Sunday, November 15th, 2009 | Author:

Oh, Walt.

We’re pretty much at the final stretch for this class, and having dealt with his death (where I was a very weepy individual), it seems appropriate that we now look at what Whitman has left us. Or, to be more specific, I suppose, what the world has done with Whitman now that we only have his poetry to guide us.

We claim Whitman as the American poet, but interestingly enough, I don’t really know if he can take only that title.  I think that Whitman has established World Status. Our readings alone stretch his influence across oceans, and that’s not even a small part of those who have taken Leaves and made it part of themselves.  The poet of our Nation has created other poets of Nations; Guo Moruo, for instance, was heavily influenced by the few translations he managed to get and has become one of the more influential poets in China. Moruo often responds to the idea of democracy and a revolution against traditionalism (much like Whitman’s rejection of classicism).

Take a look at a couple of these stanzas from the prefatory poem in Moruo’s The Goddesses:

I am a proletarian

Because except for my naked self, I possess nothing else.

The Goddesses is my own creation,

And may be said to be my private property,

Yet I want to be a communist,

Therefore I make her public to all.


Go and find the one with the same vibrations as me,

Go and find the one with as may kindling points as myself.

Go and strike the heartstrings

In the breasts of the dear young brothers and sister,

And kindle the light of their wisdom!

Thematically, I can see Leaves resonating here. Moruo’s individualism stands out, with stark images such as “my naked self,” and the numerous uses of a possessive pronoun and “I.” The pride of his individualism is also present in the second stanza; although I’m still working out what “same vibrations” is, Whitman could easily have written these same words about himself, proclaiming the divinity of his poesy prophecy. Yet Moruo also rebels against individualism, his sense of unity is displayed in his desires to “make (Goddesses) public to all” and by placing both “brothers and sisters” in the same line, neither above the other. This line also makes Moruo a teacher in the sense that Whitman is; both seek to teach their political stances and ideals through poetry, uniting men and women through education.

Structurally, the two are similar as well; note the exclamation marks and the repetition of “Go,” which I think serves to reinforce the poet’s many points and the length of the journey one might have to go to find someone such as the poet. The fact that the last line never quite ends may imply that such a quest is also never ending. Because Moruo and others embraced Whitman so completely, Whitman has become one of the influential Western poets and one of the most studied. This is not to say that the Chinese completely look away from traditionalism; Whitman is also one of the most controversial Western poets because of his radical Western ideals.

I think that Whitman’s world influence is something that he would have been proud of. I mean, look at this stanza from “Salut Au Monde!”:

Within me latitude widens, longitude lengthens,

Asia, Africa, Europe, are to the east—America is provided for in
the west,
Banding the bulge of the earth winds the hot equator,
Curiously north and south turn the axis-ends,
Within me is the longest day, the sun wheels in slanting rings, it
does not set for months,
Stretch’d in due time within me the midnight sun just rises above
the horizon and sinks again,
Within me zones, seas, cataracts, forests, volcanoes, groups,

Malaysia, Polynesia, and the great West Indian islands.

Yes, Whitman was a proponent of manifest destiny, and these lines definitely speak to the that. But that imperialism also applies to his words and ideas; Whitman knows that he will stretch across the map and infect every nation. As for his canonical status, that’s something else I think he may have appreciated; it provides the chance for the ideas of Leaves to spread to even more individuals, educated or not. What’s important about it though, is that those who are studying it pay attention to those ideals and learn from them, rather than merely sucking in his words and ignoring their purpose. Whitman, I am glad you never went to high school with me.

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  1. Avatar of tallersam tallersam says:

    One of the articles assigned this week mentioned how Whitman can be turned into a symbol of the ‘working man,’ which works perfectly for Communism. I’m not sure how Whitman’s call for individual accomplishment gells with Marxism though. I mean, and I think your Guo Moruo passage conveys Whitman’s idea very well. The more I read it, the more I see Whitman and ‘Leave of Grass’ in it. Both see themselves as a locus through which people can connect with each other in ways that would have been impossible otherwise.
    However, there’s the paradox of Whitman calling for unity while, at the same time, he calls for people to surpass him however they may. I think that removing that call for individuality is akin to avoiding mention of Whitman’s sexuality: it doesn’t give us the full picture. Would Whitman be happy that his words are inspiring people on the other side of the world, more than one hundred years after his death? Of course! Would Whitman be a Communist? I’m not so sure.

  2. I agree with you; I can’t see Whitman as a communist. He’s too fond of the individualism which he believes makes up America and himself, for that matter. I’ve also read criticism that maintains that Whitman failed to reach the working class the way he wanted to be and maybe that individualism is why. This is the point, I think, where the poets diverge: Whitman remains the poet of America and capitalism, and Moruo, China and communism. However, I do think that the core belief of individuals maintaining equality and working for the common good of the country would appeal to him, if nothing else.

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