The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 419

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Louis Simpson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry collection At the End of the Open Road includes the poem “Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain.” This verse contains twelve stanzas, which are uncontrolled by rhyme, meter, or specific divisions. Two topics—the poet Walt Whitman and the United States—bring the only order to the forty-four lines of poetry. In the verse, Simpson celebrates Whitman, bemoans a nation of self-seekers who have forsaken the American ideal, predicts the nation’s demise, prescribes a remedy—confusing though it is—for the loss of the American Dream, and leaves the reader with a sense of optimism.

The initial twenty-five lines of the poem center on Walt Whitman, who had an impact on Simpson’s life and work but did not determine his writing style. The first five lines describe the bronze statue of Whitman. Located at Bear Mountain State Park in New York, the sculpture is a realistic representation of the poet. As the self-sufficient poet had often done, the statue stands “squarely on two feet”; the form is “Neither on horseback nor seated.” The figure “Loafs by the footpathlooks alive/And he seems friendly.” In the next five lines Simpson asks Whitman several questions: “‘Where is the Mississippi panorama/ And the girl who played the piano?’” The poet wonders where Whitman and his promised nation are.

In lines 11-15 Simpson laments the national preoccupation with transient, material goals, the general neglect of Whitman, and the lack of emphasis on nontangible things. The figure of Whitman responds in lines 16-25 to Simpson’s queries and denies ever having made prophecies or offered prescriptions. Whitman admits that he, too, tried to advance or advertise himself and is “vastly amused” to be found out; he freely and humbly confesses to being “wholly disreputable.”

Simpson uses lines 26-35 to unveil some professions that are, in his opinion, deceitful. The poet contrasts the hypocrisy and deafness of many Americans—particularly those in jobs that ignore the American Dream—with the honest occupations of housewife and storekeeper. He notes the difference between the self-aggrandizement of selfish Americans and the humility of the common folk who take no thought for upward mobility.

Simpson gives dire predictions for the nation in lines 36-38. In fact, the poet compares the probable fate of America with the actual outcome of ancient Greece and Rome. The last lines (39-44) prescribe a remedy for the nation’s crisis. The creative imagery of the closing words brings the reader a sense of hope for the future.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 530

Simpson is a poet of emotion and imagination. Meter, rhyme, and stanza do not direct his “Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain.” Rather, the poet uses feeling and intellect to bring about the reader’s understanding. His loose style and natural voice, not a formal structure, help Simpson to achieve one of his major objectives: to make his writing sound like speech, not rhyme.

It is not surprising that Simpson begins his own thoughts about the United States with references to the American bard Walt Whitman. He addresses Whitman also in “In California,” another poem in At the End of the Open Road. Like Whitman, Simpson focuses on the United States; unlike Whitman, however, Simpson seems less satisfied with the nation.

In “Walt Whitman on Bear Mountain” Simpson employs metaphors effectively. He uses “The poet of death and lilacs” to refer to Whitman and his poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” an elegy for U.S. president Abraham Lincoln. Through it all, however, Simpson depicts Whitman as remaining quietly on the sidelines. Simpson calls Whitman, in his “wrinkled metal,” a waiting “crocodile” that is all-seeing but seems to be “loafing.”

Simpson uses contrasts effectively when citing occupations. He suggests in stanza 4 that “Only a poet pauses” to read the words at Whitman’s statue. Those in many other careers—“all the realtors,/ Pickpockets, salesmen, and the actors performing/ Official scenarios”—appear to have discarded the American ideal; they are a stark contrast to “the man who keeps a store on a lonely road,/ And the housewife,” whom Simpson venerates for their humility and their failure to seek upward mobility.

Simpson uses other stylistic devices in the poem. He makes use in the first stanza of personification when he describes the bronze as looking “alive/ Where it is folded like cloth.” He continues this personification when he says the sculpture stands on two feet, loafs, and answers the posed questions.

Allusions to sickness, death, and cemeteries effectively command attention and denote the misplacement of the American ideal. Simpson mentions that “the light above the street is sick to death” and that the general public has “contracted/ American dreams.” He emphasizes the illness of society by his use of “a deaf ear” and the word “grave”—with its double meaning—in the tenth stanza. The words “used-car lot,” “ruins,” and “unbuilding” create images of and feelings associated with wrecks, rubble, and remains.

Simpson’s vivid imagery is evident when he describes the “Colossal snows” that the houses of wood endure; these physical structures survive pressures from outside—but not from within. Simpson’s continued negativity is in direct opposition to Whitman’s optimism.

In conclusion, Simpson offers his reader a sense of hope after the ruin and devastation. His four final lines present images of clouds lifting, mists clearing, plums flowering, people dancing, and an “angel in the gate.” The ambiguous angel also appears in Simpson’s “In California”; in both poems the angel seems to be observing from afar and distancing itself from the actions of humankind. The angel is suggestive of those guardians of the Garden of Eden, a utopia that could await the nation in the future.