Whitman's Influence

Effective poets pass on styles and themes which influence subsequent generations; this is inevitable. From the oral tradition of the most basic poetry, this has always happened. Each successive poetic generation or movement reverberates (or at least engages) with generations that precede them. Therefore, it is entirely to be expected that a poet as innovative as Whitman should influence generations after him. In his case, however, this phenomenon seems more prolific still. One need only glance at the vast list of poems that refer to Whitman directly to grasp the sheer magnitude of his effect upon later poets.

Whitman even seems to have presupposed that others will follow in his footsteps, and indeed lays challenges for his poetic descendents directly. In “Poets to Come” Whitman expects the new poets to emerge as “a new brood, native, athletic, continental, / Greater than before known”[1]. Whitman, it seems, has high expectations of these followers; “Arouse! for you must justify me”, he demands.

Not all subsequent poets, however, had an easy relationship with Whitman. Ezra Pound’s poem “A Pact” is revelatory; “I have detested you long enough”, declares the Europhile, yet despite the latter poet’s protests against Whitman’s bluntness and lack of subtlety, amongst other things, he recognises that “It was [Whitman] that broke the new wood, / Now is a time for carving.”[2] Yet it was partly through this bluntness that Whitman did break “the new wood”, paving the way for poets to come through an ‘everyman’ approach to poetry. Whitman rejects the old, European high-art style, and places an emphasis on a fresh, energised and all-inclusive poetics. While Whitman “celebrates [him]self”[3], he celebrates the rest of America also, as would many subsequent poets.

The poets that succeeded Whitman were equally keen to progress from the old, traditional styles of poetry. Whitman declared that “The new world, the new times, the new peoples, the new vistas, need a new tongue”[4], and he, it seems, would provide it, while subsequent poets would build from the platform Whitman laid. One such poet is Wallace Stevens. While thoroughly dissimilar in many respects, Stevens can be seen to continue with Whitman’s efforts in seeking a “new voice” for poetry.

In “Anecdote of the Jar”, Stevens explores (amongst numerous other things) the differing genres and writing styles of poetry; at first reading, the poem appears to be about nothing, almost nonsense poetry (and indeed it does share with nonsense poetry a distinct celebration of language) , yet with further insight, the reader recognizes its vastly multilayered nature. Is it an Imagist homage, or pastiche? Could it be exploring high philosophy, or celebrating the mundane? The poem plays with the concept of man’s relationship with his surroundings, and echoes humanity’s confusion in a modern world where man and nature have become so separated. Previously, poets would have viewed such a landscape in awe of the natural beauty, yet now, in an industrialised world detached from nature, it is the jar that takes centre stage, while the “slovenly wilderness” merely conforms to it. In this poem, Stevens appears to mock the imagist movement, and to oppose the high poetic philosophising and sentimentality of the earlier Romantics; he supports, it seems, a new, modern poetics, or a “new tongue”.

Language, therefore, is at the very centre of “Anecdote of the Jar”, and, like much of his other works, it is in fact a poem largely about words. Stevens is playing with language conventions, attempting to liberate, and democratise poetry, echoing Whitman’s own sentiments. Throughout the poem we see Stevens struggling between an old, traditional, European writing style, and a more modern, American way of writing. Clearly this is an issue that also plagued Whitman. We see the basic speech patterns of modern life, in lines such as “The jar was round upon the ground”[5]; the simple internal rhyme adds familiarity, yet the following line, “And tall and of a port in air”, reverts to the old, grandiose language of the dead poets of Europe. The closing lines of the poem crystallize this contrast; “It did not give of bird or bush,” once again adopts a mock grandiloquence, while the double negative of the following line, “Like nothing else in Tennessee”, adds a somewhat confused, colloquial tone. Yet, while Stevens feels no connection with the old European poetics, he struggles to separate himself from them. Stevens seems to engage with the concept of a simple poetry, “everyman” poetry, but he certainly doesn’t subscribe to it. His verse can at times be thoroughly complex, and equally as exclusive as the modes that came before him.

Perhaps a better example of a poet truly influenced by Walt Whitman would be the Beat poet, Allen Ginsberg. A Whitman aficionado, Ginsberg can be seen to take a wholly different course to Stevens in seeking a new poetic style, and wholeheartedly seems to accept Whitman’s challenge “to prove and define”[6] Whitman’s own poetic vision.

Like Whitman, Ginsberg sought a new rhythm for poetry to echo the new pace of modern American life. To quote Louis Simpson, Ginsberg searched for a verse that moved “not in a dancing but a shuffling beat, the rhythm of human beings in an industrial civilisation on their way to the bathroom, the subway, the office. In order for the poet to attract the attention of the crowd he must speak to them in a language they would understand”[7]. Ginsberg, it seems, is speaking to an audience involved in the minutia of modern life. Both Ginsberg and Whitman wanted to communicate to a wider audience than traditional poetic forms would cater for, and found their solutions in a more inclusive language.

Ginsberg is attempting “to recreate the syntax and the measure of poor human prose”,[8] as he puts it in the close of the first section of Howl. This “human prose” is achieved in much the same way that Whitman achieved his own rhythm almost a century earlier: like Whitman, Ginsberg creates a driving rhythm to his poem, through a repeated phrase in the opening of his lines. In Howl, it is “who” that drives his rhythm, pointing to the “best young minds” of his generation. Throughout Whitman’s works, other opening words are used; most notably the democratic “and” of Song of Myself. Through this, nothing and no-one is subjugated by anything else, everything is on the same level. An interesting point to note is Ginsberg’s substitution of “and” (as in Whitman’s works) for the ampersand (&);

(The best minds)

      who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits

              on Madison Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse

              & the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments

              of fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the

              fairies of advertising & the mustard gas of sinis-

              ter intelligent editors, or were run down by the

              drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality,

Here, rather than “and” being used for a democratising effect, we see emotion and frustration gathering in a crescendo at the ills of modern life.

Whitman employs the language of common people, of everyday Americans, and attempts to embody the American people through language. Yet, for this very reason, it seems, Edward Everett Hale, a literary critic and contemporary of Whitman’s, considered the content of Leaves of Grass to be base and un-poetic:“words usually banished from polite society are here employed without reserve and with perfect indifference for their effect on the reader’s mind”[9] he informs. Hale goes on to say that “the introduction of terms never before heard or seen, and of slang expression, often renders an otherwise striking passage altogether laughable.”[10]

Such criticism, however, does not do justice to Whitman; he does not employ such language out of “indifference for their effect on the reader’s mind”, in fact quite the opposite. Whitman was fully aware of the need to drag poetry to regular people, and would reflect those people through their language. Howl echoes this, through its everyday terminology of the streets, and again, like Whitman, Ginsberg’s poem recognises an underclass, normally ignored, idealised or romanticised. Just as Whitman will sing of the prostitute, while the men “laugh at her blackguard oaths” and “jeer”[11], Ginsberg’s poetry speaks of a generation;

“who faded out in vast sordid movies, were shifted in dreams, woke on

 a sudden Manhattan, and picked themselves up out of basements

hungover with heartless Tokay and horrors of Third Avenue iron

dreams & stumbled to unemployment offices.”[12]

The less pleasant aspect of modern human life is not shied away from, and indeed, both poets explore humanity in its entirety, warts and all. The shared experiences of humanity, pleasant and unpleasant, are important to Whitman. In Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,Whitman reveals a concern for, and an inclusion of, the common person and emphasises the interconnectedness of all of society, declaring that “the men and women I saw were all near to me”[13]. It is here that Whitman adopts his most confessional of tones. We see a shared confession, between Whitman, and humanity;

Nor is it you alone who know what it is to be evil,

I am he who knew what it was to be evil,

I too knitted the old knot of contrariety,

Blabb’d, blush’d, resented, lied, stole, grudg’d,

Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I dared not speak,

Was wayward, vain, greedy, shallow, sly, cowardly, malignant,

The wolf, the snake, the hog, not wanting in me,

The cheating look, the frivolous word, the adulterous wish, not wanting, Refusals, hates, postponements, meanness, laziness, none of these


Another area not wanting in Whitman’s poetry is physicality: sex is celebrated throughout Leaves of Grass, and is dealt with in a way that would undoubtedly prove quite shocking to Whitman’s middle-class early readership. Certainly, this is a theme of Whitman’s poetry that both Ginsberg and Stevens explore also; poems of Stevens such as “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle” recognise sex as a basic, fundamental element of life, devoid of guilt in a hedonistic world. Howl on the other hand, builds up a frenetic sexual energy throughout the poem, almost to the point of violence.

Although not often viewed in such a way, Stevens is in fact a very sensual poet, trying to capture “the joy of having a body, the voluptuousness of looking”[14]. Poems like The Emperor of Ice-Cream are highly sexualised; the first stanza abounds with voluptuous, sensual images, providing greater contrast for the death scene in the following stanza, reaffirming Whitman’s own sentiment that “Copulation is no more rank to me than death is.”[15]

But sex alone is not enough for Stevens. By itself, sex seems empty for him; “It comes, it blooms, it bears its fruit and dies” [16] he declares. Yet out of this comes more; Stevens recognises the ephemeral nature of life, while being also aware that “this trivial trope reveals a way of truth.” “If sex were all,” Stevens goes on “then every trembling hand / Could make us squeak, like dolls, the wished-for / words.” Unaccompanied, sex is not enough to satisfy the human condition, needing also the things “That makes us weep, laugh, grunt and groan, and shout […] From madness or delight”.

Sex as a theme runs throughout Leaves of Grass, and Whitman celebrates it unequivocally. Sex, for Whitman, is an illustrious act, and something to be delighted in; “I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the / Soul”[17] he declares to us. Whitman’s outlook on sex goes further than the bedroom however. If human beings so easily sully and debase sex, the very act of bringing humans together, then what hope is there for humanity on a wider scale? Whitman saw the divine in sex, and sought to preserve it as such.

Returning to the section of Crossing Brooklyn Ferry mentioned earlier, M. Jimmie Killingsworth seems misguided in his belief that Whitman “projects guilt onto the audience”[18], raising himself above his fellow travellers, in that he is now free from those “evils” that they still cling to. This view, however, doesn’t seem truly justified; Whitman is not implying that sex is wrong, and condemning those who indulge in and enjoy it, but that people’s perception of sex is misguided. Whitman does not connect sex with things that are “wayward, vain, greedy, shallow, sly, cowardly, malignant,” but raises it above these things. Whitman seeks to glorify sex, and remove the shame and embarrassment surrounding it. As he informs us in “Song of Myself”, he seeks to reveal sex for what it truly is;

“Through me forbidden voices,

Voices of sexes and lusts, voiced veil’d and I remove

   The veil,

Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigur’d”[19]

In an essay concerning the extent of Whitman’s influence on Ginsberg, a discussion of “A Supermarket in California” seems inevitable. A homage to “old grey beard”, this poem humorously, yet poignantly reveals Ginsberg’s relationship with Whitman. The poem begins with Whitman portrayed as a stereotypical old man shopping (“Who killed the / pork chops?  What price bananas?”) overlaid with an image of desperate loneliness; “Are you my Angel?” The Whitman-figure still maintains an element of sexual desire, but seems pathetic and sad; “I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.”

Yet it seems, perhaps, that Ginsberg relates to this ambling old man, and prophetically glimpses himself “a lonely old grubber”. At the end of the poem, this “lonely old grubber” has become a “lonely old courage-teacher”; Ginsberg seems to seek direction and reassurance from Whitman, perhaps concerning the difficulties of being an outwardly gay man. This however, will undoubtedly prove fruitless, since Whitman himself seemingly struggled with his sexuality far more than did Ginsberg. Nevertheless, Ginsberg seems to gain strength in unity as he and Whitman stride “down the open corridors together in our / solitary fancy tasting / artichokes, possessing every frozen / delicacy, and never passing the cashier.”


Another strain also emerges within the poem, and Ginsberg engages with Whitman’s great subject of America. The two poets wander through the American Dream, stock full of “Aisles full of husbands!  Wives in the / avocados, babies in the tomatoes!”, yet the “America of love” Whitman hoped for is lost, and they are left only to dream of it. America, it seems, has fallen short of the hopes Whitman had for it. It is not the pillar of Democracy he sought to speak into being.

Both poets, however, clearly have their own voices for modern America. They recognise that Whitman’s dream has not been realised, but are determined to give America her own voice nevertheless. Ginsberg clearly inherited a lot from Whitman, as did Stevens (although he would certainly have denied it), yet neither are particular Whitmanesque. Surely to truly have continued “carving” Whitman’s “new wood”, they would need to have developed and evolved. To merely mimic Whitman’s verse they would fail to “justify” him, and simply stagnate. Whitman’s effect on the generations that succeeded him are immeasurable; his mastery of free form, his candour and honesty, his poetic vision surpasses any of those that came before him, and laid new foundations for those who followed.


Works Cited

Ginsberg, Allen. Howl.

Hale, Edward Everett, Putnam’s Monthly, quoted in Allen, Gay Wilson. A Reader’s Guide to Walt Whitman. Octagon Books, New York, 1979. p. 5.

Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. Whitman’s poetry of the Body. The University of North Carolina Press, North Carolina. 1989.

Pound, Ezra. “A Pact”.

Simpson, Louis. A revolution in taste : studies of Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, and Robert Lowell. MacMillan Press. New York, 1978.

Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. Ed. Alfred A. Knopf. New York, 1954.

Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. Vintage Books Edition. New York, 1990.

Whitman, Walt. An American Primer. Holy Cow! Press; Rev edition, April 1987.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. George G. Harrap and Co. London, 1920.

Whitman, Walt. Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.

Further works of influence

Middlebrook, Diane Wood, Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens. Cornell University Press. London, 1974.


Walt Whitman : the measure of his song. Edited by Jim Perlman. Holy Cow! Press. Minneapolis, 1981.

[1] (p.7) Whitman, “Poets to Come”, Leaves of Grass. George G. Harrap and Co. London, 1920.

[2] Pound, Ezra. “A Pact”.

[3] (p.24) Whitman, “Song of Myself”, Leaves of Grass.

[4] (viii) Whitman, Walt. An American Primer. Holy Cow! Press; Rev edition, April 1987.

[5] (p76) Stevens, “Anecdote of the Jar”,  The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. Vintage Books Edition. New York, 1990.

[6] (p.8) Whitman, “Poets to Come”, Leaves of Grass.

[7] (p63) Simpson, A revolution in taste : studies of Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, and Robert Lowell. MacMillan Press. New York, 1978

[8] (line 72) Ginsberg, Howl.

[9] (p5) Hale, Putnam’s Monthly, quoted in Allen, Gay Wilson. A Reader’s Guide to Walt Whitman. Octagon Books. New York, 1979.

[10] (p5) Hale, Putnam’s Monthly, quoted in Allen, Gay Wilson. A Reader’s Guide to Walt Whitman. Octagon Books. New York, 1979.

[11] (p.41) Whitman, “Song of Myself”, Leaves of Grass.

[12] (line 40) Ginsberg, Howl.

 [13] Whitman, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.

[14] (p136) The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens.

[15](p.51) Whitman,“Song of Myself”, Leaves of Grass

[16] (p17) Stevens, “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle” The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens.

[17] (p.46) Whitman, “Song of Myself”, Leaves of Grass.

[18] (p51) Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. Whitman’s poetry of the Body. The University of North Carolina Press, North Carolina. 1989.

[19] (p.51) Whitman, “Song of Myself”, Leaves of Grass.