Whitman and Poetry as a Social Act

2 10 2009

              TO YOU.

STRANGER, if you passing meet me and desire to speak to me, why
     should you not speak to me?
And why should I not speak to you?

~Walt Whitman
Leaves of Grass

I’m not Walt Whitman’s biggest fan. I’m probably going to get hate-mail from America now, but that’s the truth. I think he’s tediously self important, quite frankly. But this detriment in my mind is also the key to his power as a poet. There’s a sense of enormity in his voice, a sense of a world imagination that encompasses everything at once, and also all of the tiniest things individually. Each single leaf of grass.

Walt Whitman (not Gandalf)

Walt Whitman (not Gandalf)

What I most like about Whitman is the way his poetry engages with the world. His poems are often addressed to people or to groups, anticipating responses, making defences or suggestions. He is aware of the reader’s presence in the poems, and allows them space, talking directly to them sometimes. He is aware of poetry as a social act.

When a poem is written every word is a decision, and every decision is a social act. When you choose the word man instead of the word person, it has a meaning in society. When you write a poem about a war, it enters into the public discourse about war, and about poetry, and about poetry and war. Whitman was aware that the social act of poetry meant that he could not be solely in control of the meaning of the poem. Why should the reader not speak to him, and him to them? Why should the poem not be a place of dialogue where the writer and the reader collaborate on the meaning of the poem?