WHITMAN AND POUND

Walt Whitman, among the most influential poets of the American canon and a

self-proclaimed   national   poet,   was   part   of   the   transition   between

transcendentalism and realism. His life, as well as his work, constituted

contested ground, mainly because of implicitly or explicitly homoerotic scenes

and images in his poetry. A close reading of his poems, though, attests to the

fact that his vision as an artist was far more overarching and grand. Walt

Whitman managed to incorporate in his works the sounds of movement and

mobility, the images of ferries and bridges, the celebration of diversity and the

joy that crowds afford (Ezra Greenspan, 1995:1). The Whitmanesque word

endeavours to capture the essence of the cosmic concepts that suffuse the

body of his poetry, as well as “the perennial present” that seems to

characterize his poetic preoccupations.

It is no accident that Whitman was, and still is, deemed to be the father of

America after Lincoln. This is not only ascribed to the philosophy they shared

with regard to abolitionism and the spread of slavery. They both held

reservations that the races which made America a melting pot could be

effectively integrated. Of course, it could be asserted that Whitman was not so

conservative as Lincoln. Rebellious by nature, his political leanings first

wavered between the conservative and the leftist parties, only to settle later
with more progressive ideas. Both as an individual and a poet, Whitman is out

to denounce the traditional role of a poet, celebrating the American dream and

the heroes of America; rather than succumbing to this task, he opts to occupy

himself with such seemingly preposterous indulgences as enjoying his lover.

Much as his poetry seems to take a closer look at everyday people and their

concrete needs, Whitman himself wished to identify it with American culture

and society on the grand scale (ibid.). As was hinted at above, he was

interested in the future of democracy and democratic literature in America, as

evident in post-war culture (The Norton Anthology of American Literature,

Volume B, p. 2130). Moreover, as was natural for an uncompromising and

restless personality, Whitman flew in the face of all systematic doctrines,

formulating instead his notions about pantheism. He denied that any one faith

was more important than another, embracing all religions equally, as he

mentions in Song of Myself, where he gave an inventory of major religions

and indicated that he respected all of them. It could be gleaned that he must

have been influenced by the transcendental philosophy of Ralf Waldo

Emerson, who developed a ‘faith greater in individual moral sentiment than in

revealed religion’ (ibid. 1104), as well as theories of Plotinus, who spoke of

the One, of which we all form parts. Evidently, Walt Whitman relished an all-

out war against establishments, forging quite a distinctive voice that purports

to make the readership ponder, as well as to invite them to take active part in

the flow of Whitmanesque poetry.

Leaves of Grass, the most celebrated piece of work by Walt Whitman, tells the

story of the poet’s love for another man, which, although it stirred up a

hornet’s nest by virtue of its “obscene nature”, was widely distributed and held

in high regard by many, in part due to Emerson’s approval. In the Preface to

the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, he wrote, ‘the proof of a poet is that his

country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it’ (ibid. p. 2145). In

other words, he believed that there was a vital, symbiotic relationship between

the poet and the society, as implicitly stated in Song of Myself, where first

person narration is used. It appears that Whitman’s increasing frustration with

the democratic party’s compromising approaches to the slavery crisis led him

to continue his political efforts through the more subtle means of experimental

poetry, which he hoped would be read by masses of average Americans. That

is why he writes in Leaves of Grass:

             I am the poet of the body

             And I am the poet of the soul

             I go with the slaves of the earth equally with the masters

             And I will stand between the masters and the slaves,

             Entering into both so that both shall understand me alike.

His extreme political despair must have led him to forge his own persona – an

all-encompassing I – thus replacing what he called the “scum” of corrupt

American politics.

A careful glance at Leaves of Grass is ample to attest to the omnipresence of

this I, which seems to be a ritual for announcing a new identity for himself.

Now, the voice in his poems was not that of a human being (although they

could be construed in this way in the first instance), but a universal entity

almost divine, which was timeless, atemporal; in short, diachronic or

perennially present. Whitman’s poems at this later stage have been dubbed

performative, inasmuch as they do not merely describe but actually perform

acts (Steven Railton, 1995: 9). The yawning gap between I and You, which

suffuses his poems, needs to be crossed leading to a fusion of all things –

something that reminds one of Plotinus’ One. In Song of Myself and other

“performative” poems, ‘the hero is the poet as performer’ (ibid.), whereas the

plot is the very transaction between the poet and the reader. Flouting the

deep-rooted belief that meaning and truth are out there to be grasped,

Whitman wittily takes a constructivist approach to poetry, implying that the

poet is not the only creator of meaning, but the onus is on the reader to

determine the outcome of the plot. Song of Myself focuses, not on what

happened, but on the process (like any performance) of the poem being read.

The profoundly democratic Walt Whitman can be said to give his readers the

power to create him; perhaps that is why he usually addresses You, that is,

the masses. What is striking, though, is that in order for the self (I) to be great,

You has to celebrate as well. Probably it is in this vein that we could interpret

the contradiction that arises from the following lines: “without you, I’m enough;

/ without you, I’m nothing”. The cosmic concept of communion with the

universe is enacted through his demolition of the line drawn between public

and private, that is why he writes “I remove the veil”. It is marvellous how

Whitman contrives to commingle public with private and politics with sexuality.

That Whitman is a disembodied voice is evidenced by the fact that he

refrained from putting his name on the title page of Leaves of Grass, which for

many was an unconventional and suggestive act indicating that he believed

himself to speak, not for himself, but for America. After all, he himself once

said, ‘I have but one central figure, the general human personality typified in

myself’ (Matthiessen F.O., 1941).

This “disembodied” poet was a master of sexual politics, but the latter were

always intertwined with his textual politics. Leaves of Grass aimed at merging

with the reader making him/her aware of the body they inhabited and

convincing them that body and soul were conjoined and inseparable, just as

Whitman’s ideas had a physical body in the ink and paper that readers held in

their hands.

Walt Whitman seems to have embodied the very attributes of a poet that Ralf

Waldo Emerson had discoursed upon some time before him. According to the

former, the American poet was to be ‘transcendent and new’, which meant

that he had to have a grandeur equal to his people: their history and

geography, the mobility of the population, the factories and plantations, and

so on. In common parlance, he was ‘a simple democratic person’, as he

declares in One’s Self I Sing. The very title of the poem is quite revelatory of

Whitman’s cosmic self-image, insofar as “one’s self” can be thought of as

referring to one person as well as to many. Speaking in the name of the

masses, he indirectly urges them to content themselves with ‘physiology from

top to toe’, that is the body, and ‘not physiognomy alone nor brain alone is

worthy for the Muse’. This poem, taking on the form of an injunction, sets out

to “preach” in favour of a rounded, overall education that will involve the body

as well as the intellect and spirit. Here, Whitman could be said to take a stab

at Tupper’s unrhymed pseudo-biblical poetry, which was regarded as

pretentious, portentous and vacuous, in juxtaposition with Whitman’s

‘celebration of causality… and a poetry that proved powerful aesthetic and

moral medicine’ (Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume B 2147).

One’s Self I Sing has some highly democratic undertones, as shown in the

following line: ‘the Female equally with the Male I sing’. An overarching

universal voice cannot but disabuse itself of all the preconceptions deeply

ingrained in the American civilisation, such as sexual -and social

discrimination, along with slavery. Structuring the poem in such a way as to

remind one of Homer’s Iliad, whereby the poet inspired by his muse sings of

the life of his heroes, Whitman ‘of life immense in passion, pulse, and power

[sings]’, in order to encourage people to attain wisdom and communion with

the universe through their feelings and passions. He also reminds his readers

that they are endowed with free will ‘under the laws divine’. In One’s Self I

Sing, which is the well-known inscription to the 1867 Leaves of Grass,

Whitman foregrounds several distinctions, such as ‘One’s Self/En Masse’,

‘separate person/Democratic’, ‘physiognomy/brain’, ‘Female/Male’, ‘laws

divine/Modern Man’, only to ultimately collapse them (Christopher Beach,

1996). It seems that the self-proclaimed national poet undertook the poetic

task of portraying an Americanness that, despite its diversity, could have a

common aesthetic, moral and historical purpose (ibid.). Finally, he ends the

poem by stating that he sings of the modern man, thus developing a voice that

could belong to any citizen of the age of reason.

Much as Whitman’s democratic philosophy sounds palatable, his notion of

fusion and communion with a self grander than our physical existences

appears pernicious by today’s standards, as merging with the crowd and

anything else that surrounds the individual could lead to obliteration. However,

Whitman finds this merger rather educational and in Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

he goes as far as to translate himself into his audience. In this poem, which is

suffused with allusions to cosmic elements, such as rivers and the sky, the

voice that he assumes seems to be omnipresent and almighty, ‘consider[ing]

long and seriously of you before you were born’. Here, the distinction between

I and You exists as a gap that will inexorably be bridged and eventually

obliterated. The disembodied voice, just like a spirit, immerses itself in the

crowd making an apostrophe to the river, the sky, animate and inanimate

things drumming it home that it is the vessel of diachronic, atemporal

knowledge and experience from which everyone can benefit. There should no

longer be distances; he characteristically writes ‘it avails not, time nor place –

distance avails not’. What is striking is that through the senses, as the verbs

see, look and watch testify, the masses can gain access to a higher-order

state of existence, thus transcending the finite banality of their lives.

What is more, with phrases like ‘The similitudes of the past and those of the

future’ and ‘the others that are to follow me, the ties between them and me’,

he creates a rocking motion within each line. In addition, many of the

descriptive lines mimic the movement of the boat and the ebb and flow of the

tides. He gives equal weight to both natural and man-made images, observing

the ‘numberless masts of ships’, as well as ‘the swift current’. One could

asseverate that this ferry journey brings to mind Charon carrying his

passengers across the river Styx. However, this poem is not only about

mortality; rather, it lends gravity to the real and commonplace experience of

going back home.

It is noteworthy that the poem culminates in a final stanza, where Whitman

uses the pronoun we for the first time, as if reader and writer have finally been

conjoined. A perspicacious reader can notice that the poet has united the

disparate elements of the crowd, drawing closer to his fellow travellers. The

dualities of the poem are resolved: light and dark, reader and writer, past and

future, life and death – all become momentarily the same as the ferry

approaches the shore.

This universal voice, as embodied by Whitman, exerted a tremendous

influence on the young Ezra Pound, who said in 1909 “I read him (in many

parts) with acute pain, but when I write of certain things I find myself using his

rhythms” (Alan Trachtenberg, 1995). He also likened Whitman to America,

declaring that he ought to be proud of him (ibid.) After all, it was Whitman who

helped William Carlos Williams to release the emotional energy necessary to

break with convention and break through the constraints of romantic verse


At his earliest stages, Ezra Loomis Pound aspired to a kind of poetry that was

‘melodious in versification and diction, romantic in themes, [and] world-weary

in tone’ (The Norton Anthology of American Literature Volume D p. 1281).

Nevertheless, he gradually espoused imagism, a new kind of poetry, whereby

ornate diction and abstractions were to be eschewed. Rather than describing

objects or situations, the poet ought to present something directly, resorting to

images. Soon afterwards, Pound aligned himself with vorticism, which sought

for dynamism and energy in the image. More specifically, he searched for

selfhood and ‘sincere self expression’ in the flux of modern life (Walter Sutton,

1963).Gradually, he shifted away from the word as symbol to the word as

reality. Much as Pound seems to detest and oppose Whitman’s philosophy,

his poetry hews closer to that of the transcendental poet, in that he grapples

with and expands on the latter’s themes and preoccupations, albeit in a quite

different way. What they have in common is that they both ask that their

poetry be conducive to a unifying sacramentalism. In Pound’s A Pact, he

‘make[s] a truce’ with Walt Whitman, thus implying that he had been in

constant war with him. He goes on to admit that he has ‘detested [him] long

enough’. However, it could be gleaned that this feeling of enmity borders on

admiration similar to that felt by ‘a grown child/who has had a pig-headed

father’. It is patent that Pound acknowledges Whitman’s erudition and talent,

though in the same breath he hints at the pressing need for the child (standing

for Pound himself) to outwit and transcend his father (in other words Whitman).

Furthermore, he pledges allegiance to Whitman: ‘It was you that broke the

wood,/Now is a time for carving’. This powerful image, typical of Pound’s

poetry, conveys the message that he is intent on breaking new ground in

poetry, in terms of tone and theme. Finally, he writes, ‘We have one sap and

one root - /Let there be commerce between us.’ In yet another image, Pound

contrives to show that both men have the same history and soil, just like parts

(sap and root) of a tree. This is bound to facilitate their common task of

berating, as well as celebrating America.

Another poem representative of Pound’s imagist approach is In a Station of

the Metro, which for its brevity is succinct and eloquent. These two lines

             The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

             Petals on a wet, black bough.

powerfully depict the transitory nature of everyday life in a modern city

alongside its beauty, by means of merely contrasting the red colour of petals

to the black bough (thus juxtaposing the vivacity of living with the exigencies

of existence). Moreover, the likening of the synecdoche ‘faces’ to an

‘apparition’ (that is known to appear and disappear in a twinkling of an eye)

heightens the fluidity and motion of the masses.

The well-read Pound could not but have been influenced by many an author

and poet, such as Theophile Gautier, who was the originator of the ‘art for

art’s sake’ movement. Thus, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley is a poem about the

rights and wrongs of the ‘art for art’s sake’ attitude. Moreover, there are a few

allusions to the activities of Amy Lowell, the American poet who took charge

of the imagist movement after Pound had defected from it. The poem

comprises 18 short poems grouped into five sections. Speaking of himself in

the third person, he castigates his earlier works as attempts to ‘wring lilies

from the acorn’, which means the pursuit of aesthetic goals and art for art’s

sake in America, ‘a half savage country’. More specifically, in section 1 he is

writing a kind of mock epitaph on himself, which resonates with his efforts to

write in traditional forms. A close reading of the poem makes it evident that it

is a defence of Pound, who, like Capaneus, fought against philistinism.

The second and third sections can be read as a wider attack on the attitudes

of society in the post-war period. Among other things, Ezra Pound explains his

failure ‘in terms of a general decay of literary culture’ (Furbank, 1985: 57). In

sections 4 and 5, Pound sets the human waste of the second World War

against the low standards of the civilisation ‘for which it was supposedly

fought’ (ibid.)

In general, this poem tells us about the artistic endeavours and love troubles

of Mauberley, a minor poet who perfects refined but irrelevant artworks, or

‘medallions’. It is noteworthy that Mauberley’s perfect but frigid style is in stark

contrast to Pound’s tone, that is why this poem can be interpreted as a witty

quip to earlier poetry. It is evident that Pound objected to Mauberly’s

‘fundamental passion’, which was not to deal with the large issues of life but to

focus on small-scale problems, just like an engraver of medallions. In his part,

the poet himself seems to be saying that he will not succumb to this trend, but

he will try to change the world by means of his modernist poetry. Some critics

believe that ‘Mauberley is largely a work of satire, reminiscence and invective’

(Leavis, 1978). Finally, the envoi that follows is an ironic climax, whereby it is

asserted that the Shakespearean task of preserving beauty against time is to

be repudiated.

A rebellious and uncompromising personality as Ezra Pound could only but

have produced such a shocking and incoherently meaningful kind of poetry.

Aligning himself with a form of art that takes a stab at the respectable middle-

class of the early 20th century, he readily embarked on a constructive

experimentation of radical poetry, which was identified as highly modernist.

Modernism was premised upon the conviction that human life was a fantasy.

All the characteristics of order, unity, and sequence typical of realism, were

not ‘actual reflections of reality’ (The Norton Anthology of American Literature:

p. 1078). Thus, any abstractions or linguistic ornaments were deemed to

conceal rather than impart reality. Such a philosophy had certain ramifications

for the structure of stories and novels as it strove to deprive them of any fixed

beginnings, complications, or resolutions. It goes without saying that the new

pieces of writing made for more difficult and fragmented reading, since they

presented human experience in a state of flux.

Importantly, modernist literature is noted for its omissions. Rejecting tradition,

it seeks to stress freedom of expression and radicalism and, as a result,

creates unintelligible plots and produces poetry that defies clear interpretation.

Instead, its main features are disjunctive narratives, surreal images and

incoherence. From this movement emerges what Ezra Pound himself called

imagism, whereby ‘the concrete sensory image or detail … [is] the direct

conveyer of experience’ (ibid: p. 1079). Furthermore, imagism relies on

allusions to the past as a means of reminding the readership of the old, almost

primeval coherence. Rather, this literary movement prefers a suggestive kind

of writing, in accordance with the notion that truth is not objective but the end

result of our interaction with reality.

Rather than furnishing descriptions of objects or situations and then making

sweeping generalizations about them, imagism portrays an object directly,

eschewing elaborate words or complicated and predictable traditional forms.

Pound’s injunction ‘go in fear of abstraction’ is quite telling (ibid: p. 1282). The

image should be presented in its bare simplicity. Quite naturally, traditional

grammar has to be flouted, in order for the poet to come up with disconnected

fragments. At a later stage, Pound espoused vorticism, according to which the

image is provided with more dynamism and energy.


    The Cambridge Companion to Walt Whitman. 1995. Cambridge:

      Cambridge University Press

    Furbank, P. N. 1985. Open Guides to Literature: Pound. Philadelphia:

      Open University Press

    Leavis F.R. 1978. New Bearings in English Poetry. AMS Press

    Matthissen, F.O. 1941. American Renaissance: Art and Expression in

      the Age of Emerson and Whitman. Oxford: OUP.

    Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume B 2003. USA: Norton


To top