Restoring Wonder to the Mundane: On the Poetry of Walt Whitman and Pablo Neruda
[by Nicholas Pierce]
At the start of the Civil War, Walt Whitman was in a condition quite similar to that of the country he called home. Severely depressed by the overwhelmingly negative reception of Leaves of Grass, he had all but left poetry behind, squandering away his time in Brooklyn, at the beer cellar Pfaff’s, where other bohemians of the era—like Artemus Ward and Bayard Taylor—often gathered to drink and share stories. Among the regulars at Pfaff’s, Whitman became known as a listener, someone to whom you could talk with ease. This trait—this knack for listening—was put to especially good use later on, when Whitman began attending to the bedsides of sick and injured soldiers. He was, for both his friends and the soldiers (though Whitman would probably disapprove of the title), a kind of guardian angel; able, it seems, to assess the expectations of a man immediately and bend his own character to meet those expectations. If a man wanted silence, Whitman would be silent. If he wanted to laugh, Whitman would recount uproarious stories. He braved the disease-rampant hospital wards from December 1862 until well after the war’s end—bringing wounded soldiers humble but thoughtful gifts, writing for the illiterate among them letters home. He gave the soldiers the comfort of his presence, and in turn they recovered his mental, but ruined his physical, health. “I only gave myself,” Whitman, near the end of his life, told a friend. “I got the boys.”
To read the poetry of Walt Whitman is to experience the world as a curious child might. Dust is blown off familiar sights. Smells are made tactile. Wonder is restored to the mundane. John Brehn, who led our six-week-long seminar on the poetry of Walt Whitman and Pablo Neruda, told us to approach Whitman’s poetry empathically, not analytically. And for good reason: Whitman’s poems often escape simple summations (as all great poems should). They are what they are, in other words.
We began the seminar covering a selection of entries from Whitman’s Specimen Days, a book composed entirely of journal entries Whitman made while working as a wound-dresser and general hospital aid during the Civil War. The book is notable for its commitment to detail: every bedridden soldier—many of them teenagers away from home for the first time—is vividly described and, maybe more importantly, named. It’s as if Whitman wants you to know, this soldier—this dying man—is a human being who deserves, at the very least, the dignity of a name.
One entry, titled “A New York Soldier,” particularly stuck out to me. It details an afternoon meeting between Whitman and Oscar Wilbur. Afflicted with an agonizing “discharging” wound, Wilbur requests that Whitman read to him a chapter in the New Testament. As Whitman relays, “I open’d at the close of one of the first books of the evangelists, and read the chapters describing the latter hours of Christ, and the scenes at the crucifixion. The poor, wasted young man ask’d me to read the following chapter also, how Christ rose again.” Further into the entry, Wilbur inquires if Whitman enjoys religion, and Whitman sympathetically replies, “Perhaps not, my dear, in the way you mean, and yet, may-be, it is the same thing.”
At or around the same time as Specimen Days, Whitman wrote one of his very best works—a collection of poems called Drum Taps, which we delved into on the second week of our seminar. Among the poems included therein, we discussed “Look Down Fair Moon,” “Reconciliation,” and “Vigil Strange I Kept on a Field One Night,” in which a war-wearied speaker finds solace by lying beside a dead soldier, loving him tenderly, and burying him at sunrise as someone who loves him.
“A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown” was another poem in Drum Taps we spent a fair amount of time unpacking. Constructed as a single sentence, the poem concerns a troop of marching soldiers that comes upon a hospital late in the night. The hospital stands as a light in the darkness, a seeming respite from the march. But inside the hospital is nothing heartening or soothing, are only unspeakable horrors—death, sickness. Whitman dilates time as the troop moves through the hospital’s wards, describing a “great pitchy torch stationary with wild red flame and clouds of smoke.” Undoubtedly the torch and the shadows that flicker around it are evocative of hell, but they also might represent a transience of connection, between the speaker and the hospitalized soldiers, as well as a swelling of the speaker’s emotions. What the reader and speaker encounter in the hospital, though tragic, is but a glimpse of the atrocities of the Civil War. More violence, more bloodshed is yet to come. The speaker and his troop clamber back onto the road, their destination still unknown. And the poem ends where it begins.
On the third week of seminar, John Brehn guided our group through an exploration of “Song of Myself,” the long-form opening poem of Whitman’s seminal work, Leaves of Grass. Our conversation revolved around especially resonant lines—lines like “And now [grass] seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves,” and “I show that size is only development,” and “Speech is the twin of my vision,” and “I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars,” and “If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.” What makes Whitman’s poetry so extraordinary is its ability to consistently spark epiphanic reactions in its readers—erecting whole neighborhoods of thought. Never is there an unsurprising moment.
If Whitman is the poet of America, with his horizontally sprawling stanzas and bard-like rhythms, then it seems only fitting that Pablo Neruda, whose odes are typified by exceptionally slender lines—sometimes featuring no more than a single word—, should be the poet of Chile. These two masters, though disparate in their approaches to poetry, have in common a tendency to exaggerate. When one metaphor would do, Neruda uses ten, or more—as in the poem “Ode to my Socks,” which compares a pair of hand-knitted socks to everything from “long sharks” to “mammoth blackbirds,” “cannons” and “jewel cases.” It’s as if, to Neruda, nothing in the world has a fixed form, and thus there is no correct way to see or describe the world.
“Neruda’s poetic career was characterized by continuous change,” says Margaret Sayers Peden in her introduction to Selected Odes (which was, throughout the seminar, our sole textbook on Neruda). As a young man, Neruda’s poems were frequently “hermetic, epic and… formally complex,” Peden describes. By contrast, the odes—much like the subjects they glorify—are deceptively simple, and almost always ecstatic. “Neruda realized,” Peden points out, “that if he [was] to champion the common man, he must write in a manner that is accessible to him.” What sparked this realization? Peden can only attribute it to one thing: Neruda’s relationship to Matilde Urrutia, with whom he’d been engaged in a sordid affair through the late 1940s. Neruda left his wife and married Urrutia while his first book of odes was being published.
When I read Neruda, it occurs to me that an artist will often make of him- or herself a myth to create and communicate, an ideal or a degenerate off which readers may refract (or in which they may find a source of reflection) their own beliefs. Rarely is this more evident than in Neruda’s poem “The Invisible Man,” in which a speaker laments of the poets of old,
…they always say “I,”
at every turn
it’s always “I,’
only they or
the dear heart they love
walk through the street,
no fisherman pass by…
By positioning “The Invisible Man” as the foremost poem of his collection Elemental Odes, Neruda is telling us both what to and what not to expect out of the collection. He’s teaching us how to read his own poetry—casting a light on the features of his character (his speaker) that he wishes to showcase, and shadowing the other parts. “When I walk through the streets/,” he says, “I am the only one who does not exist.”
We spent the final three weeks of the seminar on Neruda. Unlike with Whitman, whose body of work we tackled backwards—from late to fairly early writing—, there wasn’t a clearly defined trajectory to our travels through Neruda’s odes. We jumped around, generally clustering the odes by theme and/or topic rather than time-written. For example, John had us read “Ode to Tomatoes,” “Ode to the Lemon,” and “Ode to a Woman Gardening”—all poems dealing with harvest and sustenance—for one meeting. For another meeting, he instructed us to read “Ode to Laziness” and “Ode to the Dictionary”—humorous poems that, by turns, celebrate and ridicule the speaker’s own writing process.
Out of all the odes we covered, my favorite would have to be “Ode to my Suit”—a poem that could be read as a metaphor for the reciprocal impact that a man has on the world and that the world has on him. But more than that even, the poem could be read as a quietly personal investigation of Neruda’s choice to be a poet, and a very specific kind of poet—how that role shaped him as a person, and how he shaped the role. “Every morning, suit,/ you are waiting to be filled/ by my vanity, my love,” the poem begins. Neruda addresses his suit as if it was a friend—everything in the odes can be spoken to. He shrugs into its sleeves and then steps out into the city, walking amongst the common people. He pokes holes through the suit’s elbows, “wearing [it] threadbare.” Together he and the suit grow old, grow feeble—eventually grow into one being, as they are laid to rest and lowered into the ground. In death, Neruda became the myth he imagined himself to be in his poetry.