Poets, Progenitors and Progeny

by Michelle Kassorla, Ph.D.

Let’s entertain, for a moment, the image of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson as literary “parents” of American poetry:

Whitman, Dickinson Become Parents of Healthy Child

(AP) Today, it was reported that American poets Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson became parents of a healthy infant.  The baby, named, “American Poetry,” is said to be doing well.

The Father, Mr. Whitman, is the romantic type, inclined toward a transcendent understanding of things, who speaks not of trees but of “treeness,” and who, above all, appreciates the nature of things–language, life, experience.  He is inclined toward the making of lists, it is true, and sending them about in envelopes of phrase, but this is merely his way of communicating, of showing his respect for the free thought and imaginative capabilities of his friends and admirers.

The Mother, Miss Dickinson, is a no-nonsense New England woman.  She says what she has to in as few words as possible and assumes you’ve gotten the picture.  Although she enjoys nature, it is not the broad picture she is interested in–it is the specific.  Little things really matter to Miss Dickenson, and they are constantly reminding her of her state of being, her mortality, and her relationship with the world.  Free thought is not important, economy of phrase is.  She doesn’t have time for lists, envelopes, or even full sheets of paper.

The couple, after the child’s birth, will be permanently residing in the U.S.

Although a relationship, even a meeting,  between these two poets never occurred, we use the metaphor of their existence as “parents” of American Poetry because they seem to represent the “Adam and Eve” of that genre of literature in America.  This is a prevalent view, which is further forwarded by critics and scholars of poetry who teach it to preceding generations of students.   For example, here is a paragraph from Literature, An Introduction to Reading and Writing, by Edgar Roberts and Henry Jacobs:

Emily Dickinson never met Walt Whitman or read his poetry–in a letter she observes the she “was told he was disgraceful”–but together they establish the real beginnings of modern American poetry.  Whitman’s experiments with form and Dickinson’s with language and imagery go far toward creating the American poetic idiom.[i]

We are led to believe, in this example, that there is an existence of a thing known as the “the American poetic idiom,” and that it has somehow sprung from the poetic loins of Whitman and Dickinson.  Although the prelapsarian model of American poetic lineage has some merit, it, like the model it was drawn from, contains some confounding problems.

It is probably true that Whitman and Dickinson have parented many progeny in America.  They are, separately, awarded founding rights to two major schools of poetry in America–Whitman the transcendental, and Dickinson the metaphysical.  Both poets ignored the strident poetic forms of their predecessors–Whitman with his cataloguing and loose association of words, and Dickinson with her “irregular” rhymes and rhythms, and her unconventional use of punctuation–and, taken together,  challenged American poetry and championed experimentation in form and content.  Whitman and Dickinson showed the power of poetry:  how poetry, like a well ground lens, could be used both to scope the vastness of the heavens and the microcosms of the unseen.  It is understandable, then, that many critics and authors would draw connection to them,  tracing the development of American poetry like a line of biblical “begats,” in order to derive literary legitimacy for poets and poetic works.

Like any progeny, those of Whitman and Dickinson, would display the blended traits of both parents, although some might favor one parent more than another.  Poets like e.e. cummings and Wallace Stevens could clearly be seen as blends of these “poetic parents.”  e.e. cummings, in his poem “La Guerre,”[ii] for example, adapts the free verse style of Whitman, and the introspective and metaphysical view of death which is reminiscent of Dickinson’s work:

the bigness of cannon is skillful,

but i have seen

death’s clever enormous voice

which hides in a fragility

of poppies . . . .

In addition, e. e. cumming’s economy of words and his lack of punctuation and capitalization could be seen as a manifestation of Dickinson’s poetic style.  Wallace Stevens, on the other hand, in the first stanza of his poem “Tattoo”[iii] takes the close and introspective view of Dickinson,  while employing the same sort of listing employed by Whitman:

The light is like a spider.

It crawls over the water.

It crawls over the edges of the snow.

It crawls under your eyelids

And spreads its webs there–

Its two webs.

Clearly this poem, although it utilizes rhyme and conceit, could draw an allusion to Dickinson’s “There’s a certain Slant of light,” but does not have Dickinson’s economy of language.  Likewise, although it utilizes lists, does not have the extensive scope, nor the application of free verse seen in Whitman.  For, although cummings and Stevens may be said to use the techniques and scope of both Whitman and Dickinson, it may also be said that they use the techniques and scope of neither.

The question of literary DNA, perhaps, is less ambiguous when applied to those poets who seem to clearly favor one “parent,” such as Whitman.  Such diverse works as Allen Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California,”[iv] Anne Sexton’s “Venus and the Ark,”[v] and Robert Lowell’s “As a Plane Tree by the Water.”[vi] display undeniably “Whitmanesque” features.  Ginsberg, as if to allay any doubt,  begins his poem with the words:

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for

I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache

self-conscious looking at the full moon.

In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went

into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumeration’s!

What peaches and what penumbras!  Whole families

shopping at night!  Aisles full of husbands!  Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!–and you, Garcia Lorca, what

were you doing down by the watermelons?

Clearly, Ginsberg is both mocking and drawing upon the inspiration of Whitman, not only in his words and imaginative actions throughout the poem, but in his style.  The poem is a list of images, of associations, which build upon each other to create the poem.  Likewise the repeated use of explanation marks, question marks, and the lack of a line break pattern, all add to Ginsberg’s allusion to Whitman.  Although not as obvious in her technique, Ann Sexton uses the cataloguing of items in her poem “Venus and the Ark”:

The missile to launch a missile

was almost a secret.

Two male Ph.D.’s were picked

and primed to fill it

and one hundred

carefully counted insects,

three almost new snakes,

coiled in a cube,

exactly fifty fish creatures

in tanks, the necessary files,

twenty bars of food, ten brief cures,

special locks, fourteen white rats,

fourteen black rats, a pouch of dirt,

were all stuffed aboard before

the thing blasted from the desert.

The line breaks are more regular than Whitman (and Ginsberg for that matter), but the catalogue of things is reminiscent of Whitman’s part 15 of Song of Myself in which he lists the different activities and identities of people in America.  With this allusion in mind, it is possible to see how Sexton, in this poem, draws from both the biblical lists and from the lists of Whitman to link the image of the ark with that of America.  Finally, Robert Lowell, in “As a Plane Tree by the Water,” recalls from Whitman the lyric notion of the enveloping repeated line, however, unlike Whitman, Lowell uses this repetition in a systematic fashion, repeating the phrase “Flies, flies are on the plane tree, on the streets” at the end of each of the three ten-line stanzas of his poem as both a reflective and unifying device.

Those works which could be seen to favor Dickinson’s side, are John Haines’ “If the Owl Calls Again,”[vii] and X. J. Kennedy’s “Nude Descending a Staircase.”[viii] Haines’ poem is a deceptively simple story of one who accompanies an owl on his nightly journey, but, like Dickinson’s similarly told “Because I could not stop for Death,” its use of metaphor, language, and its intensely introspective view, are habited in a non-self-conscious economy of language and form:

at dusk

from the island in the river,

and its not too cold,

I’ll wait for the moon

to rise,

and take wing and glide

to meet him.

We will not speak,

but hooded against the frost

soar above

the alder flats, searching

with tawny eyes . . .

The poem, like Dickinson’s poetry, is a compact interplay of metaphoric language.  Although Haines does not invoke Dickinson directly through use of similar rhyming or metric styles, he does, clearly, draw upon her sense of image and symbol.  “The island in the river,” for example, may mean both “any” island in “any” river, and a mythic island of the dead located mid-tide of the river Styx.  Haines work is also similar to Dickinson’s use of the “riddle” form, in which the author invokes the curiosity and contemplation of the reader.  Thus, questions such as “Too cold for what?” and “Who is the ‘him’ that the author awaits?” become significant to the interplay between author and reader and effect the interpretation of the poem.  It is a complex sign system which relies as much on surface meanings as it does on culturally shared mythology and literature.  Kennedy’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” is also deceptively simple, even when the reader is aware of the fact that the poem is a description of the painting of like name:

Toe upon toe, a snowing flesh,

A gold of lemon, root and rind,

she sifts in sunlight down the stairs

With nothing on.  Nor on her mind

We spy beneath the banister

A constant thresh of thigh on thigh–

Her lips imprint the singing air

That parts to let her parts go by.

One-woman waterfall, she wears

her slow descent like a long cape

And pausing, on the final stair

Collects her motions into shape.

Like Dickinson’s poetry, Kennedy’s work employs a particular meter and rhyme sequence which pulls the reader through the work.  Kennedy also, like Dickinson employs a highly visual description to the work, with “punch lines” of ironic language at the termination of each stanza which draw allusion to the humor of “I heard a Fly buzz–when I died–,” and “Death is a Dialogue.”

However similar these works are to the works of the “Adam” and “Eve” of American poetics, neither author, nor critic can claim a direct lineage.  For even authors who wish to show an overt relationship, as Ginsberg has, to the works of Whitman or Dickinson cannot feel secure in their birthright.  For, like a serpent slithering its way through the Eden of literary begats, the knowledge that other poetic progenitors may have existed in America tests the paradise of literary certainty and exposes its nakedness.  Whitman and Dickinson, after all,  may only be the adoptive parents of many American poets, who, through forced separation from their true parents, forgot their lineage and grabbed onto the only nurturing models they had.   Alice Walker clarifies the important distinction between adopted and natural literary roots, as she writes of her personal pursuit of  black literary foremothers in “Saving the Life that is Your Own:  The Importance of Models in the Artist’s Life”:[ix]

My discovery of them–most of them out of print, abandoned, discredited, maligned, nearly lost–came about, as many things of value do, almost by accident.  As it turned out–and this should not have surprised me–I found I was in need of something that only one of them could provide.

Tey  Diana Rebelledo, in “Doing Theory,”[x] adds:

In the search for our own aesthetic, for our own analytical direction, we need to look to each other, to recognize that our literature and our cultural production does not need legitimization from the academy, that it is already legitimate in itself.

To be sure, many ethnic poets have much in common with Whitman and Dickinson, after all, many have been legitimately raised by them and socialized to their way of thinking, but this does not mean that ethnic poets are their descendants.  Conspicuously missing from the family album of American poetry that educators like Edgar Roberts and Henry Jacobs present, are the foremothers and forefathers of African American,  Native American, Asian American, Jewish American, and Chicano/a American poets.  Although Whitman and Dickinson provide good parental models within the cultural context of Anglo America, those models should not be considered of such superior quality that we may rationalize the orphaning of all other poetic progeny.  After all, we are barely at the point of understanding non-canonical literary expression, and we are certainly not at the point at which we may pass judgment upon its qualifications for parenthood!

When a poet like Michael S. Harper, one who traces his literary lineage not through the written works of Whitman and Dickinson, but through the language and forms African Americans as expressed through both written, oral and musical forms, it is obvious that the “Adam and Eve” model is missing something.  In Harper’s work, “Dear John, Dear Coltrane,”[xi] he melds the rhythms and feel of jazz music with the words of spirituals, and with his own poetic voice.  It is possible to see some correlation’s between Whitman’s work and Harper’s, it is true, but in the case of Harper, those similarities become merely coincidence, not the remnants of literary DNA.  When Harper, for instance, repeats the line “a love supreme, a love supreme” he shows connection not with the “Whitman envelope,” but with a convention of jazz music–the insertion of  a small recognizable piece of one song into another for the purposes of allusion, known as a “lick.”  The lick, unlike the repetition of phrase in a Whitman poem, is not internally referential in its purpose, but externally referential–bringing the audience’s understanding of another work into the new work to create a place of reference and expansion.  However, it is only through an understanding of Harper’s true literary lineage that we can understand the significance of the line within his work and avoid the misinterpretation of his objective.

Likewise, Ishmael Reed’s work, “Betty’s Ball Blues,”[xii] –although it could be tied, through its use of meter and its minimalist use of punctuation, to Dickinson, and through its use of repetition, to Whitman,– is a direct descendant of the traditional blues forms traditionally sung by African Americans.   The poem, made up of eight stanzas, contains within each stanza, a phrase which repeats itself twice, followed by a coda”[xiii] which forwards the action in the poem.  The first stanza, for example, demonstrates this pattern:

Betty took the ring

from her fabled Jellyroll

Betty took the ring

from her fabled Jellyroll

She gave it all to Dupree

and eased it on his soul.

Again, it would be impossible to place the context of this particular work without knowledge of Reed’s literary lineage, and, thus, a critical perspective of the work would be impossible.

Another significant difficulty comes to light in the discussion of Whitman and Dickinson as the parents of American poetry, when the poet brings a particular aspect of his or her ethnicity into play in order to illustrate a political or social point.  Dickinson, because of her intensely introspective view and her relatively sheltered life, had little to say of politics, and, although Whitman is considered a political poet, his poetry is concerned with the establishment of an essential American who exists in a Utopian world of democracy and fairness.  However estimable Whitman’s position might be, this position does not reflect the reality of ethnic Americans; it establishes a hegemony of “Americanness” which serves to limit the scope and interpretation of ethnic poets.  In order to accurately deal with both the personal and the public issues of their times, ethnic authors are necessarily engaged in the political, and their poetry represents a reaction to political realities which, in turn, become personal realities.

Thus, when Mitsuye Yamada, in her poem “Desert Run,” utilizes cataloging as a technique, it is not only for the purpose, as Whitman established, of providing a landscape, but as a list of grievances against the illegal internment of her family in a Japanese detention camp during World War II, and when Janice Gould places parts of the text in her poem “We Exist”[xiv] off to the side to acknowledge both the marginalization of Native American experience and the silences in the text which must be filled in with those marginalized experiences.  It would be completely misplaced to suggest that Gould and Yamada are drawing from a literary heritage of Whitman or Dickinson, for Gould and Yamada are drawing from their own literary heritage, and denial of that heritage becomes, in itself, the political act against which they fight through their poetry.

The issue of language use must also enter into this debate, for there is nothing more powerful, and nothing more suggestive of identity, than poetic use of language.  In Pedro Pietri’s “Suicide Note from a Cockroach in a Low Income Housing Project”[xv] it is possible to see the Whitmanesque plays upon listing and the repetition to both reach the reader, and to establish a cadence in the work, but it is important to also look at the choice of vernacular form within the work:

I hate the world

I am depress

I am deprave

I am ready to propose to the grave

Life is too complicated to proceed

Fate is the only medicine I need to feel good . . .

Pietri’s use of verb forms where standard English would require the use of an adjective, suggests that the speaker is a member of a non-English speaking ethnic group, but its comparative use with the well executed lines, “I hate the world,” and “Life is too complicated to proceed,” suggests that this speaker is either willfully choosing to substitute non-standard forms, or is in the process becoming completely fluent, but has not yet achieved full fluency.  The verb forms also indicate that speaker may serve as a force which can “depress” and “deprave” others.  Thus, the combination of messages indicated the use of the words “depress” and “deprave” work to both suggest the identity of the speaker and to comment upon his perceived societal status.  Language use by Gwendolyn Brooks in her poem “In the Mecca,”[xvi] however, works to establish the racial and social background of her work, in addition to communicating a sense of conversational rhythm, characterization, and style which is important to the understanding of the way in which characters relate to one another:



. . . Cap, where Pepita?  Casey, where Pepita?

Emmett and melodie Mary, where Pepita?

Briggs, Tennessee, Yvonne, and Thomas Earl,

where may our Pepita be?–

our Woman with her terrible eye,

with iron and feathers in her feet,

with all her songs to lemon-sweet,

with lightning and a candle too

and junk and jewels too?

My heart begins to race.

I fear the end of Peace.

ain seen er I ain seen er I ain seen er

ain seen er I ain seen er I ain seen er . . .

Brooks, in her switch between narrative voice, “Suddenly counting noses, Mrs. Sallie sees no Pepita,” and the voice of Mrs. Sallie, “Where Pepita Be?” works as a code switch which both establishes a separate narrative voice in the work, and assures the audience that the author is well aware of  standard forms of English, but has chosen to employ the vernacular forms in order to produce a certain effect in the work.  This self-consciousness communication of purpose to the audience further establishes the importance of the vernacular forms to the work itself.  In addition the use of different type styles suggests different moods:  the “all caps” section, for example, alarm; and the italic’s section, denial and distress.  This work is unlike anything occurring in either the works of Whitman or Dickinson, because those authors wrote from a highly personal perspective, whereas Brooks is concerned with the existence of a community of speakers and attitudes which all contribute to the meaning of the poem.

It is important to the understanding of all poetic forms in America that the “Adam and Eve” theory of American poetic lineage is eliminated, and the more plausible idea of multiple and heterogeneous descent is substituted in its place.  I am not, by this assertion, suggesting that Whitman and Dickinson did not have a large number of literary children, but I am suggesting they are not the only parental model.  It is only through a thorough understanding of literary gene pools that we can come to a clear understanding of the “meaning” inherit in the American poetic forms, and, in that understanding, of the basis for their communication with other works.  The bouncing baby of Whitman and Dickinson, after all, needs more than parents to relate to, it needs peers.


[i] Roberts, Edgar and Henry Jacobs, eds.  Literature, An Introduction to Reading and Writing .  Englewood Cliffs, NJ:  Prentice-Hall, 1986.

[ii]cummings, e.e.  A Selection of Poems.  Horace Gregory, ed.  (New York:  Harcourt, 1963 ) 32-33.

[iii]Stevens, Wallace.  The collected Poems of Wallace Stevens.  (New York:  Knopf, 1954 ) 81.

[iv]Ginsberg, Alan.  Collected Poems 1947-80.  New York:  Harper and Row, 1981.

[v]Sexton, Anne.  To Bedlam and Part Way Back.  Boston:  Houghton Mifflin, 1960.

[vi]Lowell, Robert.  Lord Weary’s Castle and The Mills of the Kavanaughs.  New York:  Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974.

[vii]Haines, John.  Winter News.  Middletown, CT:  Weseyan University Press, 1962.

[viii]Kennedy, X. J.  Nude Decending a Staircase.  New York:  Doubleday, 1960.

[ix]Walker, Alice.  In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens.  (New York:  Harvest, 1983) 9.

[x]Rebelledo, Tey Diana.  “Doin Theory.”  Making Face, Making Soul: Haciendo Caras.  Gloria Anzaldua, ed.  (San Francisco:  Aunt Lute Foundation, 1990) 354.

[xi]Harper, Michael S.  Images of Kin: New and Selected Poems.  Urbana, Il:  Univeristy of Illinois Press, 1977.

[xii]Reed, Ishmael.  New and Collected Poems.  New York:  Anthenium, 1988.

[xiii]A term chosen for its particular meaning both in music and in literature, as defined in Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, 1981 :  “1 a : a concluding musical section that is formally distinct from the main structure   b : a concluding part of a literary or dramatic work.”

[xiv]Gould, Janice.  “We Exist.”  Making Face, Making Soul: Haciendo Caras.  Gloria Anzaldua, ed.  San Francisco:  Aunt Lute Foundation, 1990.

[xv]Pietri, Pedro.  Puerto Rican Obituary.  New York:  Monthly Review Press, 1973.

[xvi]Brooks, Gwendolyn.  In the Mecca.  New York:  Harper and Row, 1964.

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