cover image On Whitman

On Whitman

C. K. Williams, . . Princeton Univ., $19.95 (187pp) ISBN 978-0-691-14472-6

This jewel of a book, by one poet on another in the Writers on Writers series, does nothing less than show that Walt Whitman is the very unconscious and Paraclete of all American poets working today. With generous quotes from Williams's hero, we see how Whitman's oracular largesse most certainly extended to the continental-inspired Pound and Eliot. Williams returns to the pure, original edition (out of nine) of Leaves of Grass for inspiration, finding the so-called deathbed edition along with all the Leaves in between lacking the first flush of musical and formal elements. Williams likewise always returns to Leaves to explore what inspires—beyond Dante, Shakespeare, and others who attract him. In “Song of Myself,” the “I” and “you,” author and experiencer, are conflated to the point where the writer is one more of his own readers; “Song of Myself” tellingly ends with the word “you.” As Williams observes, Whitman “wants us not to be afraid of ourselves, even of our dark, darkest, most doubting selves.” As a personal introduction to the visionary free-verse wellspring of the American poetic spirit, this book is one that no poetry lover should miss. (May)