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Whitman and Stevens:
No Supreme Fiction

JOHN ASHBERY BEGINS one of his most important long poems, “The New Spirit,” with the following lines:

I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.

  clean-washed sea

        The flowers were.

These are examples of leaving out. But, forget as we will, something soon comes to stand in their place. Not the truth, perhaps, but—yourself. It is you who made this, therefore you are true. But the truth has passed on

      to divide all.


In this passage, Ashbery portrays a fundamental indecision about how to approach his own writing process. He considers an inclusive approach to experience, to “put it all down,” as one viable way forward, but with characteristic ambivalence he is divided by the notion that to “leave all out” might be a “truer” way. It is important to note that for Ashbery leaving “all out” does not mean limiting his palette of poetic expression; rather, “to leave all out” means leaving out lived experience, even if such experience is of his own wayward thoughts, transcribed with minimal editing.1 Ashbery rejects the idea of leaving “all out,” but to do so he must find a new way to “put it all down.” Three Poems is many things, and this opening frames the poet’s thinking as, critically, a record of his struggle between the attraction of a “pure” poetry of linguistic creation (expression of the potentialities of language itself) and the desire to record his own specific existence, to “put it all down” (applying language to the service of representing a personal expression of one’s life).

Ashbery’s solution is to “put it all down” by redefining lived experience as the texture of the mind in motion, not excluding traditional avenues of [End Page 34] poetic expression vis-à-vis memory or passionate feeling (including his experience of romantic love with his partner, David Kermani, to whom the book is dedicated), but not limiting himself to them either, and to express “it all” in the present tense as a dramatic enactment of experiment, rejection, and discovery. All poets, including Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens, face a similar choice in terms of poetic representation and subject matter, even if few pose the question so explicitly as Ashbery does in “The New Spirit.” For Whitman, it seems to have been hardly a question at all. From the moment he conceived of Leaves of Grass in 1853 or 1854,2 his artistic instinct was to “put it all down,” and, unlike his health, his inclusive spirit never flagged. But is it viable to describe Stevens as a poet who “leave[s] all out” as opposed to Whitman’s maximalist ambitions? If we acknowledge that no poet can leave all out (as Ashbery himself recognizes) and that the difference is inevitably a matter of degrees rather than absolutes, then the answer would seem to be yes. Like Whitman and Ashbery, Stevens evokes a lush profusion of diction and imagery, but unlike either, his frame of signification is remarkably focused. We can almost imagine it is Stevens, and not Ashbery, who at one point in “The New Spirit” argues,

Because life is short We must remember to keep asking it the same question Until the repeated question and the same silence become answer. . . .


This is just one of many similarly authoritative assertions that Ashbery plays with and moves on from, but Stevens’ commitment to asking life “the same question” (or, more accurately, variations of related questions) regarding the relation between imagination and reality is notably persistent. In other words, while Whitman was inclusive both in his poetic tools and the subjects they operated upon, Stevens was committed to a poetics that explores the creative tension between an expansive palette in terms of artistic surface and a restrictive subject matter in terms of ideas and themes.

This difference between Whitman and Stevens is crucial, and we shall return to it. We must also, however, recognize that a similar choice faces critics and scholars attempting to relate the work of poets: we can either try to “put it all down” in terms of what we can know, through evidence, about the poets’ connections, or we can “leave all out” and construct a relationship based on our speculative ideas. For Ashbery, the “all” refers to thoughts, memories, and emotions that reflect the particulars of his personal experience of life. For the reader determined to understand how two poets relate, the “all” in this analogy refers ultimately to the textual evidence that reflects the poets’ lives and understandings back to us, including [End Page 35] poems of course, but also letters, prose writings, interviews, and (especially important in the case of Whitman) personal notes and journal entries.3 We can attempt to “put it all down” in a search to come as close as we can to a historical understanding, or we can “leave all out” and forge a connection from ideas and theories with little or no relation to one poet’s documented relation to another. There is, I suppose, a third option (which is ultimately another way of leaving out): we can render the terms of documentation to be so general and elastic as to accommodate any artistic pairing we desire.

I realize that most of us inevitably find a compromise between evidence-based and speculative or theory-driven criticism. As my phrasing and framework here so far probably suggest, I find more value when hewing closer to the first of these approaches. Without significant and responsible use of textual evidence, the intellectual handiwork of yoking two poets as an elaboration of a theory or a comparison based on loosely defined “parallels” (similarities in their poetry that are often so general or ambiguous they could apply to any number of poets) feels for this reader like too much of a mere exercise to generate excitement. I find the greater reward in criticism that responsibly engages in what documentary evidence is available, and, if plausible, interprets a relationship with this textual basis in mind. So in preparing for the 2015 MLA panel on Whitman and Stevens that launched this special issue, I began with the same approach I had employed in previous attempts to relate Whitman to other major poets: I sought all of the textual evidence that directly relates them and all of the moments in Stevens that explicitly refer to or allude to Whitman or his writing.4 To help me find this evidence and to understand how it has been used, I began by orienting myself with the scholarship that directly connects them.

Anyone doing so necessarily confronts two related sources: Diane Middlebrook’s 1974 monograph, Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens, and a profusion of rather consistent commentary on Whitman and Stevens made by Harold Bloom throughout his career. There are some other sources, including an early 1962 essay by Joseph N. Riddel, a section on Whitman (relating him to Stevens) in a 1965 study by Denis Donoghue,5 a study of Whitman, Stevens, and W. S. Merwin by Thomas B. Byers, and most recently, a more persuasive study by Mark Noble exploring how Whitman and Stevens negotiate their interests in what Noble calls “poetic materialism,” stressing the complex implications of poets rethinking human identity and being in material terms. Many critics have offered brief remarks associating these two essential American poets, and there are quite a few scattered references that casually link them in broad critical overviews. In terms of focused studies, however, the number is surprisingly small. Of these, by far the most frequently cited and remarked upon are Middlebrook and Bloom. Having read enough of Bloom to know to look elsewhere, I turned to Middlebrook for an overview of known remarks or [End Page 36] publications by Stevens relating him to Whitman and was rather shocked to find so few instances. Further research indicated this textual record boils down to two remarks in letters (a very brief remark dismissing Whitman as a “poseur” [L 414] and another that is more substantial), a passing reference in his essay “Effects of Analogy,” and, of course, Stevens’ odd portrayal of Whitman in the opening of his odiously titled and rather diffuse long poem “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery,” of which I was already aware.

I had assumed the critical record connecting Whitman and Stevens would be more substantial. The idea of a relationship between them seemed rather uncontroversial, even if I had little idea about the specifics. The MLA panel itself, entitled simply “Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens,” was a gesture affirming a critical link, and the other participants in this lively session seemed comfortable and confident connecting the two writers. Reviewing the evidence while I prepared, I found myself left with questions. Given the clear differences between them, whether in terms of their poetic styles, conceptions of form, notions of relevant content, politics, or personal dispositions, why does linking them come so naturally? Is there more connecting them than has been recognized so far? What evidence had previous critics used to link them, and how meaningful were these connections, especially given Stevens’ lukewarm (at best) public comments on Whitman and his almost comically absurd portrayal of him in “Decorations,” asbestos-chinned with his “beard . . . of fire” and transformed, seemingly, into a fantastical wizard carrying a “staff” that is “a leaping flame” (CPP 121)?6

Diane Middlebrook’s Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens did little to clarify things. Middlebrook admits almost immediately that “though Whitman and Stevens shared a nationality, they shared little else as private citizens; politically, socially, and temperamentally they were too different to measure in terms of one another” (16). She also stresses that her “discussion is not based on an idea of influence. The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens shows little trace of Whitman where we might look for him, in Stevens’ diction or in his use of the line or in his sense of himself as bardic narrator” (19). Nevertheless, she adds that “As writers, however, they made analogous contributions to American literature and to modern poetry” (16). Pivoting on the ambiguous claim that their work is “analogous,” a term inviting generalized associations and speculative comparisons, Middlebrook builds a book out of this “however.” The analogies she draws rely upon the premise that both poets wrote “a mythology of imagination. Mythology, because for each poet the heroic ‘I’ was a fictive being, one who magnificently transcended the ‘malady of the quotidian’ . . . and fully expressed the poet, but only during rare moments of vision. Mythology of imagination, because the very design of this fictive self derives from Coleridgean ideas about the mind” (18–19). [End Page 37]

Even ignoring that Middlebrook was writing during a very different era, when essentially New Critical ideas about the persistence of “the romantic tradition” still held considerable currency, Middlebrook’s characterization of Whitman is at best counterintuitive and at worst implausible. Whitman’s notion of self is famously complex and does contain fictive elements, but she simply ignores how much more autobiographical Whitman is in his poems, how he tries to “put it all down,” as well as how (diametrically opposed to Stevens) Whitman’s tone and voicing are often intensely personal and intimate. Few of Whitman’s serious readers would agree with her reduction of this self into simply a “fictive being.” Even fewer would agree that Whitman sought to transcend “the quotidian” or that he found the ordinary details of lived experience to be a “malady” (CPP 81). (Whitman of course revels in such details.) Middlebrook was not alone at the time in assuming that Whitman experienced “rare moments of vision,” and it has taken decades to acknowledge that there is no real evidence that the poet had visionary experiences at all, nor did he ever claim to, unless we interpret such a claim from his poems. She was alone, however, in so assiduously and uncritically linking the poet to Coleridge, a poet whose chief utility in her monograph seems to be the ambiguity and adaptability of his terms for the imagination.

I realize it is easy to find fault with studies almost half a century old, and that in doing so our own biases, refractions of our present critical context and historical understanding, may be obscured. So I turned to the reviews of Middlebrook (written closer to context but also before she achieved fame as a biographer) to understand her contemporary reception. Middlebrook does have her defenders. Benjamin T. Spencer’s review in American Literature was quite positive, and Steven Gould Axelrod’s brief review published in Books Abroad was generally enthusiastic, though he does admit to being “worried by a certain lack of vitality in her book—as if her heart was not quite in it” (175). Overall, however, the book was poorly received, and it was fairly well savaged by a few reviewers. David Cavitch describes her criticism as “intellectual abuse” that “disfigures the poetry” when the vague generality of her claims is applied to specific lines, noting that “We are instructed with concepts that apply to half the poems ever written on the theme at hand” (269). He further elaborates that Middlebrook’s “commitment to finding similarities overrides the critical responsibility to see poems and poets also as they exist separately” (269). Terrance J. King, writing in the Walt Whitman Review, is also quite critical, but the harshest review belongs to David H. Hirsch in the Sewanee Review, who criticizes her lack of “discipline and precision” and blames Bloom’s influence, arguing that “It is just this kind of discipline and precision that Middlebrook throws to the winds when she adopts Bloom’s theory of influence” (341). He elaborates on Middlebrook’s “glaring omissions in the scholarship and criticism on both Whitman and Stevens. The operative [End Page 38] principle seems to be that if the thesis is sufficiently eccentric one need not worry about previous scholarship and criticism” (341).

Even Middlebrook herself was quite critical, to the point of being dismissive, of her scholarship in this book. In a recent interview as part of the “How I Write Conversations” series at Stanford (the transcript of which is available online), Middlebrook notes, “my dissertation was a piece of apprentice work; I was learning how to do lots of things. I don’t think it was a very good dissertation—it got me a Ph.D., that’s what it was supposed to do—but as a piece of thinking and writing, it is primitive.” She elaborates upon “a flaw in the conception of the argument, that it never did finally come together: there was one thing and then another thing. The arguments that I made along the way were interesting, but I don’t recommend anyone try to read it.” It is no reflection on Middlebrook’s remarkable career as a best-selling biographer, a poet, and a distinguished professor at Stanford that her first work, which was almost identical to her dissertation, turned out to be juvenilia.

I dwell on this criticism of Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens because, despite its obvious flaws and poor critical reception, its influence lingers, not in a specific way, but as an often unexamined endorsement of the supposed relationship between these two poets. I was one of those so influenced until recently. Although I had not yet read it, I was certainly aware of the book prior to the MLA conference, and I had heard other Whitman scholars and graduate students mention it. When asked about it, Ed Folsom—Whitman scholar and longtime editor of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review and the Iowa Whitman Series, broadly acknowledged as the “Dean of Whitman Studies”—described how “everybody who was interested in the idea of Whitman’s influence on twentieth-century poets certainly encountered Middlebrook. It’s odd how such books gain a foothold. . . . But the effect of such books is to settle in and be quoted and cited to ‘permit’ influence studies that otherwise would seem a stretch.”7 In spite of its flaws and its author’s own low opinion of her argument, Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens has played a significant role in perpetuating the idea of a natural, even inescapable connection between these two great poets.

Perhaps the most important factor uniting Whitman and Stevens is the enthusiasm bestowed mutually upon them by some of their readers. In this regard, one reader stands out even more than Middlebrook. It is, of course, Harold Bloom, who has tirelessly expostulated on the relationships he sees between Whitman and Stevens, and who also directed Middlebrook’s dissertation at Yale. As Middlebrook acknowledges in the previously cited interview, Bloom played a major role in the book’s conception. He had already paved the way with a number of published references to the two poets, the most important of which at the time was probably his 1966 essay “The Central Man: Emerson, Whitman, Wallace Stevens,” which anticipates Middlebrook by linking Whitman and Stevens through what he sees as their shared reliance on the artistic principles of romantic [End Page 39] poetry and philosophy. Here, however, the primary direct channel for these ideas is thought to be Emerson, as opposed to Middlebrook’s choice, Coleridge.8 Bloom interprets Stevens as the dialectical completion of antithetical poles of poetic identity established by Emerson and Whitman (“Central” 36). Early in “The Central Man,” Bloom claims he is not seeking to establish a tradition,9 but it comes as no surprise to learn later that this was false modesty, or at least a merely temporary qualification, for later in the same essay he asserts, “We need to thrust aside utterly, once and for all, the critical absurdities of the Age of Eliot, before we can see again how complex the Romantics were in their passionate ironies, and see fully how overwhelmingly Stevens and Crane are their inheritors and continuators, as they are of Emerson and Whitman as well” (37). It is as if Bloom, even when he professes no desire to define literary lineages, simply cannot help himself in deploying the vocabulary of traditional influence.

Bloom’s passion for a Whitman-Stevens relationship crops up over and over again in his larger body of work, continuing to the present day in his most recent book, The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime (2015). Bloom’s most expansive and important publication documenting the literary pairing he has forged is Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate, where the Whitman connection is everywhere.10 I take it that the terms of Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” argument are familiar enough that they need little elaboration, and they are certainly in evidence here: Bloom assumes that major poets inevitably lie about their influences, and this provides cover for his claims when the later artists fail to acknowledge the influence Bloom espouses. Sometimes, as with Whitman and Emerson, there is significant evidence that the later poet did lie about his predecessor, and when there is no such evidence, as with Stevens and Whitman, Bloom simply glosses over it with statements like this one: “[Stevens’] Emersonianism was filtered mostly through Whitman, a pervasive and of course wholly unacknowledged influence upon all of Stevens’ major poetry” (Wallace Stevens 10; emphasis added). The lack of evidence is here taken to be evidence in and of itself. It takes a startling amount of temerity to present such intellectual subterfuge as a genuine argument, but it is perhaps even more surprising that some scholars took it seriously and that a dwindling number still do.

Bloom does go on to provide a few instances of what he calls “overt allusions” that Stevens made to Whitman (15), but these supposedly overt allusions amount to little more than both poets’ use of references to the ocean and to a cradle, as if no poet other than Whitman had done so prior to Stevens. He does not point to significantly similar phrasings, only to isolated uses of nouns like “rocking” (though with Stevens it is an ocean’s “rocking” and not a cradle’s) and characterizations like “the deep-oceaned phrase” as supposedly overt textual evidence (CPP 63, 24, 57). But overt evidence is not really Bloom’s game, and he dismisses these rather minimal and likely arbitrary parallels as being on “the relatively trivial level [End Page 40] of verbal echoes” (Wallace Stevens 15). Bloom is more interested in pursuing his theory of influence and developing elaborate intertextual readings based not on textually specific evidence but on his notion of “misprision,” the assumption that each “strong poem” is inevitably a “misreading” of its predecessor. It is through this form of self-permission, as well as Bloom’s selective preoccupation with a small group of Whitman’s poems,11 that Bloom assumes Stevens refers to Whitman each time the ocean is mentioned or when Stevens depicts any gesture of encompassing, allowing Bloom to interpret the “Hoon,” for example, of “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon” as a Whitmanian surrogate, never mind the tea or the palaz (Wallace Stevens 65–67).

I think it is clear to anyone who has given serious consideration to the complex factors involved in shaping an artist’s work (or for that matter anyone who has experienced it firsthand as an artist herself) that Bloom’s theory of influence is more literary performance than assessment of reality. As dazzling as some of these performances may be (and some of Bloom’s individual readings of Stevens’ work are sensitive and illuminating), the idea that major poets are mainly defined by an agonistic relationship to a few literary “ancestors” is absurdly reductive, as Bloom himself must surely be aware. Bloom chooses to ignore his considerable knowledge of history, literary or otherwise, usually including his subjects’ biographies in any broad sense, in favor of elegant narratives of intellectual love and combat between “strong poets.” It is easy to see the romantic attraction of this approach, but hard to discern how it helps us understand the messy reality that informs the making of an artist. The operant principle seems to be that if two poets are important enough and there is enough academic industry behind them, then there must be a connection between them, and if we cannot find one we will forge one. We have the tools for that, after all, and skepticism can easily be rendered subsidiary to enthusiasm and creative invention.

Whether it is through the terms of Coleridge’s concept of the imagination, as with Middlebrook, or the combative influence-assuming model of Bloom, the two readers who have most seriously connected the two poets so far have done so by stressing how they preserve an elevated role for the imagination, which is a sensible if rather obvious assertion (though Whitman does not use that term, preferring instead phrases like “fancy” or “vision”). Both also take this a step farther by attempting to locate a sort of master trope or unifying theory of poetic vision, which is perfectly reasonable for Stevens, especially the Stevens of “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” but dubious for Whitman. Whitman’s vision for the cultural function of the imagination is poorly described as a “supreme fiction,” because his poetry does not present it as a fiction at all but, rather, as an already existent (manifest in the very first poem of his first book) way of perceiving and relating to the world. For Whitman, there simply is no fictive element in the way there must be for Stevens. In much of Whitman’s antebellum [End Page 41] poetry, the supreme poetic imagination has already been achieved, and what is necessary is not a new supreme fiction of the imagination but simply greater time spent with Whitman’s poems, which he believed, at least in his early, most visionary phase, offered a kind of ritual to achieve greater mutual identification and spiritual/imaginative “dilation” in his readers. To rewrite Stevens’ famous title “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” Whitman’s most important early poems amount to “Manifestations of the True Poet,” or so he would have his readers believe. Furthermore, if there is a master image or trope in these poems, it would not appear to be the ocean, as Bloom would have it (though this image is important), but rather the grass and its attendant theme of reincarnation and rebirth, as well as its implication of a decentered organic structure that is anathema to the unifying, symmetrical, and consistent structural outlines posed by Middlebrook and Bloom.12

If we regard Whitman during his optimistic, pre-Civil War period, the comparison with Stevens is dubious, but it becomes even less tenable when we note the critical importance of the Civil War and Whitman’s wartime experiences to his poems. Neither Middlebrook nor Bloom deals with this responsibly, to the extent that neither acknowledges the historical context for his poems at all. The longstanding, prevailing view of Whitman scholars is that the Civil War shattered Whitman’s early antebellum vision for poetry and for America, forcing the poet to reevaluate his writing and forge a new path for his poems (which also involved a renewed focus on prose, later collected in Memoranda During the War and Specimen Days). His wartime experiences moved the poet toward an even greater concern with documenting the lived reality of the American experience and led him to be more suspicious of his previous claims that his grand vision for humanity was immediately within reach. Whitman repeatedly described the central importance of coming to terms with the Civil War as essential to understanding his work. One of his most frequently cited comments in this regard was to his friend, caretaker, and amateur biographer Horace Traubel, to whom he described the Civil War as the “very centre, circumference, umbillicus, of [his] whole career” (Traubel 3:95). In “To Thee Old Cause,” Whitman goes so far as to claim “my book and the war are one,” elaborating, “As a wheel on its axis turns, this book unwitting to itself, / Around the idea of thee” (Leaves 5). Stevens had his own complex response to war, with poems or sections of poems about both world wars, as well as the Spanish Civil War, which he addressed in “The Men That Are Falling.”13 War and violence affected Stevens deeply, though these themes are reflected in profoundly different ways in his poems than in Whitman’s. It took later scholars like James Longenbach to seriously address the effects of war on Stevens. The theme is all but nonexistent in work by Middle-brook and Bloom.

Subjects that seem to leave Middlebrook and Bloom even more uncomfortable, or at least silent, are sexuality and gender, never mind the obvious [End Page 42] importance of such themes to Leaves of Grass. While Bloom does at least mention one Civil War poem of Whitman’s in Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate,14 he completely ignores the two clusters in Leaves of Grass devoted to love and sexuality, “Enfans d’Adam” (“Children of Adam”), Whitman’s cluster on the “amativeness” between men and women, and the poems celebrating “manly love,” presented in the cluster “Calamus.” Stating this may mark me as a member of Bloom’s “school of resentment,” but there is nothing reductive or even overtly political about noting the vital importance to Whitman of frank, even radical descriptions of the human body, sexuality, and affirmation of love in all its forms, especially those that society would condemn or marginalize. Perhaps the single most important image of spiritual (some would say mystical) realization in “Song of Myself” is the image of the poet having sex with his own soul in section five (Leaves 33). It is perhaps understandable that Bloom would ignore lesser poems like “Poem of Procreation,” but one of Bloom’s favorites, “The Sleepers,” uses the image of a “boss tooth” entering the mouth to depict oral sex,15 depicts public nudity, and includes an ambiguously erotic encounter between the poet’s own mother and a Native American woman—not that Bloom notes any of this. It is not a coincidence that Whitman refused to accede to the many requests he got to tone down the sexual content in his poems, unless you count the first British edition of Leaves of Grass, edited by William Michael Rossetti; and while the poet did agree to Rossetti’s selection, it is important to note that Whitman later referred to this edition, which leaves out most of his erotically charged passages, as “the horrible dismemberment of my book” (Correspondence 2:133).

These two differences between Whitman and Stevens—their particular ways of responding to the great wars of their respective lifetimes as well as the difference in their poetic concern for sexuality and gender—are critically important in shaping their work. I would argue they are also definitive for most readers, as are many other clear differences between them, whether in terms of their poetic styles, conceptions of form, notions of relevant content, politics, or personal dispositions. So great are these differences that, despite the pervasive urge to link them, I would argue that Whitman and Stevens are better understood in opposition to one another than through their similarities. I would like to return now to a difference I touched upon earlier in this essay, one which is in some ways more subtle and, I would argue, even more central in helping us to understand the two poets together, approaching such association through contrast rather than comparison.

Stevens indicates this contrast in the most important of his documented references to Whitman, a letter written in February of 1955 (only six months before his death) to Joseph Bennett. Bennett, then editor of the Hudson Review, had written Stevens with the hope of publishing his response to a question about his appreciation of Whitman. Unhealthy himself [End Page 43] and with his wife recovering from a stroke, Stevens did not produce the essay Bennett wanted, though he did compose a letter noting his response to recently spending “several hours” reading Whitman (L 870):

I can well believe that he remains highly vital for many people. The poems in which he collects large numbers of concrete things, particularly things each of which is poetic in itself or as part of the collection, have a validity which, for many people, must be enough and must seem to them all opulence and elan.

For others, I imagine that what was once opulent begins to look a little threadbare and the collections seem substitutes for opulence even though they remain gatherings-together of precious Americana, certain to remain precious but not certain to remain poetry. The typical elan survives in many things.

It seems to me, then, that Whitman is disintegrating as the world, of which he made himself a part, disintegrates. Crossing Brooklyn Ferry exhibits this disintegration.

The elan of the essential Whitman is still deeply moving in the things in which he was himself deeply moved. These would have to be picked out from compilations like Song of the Broad-Axe, Song of the Exposition.

One of the first things that stands out from this assessment of Whitman is how Stevens focuses almost exclusively on Whitman’s catalogues and lists: “poems in which he collects large numbers of concrete things.” This is notable because, while recent scholarship has been intensely interested in this aspect of Whitman, when Stevens wrote this letter in 1955 (the centennial anniversary of the first edition of Leaves of Grass), most readers paid considerably less attention to the catalogues, and they were largely regarded as a flawed aspect of his writing. Both Middlebrook and Bloom almost completely ignore Whitman’s collections of “large numbers of concrete things,” but Stevens, in line with contemporary scholarship on the subject, seems to sense that this is an inescapable and defining aspect of Whitman’s poetry.

Stevens’ repeated references to Whitman’s poetry as collections or “gatherings-together” merit further attention. Stevens assumes the intention of such passages is to present “concrete things” that are also poetic, creating the effect of “opulence and elan,” and he judges Whitman’s poems successful (at least for “many people”) when they manifest such poetic qualities. This is not an uncommon interpretation, especially for modernist and New Critical readers, but we now know this was not Whitman’s intention. Whitman himself would have likely found it perverse that a reader would find his catalogues “opulent,” when his intention was the opposite: to create a firm break with the poetics of opulence, which Whitman associated with outmoded European conceptions of poetry. His goal was not luxuriousness or elegance of style but rather plainness [End Page 44] and transparency. In a frequently cited passage from Specimen Days, he describes the difficulty he encountered in leaving out “stock ‘poetical’ touches,” though he claims he “succeeded at last” (Prose 1:22). In a journal entry entitled “Rules for Composition,” he describes his “perfectly transparent plate-glassy style, artless,” and praises “the most translucid clearness without variation” (Notebooks 1:101). In another notebook from 1856 in which he drafted lines for two of the poems Stevens mentions—“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and “Song of the Broad-Axe”—Whitman exhorts himself to “Avoid all the ‘intellectual subtleties’ . . . and the whole of the lurid and artistical and melodramatic effects.”16

To be sure, some of the items in Whitman’s lists are beautifully described, and his catalogues are generally not “artless,” though some of them come close, which is not necessarily a criticism. Stevens refuses to ascribe “Song of the Broad-Axe” the status of a poem, calling it a mere “compilation” from which the “things” that are “deeply moving” would have to be “picked out” (L 871). It is interesting that Stevens chose to focus on this poem at all, which at the time was regarded as second-tier Whitman, and while I agree with Stevens that this is a central poem, his assessment misses the poem’s most important gesture. For it is in “Song of the Broad-Axe” that Whitman comes closest to his goal of “artlessness,” which for today’s readers may in fact seem like forward-thinking anti-art elements being employed in a traditional form. In “Broad-Axe,” Whitman goes as far as he ever dared in his experiments with anti-poetic elements. At the poem’s climax, he launches into one of the most provocative passages in his poetry: a list of fifty-five bare, unadorned words, forcefully anti-lyrical, a passage that seems to justify some bewildered readers’ complaints that his writing “isn’t poetry,” since it does not meet their preconceptions:

(America! I do not vaunt my love for you, I have what I have.)

The axe leaps! The solid forest gives fluid utterances, They tumble forth, they rise and form, Hut, tent, landing, survey, Flail, plough, pick, crowbar, spade, Shingle, rail, prop, wainscot, jamb, lath, panel, gable, Citadel, ceiling, saloon, academy, organ, exhibition house, library, Cornice, trellis, pilaster, balcony, window, turret, porch, Hoe, rake, pitchfork, pencil, wagon, staff, saw, jack plane, mallet, wedge, rounce, Chair, tub, hoop, table, wicket, vane, sash, floor, Work-box, chest, string’d instrument, boat, frame, and what not. . . .

(Leaves 192) [End Page 45]

Confronted with such a disruption to traditional conceptions of what a poem should be, it is no wonder Stevens, who for all his experimentalism never went this far conceptually or formally, wished to overlook such passages of the poem.

Perhaps Stevens focused on Whitman’s lists in his letter to Joseph Bennett because he recognized that this critical aspect of Whitman’s poetry was what most set him apart from his predecessor. If so, it is a narrow yet relevant focus. There is more to Whitman than his catalogues, but it is here that we find Whitman directly engaged in his most characteristic strategy of how to “put it all down,” to return to Ashbery’s phrase from “The New Spirit.” It is how the poet chooses to define the “all” in this phrase that determines how he puts it down.

Whereas Ashbery came to see the relevant “all” as the texture of his thought while composing, Whitman implicitly defined his “all” as the “dumb, beautiful ministers” described in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (Leaves 165): the objects of human perception, poetically seen. To see common objects through Whitman’s poetic lens is to see them for what they are, without adornment, as part of a larger totality that ultimately includes the viewer. And Whitman’s lists, which characterize his writing from its earliest phase all the way through to the end, are how Whitman sought to achieve this goal. They are not meant to be opulent “decorations” but rather objects in themselves. Indeed, even words were objects for Whitman, as he makes clear in his major statement on language, “Song of the Rolling Earth.”

This was impossible for Stevens to see when he wrote his letter, shortly before his death, because his conceptions of language and poetry were in a key way fundamentally different from Whitman’s. It should be noted, however, that the two poets do share some other similarities. Both sought to define in their poetry a philosophical idea of the “representative poet,” and, related to this point, they do share a predominant theme in their writing and thought. To varying degrees during different points in their careers, both were obsessed with defining and exploring a conception of a vital and relevant role for the poetic imagination, and both of their conceptions sought to preserve an important role for poetry in eras defined by war, violence, and what both saw as cultural degeneration. For both, the poet is the representative imagination that promotes the greatest vitality and human resonance in our engagement with the world. Whitman carefully constructed his poetic identity as the biographical embodiment of this role, while Stevens presented his construction of poetic identity more objectively and mostly in the third person. The crucial transformative and redemptive agent for both is the imagination, which Whitman thought of as his “vision” early in his career and, more modestly, his “fancy” when he was old. It is what “furnish[es its] parts toward the soul” for Whitman (Leaves 165) and what for Stevens extends the wings of “casual flocks of pigeons” as they sink “Downward to darkness” (CPP 56). Stevens saw the [End Page 46] greatest human vitality where direct perception overlaps with a strong poetic imagination, but for Whitman there is no separation to overcome in this relationship. The poetic imagination and the objects of its regard are presented as constantly fused and functionally inseparable. This is why for Whitman an unadorned list of words can be a crucial element in his art, whereas Stevens skips over such passages and chooses to pick out lines that he believes display greater “opulence and elan.”

There simply is no “supreme fiction” in Whitman’s writing, nor would he have desired one. There was, perhaps, a “supreme” reality for Whitman, which might be said to be America itself, as well as a central moment, which he came to realize was the Civil War. Stevens’ search for an abstract fiction that would help redeem life for him and his audience led him to mostly “leave all out” in terms of actual details of lived experience, whereas Whitman’s recognition of empirical reality as poetry’s defining principle and objective led him to want to “put it all down” in his catalogues and lists. Philosophically, Stevens stressed the importance of empirical reality, but his poems mostly allude to it and thus in Whitman’s terms “leave it out.” Such fundamental differences have often been unacknowledged by critics trying to link the two poets or argue for Whitman’s influence, but influence studies are often a record of critical preconceptions, or as John Ernest brilliantly phrased it in an essay on Ashbery and William Bronk, “narratives of influence colonize individual poets and poems, assuming critical authority over them in the name of conceptual manifest destiny” (171).

I see little evidence to connect Whitman and Stevens. To the extent that Stevens was influenced by Whitman at all, it perhaps came by way of a more broadly and credibly documented influence on Stevens, the French symbolists, whom we know he read and who recognized and in some cases translated Whitman before their American cohorts. Coming to terms with an indirect influence such as this one would be tricky, and in general the issue of influence is enormously messy and complex. We should be cautious in linking such disparate writers as Whitman and Stevens. Poets are seldom such purists as their critics would have them be.

Matt Miller
Yeshiva University


1. For an informative account of Ashbery’s writing process for Three Poems, see MacFarquhar.

2. See Chapter One in Miller, Collage.

3. I use the phrase “journal entries” as a kind of shorthand. There is considerable debate among Whitman scholars about what to call Whitman’s handwritten mélanges of notes, drafts, and various forms of writing contained in what Whitman scholars variously refer to as notebooks, daybooks, manuscripts, journals, etc.

4. See Miller, “Getting” (on Whitman and George Oppen) and “Makings” (on Whitman and Gertrude Stein). [End Page 47]

5. Donoghue’s section on Whitman in Connoisseurs of Chaos focuses on how Whitman anticipates Stevens. Although Middlebrook does not cite him, Donoghue’s ideas seem to anticipate hers.

6. Bloom, in contrast, declares this image of Whitman to be “sublime” (Wallace Stevens 66).

7. Personal interview.

8. For Bloom, Coleridge does influence Whitman but primarily as redefined by Emerson (Wallace Stevens 1–7).

9. Bloom claims a Whitman-Stevens tradition “certainly exists” but states that it is not his immediate purpose to define it: “I would agree that the tradition certainly exists, as so many critics have demonstrated” (“Central” 26). No critics or studies are cited.

10. According to the index, Whitman and his poetry are cited 227 times.

11. Bloom selects those poems of Whitman’s that come closest to traditional romantic poetic structures. He is drawn toward those relatively few poems where Whitman explicitly depends upon conventional symbolism and makes extensive use of figurative language, especially his favorite, “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life.” Bloom ignores almost completely those poems most attractive to contemporary critics, such as the ones in Whitman’s Drum-Taps and Calamus clusters. Issues related to politics, gender, sexuality, and, for the most part, history do not exist for Bloom.

12. See Miller, Collage, Chapter Three, for an elaboration on the importance of grass as a structural trope in Leaves of Grass.

13. See also the sequences “Phases” and “Lettres d’un Soldat,” as well as “Examination of the Hero in a Time of War,” parts of “Esthétique du Mal,” and the final coda of “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.” See also his essay “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words.”

14. Bloom briefly mentions Whitman’s great poem documenting his experiences in the Civil War hospital tent in Washington, D. C., “The Wound-Dresser” (Wallace Stevens 164–65).

15. This reference appears in four of the six editions of Leaves of Grass. It was omitted from the poem beginning in 1881.

16. Transcription mine. This notebook, filed in the Library of Congress as Feinberg #697, is sometimes referred to as the “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry Notebook.”

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———. The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime. New York: Spiegel, 2015. Print.
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Ernest, John. “Fossilized Fish and the World of Unknowing: John Ashbery and William Bronk.” The Tribe of John: Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry. Ed. Susan M. Schultz. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1995. 168–89. Print. [End Page 48]
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———. Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts. Ed. Edward F. Grier. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1984. Print.
———. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964. Print. [End Page 49]