In his preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman considers the measure of a great poet: "Is he beloved long and long after he is buried? Does the young man think often of him? and the young woman think often of him? and do the middleaged and the old think often of him?" A great poem, Whitman continues, helps guide the reader to achieve fullness within, to become "a man cohered out of tumult and chaos." Two poets who admire Whitman and think of him quite often spoke at the April 7 poetry reading and discussion, "Cohered out of Tumult and Chaos:" The Poetry of Walt Whitman. Matt Miller, author of the forthcoming book, Collage of Myself: Walt Whitman and the Making of Leaves of Grass, joined Cody Walker, the author of Shuffle and Breakdown (a book of poetry that takes its title from a line in "Song of Myself"), to talk about Whitman's poetry and process.
Walker began by speaking about his longstanding love for Whitman: "When he says, 'I stop somewhere waiting for you,' I take him at his word." In his first semester in college, Walker wrote a paper on "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer," and it inspired him to seek an alternative form of education by temporarily quitting school. When he encountered the poet again as a graduate student and read him more deeply, Walker decided, "I need to read Whitman every day for the rest of my life."
During his own graduate school days, Miller worked for The Walt Whitman Archive, transcribing Whitman's notebooks and diaries. By studying Whitman's original manuscripts, Miller realized the collage-like process Whitman employed to compose his poems. He offered the audience at the Center a glimpse of what he saw, showing pictures of Whitman's office in Camden. "His house was a constant disaster, a disaster which he cherished and encouraged," Miller said, noting that Whitman described his floor full of papers as "a sea." "When he was stuck for a line, when he essentially had writer's block, he would reach down into the sea and fish around."
Many of Whitman's manuscripts feature lines written on scraps of paper, cut into strips, and pasted together. He appropriated language from various texts, especially for the long descriptive lists in his poems. Miller has identified some of these sources: an anatomy book and a popular 1850s bird guide, as well as Whitman's diaries and notes. To Miller, the evidence of this process indicates that Whitman was "much more of a composer and an arranger" than a bard inspired by the muses.
Walker applauded Miller for "answering the big question: 'How did he do it?' That's the thing that everybody asks about Whitman. How did he go from being this kind of pedestrian writer, this relative hack in the 1840s, to the writer of Leaves of Grass?" Walker noted that Miller offers "a technical solution," rather than attributing Whitman's development to some kind of transformational revelation.
Walker challenged the image of Whitman as an eternal optimist by reading aloud his "deeply ironic" and "tonally off-kilter" poem "Respondez!" a lesser-known work not included in the first or last editions of Leaves of Grass. The poem implores, "Let death be inaugurated! / Let nothing remain but the ashes of teachers, artists, moralists, lawyers, and learn'd and polite persons! / Let him who is without my poems be assassinated!" The penultimate line asks, "What real happiness have you had one single hour through your whole life?" Walker commented, "I've read this poem hundreds and hundreds of times. Every time I get to that line I think, Oh my God, none! And I'm terrified. It's not true. But just at that moment he gets me."
Miller and Walker concluded the event by reading poems of their own that owe a debt to Whitman. An epigraph in Walker's Shuffle and Breakdown quotes from a letter Whitman wrote that claims (falsely), "Tho' always unmarried I have had six children—two are dead—One living southern grandchild, fine boy, who writes to me occasionally." In his book, Walker imagines a young man named Caleb as that southern grandchild. Eight letters are addressed to the grandfather Caleb has never met. In the last letter, having arrived in Camden a few weeks after Whitman's death, Caleb mournfully writes, "I've never properly told you / what a great poet I think you are." In innovative ways, through scholarly work and lines of verse, Miller and Walker continue paying tribute to the poet's greatness.