Notes from C.K. Williams’s On Whitman

p. 1 We know that as he wandered the streets, as he rode in the omnibuses, probably as he sat in lectures and in the opera, he scribbled in small notebooks and on scraps of paper he stuffed in his pockets.  We know he then transcribed them, ordered them, wrote them down, then set the type for the first editions of his great work himself… And there it was on the page…We know, we know, we know…

p. 9 If we are to use the term “influence” about Whitman, what’s more remarkable is the influence his work more than any other poet’s has had on poets all over the world, rather than that which may or may not have conditioned his own work.

p. 19  “The runaway salve came to my house and / stopped outside,/ I heard his motions crackling the twigs of the woodpile,/ Through the swung half-door of the kitchen I saw him limpsey and weak…”

p.80  Baudelaire, to his chagrin and perhaps as a factor in his self-destruction, had to contend with Victor Hugo…Baudelaire secretly despised Hugo but dedicated poem after poem to him, “Your fleurs du mal shine and dazzle like stars….I applaud your vigorous spirit with all my might” – but surely underestimated the significance of Baudelaire’s work and never in his dreams would have imagined that for the future Baudelaire would define the aesthetics of the century that followed him , and that he, Hugo, as an influence, as a genius, would become more an item of nostalgia than a symbol of artistic power and significance.

p.81 Longfellow was terribly famous, and Whitman was painfully conscious of the other poet’s commercial success.  The Song of Hiawatha and the first edition of Leaves of Grass, a few hundred.

Perhaps even more rankling, Whitman’s darling mother and his brother George “leafed through Hiawatha and the 1855 Leaves of Grass and in George’s words ‘ the one seemed to us pretty much the same muddle as the other.”

Later in his life Whitman found a place in his poetic universe for Longfellow, praising the other poet to his own circle of acolytes as an admirable example of the “European tradition.”  In a conversation, though, with his young friend Horace Traubel, who recorded literally volumes of conversations with Whitman,” he said of Longfellow he ‘never traveled new paths: of course never broke new paths: in fact was a man who shrank from unusual things – from what was highly colored, dynamic, drastic.

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