Whitman’s preface to “Leaves of Grass”

I thought this preface was interesting because Whitman mainly talks about what makes a great poet. Some of it sounded familiar, but I couldn’t remember if I’d read this before or not. Regardless, I enjoyed some of the points he brings up in the reading.

Whitman brings up the idea of past, present, and future in a way I liked. One of the quotes that stood out for me was in that section.

Past and present and future are not disjoined but joined. The greatest poet forms the consistence of what is to be from what has been and is. He drags the dead out of their coffins and stands them again on their feet…he says to the past, Rise and walk before me that I may realize you.

This reminded me of how people will sometimes say that individuals or characters will live on in writing. It’s the idea that when you’re reading a poem it doesn’t matter when the narrator or characters lived because a great poet should be able to transfer their poem to any present. In that way, I like that Whitman refers to the past, present, and future as joined. Perhaps Whitman also believed that by calling the past to the present he might learn something new about that time or even himself. When he talks about consistence of what is to be, has been, and is, it seems like he is again reinforcing the connection between past and present and future. I know other poets have given their various opinions about what makes a great poet, but I don’t recall any referring to this connection.

Another part of the preface that I took not of was when Whitman brings up the idea of poets and non-poets being on equal terms.

The messages of great poets to each man and woman are, Come to us on equal terms, Only then can you understand us, We are not better than you, What we enclose you enclose, What we enjoy you enjoy. Did you suppose there could be only one Supreme? We affirm there can be unnumbered Supremes, and that one does not countervail another any more than one eyesight countervails another…

Before I get into my analysis, the “Supreme” he mentions reminded me of a TV show, American Horror Story: Coven. In the show a coven of witches are all fighting about who should be the next Supreme after the old one dies. It’s been made a sort of joke with people, which is why I kind of laughed when I read the Whitman line. Moving past the humorous part, I really liked the quote though.

supreme chart

I found this interesting for Whitman to say because he isn’t taking on that elitist stance, thinking that great poets are above the rest of society. He even addresses both man and woman without putting man ahead of woman. That’s something we haven’t seen in our readings yet. Usually woman don’t get mentioned at all or they are referred to as lower than men. Whitman is saying that both man and woman can understand the great poets, indicating that he believes woman can be intelligent as well and can be on equal understanding terms. Whitman definitely tries to make the idea of a great poet something important but not something so important that people wouldn’t understand unless they too are a great poet.

He even says that they enjoy the same things as everyone else, revealing that he and other great poets aren’t constantly on some higher up wavelength of thinking. Then he goes on about the Supremes and how there doesn’t have to be one single Supreme because there is not one single way to see things ever. He tells us that one opinion doesn’t have to override another.

Whitman seems to be taking a stance that the previous poets we’ve read about haven’t. He talks about equality and connecting the past, present, and future. I enjoyed reading about what makes a great poet in his opinion.

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