When most honest with himself late in life, Walt Whitman thought he would be forgotten by the country that he had so decisively, so desperately, embraced. He would have been shocked to learn what has become of him at home and abroad. He has been a perpetual muse and menace to poets and novelists alike. His poetry has been given new life in over 1,000 musical settings. Mahatma Gandhi and Joseph Stalin both recited his work. Schoolchildren chant “O Captain, My Captain!” and scholars fill books with the most intrusive speculations about him. His visage sells hipster T-shirts in Greenwich Village. Whitman—to utter the words immortal, the words inevitable—contains multitudes.
In all of these afterlives, the Whitman who has inspired most has been the young, virile Whitman in the full flush of health, the Whitman of the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855), where he greets us in that famous full-frontispiece with open shirt, jauntily cocked hat, a mischievous nonchalance in his eyes. In those early poems, he is one of the roughs, a kosmos lapping up the blab of the pave, tapping the love-root, sending out barbaric yawps over rooftops, singing the body electric. We hear less about Whitman in age.
In the early 1860s, as the Civil War threatened to erode his American dream, he took on the role of wound dresser, caring tenderly for the injured and dying, bringing them gifts of candy and oranges, holding them as they died. By War’s end, Whitman had become “The Good Gray Poet,” a moniker manufactured by one of his disciples, William Douglas O’Connor, in the 1866 pamphlet of that name. As Whitman’s reputation became threatened by what many readers saw as brashly pornographic content in his poetry, O’Connor served up this image of a venerable, white-bearded, sterling-haired, de-sexed, sacrificial saint. Whitman in age: at once iconic and benign.
It’s stunning to think that Whitman embraced the role of the Good Gray Poet already in 1866. After all, he lived for another quarter century, not dying until 1892. Whitman worked on his Leaves up to the end, excluding his final, hybrid collections of poetry and prose—“Sands at Seventy,” which appeared first in November Boughs (1888), and Good-Bye My Fancy (1891)—from the pages of Leaves of Grass proper. They were bound with the rest, but only as “Annexes.” When readers do not entirely ignore Whitman’s late poetry, they tend to regard it as echo, afterthought, and a combination of benign affirmation and old-age complaint.
Perhaps this is why old Whitman stumbles clumsily through our poetry, a sign of lost potential, of what might have been, both for poetry and for America itself. We find him, in certain poems of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, humorously and often tragically out of place. Allen Ginsberg, in “A Supermarket in California,” spies Whitman among the refrigerated goods in a grocery store, a “childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats . . .” He imagines leaving with Whitman, and asks him, “Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love?” before wondering in a final, quiet chant what Whitman’s just republic would even look like anymore: “Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?”
Where Ginsberg imagines a moment of American promise before Whitman’s bustling republic turned blind empire, Louis Simpson, in his Pulitzer Prize–winning At the End of the Open Road (1963), is more clearly cynical: “Where are you, Walt?” he asks. “The Open Road goes to the used-car lot.”
Simpson, here, voices a persistent strain of Whitmanian influence in contemporary poetry—a strain in which utopian potential no longer seems visible through compounding layers of personal, political, and historical loss. Take, for example, Michael Palmer’s contribution to Walt Whitman: Hom(m)age, a recent French-English anthology of poems commemorating the 150th anniversary of the first edition of Leaves of Grass. Palmer pointedly makes his contribution not a poem, but a letter.
“Dear Walt,” the missive begins, “I must confess that I was thinking of you all last week, as I sat in my daughter’s apartment overlooking Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, across the waters from Mannahatta.” Palmer asks Whitman if he remembers how, as editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, he lobbied to make land available for a park that would eventually house a proud monument to heroes of the Revolution. Palmer continues: “I don’t know whether you keep abreast of the news, Walt, but it is not good.” He introduces the poet to an administration of hypocrites and criminals, to the national cancers of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, to prisoners held in American territory with no rights, to other prisoners tortured, given electric shocks, nearly drowned again and again.
Palmer breaks off this inventory abruptly: “And so, as Paris calls to celebrate you (Paris, Walt—I think you’d have liked it!), I cannot help but reflect on the pall of irony now cast by events over one of your late, if admittedly far from best, poems.” He then quotes “America,” the only poem that Whitman recorded in his lifetime:
Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old.
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love.
A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair’d in the adamant of Time.
“Of course,” Palmer concludes, “such a place never was nor could be, as hard as you tried to make it so by means of the poem. For which we now salute you, Walt, and send love.”
In the end, Palmer can only quote Whitman back at himself as a mark of sad irony—an irony that approaches absurdity when we remember that just a few years later, the Bard debuted on screen in a Levi’s ad of all places, his crackly, prophetic voice reading “America,” a voiceover for a fantasia of stylized industrial decay designed to sell sturdy duds.
As the symbolic force of Whitman’s reputation lasts into the twenty-first century, he remains largely trapped in this role—a kind of sad prophet pitched between elegy and utopia. But however compelling in its drama, however generative in its pathos, this narrative cannot contain Whitman. There must be new ways to conceive of Whitman’s lateness—a word I use to move from concrete concerns of age to a more abstract sense of lasting and duration as his reputation persists (ages, one could say) across the twentieth century and beyond. The point is not to abandon elegy for utopia. Too many poems have gone this route, losing themselves in a haze of Whitmanian potential, whether political or ecstatic. Whitman cannot save us; Whitman cannot be our hope. This is clear enough in Palmer’s missive. But an honest re-reading of his late work shows how strained and damaged Whitman understood his own vision to be. Such an understanding brings Whitman closer, makes him a partner in our loss rather than a stranger to it. What would it mean to think of Whitman as a poet whose bolder chants of democracy fail to suppress the disenchantment of political failure that pulses, in subtle counterpoint, underneath so much of his writing? This would be a poet freed from his perpetual role as a lost best hope for American poetry; a poet seen not as lost but transformed; a poet not of enabling affirmation, but of disability, and the difficult knowledge of crisis, even if that knowledge is compacted in the alternately unassuming and obscure forms that his late work takes.
At the start of the twenty-first century, a new story has begun to emerge, a story that asks us to take Whitman’s damaged vista as our own. This story does not come from a new generation of poets, intent on claiming a Whitman of their own, but from our old poets, some of them recently lost to us. One could turn to Robert Creeley, whose posthumously published On Earth contains the luminous essay “Reflections on Whitman in Age,” and whose own late work reflects many facets of Whitman’s lateness. Or we could revisit Barbara Guest, whose final book, The Red Gaze, contains a subtly Whitmanian lyric called “Burst of Leaves,” which fights its way out of a more hopelessly elegiac orientation toward a more engaged response willing to inhabit overlooked Whitmanian energies. “Perhaps you are hiding, perhaps you have decided not to reveal / your singular presence,” she laments, singing that familiar song of loss. What would seem a poem conceding to this defeat and distance, however, makes a crucial turn as Guest, in her own late work, demands something more, something truer, even if she doesn’t define what that something is: “We are ready for a new orientation,” she concludes.
Leaving Creeley and Guest on this suggestive note, I want to take a closer look at the recent work of C. K. Williams, a poet who boldly accepts Guest’s invitation, even as he comes dangerously close to foreclosing on its rare potential. Williams answers this call in the form of two books, released as unintended companion volumes in spring 2010: On Whitman, a brief pocket-book of prose appearing in Princeton’s Writers on Writers series, and his most recent collection, Wait, from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Both volumes come on the heels of his Collected Poems (2006), a tome that had threatened—prematurely, we now see—to define his career.
Responses to C. K. Williams’s significant oeuvre, as represented in his Collected, have begun, predictably, to track the antinomies of authorial late style: on the one hand, an unreserved praise testifying to the rarity and preeminence of the Great Man; on the other, a less sanguine account that judges the late work through the prism of all prior accomplishment, and finds that work necessarily frail, sentimental, and giving off some unmistakable mustiness.
Take two prominent reviews of his Collected Poems. Peter Campion, writing for The Boston Globe, plays the durable, if redundant, role of kingmaker to the king. For Campion, Williams—winner of numerous awards, including a Pulitzer, a National Book Award, a Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and about a dozen other high honors—has set a “new standard for American poetry,” has become a “representative consciousness.” Though I cannot know for sure what he intends such a phrase to suggest, it reminds me of William Stafford’s famous and contentious line from “Traveling through the Dark,” a line often derided for presuming a kind of colonizing poetic consciousness: “I thought hard for us all.” Campion’s identification of such a representative consciousness in Williams misses the mark. I’m reminded of D. H. Lawrence writing brilliantly in his Studies in Classic American Literature (1923) on the dangers of such representativeness in Whitman’s work. He begins by quoting Whitman in caps: “I AM HE THAT ACHES WITH AMOROUS LOVE.” Lawrence will have none of it:
Walter, leave off. You are not HE. You are just a limited Walter. And your ache doesn’t include all Amorous Love, by any means. If you ache you only ache with a small bit of amorous love, and there’s so much more stays outside the cover of your ache, that you might be a bit milder about it.
Williams, it seems to me, never attempts such a representative consciousness. His poetry constantly, even obsessively, reflects his own limited Walter. When Williams does approach something like a representative consciousness, he suspects his own motives. Indeed, he is one of our most recursive and self-consciously thoughtful poets, continually snagging his cuffs on his own poeticisms.
Where Campion elevates Williams to a rarified late-style grandeur, Dan Chiasson, writing for The New York Times, is quick to ground our enthusiasm. “The contest between comfort and distress,” Chiasson writes with an eye to the latest work, “feels rigged for comfort. . . . Williams is now too susceptible to the consolations he once spurned; the poems are narrow at the base and wide at the top. They tip from too much sentiment. His subjects have lost their precise force; he now just cues up the child poem, the war poem, the street person poem, and rears back in admiration.”
I feel sure that both of these poet-critics have read Williams more widely than I have, and for longer than I have. Why, then, are their approaches to Williams so predictable, so oddly unimaginative? There are many ways to alternately value or eviscerate a poet’s accumulated work, and I choose not to position myself between these polar readings of Williams’s career. Both seem constrained by worn narratives of growth and development, of lessons learned for Campion; for Chiasson, forgotten. I take Williams’s two new efforts as an invitation to move beyond these more generic career résumés. However partial the vista it affords, I want to approach Williams’s work more narrowly through his engagement with Walt Whitman—specifically late Whitman. In On Whitman and Wait, we witness two competing intelligences: a prose intelligence that works through recollection and remembrance, recreating the formative Whitman of Williams’s early career; and a poetic intelligence that more quietly forges an authentic late-Whitmanian presence for Williams’s compositional present.
Williams parcels out On Whitman into over two dozen small chapters, most with succinct chapter titles coded to Whitmanian keywords: there’s a chapter on “I” and “You”; chapters on “America,” “Imagination,” “Vision,” “Sex,” and “Nature”; we have “The Voice” and “The Body.” If these signposts bear a recognizable significance for most readers of Whitman, the chapters themselves often surprise with genuinely fresh insights. In the chapter with the shortest title, for example—“I”—Williams explores a deep affinity between Whitman and the seventh-century Greek poet Archilochos, bringing us to the very roots of lyric. In “Sex,” he offers a familiar glimpse of Whitman presiding over the ’60s, but manages to express the exuberance of the moment without overly glamorizing it: “sadly,” he writes of the often illusory freedom that saturated the times, “it didn’t, couldn’t, fundamentally change our anxieties, our propensity for aggression, our basic instinctual conflicts.” And yet there is something to be said, Williams tells us, for the way Whitman casts off centuries-old repressions, the way he eroticizes not only sex, but all of creation.
Here and elsewhere, On Whitman exceeds the standard stuff of poet-prose, which can dwell too often in mere enthusiasm for— rather than true amplification of—its subject. No one has written so suggestively, for example, of Whitman’s connection to Charles Baudelaire. Williams scrupulously documents their affinities: born just a few years apart, they both compiled their most important work in the mid-1850s, with Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal coming out two years after the first edition of Leaves. Both of their books prompted accusations of indecency and obscenity. Both men were flâneurs in their own way, city walkers wed to metropolitan centers—Paris and New York—that were in the throes of rapid industrial, architectural, and cultural change. Both were poets of love at last sight, of fleetingness and fading impressions. Both wrote of death and evil, of ruins and prostitutes. Williams enumerates and explores these connections with a critic’s assured knowledge and a poet’s knowing intimacy. Noting how both poets strove “to find new routes through the deterministic logics of mind and self that had come before,” he casts Whitman as the “creator of something entirely new, not only like Baudelaire in its matter, but in its utterance, its very shape: he created a new form to enact and encompass the world as he passionately wished it to be.” The subsequent chapter on Hugo and Longfellow, which might seem a strange aside, only deepens the Whitman-Baudelaire connection by annotating their struggles against poetic counterparts who had more fame, more money, and more cultural cachet.
Williams is a passionate close-reader of Whitman’s work, drawn foremost to what he calls, in the book’s first chapter, “The Music.” “It’s essential to keep in mind,” Williams writes,
that in poetry the music comes first, before everything else, everything else: until the poem has found its music, it’s merely verbal matter, information. Thought, meaning, vision, the very words, come after the music has been established, and in the most mysterious ways they’re already contained in it.
Williams aptly captures the unpredictable, yet somehow precise, music that Whitman’s lines often produce, and he has a supreme sense of the contrastive surprise that accompanies the accrued music of Whitman’s catalogs. If he is at times overly exuberant, that merely reflects the degree to which On Whitman is a book that looks back, unembarrassed, to the energy of his own early encounters with the poet, and also to the miraculous birth of Whitman’s poetic presence, coming, as he seemed to, out of nowhere and everywhere at once in 1855.
This emphasis on a Whitman in the full flush of health inspires and enables many of Williams’s keenest observations. But it also sponsors the study’s neglect of Whitman in age. It’s not that Williams fails to attend to Whitman in his lateness; he won’t give the old bard a break.
Discussing the endless revisions of Leaves that didn’t cease until the Deathbed edition of 1892, Williams writes that Whitman “continued to put it through his mill long after his poetic powers had deteriorated. This is a sad thing to say about any artist, but a side-by-side reading of the different versions makes it undeniable.” This staid narrative of decline is too common in Whitman criticism. Though Williams dutifully registers his respect for Whitman’s stoicism in the face of his increasingly feeble music, he largely sponsors the received account:
even when some twenty years or so later he realized it had left him, had left him even years before that, he expressed no great grief, though he surely had no inkling during those early blazing years that it ever might wane. But, sadly, at some point, it did go bad for him. He lost the connection to his music, not knowing at first hand that he had. Trying to keep it going, after the 1860s, into the ’70s and ’80s, he kept making new poems, but his locutions become odd and awkward, his rhythms uncertain, his diction sometimes almost primitive.
Whitman, to Williams’s deep dismay, resorted to an “endless tinkering” which inevitably “untuned the original power of his symphony.” Trying to guess at the roots of Whitman’s failure, Williams asserts that “he was having fatal trouble sounding like himself, the poet he had been, whose music was diluted now, and weary, maybe because his body itself had begun to be prematurely sick and weary and old.”
Can’t Whitman be allowed to evolve? Mustn’t he? Isn’t harboring a fatal fear of sounding like oneself the mark of any great poet? Shouldn’t Whitman’s music be allowed to change with the debilities of age? And also with the evolving political and cultural crises of post-war America as Lincoln’s grave sacrifice gave way to the failure of Reconstruction, to the rampant corporate greed of the Gilded Age, to the annihilation of space and the tyranny of time as the railroads carved up the countryside and portioned out the day? Deciphering Whitman’s late work requires that we seek to understand precisely how it tracks the decay of both his body and his dream for America. Yes, his late work can seem odd and uncertain, cragged and conflicted, even as it continues to echo some former glory and accomplishment. This remains the essential, contrastive drama of late Whitman, and it gives rise to a strange, difficult, and discomfiting music with a strong critical undertow for those prepared to hear and explore it.
When Williams turns to Whitman’s prose, he comes much closer to recognizing an ideologically complex Whitman. He quotes at length from Democratic Vistas (1871), where Whitman betrays the shadow side of his exuberant poetic optimism: “Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present. . . . We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout.” He laments the “depravity of the business classes,” the “corruption, bribery, falsehood, mal-administrating” that saturate public life. After giving voice to this other side of Whitman, Williams notes in a parenthetical aside how similar this sounds to “what we’ve come to know, politics by party, politics as power.” And then, in a crucial insight, Williams asserts: “He already knew the loss.”
These are the five truest words in On Whitman, perhaps the truest, most necessary words we could say of Whitman today. But Williams abruptly backs away, beating a retreat to the poetry, to the early Leaves of Grass, which he calls “a hymn of praise to the nation, to its people, its land, its nature, its animals.” Over this symphony of optimism orchestrated by (in Williams’s phrase) a “stunningly successful, hardly ever flagging poetical-fictional colossus,” it is difficult indeed to hear the muted strains of Whitman’s lateness.
Williams’s blindness to Whitman’s lateness and all it signifies has its roots not in any disrespect for age or fear of death, but in a profound underestimation of Whitman’s music. Reflecting on Whitman’s teasing question from “Song of Myself”—where he asks the reader: “Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?”—Williams offers this stunning claim:
What’s striking is that there are no ‘depths’ in Whitman, no secrets, no allegories, no symbols in the sense of one thing standing for another, an aspect of matter standing for an element of spirit. Everything in Whitman’s poems is brought to the surface, everything is articulated, made as clear and vivid and in a way as uninterpretable as it can be.
But this seeming tyranny of the ostensible only represents one of Whitman’s many changes of garments. What of the Whitman who writes, in the Preface to Leaves, of the essential poetic qualities of indirection and suggestiveness? The one who writes in “Among the Multitudes” of some far-off reader “picking me out by secret and divine signs . . . / that one knows me,” Whitman declares, before switching to a more direct address: “I meant that you should discover me so by faint indirections.” Whitman, we also recall, was something of an amateur Egyptologist, obsessed with hieroglyphics and their hidden portents. And wasn’t Williams himself utterly convincing when he substituted Whitman for the deeply allegorical Poe, the American poet most often compared to Baudelaire? Whitman felt his late work had plenty of secrets in store.
To be sure, Whitman worried over the status and significance of his late works, asking himself, in the preface to Good-Bye My Fancy, whether he had “not better withhold (in this old age and paralysis of me) such little tags and fringe-dots (maybe specks, stains)?” In a brief note published in Lippincott’s Magazine around the time he released Good-Bye My Fancy, however, Whitman answers his own hesitation in a pointedly distancing third-person voice, declaring that “the book is garrulous, irascible (like old Lear) and has various breaks and even tricks to avoid monotony. It will have to be ciphered and ciphered out long—and is probably in some respects the most curious part of its author’s baffling works.” That ciphering should now begin.
Helen Vendler, who reviewed On Whitman for The New York Times, is less responsive than I am to Williams’s insights, calling the chapter on Baudelaire, for example, more of an interruption than an intensification. She also regrets much of his brash enthusiasm for Whitman as a ’60s icon. While I clearly don’t everywhere agree with Vendler, we share a sense that Williams’s emphasis on a kind of cult of Whitmanian youth distracts from what could be a fuller understanding of Whitman’s lateness. “I do wish,” Vendler concludes, “that he had made more room for the old Whitman, lonely, lingering, as he leaves friends in ‘After the Supper and Talk,’ reluctantly descending the steps, but still talking, ‘garrulous to the very last.’” I agree completely.
Williams can be a learned, enthusiastic critic, whatever his oversights. But he’s a poet at the core. If On Whitman repeatedly dismisses Whitman’s lateness, his most recent collection of poems, Wait, stands out for its quiet admission of late Whitman’s more complex, conflicted, and insinuating music.
It’s not that Whitman saturates the book by any means. Wait remains an accomplished, loosely organized, diverse inventory of love lyrics and war lyrics; poems of identity, death, and nature; and meditations on ethics and aesthetics. The collection has its lesser moments. “Still, Again: Martin Luther King, April 4, 2008,” for example, shows Williams stretching for social commentary. He envisions a visit from the civil rights leader who descends “On something like a plane” and motors around “in something like a taxi.” The meditation on the state of things in America that follows—overcrowded jails, rampant homelessness, AIDS babies—takes on a certain gravity, but ultimately seems forced through the poem’s awkward framing device. Many poems here, however, are brilliant and funny: “We” meditates self-deprecatingly on the bulging balls of a bulldog. And others are brilliant and devastating: “Shrapnel” works as an exploration of war and violence, both historical and contemporary, and its numbed conclusion—“One war passes into the next. One wound is the next and the next. Something howls. Something cries”—resonates with profound and injured significance. But what finally gives the collection a more durable significance are the late-Whitmanian moments scattered about in these poems.
Wait begins with a subtly Whitmanian lyric, “The Gaffe,” a poem that opens onto a Whitman mostly absent from Williams’s prose reflections. The poem begins in a convoluted, long-lined stream of purposefully vague pronouns and veiled references: “If that someone who’s me yet not me yet who judges me is always with me, as he is, shouldn’t he have been there when I said so long ago that thing I said?” The line powerfully recalls Whitman’s self-interrogation in “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life.” In that early pre-war poem of crisis, Whitman introduces a similar phantom self, what he calls his “real Me”:
But that before all my arrogant poems the real Me stands yet untouch’d, untold, altogether unreach’d,
Withdrawn far, mocking me with mock-congratulatory signs and bows,
With peals of distant ironical laughter at every word I have written. . . .
For Williams, this is the “conscience beast,” that entity within who draws “from infinitesimal transgression complex chords of remorse” and “orchestrate[s] ever-undiminishing retribution from the hapless rest of myself.” Whitman is similarly divided between the bard singing the song of himself, and what Williams here strikingly calls that “hapless rest of myself,” that self-interrogating presence, always lurking. While Whitman would seem to escape this phantom presence in “As I Ebb’d,” resolving crisis into recovery, a deeper engagement with Whitman’s late work shows that he never fully exorcizes this interrogator. Williams can’t either. “The Gaffe” is a threshold poem, a beautiful poem about childhood and lost innocence; it can also in this context be seen as an invitation to seek out a different Whitman, a Whitman who already knew the loss, understood it could not simply be transcended.
Admittedly a subtle presence in “The Gaffe,” this more conflicted late Whitman becomes the explicit centerpiece of “United States,” a finely orchestrated allegory that brings us as close to Whitman’s lateness as any poem could.
The poem begins with an image rife with the ironies of globalization and empire:
The rusting, decomposing hulk of the United States
is moored across Columbus Boulevard from Ikea,
rearing weirdly over the old municipal pier
on the mostly derelict docks in Philadelphia.
Here we are in Philadelphia, the birthplace of the American republic, marked not by Independence Hall, but by so many derelict docks. Columbus is there too, a reminder that the ideals of the republic were erected on a slippery slope where discovery quickly ceded to displacement and genocide.
The presence of the SS United States nearly buckles under its own allegorical weight. Built in 1952 as a joint venture between private interests and the U.S. Government, the ship was an intentional marker of America’s power, both in terms of material wealth and military might: it was a luxury leisure liner, but also a ready conveyance for American troops should another world war break out. And it was fast. It broke the transatlantic-crossing speed record on its first voyage, and then again on its way back. The ship dominated the seas until 1969, when its fate became more muddled. As the ship aged, it was passed back and forth between various private interests. Nobody seemed to have any idea what, profitably, to make of the thing. It was shipped to Ukraine for asbestos removal, picked up by the Norwegians for a brief period, and later tied up in an unlikely time-share cruise concept. The U.S. Navy considered commissioning it as a hospital ship, but nothing came of it. The United States has sat strapped to those derelict Philadelphia docks since 1996 in the shadow of a Swedish megastore. This is all to say that Williams’s “weirdly” in the first stanza doesn’t quite do the ship’s rusting, decomposing presence justice.
Midway through the poem, Williams fills out this already freighted allegory. We move from the poem’s present to a moment of recollection as Williams tells the story of his first transatlantic crossing aboard that very ship: “We were told we were the fastest thing afloat,” Williams wistfully recalls, “and we surely were.” He describes the ship pulling into port in northern France—not far from the beaches of Normandy:
At Le Havre we were out of scale with everything;
when a swarm of tiny tugs nudged like piglets
at the teat, the towering mass of us in place
all the continent of Europe looked small.
Breaking away from this allegory of America’s ascendency, the third-to- last stanza brings us back to that initial, ruinous image:
Now, behind its raveling chain-link fence,
the ship’s a somnolent carcass, cables lashed
like Lilliputian leashes to its prow,
its once pure paint discoloring to blood.
“Lilliputian”: the nod to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels smartly binds the poem to a broader tradition of allegory. It’s a knowing move. Coleridge—cribbing, as he so often would, from Goethe—famously elevated symbol above allegory, just as the Romantics in general elevated the organic, unifying, mystical and intuitive force of the imagination over the more mundane machinations of fancy. Symbols were thought to embody universal principles; allegories merely pointed to them. Symbols were divine; allegories, didactic. Early in the twentieth century, Walter Benjamin, without fundamentally altering the Romantic conception of symbol and allegory, reversed the typical valuation of their relative merits. He recognized allegory for its seemingly self-interrogating qualities, its survival as a failed symbol—a symbol, to borrow one of his favorite metaphors, in ruins. “Allegories are in the realm of thoughts,” he writes, “what ruins are in the realm of things.” In “United States,” Williams’s allegory endures as a symbol in ruins, the aging, we might say, of some symbolic force.
Just as Williams underscores his poem’s allegorical aspirations, a decidedly late Whitman enters the poem in the last two stanzas to further complicate and amplify the poem’s conceit:
Upstream, the shells of long-abandoned factories
crouch for miles beneath the interstate;
the other way the bridge named after Whitman
hums with traffic towards the suburbs past his grave;
and “America’s mighty flagship” waits here,
to be auctioned I suppose, stripped of anything
it might still have of worth, and towed away
and torched to pieces on a beach in Bangladesh.
Whitman is more than just another convenient landmark for this allegory about globalization, about how we value the past, about the decay of the American dream. Whitman himself was docked for the final years of his life in Camden, across the river from Philadelphia. At times, he saw his own life and work, his own body, as a kind of relic, a ruin. Presiding over the letters and poems that littered the floor of his bedroom late in life, Whitman confided to his close friend and disciple Horace Traubel, “I live here in a ruin of debris—a ruin of ruins.” Those words from Williams’s prose volume—those five truest words—come back to my mind: “He already knew the loss.”
And he did. Nautical images suffuse Whitman’s work, forming a kind of composite allegory dispersed among otherwise unrelated poems. In many poems, the ship takes on the political metaphor of the ship of state—an image that recurs in such poems as “O Captain! My Captain” and “Aboard at a Ship’s Helm.” In these poems, Whitman unfurls the metaphor to embody leadership and control. This nautical resonance coexists with the existential metaphor of the ship of life—an image, apparent in such poems as “Old Age’s Ship and Crafty Death’s” and “Passage to India,” that figures life’s end as a final voyage, a departure from what would seem the concerns of state: “a passage,” he writes, “to more than India.” But no nautical poem in Whitman’s oeuvre seems as relevant to Williams’s “United States” as “The Dismantled Ship,” one of Whitman’s routinely dismissed late efforts. In this poem, Whitman speaks to the ruin of both the political journey he has advocated, and the existential journey that is coming to a close. The poem eschews typical Whitmanian rhetorical framing, as though it was wrenched out of some sad catalog, the rest of which has gone missing. The dual nautical metaphors of state and life here age into a mournful allegorical stasis:
In some unused lagoon, some nameless bay,
On sluggish, lonesome waters, anchor’d near the shore,
An old, dismasted, gray and batter’d ship, disabled, done,
After free voyages to all the seas of the earth, haul’d up at last and hawser’d tight,
Lies rusting, moldering.
The formal control is remarkable. The smooth iambs of the first three lines—growing from pentameter to hexameter to an epic fourteener—seem almost unrecognizable at first. As Whitman’s fourteener draws to a close, the fourth line summons the lost idea of those “free voyages” in a looser free-verse flow, signaling, we want to think, something like freedom. It turns out to be a specious formal departure, however, as the rhythm is again battened down in the end by a curt train of iambs: “haul’d UP at LAST and HAWser’d TIGHT.” Whitman had already invented Williams’s allegory of the dismantled ship of state and life that—in words accentuated by what is perhaps the most meaningful line breaks in Whitman’s poetry— “lies rusting, moldering,” like the United States lashed to the derelict docks in Philadelphia.
He already knew the loss.
Williams is not our most Whitmanian poet despite the long lines that tempt people to make the connection. But he is utterly alive, in certain poems, to the difficult energies of Whitman’s lateness. We have much to learn from this Whitman about how to read the virtues of lateness and transformation, how poetic tricks and tropes age across a poet’s work, and how a poet in age, just when his powers might seem to flag, becomes not worse, not lesser, but something else entirely. Whitman knew this something else well. “To get the final lilt of songs . . . To diagnose the shifting-delicate tints of love and pride and doubt,” Whitman writes in one of his very late poems, the “keen faculty and entrance price” is “Old age” itself.
Anton Vander Zee is completing his PhD at Stanford University and teaches at the
College of Charleston. He has published on poets from John Milton
to Wallace Stevens and beyond, and is the editor, with Emily Rosko, of an edited collection—A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line—forthcoming
from University of Iowa Press in spring 2011. (10/2010)