American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Good Gray Fade

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Walt Whitman Service Area, New Jersey Turnpike

Rereading the Calamus poems this morning I had a realization, an obvious one — but then, who am I to turn down a belated insight? To wit: Whitman’s general tendency is to start with a magnificent sweep of language, then peter out into short bursts of speech. This is the case with the first edition of Leaves of Grass, which starts with the long preface and long first section (“Song of Myself”), then ends with several shorter sections; and this is the case with the work when it’s surveyed chronologically — there are very few poems of more than a single page after 1867.

And this is the case with the Calamus poems in 1860: though none of the sections is really long, yet the length steadily decreases as the poem goes forward. There are 45 sections, and after the 26th all are eight lines or fewer.

I’m guessing that someone has written about this. I’ll have to check. In the meantime, what it makes me think is that the negative judgments of Whitman’s late work are misleading, in that they ascribe to old age a tendency (understood in that context as a fading of powers) that Whitman had made space for since the very beginning. The question is “Why?” Why make space for what looks like a fading or petering out? Is it honesty alone that has him show this, or is it a tendency central to Whitman’s project? Curious.

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Written by Ben Friedlander

March 31, 2010 at 10:58 am

Posted in Whitman

Tagged with ,

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