James’s recent and incisive post offers a brilliant reading of the many arguably un-Whitmanian energies in Neruda’s love poem #20. More generally, he voices a healthy dose of skepticism concerning the degree to which we might think of Neruda or any other poet as “Whitmanian” in certain key cases. By offering this critique, James presents an opportunity for me (and for us all) to clarify what we mean by that odd honorific: Whitmanian. It can be an unwieldy term, and we want to make sure we know what we mean it when we say it lest it. We have to go in with the understanding that it is never all or nothing: “Whitmanian” energies persist alongside the most un-Whitmanian elements in many of the poems we’ve already read.
First, James is absolutely right that we must be wary of making only simple connections between Whitman and Neruda, or Whitman and any poet. No poet has a monopoly on despair or on nature imagery. The tricks and tropes that many poems share comprise the deep structures and conventions of poetry itself. I don’t want to reduce this class to locating very general poetic qualities that two poets happen to share, even though it is important at times to explore how something like Whitman’s crucial sea-side drama in “As I Ebb’d” gets replayed and renovated in subsequent poems about the sea. For the most part, however, I think we do a great job of moving beyond the more basic, if necessary, connections.
In light of James’s post, we should ask again: how is Neruda’s love poem #20 Whitmanian in a deeper sense? What struck me was how Neruda’s phrase–”love is so short, and forgetting is so long”–encapsulates something crucial about Whitman and his influence. What Neruda describes in this poem of love-lost-and-yet-not-lost is a process of lasting, of how memory goes on and on, of how forgetting–as odd as it may sound–endures. I love to think of Whitman’s lilacs in this regard–how Whitman is engaged in the long process of forgetting his lilacs in the years after Lincoln’s death. This process of forgetting terminates in that strange “Mirage” Whitman wrote before his death. That poem shows a severe and strange demotion of lilacs–lilacs almost lost, almost forgotten: a fading dream vision of lilacs in a poem framed by a (poetic) lie. What happened to the symbolic force that those lilacs held in his Lincoln elegy? And what happens when lilacs last?
After we talked about the way Whitman’s lilacs last or endure across his own work–their symbolic force fading in the post-war years, the “love” they embody fading as well–I asked the class to think of Whitman’s influence lasting across the twentieth century in just this way. What happens, I asked, when the symbolic monolith of Whitman himself as a poetic fixture endures across the century? In many poets, we will find that loving Whitman is so short (his exuberance, his confidence, his recoveries, however inspiring, cannot last) but forgetting is so long (the duration of crisis, of doubt, of loss, of silence).
It is in this sense that I wanted to read Neruda’s poem not as Whitmanian in some simple sense that James rightly warns us against, but as a profound love poem to Whitman himself. Of course, it wasn’t intended as such. But such a reading might help us remember to what extent Whitman wasn’t a mere poetic influence on others. He was the source of some more significant relationship, he was a lover–but a lover often lost, often doubted, as poets find him increasingly difficult to revive in their own historical and political contexts. (I always want us to keep in mind, though, that Whitman himself knew loss, and he shows us that again and again in his work. Many poets–and, even more so, critics–don’t sufficiently grant him that deep knowledge of crisis.)
If these ideas seem kind of soft and fuzzy, Martin Espada seems to validate their basic sense in his extraordinarily moving poem, “Rain without Rain.” There, those gathering to honor Neruda and the Disappeared also happen to shout Whitman over the seas, calling out to some distant poetic prophet. Whitman, Neruda, and the deepest sense of crisis converge in the final words of the poem, words that Espada makes indelibly political, indelibly Whitmanian, indelibly about loss and influence and elegy and love and the endless process of forgetting. They are also Neruda’s words: “Tonight I can write the saddest verses.”
And so, in some strange and far-from-simple way, Neruda’s iconic poem has become a love poem–and en elegy–to Whitman and to so much more. In this sense it is most Whitmanian, where “Whitmanaian” signals an energy and an emotion, a connection and a resonance, beyond mere echoes of style, substance, and subject matter.