"To Have Great Poets, There Must Be Great Audiences, Too"
Context: Walt Whitman is known today for his poetry depicting the America of his time in all its facets, sordid as well as sublime. That he wrote a sizeable quantity of prose is not as well known. Much of the latter was editorial writing. At the age of thirteen he worked on the press of the Long Island Star; at sixteen he was a compositor in New York. Following a brief interlude as teacher, he bought a press and founded the Long Islander, in Huntington. Here he continued for a year, then returned to New York and became managing editor of the Daily Aurora. During the next few years he worked for several newspapers, one of them in New Orleans. When Leaves of Grass was published, Whitman had high hopes for it; but his poetry was greeted with widespread condemnation. He returned to journalism in order to earn a living, becoming editor of the Brooklyn Daily Times. After his service nursing the wounded during the Civil War, he held some minor jobs in Washington, and during this time he wrote more or less steadily. His poetry was still a victim of censorship and prejudice; he did not live to see it widely accepted. Although much of his prose is editorial writing in condemnation of social and political ills, crusading for reforms, there are a number of pieces which pertain to the craft of writing. "Ventures, on an Old Theme," from one of the collections of his miscellaneous writings, is such a work. It begins with a dialogue in which one person observes that we do certain things in privacy that society would not allow us to do in public: the same should be true of poetry. The poet replies that poetry is true freedom, and that in the deepest sense it cannot offend. He believes it is time to break down the barriers of false morality and the strict conventions of poetic composition. The new poetry should disregard that artificial distinction between prose and verse, and its inspiration should come from that part of America which is bursting with energy and growth.
Of poems of the third or fourth class, (perhaps even some of the second,) it makes little or no difference who writes them–they are good enough for what they are; nor is it necessary that they should be actual emanations from the personality and life of the writers. The very reverse sometimes gives piquancy. But poems of the first class, (poems of the depth, as distinguished from those of the surface,) are to be sternly tallied with the poets themselves, and tried by them and their lives. . . .In these States, beyond all precedent, poetry will have to do with actual facts, with the concrete States, and–for we have not much more than begun–with the definitive getting into shape of the Union. Indeed I sometimes think it alone is to define the Union, (namely, to give it artistic character, spirituality, dignity.) What American humanity is most in danger of is an overwhelming prosperity, "business" worldliness, materialism: what is most lacking, east, west, north, south, is a fervid and glowing Nationality and patriotism, cohering all the parts into one. Who may fend that danger, and fill that lack in the future, but a class of loftiest poets?If the United States haven't grown poets, on any scale of grandeur, it is certain they import, print, and read more poetry than any equal number of people elsewhere–probably more than all the rest of the world combined.Poetry (like a grand personality) is a growth of many generations–many rare combinations.To have great poets, there must be great audiences, too.