by Michael R. Burch, editor of The HyperTexts
In her recently-published sonnet "What a
Wit is Worth,"
Sally Cook praised the British formalist John Whitworth while speaking dismissively of Walt Whitman and his poetry. I quote:
Oh, Whitman was a rhymer who enjoyed to play the part
Of complicating everything. It's something of an art
To ramble on for pages on the pinprick of a thought,
Which makes word choice irrelevant, and form seem overwrought,
And chokes the flow of meter like a clot within the heart,
And leaves the scansion bumpy as an overladen cart.
Cook goes on to assure us that Whitworth is the far more valuable poet:
But Whitworth's worth more half again than all the free verse clamor
That issued from that country boy whose hyperbolic stammer
Has branded modern poetry these hundred years or so.
I am not going to delve into the question of whether one poet is "worth" more
than another. I will say that I believe Whitman has few serious rivals among
poets writing today, if any. I will be glad to explain why, with an example (the poem below). But first, please allow me to address some of the accusations
hurled at Whitman by Cook:
(1) Whitman was not a "rhymer." I can think of only one of his best-known poems
that employs end rhyme: "O Captain! My Captain!" If Whitman employed internal
rhyme in other poems, he did it so subtly that it was seldom
apparent. Whitman is famous for not rhyming. Or perhaps he is
notorious for not rhyming, in certain poetic churches. But in any case I cannot
think of a major English language poet who relied on rhyme less
(2) Whitman did not "complicate everything." As Ralph Waldo Emerson
said to Whitman in a letter praising Leaves of Grass, "... its solid
sense is a sober certainty." In addition to not indulging in regular
meter or rhyme, Whitman rarely, if ever, indulged in irony, wordplay, metaphysical
conceits, etc. Like A. E. Housman, Whitman was a master of direct statement,
in a radically different style. He
said―as far as I can tell―exactly what he meant to say,
with no beating around poetic bushes. Whitman strikes me as a very understandable poet.
Certainly, one may disagree with things he said, and some people with
orthodox religious beliefs and/or prejudices may bitterly hate certain
"heretical" ideas that he expressed, but where is the
"complication" of "everything" in Whitman's extensive writings?
(3) I don't agree with Cook's "pinprick of a thought" either. Whitman expressed
many "large" thoughts: the unity of creation, the brotherhood of man, the nature of
democracy, the equality of the races
and sexes, the advantages of tolerance, extramarital sex and homosexuality not being
"sins," one religion being as good (or as bad)
as another, the need for America to develop its own unique literary style, etc.
Perhaps Whitman did "ramble on for pages" at times, but many readers have
enjoyed reading those long rambling passages. (I am one of them, and I usually
prefer shorter lyric poems.) Furthermore, how does "rambling" make word choices
irrelevant and form seem "overwrought"? Wouldn't rambling make form seem
under-wrought and be neutral in terms of word choices?
(4) Whitman is among the most musical of poets, so I don't
agree that he "chokes the flow of meter" or that his poetry was in any
way "bumpy." Rather, Whitman very ably demonstrated
that musical English-language poetry does not require formal meters.
(5) Whitman was not a "country boy." He was a city boy, born on Long Island,
whose family moved to Brooklyn when he was four. And he was not a "boy" but an
adult when he wrote and published his best-known poems: those in Leaves of
(6) To my knowledge, Whitman never "stammered" in his writing, whether poetry or
prose. His collection of essays, Specimen Days, contains some of
the best prose that I can remember reading.
I have heard similar charges raised against Whitman
by formalist poets in the past. I don't think they hold water. Such charges
seem to ignore what and how Whitman actually wrote and are perhaps based on the
assumption that metrical poetry is automatically superior to free verse "just
How can we judge Whitman's worth as a poet, except by reading his poems? Have
any of Whitman's formalist critics written a single poem as good as one of his
best? I will offer one exceptional Whitman poem as evidence and
ask readers to form
their own conclusions. Does it sound like the work of a rhymer? Does it
complicate everything? Does it ramble on and on over a pinprick of a thought? Is
it unmusical? Does it stammer?
A Noiseless Patient Spider
by Walt Whitman
A NOISELESS, patient spider,
I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;
Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you, O my Soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,—seeking the spheres, to connect them;
Till the bridge you will need, be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold;
Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.
When I was a young poet and various formalists informed me that Whitman was "not as good"
as their favorites, I would read poems of his―like the one above―and shake my head. How
could they not see Whitman's very obvious worth? (Is there a prejudice involved,
perhaps, like the one that claims white skin is "better" than the darker shades,
"just because"?) In my opinion, for whatever it's worth, Whitman was a
marvelous poet who wrote some truly marvelous poems. As the old saw
goes, "the proof is in the pudding." The enchanting little poem above disproves―or
at least argues very strongly against―nearly everything that Cook said about Whitman, and there are
others where it
After I wrote the missive above and posted a link to it, there were responses by
other poets. I have published excerpts from the thread that may be of interest
to others. Initially, I quoted verbatim certain things that Dr. Joseph S. Salemi
said, but he objected to my excerpting quotes, so I have resorted largely to
paraphrases where he is concerned. Please note that it was my preference to let
Salemi's words speak for him, and it was he who insisted that I not quote him
unless I obeyed his dictates, which I decline to do.
James Sale: The real question is not whether the poem is accurate – Macbeth
is not an ‘accurate’ historical portrait – the question is: is the poem a poem,
does it work? does it make it make us ‘feel’ and see things in new ways? And I
think the answer is a resounding, Yes! Sally Cook has written a fine poem.
Questions of ‘accuracy’ may be interesting, but I think need to be subordinated
to the main issue of poetry qua poetry.
MRB: Macbeth may be taken as fiction. Cook’s poem doesn’t seem like
fiction to me. If Cook is not being accurate about Whitman; should we take her to
also be lying or exaggerating in her praise of Whitworth? Is she mocking
Whitworth with hyperbolic praise? No, it seems clear that Cook really does
prefer Whitworth’s poetry to Whitman’s. Which is fine, if that's the way her
taste leads her. But it makes no sense for her to be honest in her praise of
Whitworth and yet dishonest in her criticism of Whitman. It seems clear that
Cook believes what she says about Whitman, but what she says is not true. To me
it sounds like someone who believes the earth is flat, because someone else said
that the earth is flat.
Joseph S. Salemi opined that "Burch has just published
two godawful poems
by an illegal Moslem immigrant, who sneaked into Europe as a stowaway living on
stolen food, and who now resides as a parasite in Moldova." According to Salemi,
the poems are "laughable idiocies." He then went on to further insult the poems
and their publisher in his usual loutish manner. He finished by bragging about
how he "wiped the floor" with the surprisingly unscathed Burch in three previous
MRB: As for the two poems by the stowaway poet, to me they are clearly better
aesthetically than Cook’s poem, her misrepresentations aside. Take the first
line of her poem, for instance. It is very awkwardly worded:
Oh, Whitman was a rhymer who enjoyed to play the part
Do you think that is “good” poetry, really? I have seen Cook write much better
poems, and I have published a good number of them myself. But this particular
poem doesn’t hold a candle to the two poems by the stowaway, in my opinion. If
readers are interested, they can judge for themselves, by going to
www.thehypertexts.com, then clicking
on Home, then Spotlight, then the page for
S. Sel-yksir ...
[Or readers of this page can simply click the poet's hyperlinked name.]
Salemi then bragged about what a great editor he is. He opined that "Mike Burch is
profoundly handicapped by his viewpoints" saying that if such a profoundly
handicapped editor accepted poems by the Awesomely Great Salemi, it was only
because of a "larger left-liberal agenda." He then whined about other poets
exercising their right to contradict him, claiming they had been "called in" to
give him grief.
MRB: Joe, when someone is as nasty and abusive as you choose to be, it should
come as no surprise that other poets chime in to criticize what you say and how
you say it. If I remember correctly, Quincy Lehr's criticism of your methods had
already been published and was not something I "called" for him to write. Sam
Gwynn's comment about you being more of a politico than a poet was also
previously online, if I remember correctly. The response was unusual―I'll
grant you that―but you bring it upon yourself by lashing out right and left
(mostly left, if you'll pardon the pun). But even if I had "called in" the
criticism, what of it? You invite confrontation. If you can't stand the heat,
why enter the kitchen with guns blazing?
Salemi then expressed the opinion that only liberals have to behave decently
because they have positive values like tolerance and respect for diversity,
while conservatives can act like cads (presumably because they lack similar
positive values). As usual, his defenses of his boorishness were accompanied by
highly personal, playground-bully-type insults.
MRB: Your insults such as my being “wet in the crotch” make you sound like the
churlish bully that I have accused you of being. Thanks for once again proving
Salemi then called the poems by the "illegal Moslem immigrant" both "puerile
garbage" and "drivel."
poems by the stowaway poet are, in my opinion, clearly better than Cook’s poem currently
under consideration. [I have provided links in this thread, so that readers can
decide for themselves.] Cook has written better poems, but this one is awkward
in spots and contains a number of misrepresentations. I doubt that any astute
reader will conclude that Cook’s poem is “better,” and it would amaze me if
anyone except the most diehard formalists found it better than Whitman's poetry. Cook’s approach, as far as I can tell, is like
that of a
music lover who considers the ukulele to be the only “real” musical instrument
and insists that Tiny Tim is a far more valuable musician than Mozart because Tiny
Tim played the ukulele and Mozart didn’t. “Oh, that deluded, hyperbolic country
boy Mozart! How could he fail to see that only the ukulele has any value?
Everyone knows that Tiny Tim is worth so much more than Mozart!” Perhaps such
“alternate facts” work in the political realm, but they will not hold water with
people who read poetry and think independently about what they are reading.
Clearly, Tiny Tim was not “superior” to Mozart except perhaps as a comedian.
Clearly, awkwardly written metrical poems are not automatically superior to
Whitman’s melodious free verse. Facts are facts and nonsense is nonsense. If
Cook is going to tackle Whitman in verse, she will have to raise her game
substantially, and she should replace nonsense with statements that make sense.
Salemi responded with yet another litany of insults punctuated here and there by
more bragging about his alleged superiority.
MRB: Perhaps the strangest thing about Cook's poem is its conclusion: "So, now
along the bottom road, as in arrears we go, / Feel sorry for poor poets blaring
pompously, full blast— / And wave the flag for wit and humor—these things truly
last." Cook claims that wit and humor are what truly last. Since both Whitman
and William Carlos William—the two free verse poets cited in her poem—have
lasted awhile, and Whitman well over a century, are we to assume that their
specialty must have been humor? Must we also conclude that Shakespeare would be
forgotten if not for his comedies, and that his tragedies have left us in
arrears and are no longer remembered?