The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 419 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 530 words.)