To peruse some of the scholarship done on America’s most famous poet, you would think Walt Whitman was a shaman, who could be linked to the French Impressionists, or seen in light of Vedantic Mysticism. One of the less understood aspects of Whitman turns out to be the most important part of his legacy, which he understood and articulated in a short, early poem entitled:
Poets to Come
Poets to come! orators, singers, musicians to come!
Not to-day is to justify me and answer what I am for,
But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater
than before known,
Arouse! Arouse – for you must justify me – you must answer.
I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future,
I but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back in the
I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping,
turns a casual look upon you and then averts his face,
Leaving it to you to prove and define it,
Expecting the main things from you.
Walt Whitman single-handedly birthed one of North America’s greatest contributions to world culture, Open Form poetry. Influenced by the field of resonance he created, this essay seeks to articulate Whitman’s contribution, the consciousness that enabled it and the power behind that consciousness.
In his Selected Essays, William Carlos Williams said Whitman was tremendously important in the history of modern poetry because he “broke through the deadness of copied forms which keep shouting above everything that wants to get said today, drowning out one man with the accumulated weight of a thousand voices in the past – reestablishing the tyrannies of the past, the very tyrannies that we are seeking to diminish. The structure of the old is active, it says no! to everything in propaganda and poetry that wants to say yes. Whitman broke through that. That was basic and good” (Williams 218).
Whitman broke from inherited British notions of rhyme and meter to establish what has been called Free Verse, or Vers Libre in the French tradition. It is also likely that translations of Whitman helped inspire the French version of Free Verse. Whitman’s poetry is rooted in place, in the speech rhythms of the American language and, perhaps most importantly in the American tradition of searching for transcendence or what Michael McClure calls the hunger for freedom (McClure xv). The term Free Verse, however, is erroneous. As Gay Wilson and others have pointed out, Whitman’s structure is not metrical, but based on the intonation or phonological unit. Any Free Verse, with investigation, can be shown to have patterns that will have been inspired by a number of possible causations: blood pressure; the music one has listened to; environmental factors and so on. So the term Open Form is much more appropriate for the work of Whitman and those who have been affected by his field or resonance. Yet not all Free Verse is Open Form. Open also refers to the process by which this kind of poetry is created. Most of the free verse that we have in American and throughout the world is of a closed nature. Some elements of Open Form process include spontaneous composition, a recognition of the intelligence of language (Charles Olson in Projective Verse put it this way: “From the moment he ventures into FIELD COMPOSITION—puts himself in the open—he can go by no track other than the one the poem under hand declares, for itself” and a greater energy than what is found in closed verse (Olson 240).
So where did this come from? What was the energy which propelled Whitman into this remarkable accomplishment? Not just his work, but the field of consciousness he created and the birth of Open Form in North American poetry.
The Procreant Urge
Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.
Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and increase, always sex
According to one tantric scholar and practitioner, tantric sex is used to create the polarity charge of the cosmic union of opposites that connects with the primordial energy from which everything arises in the universe. The Tantrics believe the greatest source of energy in the universe is sexual, and that sexual orgasm is seen as a cosmic and divine experience. Tantric sexual practices involve heightening sexual energy so that it can be utilized for spiritual growth and healing and to help one embrace the divine nature of sexual energy and learn to flow it to the upper energy centers of one’s body.
There is no evidence that Walt Whitman practiced tantric sex, but Whitman’s acceptance of sex and the pleasure it enables is a key theme in Leaves of Grass and may very well be the source of his spiritual awakening. The Hindus call it a Pure Heart and this is the key to Whitman’s field. Take the sexual energy, remove the lust component and you have a field that resonates deeply with a human being. Of course, the more open and less rational, the more likely one will let this field do its work.
Early critics of Whitman were appalled by the sexual nature of his work. America is prudish and closeted about sex TODAY as evidenced by the Same Sex Marriage debate, among other issues. One can only imagine what it was like in 1855, yet later (and more credible) critics such as D.H. Lawrence began to see Whitman’s worth. He is:
“…the one pioneer. And only Whitman. No English pioneers, no French. No European pioneer-poets. In Europe the would-be pioneers are mere innovators. The same in America. Ahead of Whitman, nothing. Ahead of all poets, pioneering into the wilderness of unopened life.” Lawrence suggests Whitman has a pre-occupation with death and he (rightly) does not care for Whitman’s didacticism, but calls him: “…a great changer of the blood in the veins of men” and says: “Whitman was the first to break the mental allegiance. He was the first to smash the old moral conception that the soul of man is something “superior” and “above” the flesh….Whitman was the first white aboriginal…and the true rhythm of the American continent (is) speaking out in him” (Lawrence 18).
This is not to be underestimated. The pull away from such a powerful force was difficult and Whitman understood that as his main mission. (We still feel it in the academies Williams was so dead set against, though that lack of vigor we see in most academic poetry is likely attributable to more than just the previous tradition. Certainly fear plays a role and the lure of grants, recognition, etc.) Whitman created a field of energy that flirted with levels that suggest a Cosmic Consciousness, a one-ness with all living things, yet that first blast of Leaves of Grass was never again achieved. Williams was aware that Whitman:
“… made no further progress as an artist but, in spite of various topical achievements, continued to write with diminishing effectiveness for the remainder of his life.”
It is clear to me that the evolution of Open Form, which Whitman so masterfully initiated, does not necessarily do what Whitman did, that being the effort to take one spiritual experience and approximate that state for the rest of one’s writing life. Williams felt a respite from hell when he broke away from his medical practice to jot down impressions, perceptions and other material that found its way into his poems. He, along with Ezra Pound, created the break from the inherited line and stanza and the transition to Field poetry. Olson and Duncan understood and articulated the effects of Field poetry and left vibrant examples of it. (Duncan even has a book entitled: The Opening of the Field.) The Beat Generation, despite their excess and sometimes juvenile ranting, had a tremendous cultural influence, ranging from Bob Dylan to the Beatles, and helped facilitate the cultural opening that would manifest an end to the Vietnam War. Allen Ginsberg’s Wichita Vortex Sutra actually declares an end to the war and those open to the possibilities of field theory know the statement and the war’s end a few years later are connected.
A whole list of North American poets were to go through Whitman’s opening, including Olson and The Black Mountain School poets, the Beats, the San Francisco Renaissance, Michael McClure, Robin Blaser, Jack Spicer, Anne Waldman, Diane di Prima, Ed Sanders, Wanda Coleman, Eileen Myles, George Bowering, bill bissett, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Amiri Baraka and many more. No Whitman, no Open Form poetry, as Lawrence suggests.
The cultural situation Open Form poets find their selves in today is one where TV, consumerism and other factors make the job of affecting positive cultural change much more difficult, yet paradoxically, that change is needed now more than ever when our government spends as much annually on the NEH and NEA as it does on thirty-two hours of war in Iraq. Of course Diane di Prima summed it up succinctly in the refrain from her poem RANT:
THE ONLY WAR THAT MATTERS IS THE WAR AGAINST THE IMAGINATION
Allen, Gay Wilson. American Prosody. New York: American Book Company, 1935.
di Prima, Diane. Pieces of a Song: Selected Poems. San Francisco: City Lights,
Gates, Rosemary, Forging an American Poetry from Speech Rhythms. Tel Aviv:
Porter Institute for Poetics, Volume 8, Issue 3/4, Pages 503-27, 1987.
Lawrence, D.H. Whitman: A Collection of Critical Essays. (Roy Pierce Ed.)
Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1962
McClure, Michael. Three Poems. New York: Penguin Poets, 1995.
Iraq War Estimates: https://nationalpriorities.org/index.php?option=com_wrapper&Itemid=182
Olson, Charles. Collected Prose Berkeley: California Press, 1997.
Virato, Swami Nostradamus. Tantric Sex: A Spiritual Path to Ecstasy. Frankston,
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. 1892 ed. New York: Bantam Classics, 1983.
Williams, William Carlos. Selected Essays. 6th Ed. New York: New Directions, 1969.