Friday, July 30, 2010

Nothing is better than simplicity - Longfellow vs Whitman, again

From the aggravating Preface to the 1855 Leaves of Grass:

The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters is simplicity.  Nothing is better than simplicity . . . nothing can make up for excess or for the lack of definiteness.

The ellipses are Whitman’s, an annoying orthographical tic that he thankfully suppresses later in his career.  It’s just a comma.  Never mind that.  Not what I want to say.

I want to end the week with two Longfellow vs. Whitman comparisons.  First, the two poets, however different, share some goals, share them precisely.  Both profoundly believe in the necessity of the creation of something called American poetry, something that is not European, that is not whatever is going on in English poetry.

Longfellow solves the problem by writing on American subjects:  Evangeline, The Song of Hiawatha, The Courtship of Miles Standish.  “America” here includes French Canadians, pre-contact Native Americans, and, in other poems, slaves and sailors and anyone else Longfellow can think of.  The founding of America – the Plymouth colony, the American Revolution - becomes a source of legends.

Longfellow was not merely a deft and supple poet, but an innovator.  I’ve both mocked and enjoyed his attempt to bring hexameter into English prosody, and now have to admit that his use of it in The Courtship of Miles Standish is an improvement on Evangeline.  He wanted to expand what poetry could do, and how it was done, and he succeeded.

Unless the comparison is relative, because he did not tear poetry down and build it up again.  He did not push the language to the extremes of its resources like Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson were doing at the same time.  Nor did he extend the subject matter into forbidden and outrageous territory or new frontiers of obscurity like his peers Charles Baudelaire and Gérard de Nerval.  Later poets and critics ranked poets according to the magnitude or importance of their innovations, so Longfellow falls behind.  He does not vanish, but he lags.

Second: Simplicity, complexity.  Leaves of Grass is inexhaustibly complex.  I know I’ll come back to it again and again.  Whitman’s praise of simplicity is pure misdirection.  In the 1855 Preface, Whitman describes, at length, the characteristics of “the great poet”: “The great poets are also to be known by the absence in them of tricks and by the justification of perfect personal candor,” for example.  My working assumption at this point is that Whitman is describing himself, a great poet, without too much irony.  Still, the idea that Leaves of Grass, even in this short, early version, lacks excess, or is perfectly definite, or is simple in any significant way, is absurd.  Whitman reminds me of William Blake or Friedrich Hölderlin, world-creating poets so complex that readers scour fragments and drafts looking for clues to the meaning of specific words.  Well, maybe it was all simple for Walt Whitman.  Not for me.

“The poems distilled from other poems will probably pass away,” Whitman writes near the end of the Preface.  He might have been thinking of Longfellow, who was often criticized for being too European in his poetics (that he merely grafted American subjects onto European forms).  The Song of Hiawatha is, I think, too simple to be a great poem.  Its limits are reached too easily, its imagery is insufficiently rich, its ideas too easily grasped.  The fact that I think this makes Leaves of Grass a greater poem says less about the poems than about my own aesthetic standards, which are received and very much of my time.

More Whitman, later, after a break.  More Longfellow, too.  He’s no Walt Whitman, but he’s pretty good.


  1. "The fact that I think this makes Leaves of Grass a greater poem says less about the poems than about my own aesthetic standards, which are received and very much of my time."

    It says something about the poem, no?

    Even if your aesthetic standards are received, which is kind of true, but kind of false, too, because you've had to "filter them from yourself," anyhow, even if your standards are strictly received, they might be pretty good standards that allow you to separate the good stuff from the not so good stuff, yeah?


  2. I hope so, Kevin. I think you're right.

    But the more I understand how much I value complexity, the more doubts I have.

    I'm imagining the simple, not at all innovative, yet perfect poem. Imagining, because I don't have an example handy. But that's the idea.