alexie are a few of the contemporary writers who have found comfort and solace, motivation and stimulation, challenges and questions in Whitman's canon.

Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song closes with a bibliographic chronology and notes on the book's various contributors.

At every turn, this anthology amplifies and celebrates one of the quintessential voices of American literature. His effect on writers of all ages, ethnicities, and genders is profound and continues unabated to this day. Perhaps this was something Whitman himself anticipated all along. In one of his most beloved poems, "Song of Myself," he famously said, "I am large, I contain multitudes."
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