The Editor’s Creative Role

People have been creating new poetry by recombining lines from old poetry for a long time, at least since late Roman Empire days, when the poetry of Virgil was recycled for the purpose. In Latin they called it cento, and the name has stuck.

Whitman gave us permission to create cento with his words when he wrote:
I like the feeling of a general partnership—
As if Leaves of Grass was anybody’s who chooses just as truly as mine.
The words of the true poems give you more than poems,
They give you to form for yourself poems.
All I mark as my own you shall offset it with your own truth

This cento anthology began as a very personal way of expressing my truth, the lessons I have learned from the words of Whitman. For me, the best way to learn is to organize ideas in a logical order. So I took the liberty that he offered us and filtered his words through my own penchant for systematic thinking.

Whitman’s injunction to us to filter all his truths for ourselves also gives each of us his permission to pick and choose among the truths he offers us and reject whatever does not seem true to us. Indeed he made that a demand or obligation when he wrote: Re-examine all you have been told; Dismiss whatever insults your own soul. So this anthology is a personal selection, reflecting my own preferences and biases. I have chosen the words that strike me as most meaningful, poetically original, brilliantly chosen, intellectually stimulating, or emotionally moving. I want to present what is, in my view, the best that Whitman has to offer us. As the great poet Langston Hughes wrote, “It is the best of him that we choose to keep and cherish, not his worst.”

I have included very little of Whitman’s marvelous poetry about the things human beings make and the way humans use those things, because so much of it is specific to his 19th century material culture. His work gives us an incredibly vivid picture of that 19th century world in minute detail, but it seems rather foreign today, so it is less likely than the rest of his work to speak meaningfully to us.  (For example, there are many fine lines about objects and activities relying on steam power but very little about electric power. A human culture without electricity is so far removed from our own that it is hard to find much relevance in it today.)

I have also omitted all of Whitman’s words that are explicitly about the Civil War, because they are so very much bound to that historical era. This is an especially significant omission, because he viewed the Civil War as the pivotal or most crucial experience of his life. My compromise solution on this issue is to include many of the words generated during, or in response to, the situation of the Civil War, but strip those words of their specific historical context. Instead, I have presented them as generalizations that can speak to the issues raised by any and every war, so that they are still (regrettably) relevant to our own time.

Occasionally, I have omitted some great poetry because it did not fit my purposes. Since this is my personal selection, I have barely touched on some themes that were very important to Whitman because they do not seem so valuable or meaningful to me. The most important of these are nationalistic chauvinism (claims that America is superior to other nations) and references to spiritual entities (that is, claims about God, spirits, etc. having real, independent existence).

However, as the work grew, I saw that I might offer something approaching an overall view of Whitman’s thought. So I tried to find a balance between making this a very personal anthology and one that would represent the full scope of his writings. Therefore I included some themes that are not so significant to me, but I gave them less emphasis than they have in his own work. These include his ideas about a spiritual realm as distinct from the material and the soul as an ontological entity that can exist, after death, apart from the body; his praise of war (which he later somewhat contradicted and perhaps abandoned); and some of his political views, including his optimistic and exaggerated strain of American nationalism.

So my anthology has turned out to be a kind of record of my ongoing conversation with Whitman, or, as he might prefer to put it, my continual wrestling with him:
Of me the good comes by wrestling for it;
I am he with whom you must wrestle for the solid prizes of the universe.
I certainly don’t claim to have won those prizes, and I am not sure whether I ever expect to. But the process of wrestling has itself turned out to be a rich reward.

Such a selective reading of Whitman may be a misguided approach. Perhaps his corpus of writings should be seen as a unified intellectual and psychological package. Virtually all of his fundamental ideas were already present in the third (1860) edition of Leaves of Grass, and they were nearly all either directly expressed or implied in the first (1855) edition. In many ways, each idea reinforces all the others. Perhaps all of these fundamental ideas, and the feelings of love, joy, and contentment that accompany them in his poetry (and in his life, some biographers would add), are interlocking parts of a single vision, worldview, and way of life. If so, to select some parts and reject others might leave even the selected parts less valuable, meaningful, or viable. That possibility is worth considering. I have created this very selective anthology well aware of the risk it entails.

I am also well aware of another risk: Many of Whitman’s lines, in their original sources, gain their power from their context, creating unexpected connections between two (or more) ideas and themes that we might have thought were not connected. Through these novel connections, he affords us new viewpoints and new insights. More than this, he embodies in language his vision of an endlessly interconnected universe. By tearing words out of their original contexts, treating each line (or part of a line) as a separate entity, and fitting them all into a rather rigid logical structure, I am sometimes depriving the words of their original meaning and creative power.

I hope that this endeavor is worth the risks. Like Whitman, I certainly have had days when I was dissatisfied with myself; The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious. But at least I can say, like Whitman, that I have had my say entirely my own way; my form has strictly grown from my purports and facts, following only its own impulses. And when I hear him ask, Have you gone aside after listening to me, and created for yourself?, I can answer in the affirmative. Whatever offense I have done to the letter or spirit of his work, I console myself with his own words: He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher.

NEXT: Notes on the Text