The HyperTexts

Whitman's Worth
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 than Whitman.

(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, albeit 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 Grass.

(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 because."

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 hislike the one aboveand 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 came from.


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 encounters.

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, 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 my point!

Salemi then called the poems by the "illegal Moslem immigrant" both "puerile garbage" and "drivel."

MRB: The 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?   

The HyperTexts