Roy Harvey Pearce once wrote that “the history of American poetry could be written as the continuing discovery and rediscovery of Whitman, an ongoing affirmation of his crucial relevance to the mission of the American poet: which is, as it is everywhere, simply to tell us the truth in such a way that it will be a new truth, and in its newness will renew us and our capacity to have faith in ourselves, only then together to try to build the sort of world which will have that faith as its necessary condition.”
The very content of this course confirms Pearce’s claims for the sheer magnitude of Whitman’s influence. But we will also work very hard to expand the scope of his suggestion beyond easy affirmation and faith, even as we move beyond poetry to prose and popular culture, and beyond America to the wider world. While we will necessarily follow certain well-worn tracks of Whitman’s influence, we will also stray frequently outside them. This semester, we will ask questions such as the following: How do American writers cope with Whitman’s influence as a nationally significant poet of hope and promise? How did Whitman influence writers in other countries? What does it mean to be an “American” poet? How is Whitman’s presence felt in the world beyond poetry—in novels, in songs, in ads for blue jeans and cars? And how do writers today continue to respond to Whitman’s influence? Whitman famously proclaimed that he contained multitudes and contradictions alike; I conceive of this course in precisely the same way.
We will begin this course by exploring not some monolithic Whitman, but a Whitman in many guises: one of the roughs, the wound-dresser, the subversive lover, the solitary singer, the master, the slave, the prophet, the prose writer, the good gray poet. A rigorous and fast chronological journey through Whitman’s poetry and prose will enable a deep engagement with Whitman’s subsequent influence on a diverse set of writers and artists from across the twentieth century and beyond. Authors we will read include Ezra Pound, Hart Crane, Langston Hughes, Pablo Neruda, Federico Garcia Lorca, George Oppen, June Jordan, Simon Ortiz, Sherman Alexie, Sharon Olds, Michael Cunningham and Juliana Spahr.