The More Walt Whitman Strove for Perfection, the More it Eluded Him

God comes a loving bed-fellow and sleeps at my side all night and close on the peep of the day,
And leaves for me baskets covered with white towels bulging the house with their plenty.

— Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

One of the more interesting things I’ve read recently about the creative process is poet Galway Kinnell’s introduction to a 1987 collection of Walt Whitman’s poems he edited called The Essential Whitman.

Whitman, of course, is among the most influential and celebrated poets in U.S. history, certainly the greatest pioneer of free verse in the English language—and would have been very pleased to be remembered as such. He strove for decades to promote himself and preserve for posterity his reputation. As Kinnell explains, Whitman mercilessly reworked his magnum opus Leaves of Grass, publishing six quite different versions between 1855 and 1881 and “enlarging the book from twelve poems … to 383.”

Some of his tweaks and additions were apt. Kinnell provides several positive examples, noting that, in particular, Whitman’s “deletions … are often well taken and sometimes make a decisive difference.” Unfortunately, as he goes on to demonstrate quite convincingly, most of those edits ultimately did more harm than good, and in fact, taken as a whole, almost certainly damaged his work, “often severely.” Perhaps there’s a lesson for us all in that misguided pursuit of perfection.

Kinnell begins by describing an inherent challenge for writers in the revision process itself:

Whitman may be poetry’s most spectacular victim of the law of elapsed time.

All writers know this law: revision succeeds in inverse ratio to the amount of time passed since the work was written. Revision is most likely to improve a poem when it directly follows composition, because it is, in fact, a slower, more reflective phase of the creative act. It is most likely to fail if many years have passed – such as the quarter century between the first publication and the last revision of Leaves of Grass. …

One reason why delayed revision often fails is that the writer eventually loses track of what he or she was originally trying to do – or more likely, was doing without trying. Great works are often written more by exploration, by feel, by instinct, than by fixed intentions; and so it is easy for an author to forget the reasons – if he or she ever articulated them – for those inspired leaps, those sudden decisions and shifts of direction, which were vivid and compelling during composition. When Socrates questioned the poets of Athens, he discovered they wrote not by reason but by inspiration or madness and could not tell him what their poems meant. Certainly it was in an inspired, mad, illuminated state that Walt Whitman wrote the first version of Leaves of Grass.

The religious undertones here are unmistakable: Like countless others, Kinnell equates creative inspiration to a kind of spiritual illumination—a movement of the Holy Spirit, you might say—that enables artists to go beyond their own basic faculties and self-conscious purposes into a creative space of “doing without trying,” the space in which they are able to create their greatest, most miraculous works.

Yet such inspiration, of course, is not something we can control or summon at will. Thus, in the backward-looking process of revision—particularly after much elapsed time—artists like Whitman are often returning to their work driven less by those holy ghosts of inspiration and more by self-conscious desires to exert creative control and achieve some perceived kind of perfection, undoubtedly shaped by external expectations. And it’s there that the damage is often done.

Kinnell unpacks a wide range of examples demonstrating this basic point—that over the decades, Whitman shot himself in the foot again and again with all of his obsessive tweaking and padding-of-the-poetic-record. Several of the most interesting examples are those in which an older Whitman removed or softened earlier expressions of youthful vulnerability. Kinnell writes,

Another reason for the law of elapsed time is that the poet who revises belatedly may no longer be exactly the same person who composed. Certainly Whitman was not. As the Good Gray Poet [his late-in-life image] … he had lost some of his youthful arrogance, intransigence, and extraordinary shamelessness… [Thus] he dropped some brilliant but revealing passages from “The Sleepers,” including [a] mysterious evocation of adolescent experience … [and a] tortured denunciation of his father…

The man who once said, “Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!” apparently had second thoughts and wanted to screw the locks and doors back on again.

Many of Whitman’s revisions thus tended to prioritize self-protection and self-promotion over the original expressive freedom and exuberant honesty. Likewise, over time Whitman often tweaked his wording in attempts to sound more “literary,” ignoring some of the insights of sound and style that had guided him in the initial thrall of inspiration. Here’s Kinnell:

This self-protective, perhaps somewhat self-important new Whitman took on a more conventional poetic style… “Song of Myself” had started out to be a “language experiment”… But by the mid-sixties his work began to fill up with the very poeticisms and archaisms he had started off by excluding – “o’er,” “e’en,” “erewhile,” “i’,” “’tis,” “ope,” and many more…

Many of Whitman’s revisions seem intended to domesticate the “barbaric yawp” and make his verse sound more recognizably like poetry. … He became less trustful of the common instinct that makes language intelligible and felt it necessary to explain perfectly comprehensible, spontaneous turns of phrase.

In his successive revisions, Whitman stopped trusting as much in those original “inspired leaps” so central to the creative process, and instead leaned on his own craft and critical faculties in the hopes of ultimately achieving some poetic ideal. His edits thus tended to run against the very nature of the poetic art—grounded, like any other art, in inspiration, in love—and became largely self-defeating. As Kinnell concludes,

The sad truth is that the final edition of Leaves of Grass is far less exciting than the first. Some of the great poems are muddy from too much tampering. Wonderful passages are missing. The original daring and verbal brilliance had been compromised. …

Whitman spent the last part of his life trying to get his book right. He kept working over those old poems, as Lady Gregory said of Yeats, as if he were in competition for eternity. As Whitman grew older, not only did his creative powers wane but his critical faculties became erratic, and he was never able to achieve that last goal and make a perfect Leaves of Grass. On the contrary, the more he searched for perfection, the further away it went.

I love that—it was as if Whitman were “in competition for eternity.” Of course, that’s always a losing bet. There’s no winning or earning eternity. We all fall hopelessly short. Perfection is a fool’s game, a dangerous kind of hubris, an ever-self-defeating quest. And perhaps the same lesson applies to all of us, poets or not. Perhaps, in our relationship to the Law—or to perfection of any kind—the more we strive for it, the more it eludes us. The more we rely primarily on our own capacities, the more we are undone.

It reminds me of the lecture Giles Fraser gave back in February about the “uneasy relationship” between Christianity and morality. If anything, Fraser argued, the most difficult commandments Jesus gave in the Gospels—such as those in the Sermon on the Mount—were perhaps most of all meant to teach us how much we need God. By equating those who anger to murderers or those who lust to adulterers, for example,

Jesus is deliberately trying to provoke … a “crisis of capacity.” That is, he wants us to feel that we cannot do what morality demands and that morality isn’t sufficient to deal with situations such as this. Indeed … he deliberately wants us to feel like moral failures and he does so because he’s pointing to something beyond morality.

The lesson of Whitman’s misguided struggle for creative perfection is thus directly related to the lessons of that classic early church debate over human nature between Augustine and Pelagius, as Fraser summarizes:

Pelagius’s message was simple and powerful. In short: Be good and you’ll go to heaven. For him, being good meant nothing more than keeping all the rules, God’s moral rules, and the rules were the rules as laid down in the scriptures. “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” … His argument [was that] if God has told us to obey the rules then it must be possible … because God wouldn’t ask us to do the impossible. …

What bothered St. Augustine about Pelagius’s position was the unproblematic confidence in which he believed human goodness to be just a matter of “getting on with it”… Augustine had a much more complicated view of human beings… One might say that he was someone who had been schooled in the “crisis of capacity.” …

Goodness is something that we often want as an aspiration, but something we rarely achieve… And this being the case, if God really requires human beings to be “perfect” as a condition of eternal reward, then in reality God’s damning the lot of us…

For Augustine, salvation is top down—it comes from God… We’re saved, he insists, not through any work of our own, not because of any virtue we may have acquired through our own efforts, but entirely through grace… That is, at God’s discretion and initiative. The problem with Pelagius is that he wanted to be his own redeemer.

Whitman clearly believed in the perfectibility of his own poetry—in that sense, like Pelagius, he wanted to be his own redeemer. Yet the more he strove for that redemption, that impossible ideal, the more it muddied his good works. As a poet, his gifts were enormous. But that’s just the point: They were gifts, like all of life, and not the sort of gifts we can ever quite grasp or take for granted—let alone take credit for—but the kind that forever come and go as they please, like a gentle breeze or a mighty rushing wind.


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