Who's Afraid of Walt Whitman?

ANDREI CODRESCU

June 28, 1993|By ANDREI CODRESCU

New Orleans. -- Why are people still afraid of Walt Whitman? According to Sam Abrams, editor of ''The Neglected Walt Whitman,'' just published by Four Walls/Eight Windows, they are afraid enough to hide some of his best poems. The Library of America's ''Complete Poetry and Collected Prose,'' for instance, fails to reproduce one of the poet's most subversive works, ''Respondez!,'' a poem that reveals a whole different Whitman, far different from the optimistic trumpeter of American democracy known to generations of school children.

''Stifled, O days! O lands! in every public and private corruption! Smother'd in thievery, impotence, shamelessness, mountain-high;/ Brazen effrontery, scheming, rolling like ocean's waves around and upon you, O my days! O my lands! For not even those thunderstorms, nor fiercest lightning of the war, have purified the atmosphere!; . . . Let the eminence of meanness, treachery, sarcasm, hate, greed, indecency, impotency, lust, be taken for granted above all! Let writers, judges, governments, households, religions, philosophies, take such for granted above all!/ Let the priest still play at immortality! Let death be inaugurated.''

This angry, ''unsafe Whitman,'' as Mr. Abrams calls him, has unsettled academic critics since the very beginning. After gaining the approval of Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1855, Whitman was willfully repudiated and neglected by the American cultural establishment, even as his fame grew abroad, gaining the love of poets from Europe to Latin America. When it became impossible ignore him, a sanitized version was carefully carved out of his work.

Whitman's angry poems, as well as his homoerotic songs to sexual love, were carefully obscured and excised from most editions. Despite the neglect of the academics, Whitman became genuinely loved by those who really matter, the lovers of poetry. The ''neglected poems'' printed here by Sam Abrams should go a long way toward restoring to us the bard of whom D.H. Lawrence said, ''The Americans are not worthy of their Whitman.''

Andrei Codrescu is editor of Exquisite Corpse.

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