No great poet, not even Wordsworth or Tennyson, wrote more second- or 12th-rate poetry than Walt Whitman. That’s unfortunate because most of the poets who have claimed him as a poetic father have chosen to write in imitation of Whitman’s most tiresome, self-inflated lines – prosy bombast like “Thou Mother with Thy Equal Brood” and “With Husky-Haughty Lips, O Sea!” Even the titles are embarrassing. Such is the path followed by the gasbags Carl Sandberg, Kenneth Patchen, Muriel Rukeyser, Pablo Neruda and, of course, Allen Ginsberg. A few poets learned a harder, worthier lesson from Whitman – among them Eliot, Borges, Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens and, it would seem, Geoffrey Hill.
I’m unaware of any reference to Whitman in Hill’s published work, poetry or prose, and he seems like an unlikely enthusiasm for so severe a poet. Yet a one-hour recording has surfaced, “A Life in Poetry: An Evening with Geoffrey Hill,” sent to me by Dave Lull and Joe of Brooklyn, made last April on the occasion of Hill’s retirement from Boston University. I had never before heard Hill’s voice, which is deep and measured and sounds like Father Mapple’s. Hill read from the Psalms, Wyatt, Shakespeare (Sonnet 66), Donne, Wordsworth, Hopkins, Isaac Rosenberg, D.H. Lawrence and Dylan Thomas. His reading of Hopkins’ “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo” is devastating, especially these lines:
“So be beginning, be beginning to despair.
O there’s none; no no no there’s none:
Be beginning to despair, to despair,
Despair, despair, despair, despair.”
The surprise is Hill’s inclusion of Whitman’s “Beginners,” written in 1860 – after the first edition of Leaves of Grass and before the start of the Civil War:
“How they are provided for upon the earth, (appearing at intervals,)
How dear and dreadful they are to the earth,
How they inure to themselves as much as any – what a paradox appears their age,
How people respond to them, yet know them not,
How there is something relentless in their fate all times,
How all times mischoose the objects of their adulation and reward,
And how the same inexorable price must still be paid for the same great purchase.”
This is beautiful and not characteristic of Whitman’s work. The two final lines, with only a minute shift of idiom, might have been Hill’s. Who would have thought to read Whitman through the lens of Geoffrey Hill? Whitman, indeed, contains multitudes. As John Berryman wrote, “For Whitman the poet is a voice. Not solely his own…” In 1957, already working up his Dream Songs, Berryman wrote “`Song of Myself’: Intention and Substance,” an essay exploring Whitman’s masterpiece and his own intentions and substance. He opens with a blunt statement: “I like or love Whitman unreservedly.”
In a painful late poem, “Despair,” published in Love and Fame, Berryman shouts in the final lines:
“Walt! We’re downstairs,
even you don’t comfort me
but I join your risk my dear friend & go with you.
there are no matches
“Utter, His Father, one word”