In this book, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet C. K. Williams sets aside the mass of biography and literary criticism that has accumulated around the work and person of Walt Whitman, and attempts to go back to Leaves of Grass as he first encountered it, to explore why Whitman's epic "continues to inspire and sometimes daunt" him. The result is a personal reassessment and appreciation of one master poet by another, as well as an unconventional and brilliant introduction--or reintroduction--to Whitman.
In brief, thematic chapters with many quotations from Leaves of Grass, Williams explores the innovations, originality, and sheer genius of the poetry that has become, as he puts it, "the unconscious" of much of the poetry of America and the world. Williams pays particular attention to the music of Whitman's poetry, its blazing perception and enormous human sympathy, its affecting anecdotes, and its vast cast of characters, as well as to the radical nature of Whitman's first-person speaker, his liberating attitude toward sex, and his unconventional ideas about death. While conveying the singularities of Whitman's work, Williams also shows what Whitman had in common with other great poets of his time, such as Baudelaire, and the powerful influence Whitman had on later poets such as Eliot and Pound.
Beautifully written and rich with insight, this is a book that refreshes our ability to see Whitman in all his power.
C. K. Williams’s has won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. His most recent book of poetry is Wait from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. His other books include an essay collection, Poetry and Consciousness, and a memoir, Misgivings (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). He teaches creative writing and translation at Princeton University, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
"Williams knows that the real meat and drink in Whitman's work lies in the poet's unprecedented assembling of rhythm, sound, language and images. He pays lavish tribute to what he refers to as Whitman's 'music,' the surge and flow of the lines; he also delights in Whitman's eye for the telling detail. . . . [A] winning book. . . . Enlightening and often moving."--Helen Vendler, New York Times Book Review
"Whitman, the great New York poet, cries out for evangelization, not explication. Accordingly, in this sweet slip of a book, Williams, himself an eminent poet, lets Walt speak freely, filling many pages with favorite passages, most frequently from the original 'Leaves of Grass,' of 1855. Williams's own prose is chatty and loose, dipping into big categories like 'Nature' and 'America' with the casualness of a Sunday social call. His best piece of analysis illuminates Whitman's deceptively complex use of 'you' as a means of addressing aspects of the self and soul, rather than the reader. The spirit of Whitman inspires charming candor, too: 'I was there for the sexual revolution, I saw the young people tear off their clothes and dance; I even wanted to do it myself, but I was shy.'"--Leo Carey, New Yorker
"One can see why C.K. Williams, a poet of wide-ranging curiosity and distinctive verbal 'music,' might have been drawn to write an introduction to Whitman. In his use of long, flowing lines--sometimes so long that his publishers have adopted unusually wide pages to accommodate them--Williams can seem to be an heir to Whitman's own poetic practice. There are times in his book on Whitman when Williams confides something that he knows as a poet."--Christopher Benfey, New York Review of Books
"On Whitman is an admirable homage to a poet without whom C. K. Williams himself would not write as he does."--Stephen Burt, New Republic
Table of Contents:
The Music 1
The Past 5
The Man Before the Poems 23
The Notebooks 36
Emerson and the Greatest Poet 40
The Greatest Poet Submits a Poem for Publication 47
A Dare 54
The Modern, One: Baudelaire 74
Hugo and Longfellow 80
The Modern, Two: Eliot and Pound 83
The Body 91
Lorca, Ginsberg, and "The Faggots" 119
Mortality Again 163
The Sad Captain 171
The Voice 178
Life After 181
What He Teaches Us 184