by Adam Sedia

Contemporary poetry is plagued by several characteristic vices: obscurity, banality, nihilism—each a topic for examination in its own right. But its most glaring and even characteristic vice is an omnipresent solipsism—a narcissistic navel-gazing by which the poet elevates superficial autobiographical detail to the level of a poetic subject, with no greater end in mind than presenting his perspective either as an individual or as a member of an identity group based on race, class, or some other demographic detail.

Why is this a problem? After all, is all poetry not in some sense autobiographical? After all a poet can only draw material for a poem from his own experience, either lived or learned. Yes: poetry is the supreme individual expression—thought frozen in eternity through the medium of art, either oral memory or writing. But that precise nature of poetry dictates that it must be universal if it is to have any success as a poem. The poem, by definition, is the poet placing his own internal thoughts and experiences outside his own frame of reference, so that it directly engages the reader’s own knowledge and experience.

The poet achieves this through the use of poetic metaphor—not metaphor as a simple rhetorical comparison, but metaphor in its literal sense: a “transfer” of the object to its representation. The sense-object that is poetic subject becomes poetic only through its transformation into a representation of an eternal, unchangeable, universal ideal, which because of its eternity, immutability, and universality is readily known and relatable to any reader across time and language.

“Solipsism” as defined here, declines to take the poetic leap from the temporal to the eternal, most likely because recognition of anything eternal and universal dwarfs the self—and intolerable feeling for any narcissist. This is not to say that contemporary poets are clinical narcissists. But contemporary poets, at least in the West, all grew up in a world of consumer culture and mass advertising that cater to individual self-worth and self-perception to push a product. The undeniable effect of this has been a narcissistic society—or at least a society with a narcissistic perspective.

In a sense, we cannot blame contemporary poets for being products of the societies in which they grew to adulthood. But it is the duty of the poet to break these bounds of time and custom, rising above them, as Dante rose above the world of feudal lords and warring Guelphs and Ghibellines, and Goethe above the world of hereditary aristocracy and Napoleonic world-conquest. So it is the contemporary poet’s duty to rise above our world of corporate tyranny, political and marketing propaganda, and would-be world overlords to reveal truth through the lens of our time. Except contemporary poets fail in this regard. It is much more comforting to talk about oneself than speak against the powers that bestow fame and fortune.

This essay explores solipsism in contemporary American poetry, traces its history to Walt Whitman, and poses a solution and a way forward to revive poetry as true artistic representation rather than self-absorbed preening.

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I

First it is useful to show exactly how this solipsism manifests itself. Contemporary American poetry is so rife with solipsism that selecting representative examples proves a difficult task. Two poets immediately come to mind, but before presenting examples from them, the world was treated very recently to a very public display of solipsistic contemporary poetry.

This egregious and very fresh example is no less than “The Hill We Climb” by Amanda Gorman, recited by her at the most recent United States presidential inauguration. The poem embodies all of the vices of contemporary poetry, from prosaic language, grammar and syntax errors, and frequent use of cliché to an awkward unevenness of its lines and an utter lack of any musicality. But beyond poetics, the poem stands as a monument to solipsism. Only eight lines in, the poem features this whopper of a line:

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We, the successors of a country and a time where a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one.

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She has barely begun her piece, and Gorman places herself at the center of a poem that is ostensibly to celebrate a new government over a nation of 325 million people. It is also a shocking display of ingratitude: she wants to be president, not just recite for one. Nor is it even logically coherent: if she is describing her own time, how is she its successor?

By inserting herself at the center of the poem like this, Gorman abdicates her central role as poet of crafting the poetic voice. A poem’s narrative voice is at once personal and universal. If the ideas a poem conveys are to have any meaning to a different mind reading it, the poem must engage the reader in the experience described beyond the level of mere amusement or sensory titillation. The poet’s experience must mean something to the reader. To achieve this effect, upon which the entire success of a poem depends, the poet must step outside his own frame of reference and view it as the reader would.

Gorman does not do this. Instead, she describes herself in raw demographic terms and relates her experience standing there, reciting at the inauguration. She makes no attempt at insight beyond a cliché “anyone can dream of becoming president” motivational slogan. By adopting such a myopic perspective, Gorman destroys any chance the poem has of appealing to a universal audience—one reflective of the whole nation. Instead, she speaks on behalf of Amanda Gorman and no one else.

But Gorman is not the only navel-gazing poet to have recited at a presidential inauguration. Richard Blanco, who recited at Barack Obama’s second inauguration in 2013, like Gorman, also wears his identity on his sleeve—in his case as a homosexual and the son of Cuban immigrants. A particularly glaring example of solipsism from his poetry includes the following lines from his 2012 poem, “Looking for the Gulf Motel.” The poem begins very autobiographically:

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There should be nothing here I don’t remember . . .

The Gulf Motel with mermaid lampposts
and ship’s wheel in the lobby should still be
rising out of the sand like a cake decoration.
My brother and I should still be pretending
we don’t know our parents, embarrassing us
as they roll the luggage cart past the front desk
loaded with our scruffy suitcases, two-dozen
loaves of Cuban bread, brown bags bulging
with enough mangos to last the entire week,
our espresso pot, the pressure cooker- and
a pork roast reeking garlic through the lobby.
All because we can’t afford to eat out, not even
on vacation, only two hours from our home
in Miami, but far enough away to be thrilled
by whiter sands on the west coast of Florida,
where I should still be for the first time watching
the sun set instead of rise over the ocean.

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It then continues, repeating the italicized refrain, “There should be nothing here I don’t remember . . . ,” three more times, each followed by intimate, photographic details from Blanco’s childhood, with particular focus on scenes unique to his parents’ Cuban immigrant background.

At best, Blanco only hints at a universal theme in the poem: the desire to hold onto memories from childhood. But he never hints at why these memories are important to him. Yes, they define his experience in his formative years—experience that no doubt he would say formed the person he would become. He stops at wishing not to forget those memories. He declines to transform them into something to which any reader can relate. Instead, the reader is left with a “day in the life of” spectator experience, left to say, “That’s nice,” or “That’s interesting,” as an outsider, without an idea engaging him directly in the sensory experience.

“Looking for the Gulf Motel” is hardly an aberration. Blanco’s poetry is rife with similar examples, much of it focusing on details relating to his identity as a Cuban-American and as a homosexual. While he is very apt at description and detail, his poetry is less a work of metaphor than of autobiography, presenting a perspective rather than an idea.

Lawrence Joseph is another poet whose work is rife with solipsistic detail. Like Blanco he is the son of immigrants—Lebanese rather than Cuban. Uniquely, Joseph is a well-known Big Law attorney who, famously represented Texas in its suit before the United States Supreme Court challenging the 2020 election.[1]

His provocatively-titled poem “Sand Nigger,” published in his 1988 volume Curriculum Vitae, captures the solipsism rife in his poetry:

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. . .
Lebanon of mountains and sea,
of pine and almond trees,
of cedars in the service
of Solomon, Lebanon
of Babylonians, Phoenicians, Arabs, Turks
and Byzantines, of the one-eyed
monk, saint Maron,
in whose rite I am baptized;
Lebanon of my mother
warning my father not to let
the children hear,
of my brother who hears
and from whose silence
I know there is something
I will never know; Lebanon
of grandpa giving me my first coin
secretly, secretly
holding my face in his hands,
kissing me and promising me
the whole world.
My father’s vocal chords bleed;
he shouts too much
at his brother, his partner,
in the grocery store that fails.
I hide money in my drawer, I have
the talent to make myself heard.
I am admonished to learn,
never to dirty my hands
with sawdust and meat.
. . .
“Sand nigger,” I’m called,
and the name fits: I am
the light-skinned nigger
with black eyes and the look
difficult to figure – a look
of indifference, a look to kill –
a Levantine nigger
in the city on the strait
between the great lakes Erie and St. Clair
which has a reputation
for violence, an enthusiastically
bad-tempered sand nigger
who waves his hands, nice enough
to pass, Lebanese enough
to be against his brother,
with his brother against his cousin,
with cousin and brother
against the stranger.

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Joseph is obviously not writing strictly about himself. The last few lines of the poem generalize his experience enough to make it clear that he is writing of the Lebanese and the Arab immigrant experience more generally, with a rather harsh view of what he sees as fractious behavior endemic to that community.

Still, he goes no further than that. He portrays the experience of a community, which while it might present a new perspective to the reader, does not engage the reader directly. It falls short of transferring the generalized Lebanese and Arab immigrant experience into the realm of the universal, even though the subject might easily lend itself to a discussion of displacement or perceptions of time and place more generally. Joseph does not go there.

Like Blanco, he presents his own and his family’s experience as a “day in the life of” portrayal, with little beyond that except a reflection on negative traits among the Lebanese. The episodes he describes of the interactions between his family members, while they might offer glimpses at unique scenes and individuals, are little more than anecdotes. No metaphor transfers them into anything greater than exemplars of what Joseph sees as defects in the Lebanese character.

Also like Blanco, Joseph places his identity at the center of his description: Lebanese, Catholic, the son of immigrants. Touting these identities so openly is but a manifestation of solipsism. Cultural, ethnic, and religious background is one—albeit a superficial—way to define the self as an entity distinct from others. But while Joseph—and Blanco—showcase their identities, they never directly engage the reader with it. Instead, it languishes in the realm of mere description—a mere anthropological study written in the first person

Gorman, Blanco, and Joseph are very much mainstream, establishment poets. Their work reflects what the dominant cultural and educational institutions hold out as good poetry. Solipsism, it would seem, is the dominant trend in contemporary poetry. To understand why poetry is there, it helps to understand how it arrived there.

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II

Autobiographical poems, of course, are nothing new. Poets did not start writing poems about themselves until a generation ago. Indeed, no less a master than John Milton produced an autobiographical poem that stands as one of the most famous works in the English language, the sonnet “On His Blindness”:

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When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide;
And that one talent which is death to hide,
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide:
Doth God exact day-labour, light denied,
I fondly ask? But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best: his state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.

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Here, Milton discusses not only his being stricken with blindness but also the thoughts it provokes within him. It is personal in the sense that Milton describes his own perspective on his own experience. Yet Milton does not revel in his status as the sufferer of a disability. He does not ask the reader to empathize with him as a blind man—as both Blanco and Joseph do as the sons of immigrants. Instead, he asks how his affliction is part of the Divine Will for him, and in wrestling with that question famously resolves the issue: serving God—or fulfilling one’s role more generally—may be achieved passively as much as actively.

Milton universalizes his experience. He uses his blindness as an object to achieve poetic metaphor, and in so doing uses it as a vehicle to reveal a greater truth. The sonnet is not so much about Milton himself as the realization he achieves in considering an experience. The only thing autobiographical is that Milton considers his own state, rather than an external object.

A century and a half later, the Romantic poets, with their emphasis on poetry as the product of emotion, placed special emphasis on the deeply personal nature of poetry. Wordsworth, in famously defining poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings . . . from emotion recollected in tranquility,” [2] captured the Romantic view of poetry as the product of emotion—a deeply individual experience inexorably intertwined with the poet’s unique sensory experience. If poetry is simply recollected emotion, the poet’s primary duty is the accurate conveyance of the emotion rather than a reflection on some universal truth. Metaphor is relegated to a supporting role; the description is what counts, as it is the primary vehicle for conveying emotion.

Wordsworth’s thirteen-book The Prelude is an oddity among epic poems: the grandiose, sweeping epic form juxtaposed against its subject matter: intimate and often mundane scenes from Wordsworth’s own life. Indeed, the poem is an extended autobiography, rife with reminiscences and reflections on the events and scenes of Wordsworth’s life, with particular focus on his childhood and youth.

A good example of the self-referential episodes in The Prelude is the portrayal of Wordsworth’s wanderings in the wilderness at eight years old:

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Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up
Fostered alike by beauty and by fear;
Much favored in my birthplace, and no less
In that beloved Vale to which, erelong,
I was transplanted. Well I call to mind
(‘Twas at an early age, ere I had seen
Nine summers) when upon the mountain slope
The frost and breath of frosty wind had snapped
The last autumnal crocus, ‘twas my joy
To wander half the night among the Cliffs
And the smooth Hollows, where the woodcocks ran
Along the open turf. In thought and wish
That time, my shoulder all with springes hung,
I was a fell destroyer. On the heights
Scudding away from snare to snare, I plied
My anxious visitation, hurrying on,
Still hurrying, hurrying onward; moon and stars
Were shining o’er my head; I was alone,
And seemed to be a trouble to the peace
That was among them. . . .

(The Prelude, I:305-24.)

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Here Wordsworth sounds almost contemporary, sharing details of his boyhood that, while vividly descriptive, seem more oriented towards Wordsworth expounding his life’s story than universalizing the experience through metaphor. Indeed, few readers, particularly contemporary readers, can relate directly to Wordsworth’s experience as an eight-year-old boy alone in the wilderness. If anything, it seems most notable as a historical curiosity.

But Wordsworth does more than string together mere autobiographical sketches. After all this description he waxes truly poetic:

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The mind of Man is framed even like the breath
And harmony of music. There is a dark
Invisible workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements, and makes them move
In one society. Ah me! That all
The terrors, all the early miseries,
Regrets, vexations, lassitudes, that all
The thoughts and feelings which have been infused
Into my mind, should ever have made up
The calm existence that is mine when I
Am worthy of myself! Praise to the end!
Thanks likewise for the means!

(I:351-62.)

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At last Wordsworth universalizes the experience. His youthful wanderings formed the man he became and in them he sees destiny at work. And for that he is grateful. It is not a particularly novel or insightful observation, but one Wordsworth clearly makes in earnest.

The Prelude follows this general pattern throughout: a description of an quotidian experience from Wordsworth’s early life along with the emotions he experienced at the time followed by a reflection on the deeper, universalized significance of the experience. The poem in this way might be called a “didactic autobiography.”

Didactic as it may be, Wordsworth’s explications in The Prelude fall short of true poetic metaphor. Wordsworth tells his intent and meaning outright, rather than revealing the meaning through transformation of the poetic object. Though he “tells” rather than “shows,” Wordsworth nonetheless universalizes his experiences and provides a meaning for them presented as a lesson to the reader.

The Prelude represents a departure from the traditional epic. The very mundaneness of its episodes and the intimacy of its description turns the genre on its head. But more importantly, it represents a shift away from autobiographical poetry in the style of Milton. In making himself the subject of an entire thirteen-book epic, Wordsworth showed the way for poetry to devolve into navel-gazing. As close as it comes, The Prelude does not achieve that feat on its own; it still presents autobiographical details as instructive of a greater lesson. Wordsworth still feels that he must provide something to the reader in the form of a lesson when he relates his life experiences. He did not yet take the leap of making autobiography both the subject and the end of his poetry.

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III

The Prelude was only a prelude. Across the Atlantic, the romantic trends in poetry would blossom into true solipsism in the works of Walt Whitman.

Whitman’s impact on American poetry was nothing short of transformational. Before him, American poets like Edgar Allan Poe and William Cullen Bryant wrote in the classical style inherited from Europe. Whitman gave the still-young nation a new style: discursive, conversational, non-formal, and deeply intimate. Whitman more than anyone paved the way for contemporary free verse. Indeed, Ezra Pound acknowledged as much in his poem “A Pact”:

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I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman –
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
Who has had a pig-headed father;
I am old enough now to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root –
Let there be commerce between us.

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For Pound to proclaim that he and Whitman shared “one sap and one root” and to compare himself to a “grown child” returning to Whitman as his father is as clear an acknowledgment of influence as a poet can make. As profoundly influential as Pound was on the modernist movement in poetry, his statement renders Whitman no less than the forefather of modernism in poetry.

But Whitman is the forefather of more than the modernist style and aesthetic. Whitman is truly the first and perhaps the greatest solipsistic poet. One of Whitman’s most famous works is the masterpiece of solipsism, the sprawling, 1,346-line “Song of Myself.”

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The poem begins with a clear statement of intent:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.
Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.
(ll. 1-13.)

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Whitman could not be clearer. Not for him is Wordsworth’s didactic use of autobiography. Rather, he seeks only to “celebrate myself.” The declaration to the reader “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” is not a statement of shared humanity as much as an invitation to step inside Whitman’s own frame of reference and see the world as he sees it. And he says later:

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You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
(ll. 35-37.)

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Whitman is a democratic solipsist. He wants the reader to celebrate the self as much as he does, to view the world through a self-referential frame as much as he does. What would otherwise be an insufferable narcissism becomes an enticement: the poem does not ask the reader to endure Whitman’s navel-gazing but to join him in it, to see his own experiences reflected in the mirror of those Whitman describes from his own life.

The bulk of the poem, consequently, is an exposition of autobiographical minutiae rendered in vivid descriptive detail. Whitman bombards the reader with the scenes he saw traveling across America in the 1850s, descriptions of people, places, and events—portrayals of everyday life filtered through his own lens of observation.

The intimacy of Whitman’s detail also takes an additional dimension. Whitman, much ahead of his time, gives frank descriptions of sexual experiences throughout the poem, enough to cause Boston’s district attorney to write to Whitman’s publisher threatening prosecution under Massachusetts’s obscenity laws.[3]

Interspersed throughout the scenic portrayals, Whitman inserts his own thoughts and insights. Unlike Wordsworth, these are not didactic, but self-reflective. Some, indeed, go far beyond self-reflection and verge on the megalomaniacal. In the following two passages, Whitman proclaims a sort of divinity for himself:

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Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch’d from,
The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer,
This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds.
If I worship one thing more than another it shall be the spread of my own body, or any part of it,
. . .
(ll. 524-27.)

Why should I pray? why should I venerate and be ceremonious?
Having pried through the strata, analyzed to a hair, counsel’d with doctors and calculated close,
I find no sweeter fat than sticks to my own bones.
In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barley-corn less,
And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them.
I know I am solid and sound,
To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow,
All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means.
I know I am deathless,
I know this orbit of mine cannot be swept by a carpenter’s compass,
I know I shall not pass like a child’s carlacue cut with a burnt stick at night.
I know I am august,
I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood,
I see that the elementary laws never apologize,
(I reckon I behave no prouder than the level I plant my house by, after all.)
I exist as I am, that is enough,
If no other in the world be aware I sit content,
And if each and all be aware I sit content.
One world is aware and by far the largest to me, and that is myself,
And whether I come to my own to-day or in ten thousand or ten million years,
I can cheerfully take it now, or with equal cheerfulness I can wait.
(ll. 398-418.)

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In a no less grandiose flourish, he offers his self-analysis of his own role as poet:

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I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into a new tongue.
I am the poet of the woman the same as the man,
And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man,
And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men.
I chant the chant of dilation or pride,
We have had ducking and deprecating about enough,
I show that size is only development.
Have you outstript the rest? are you the President?
It is a trifle, they will more than arrive there every one, and still pass on.
I am he that walks with the tender and growing night,
I call to the earth and sea half-held by the night.
(ll. 422-34.)

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Or, more famously:

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Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

(ll. 1324-26.)

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And perhaps most solipsistic of all, Whitman proclaims that he is the pinnacle of all creation up to then:

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I am an acme of things accomplish’d, and I an encloser of things to be.
My feet strike an apex of the apices of the stairs,
On every step bunches of ages, and larger bunches between the steps,
All below duly travel’d, and still I mount and mount.
Rise after rise bow the phantoms behind me,
Afar down I see the huge first Nothing, I know I was even there,
I waited unseen and always, and slept through the lethargic mist,
And took my time, and took no hurt from the fetid carbon.
Long I was hugg’d close—long and long.
Immense have been the preparations for me,
Faithful and friendly the arms that have helped me.
Cycles ferried my cradle, rowing and rowing like cheerful boatmen,
For room to me stars kept aside in their own rings,
They sent influences to look after what was to hold me.
Before I was born out of my mother generations guided me,
My embryo has never been torpid, nothing could overlay it.
For it the nebula cohered to an orb,
The long slow strata piled to rest it on,
Vast vegetables gave it sustenance,
Monstrous sauroids transported it in their mouths and deposited it with care.
All forces have been steadily employed to complete and delight me,
Now on this spot I stand with my robust soul.
(ll. 1148-69.)

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The stars, the dinosaurs, human history—all were but one great preface, preparing the universe for the appearance of Walt Whitman.

But Whitman does not make these assertions from a tone of superiority. Indeed, considered in the context of the rest of the poem, with its intimate detail of everyday experiences, the reader is left with the impression that what Whitman proclaims about himself holds true just as much for anyone else. It is that equal-opportunity solipsism, that invitation to share in self-celebration and self-admiration that makes Whitman enticing rather than insufferable.

At the end of the poem, Whitman ponders his mortality and what will become of him after death:

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The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadowed wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.
I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

(ll. 1334-46.)

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He is clearly not a believer in the immortality of the soul. In a twist of irony, Whitman, the living divinity for whom all of geologic time was a mere preparation, “bequeath[s]” himself “to the dirt,” to be found only “under your boot-soles.” For Whitman, divinity is found in living, and the divine existence ceases on death.

Yet Whitman’s self survives and remains the focus of the poem, even after death. In its final line, “I stop somewhere waiting for you,” Whitman remains as an idea, if not an entity, waiting for discovery by the reader, to be “good health” to him. Even after what he sees as his own annihilation, Whitman never removes himself as the center and focus of the poem.

“Song of Myself” is the supreme manifesto of solipsism. It offers no didactic lesson and examines no universal truth beyond celebrating the self as the center and pinnacle of all existence. How Whitman sees his own self is how he would have everyone see their own selves: the only true frame of reference, free from and above all creeds, philosophies, and societal and cultural mores.

And Whitman triumphed. By and large, society, especially in America, has adopted his view of the self as the supreme arbiter of truth, the only frame of reference by which to judge the external world. Even among those professing a religion or adhering to a philosophy, they justify their belief or acceptance in terms of the self, their own experiences, and their own frame of reference. Solipsism lies at the core of contemporary American thought. Whitman was only its most effusive prophet.

It invites no wonder, then, that poets in such a solipsistic culture write solipsistic verse. They write from what they know and experience in their lives. But what, when all is written and published, does the solipsistic mindset achieve through poetry?

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IV

Solipsism may be the way of the world, but much like consumer products sold by appeals to selfish desires, it can ultimately never satisfy the human longing for meaning that poetry addresses. All it can offer is cheap thrills. It is shallow; it portrays an experience in which the reader might—or might not—see a reflection of his own life, but it never transforms the individual experience into a depersonalized revelation of a universal truth. Without that transformative leap, poetry remains nothing more than autobiography, an anthropological curiosity locked within time and space, rather than a universal ideal that transcends them.

Where does that leave poetry? Is Whitman’s legacy inescapable? Whitman might be the patriarch of modernism and solipsism in American poetry, but he is far from the only model for poets. Indeed, a slightly older contemporary and fellow countryman of his can show today’s poets an alternative course. That poet is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

At Longfellow’s house in Cambridge, MA (Adam Sedia)

Famous for his epics The Song of Hiawatha and Evangeline and his Chaucer-inspired Tales of a Wayside Inn, Longfellow wrote scores of shorter poems among which few are in any way autobiographical. When he does wax autobiographical, however, Longfellow follows the model of Milton, universalizing his experience.

“My Lost Youth,” an early poem published in his 1847 volume, Birds of Passage, is perhaps the best example of such a poem. In fact, it is very much in the vein of Blanco’s “Looking for the Gulf Motel” or Joseph’s “Sand Nigger”—a description of childhood experience viewed in hindsight by the adult poet. Unlike those poems, however, Longfellow does not merely recount the thoughts and emotions evoked upon visiting his childhood home and the places he frequented as a boy; he uses them as a vehicle to reveal a greater, universal truth.

The poem begins by describing his return to his native town in Maine:

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Often I think of the beautiful town
That is seated by the sea;
Often in thought go up and down
The pleasant streets of that dear old town,
And my youth comes back to me.
And a verse of a Lapland song
Is haunting my memory still:
“A boy’s will is the wind’s will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.”

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The Lappish song quoted at the end of the stanza is repeated as a refrain at the end of each of the poem’s ten stanzas. Attributing these thoughts to a distant people who sang it in a strange tongue subtly emphasizes the universality of the ideas they express. The realization that the thoughts of childhood form the adult is not Longfellow’s own, but a human condition that transcends any individual or society.

He describes the scenes of the town and its surrounding countryside and the thoughts and emotions they evoke. He makes perhaps his most poignant and powerful observations in the seventh and eighth stanzas:

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I remember the gleams and glooms that dart
Across the schoolboy’s brain;
The song and the silence in the heart,
That in part are prophecies, and in part
Are longings wild and vain.
. . .
There are things of which I may not speak;
There are dreams that cannot die;
There are thoughts that make the strong heart weak,
And bring a pallor into the cheek,
And a mist before the eye.
. . .

.
Here he describes an experience at once his own and at the same time not necessarily his—capable of recognition in every reader who has survived long enough to realize their youth has flown. Although he mourns his youth long gone, at the same time he recognizes that many of its fleeting experiences and thoughts have remained, and often influenced the adult that the child would one day become. Unlike Wordsworth, Longfellow does not relate this lesson directly, in didactic fashion. Instead, he describes the general effect and impression of his childhood thoughts and experiences without ever diving into the intimate detail that both Blanco and Joseph use to illustrate their experiences. This at once specific and generalized narrative universalizes the experience, leading the reader to a realization of a universal truth he recognizes, instead of an autobiography that achieves little beyond presenting a personal story.

Though Longfellow addresses the same subject matter as Blanco and Joseph, and indeed as Whitman and Wordsworth, he describes and uses it in a completely different way. Both the experiences of childhood and the impressions they leave on the adult are used metaphorically, to reveal a truth about the human condition as it is affected by the passage of time. That is the only real sense in which any reader should care what a poet’s childhood experiences were—by viewing through them the truths they reveal.

Autobiography certainly has a place in poetry. Indeed, autobiography is an unavoidable element of poetry. But autobiography for its own sake is not poetic, it is mere navel-gazing. Even when used to illustrate the perceived experiences of a larger community, it does nothing more than shout to the reader, “Look at me!” Autobiography instead should be used as a device to serve the poetic end: revelation of truth through metaphor. Milton and Longfellow show how to do this successfully, and true poetry will emulate them and their timeless revelations instead of the solipsism of Whitman and his heirs of the present day.

.

.

Notes

1._Domestico, Anthony. “So Many Selves: A Poet of Unlikely Combinations.” Commonweal. Mar. 17, 2020. Available at https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/compound-voices.

2. From the Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1802).

3. Folsom, Ed, and Jerome Loving. Notes to “The Walt Whitman Controversy” by Mark Twain. Virginia Quarterly Review. Spring 2007. Available at, https://www.vqronline.org/vqr-symposium/walt-whitman-controversy.


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27 Responses

  1. Michael Dashiell

    Self-expression is more than expressing only ourselves. I completely agree with your essay, as far as I read, but I have a short attention span, and can’t stay focused on anything that requires a long reading. The universe is bigger than us, and each of us is a mere speck, but many poets still find themselves supreme. This isn’t a new insight, of course, since Solomon mourned the same thing regarding vanity.

    Reply
  2. lionel willis

    I salute your careful tracing of the difference between writing about oneself because it is what one thinks one knows best, and about oneself because one thinks it is the only thing that matters. Solipsicm is an unhealthy extreme of natural egotism. Therefore writers should try to cure themselves of the temptation to lapse into pure autobiography. It’s not easy. Like everything I have struggled with in art, striking an attractive balance between the telling self and the showing other poses risks. Thank you for reminding me about Longfellow as a model foil to Whitman, whom I think we may chiefly blame for the sprawling wastes of “Howl”. I remember my mother reading me “My Lost Youth” when I was nine or ten. (Maybe it wasn’t as lost on me as I suppose.)

    Reply
  3. Eric

    Amanda Gorman
    Is such a bore, man–
    The cant of c.r.t.
    Masquerading as “poetry”.

    Reply
  4. Joseph S. Salemi

    This is an extremely powerful essay, and one that properly zeroes in on solipsism and its malign influence in modern thinking and reactions. In a world that is essentially ruled by the most intrusive, insidious, and debasing forms of mass advertisement, you can expect the vast majority of the population to be centered on personal needs and desires and experiences.

    I would have added Carl Sandburg and W.C. Williams to the list of poisoners. Along with Whitman, they were obsessively fixated on “democracy” and new poetic forms that would be appropriate to “democracy.” They wanted mass poetry for the mass man.

    I take exception to one thing in Sedia’s analysis. Yes, we should avoid solipsism and navel-gazing. But it is very dangerous to talk about “didactic” poetry, and poetry that expresses “universal” or “timeless” truths. I don’t say that such truths aren’t real, or that a poet cannot teach such truths (or anything else) on occasion. A poet can do whatever he wishes, as long as he does it effectively and beautifully, as we expect from any skilled artisan.

    The problem, however, is this: Whenever a poet writes about “universal truths,” there are always waiting in the wings some groups or interested parties who will immediately will jump on what he says to hijack his work, and dragoon it into a framework of support for whatever particular agenda (social, cultural, religious, or political) that they have. This is a particularly dangerous pitfall in the contemporary world, which is riven by savage ideological disagreements.

    Poetry doesn’t owe anybody anything, nor should it have any goals other than to be well made and memorable. When someone talks about “universal truths,” we should immediately ask “Whose truths?” Apart from this caveat, this is an incisive and penetrating analysis.

    Reply
    • Adam Sedia

      Your points are well-taken.

      I completely agree with your view on Sandburg and Williams. I think they represent more of a trend of coarsening and “dumbing down” poetry out of a misguided attempt to appeal to a fictitious “common man.” Whitman was part of this trend, too. I just chose to focus on a different vice of Whitman’s poetry, though you’ve given me an idea for another essay.

      As for “universal truths” – I see your point, and perhaps I should have been clearer as to what I meant by the term. I didn’t mean anything as grandiose as an ideology. I mean something more along the lines of what I observe in Milton or Longfellow: an observation about the universe or the human condition generally, or as Frost said (I’m paraphrasing) something the poet realizes he saw but did not know before.

      For example, I find Milton’s theology abhorrent and heretical, but I don’t need to concern myself with it in his sonnet. He makes an observation about the human condition that I think anyone finding himself constrained and wishing he could do more could understand and agree with. It is these “little truths” that are truly poetic, as they transcend ideologies.

      Reply
    • David B. Gosselin

      Part of the reason people have such an emotional response to the mere mention of ”universal truths” is largely because of the very misguided twentieth century intellectual reaction to fascism. The logic was essentially: because the Nazis and Fascists believed that there were certain absolute truths which the world had to conform to, and because they went about killing and fighting in order to impose these ”truths” on the world, now anyone who proclaimed to be defending any kind of universal truth or natural law is potentially expressing the disposition of an ”authoritarian personality” who might just be another Hitler waiting to happen. Very sound logic… Makes perfect sense, right?

      Thus, Modernism, Abstract Impressionism, and later Post-Modernism were all seen as bludgeons for democracy where we could disabuse anyone who still held the belief that there was some kind of lawfulness or natural law by which all human beings should abide by, lest another Hitler arise. One of the byproducts of that was that Modernist art increasingly concerned itself with the ugly, the disgusting, the indecent, all under the banner of not being some naive Romantic, of instead being a brave artist, someone not afraid to look at all the horrors of humanity and the evil it is capable of. The more ugly or disturbing you could make your art, the more deformed it was, the better, because you were being disabused from the idea that there was any objective standard for beauty. The more uncomfortable or repulsive a piece of art was, the more genius it was, because it was challenging you and making you conscious of how you were still under the yoke of ”societal norms.” Thus, Adorno proclaimed that ”nercrophelia” was the last perversity of style.

      On the other hand, the basis of international law, going back to the treaty of Westphalia was based on the idea of natural law, on the idea of immutable truths, truths that are ”self-evident” in that it recognizes certain immutable rights and qualities in mankind and the universe generally. To deny these essential universal truths, which in the US constitution are simply listed as ”life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” is the basis of evil.

      To argue that these are just arbitrary conceits cooked up by some idealist is itself an evil idea, because it denies certain basic principles and mankind’s ability to discover them. And that’s actually what has opened the door to Pandora’s box today. The only thing that is real is what you feel, your ”lived experience,” it’s that and the statistical data curated by the ”expert” class. Anyone who either questions someone’s personal experience of the authority of experts is a potential fascist or anti-science heretic. They are two sides of the same coin, both rejecting the innate principle of creative reason which everyone has access to and can cultivate.

      The point is they are not arbitrary conceptions, and while trying to disabuse anyone from the idea of belief in universal truths was championed by the Frankfurt School intellectuals, the nihilists, and existentialists under the guise of fighting fascism and totalitarianism–always aided by the covert support of intelligence agencies, and Anglo-American establishment families and their trusts and foundations–it was actually the thing that paved the way for the fascism of today where anyone who proclaims to hold some objective criteria for judging something as beautiful, good, or true, is now suspected of exhibiting totalitarian or fascist tendencies. This is the greatest perversion of truth, and it was all done very consciously and intentionally under the guise of defending ”freedom” and keeping the world safe from ”fascists.”

      There is a great book by Frances Stonor Saudners, The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters: The Cultural Cold War, which details in full how this stuff was promoted in the post-war period to ultimately make the world safe for the fascism of today.

      The only way to keep the world safe from totalitarianism and fascism is for every individual to be given a chance to develop their own sovereign powers of creative reason. A teacher, professor or guide is most successful in this goal when they start with the recognition, the ”self-evident truth,” that everybody has this innate potential for creative reason. It’s not something sensual, it’s not something you can quantify or define in terms of quantitative knowledge, it’s a principle, the mind, cognition, and despite not being directly observable, it has JUST AS OBJECTIVE an existence as anything you can see with your eyes, or hear with your ears. In fact, it’s more objective because anything that we do experience through our senses is by its nature immutable, changing and ephemeral, however this is not so with ideas, thought objects do not age or change, though new advances are always made.

      This ”universal truth” is what Plato demonstrated in his Meno dialogue with the slave boy who he guides in solving the problem of doubling the square. The discovery of how one doubles a square geometrically is a discovery of fundamental principle. The slave boy who resolves the paradox of doubling the square 2300 years ago and the young 13 year old who solves the same paradox today has to go through essentially the same process of discovery, the same recognition of a certain paradox or problem, and the same experience in knowledge of how the length of the diagonal of the square relates to the length of the side of the square.

      So concretely, that’s what should be understand as universal truth in any age, by anyone, from any culture, in any place, it’s the opposite of arbitrary. Fascism, Communism, Nazism were all examples of evil because they were arbitrary concepts not in line with the natural laws of the universe, which meant they could only be enforced by barbaric and disgusting methods. And the same can be said about the Modernist and Post-Modernist dogmas of today which go completely against the natural order of things, which just as the discovery of doubling the square, is an order that can be discovered and explored by anyone, and which is ultimately infinite in depth.

      The great poets across history have always demonstrated and expressed these universal truths in their own unique way in their own age. The challenge for the true artist is always that of communicating and expressing something immutable, something inexpressible, in new and original communicable forms within their own unique age, language culture etc…. So the verse of Shakespeare several hundred years ago and the great examples of English poetry today may not sound quite the same, they have their own unique differences and style, but they also reflect something generally unchanging, and universal. To lose sight of those things which never change and simply become something which tries to mirror the contemporary times and capture the idiosyncrasies of their particular age is not really a true artist, they are simply reactionary. They have to offer something more than just a reaction to the sensual experience of their own age; they also have to be able to demonstrate something which deserves the title of beautiful or true in any age, and in any place. Just look at the great Song Dynasty Landscapes of Classical Chinese Painting, or the ancient Greek verses of Sappho from 2300+ years ago, or the beauty of Dante’s Comedy, the illustriousness of the many great Arabic bards, or Shakespeare’s dramatic verse. They all embody universal standards of beauty and truth. This is because these works were composed based on certain universal principles, which each artist was able to uniquely express within their own age and in their own unique way.

      Great art happens when the great artist succeeds in uniting those things which never change with the changing and mutable experiences of their own unique age i.e. the predicates, subjects, language culture, experiences unique to their own time. Doing that successfully is what makes something truly original, and timeless.

      Reply
      • Joseph S. Salemi

        The words “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” do not appear in the Constitution of the United States. They are just a throwaway line of political rhetoric used in the Declaration of Independence, which is not a legal document. Get your history straight.

        Any “truth” is expressed, for rational human beings, in propositional form. Here are two fairly “universal” truths about human life, expressed propositionally:

        1) Many parents are deeply loving, and do all that they can for their children.

        2) Many parents are selfish and uncaring, and neglect their children.

        Which “universal truth” do you prefer, Mr. Gosselin? Great poems have been written on either of them.

      • David B. Gosselin

        A lot of work has gone into disabusing people from recognizing basic truths about the nature of human beings. These are truths that lie outside formal grammatical rules and structures. I think it’s a mistake to suggest one can write a sentence and say “here, this is the truth.” Those are simply logical statements and contingent truths. The Aristotelians and the scientific priesthood only allow these kinds of truths. Anything else is considered ‘’unscientific’’ and ‘’not logical.’’

        The problem is that discoveries never happen logically. Discoveries never happen by simply following ‘’the rules’’ or some logical procedure. They happen in ‘’flashes’’ of insight and ‘’leaps’’ in our thinking and imaginative power. Some refer to this as poetic ”insight.”

        Ultimately this is one of the problems with the Modernists, the Bertrand Russell positivists, the Wittgensteins and Derridas. They are playing around with language and trying to find perfect logical formulations or axiomatic systems by which everything else can be objectively stated, defined, and derived. That doesn’t exist. Or to the degree a logical or literal statement is true, the way to know that’s it’s true is not by means of formal logic or deductive proof.

        The attempt to reduce truth to a process of logical or deductive procedure is what leads so many people to ultimately not believing in anything other than what they can directly experience with their five senses, which is never truth, only knowledge of particular facts, of persons, places, and things.

        I’d simply point out that the fact you tried to make a statement of ‘’truth’’ by using a literal statement is proof that we’re talking about two completely different things. If you can state it as a literal statement, it’s not truth. Those are simply statements of particulars in terms of place and time. So we’re not actually disagreeing, we’re just talking about two different things. Those are textbook definitions and dictionary definitions.

        Today in academia, this is treated as the highest kind of truth. Truth is nothing other than information, which can simply be reduced to a series of 1s and 0s… This is why most people coming out of the university system are stupid. They are essentially being trained like computers, simply jamming facts and information into their heads, and then these people think they ‘’know’’ things.

        This is not truth, and it’s not how people learn…
        In Socratic/Cusan terms, any statement which can be stated a literal fashion is by its nature NOT truth. Before talking about truth, it’s arguably best to first point out what is NOT truth. So in that case, your statements are correct in demonstrating that you can’t really get at any fundamental truth in that manner. You can state particular facts, but nothing fundamental. And that’s ultimately what you wanted your example to prove, which it did.

        There is a higher kind of truth. Literal statements and syllogisms are simply ‘’ratio’’ ‘’ratiocination’’—Aristotelian logic. Cusa makes the point that ratio or logic is really not different from what the beasts have. Dog goes place A, discovers that he gets in trouble, goes in place B, doesn’t get in trouble. Conclusion: place A is dangerous and should be avoided, place B is safe.

        What’s taught as ‘’logic’’ and ‘’facts’’ and ‘’truth’’ in most universities is really just a more complex form of ratio, which is not really different from what beasts use.

        Higher truth is better defined as reason or intellect, as opposed to the lower ratio or logic, which we have in common with the beasts, and even computers, which are simply very advanced stores of gathered information, stored as 1s and 0s.

        Truth is best communicated through paradox, irony, and metaphor ie poetry. In poetic truth, which is a higher form of truth, two contradictory statements can both be true. Truth in poetry is never stated as some literal thing or logical formulation. This is where metaphor comes in.

        Nicholas of Cusa uses the example of God. God is both everywhere and nowhere. That’s a True statement. God is both maximum and minimum. That’s a True statement. Poetry is filled with these kinds of truths.

        The highest kind of truth is arguably found in something like the music of Bach, the dialogues of Plato, or the dramas of Shakespeare. In all three cases, we are not talking about literal truths or definitions. This is also why we often find metaphorical and non-literal language in sacred texts. It’s not because the speakers are simply using rhetoric to woo their audience, it’s because they’re trying to get at something higher, something that can’t simply be stated in literal terms, it requires a different kind of speech which can adequately reflect the nature of the subject matter. This is the proper function of metaphor.

        To quote our friend Shelley:

        ”A poet participates in the eternal, the infinite, and the one; ***as far as relates to his conceptions, time and place and number are not*** The grammatical forms which express the moods of time, and the difference of persons, and the distinction of place, are convertible with respect to the highest poetry without injuring it as poetry; and the choruses of Aeschylus, and the book of Job, and Dante’s “Paradise” would afford, more than any other writings, examples of this fact, if the limits of this essay did not forbid citation.”

        If you can ascribe a place and time and number on it, it’s NOT truth. In Cusan terms, he challenges the reader to think in non-quantitative terms. Free yourself from quantity. What do you have left? Is it really nothing? That’s where the truth lies.

        Anyone looking for truth in the form of a literal statement or definition won’t succeed in discovering very much. Socrates, Plato, Jesus, the immortal poets and prophets, they all used non-literal language to communicate their ideas. They used metaphor. The reason for that is not just because they wanted to sound nice or convince, the nature of their subject matter required them to use a form of language other than literal speech and logical formulations.
        The higher universal truths always require some kind of non-literal metaphorical form of expression, because they aren’t referring to a particular time or place or thing.

        When Einstein was asked to describe the source of his insights for his fundamental breakthroughs in science, he said:

        ‘’It occurred to me by intuition, and music was the driving force behind that intuition.My discovery was the result of musical perception.’’

        This statement makes perfect sense. Hence, the importance of the poet and artist as foundations of insight and creativity in society generally, which Shelley so rightly recognized.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Shelley is YOUR friend, not mine. Along with the other gaseous windbags like Schiller.

        I gave you two ordinary propositions, the truth of which is obvious to any thinking person. Many parents are loving, and many parents are neglectful. Out of sheer ideological fixation, you refuse to acknowledge them as “truth,” but insist on reserving that term (in big capital letters) for some ethereal, distant, imaginary, metaphor-driven cloud of vagueness. No wonder all your poems are about “dreams.”

        I agree with Adam Sedia: It is the “little truths” that are truly poetic, as they transcend ideologies. Platonic helium-pumping can’t deal with that.

      • David Bellemare Gosselin

        The statement from Shelley’s Defence of Poetry seems like an apt statement, if properly understand.

        ”A poet participates in the eternal, the infinite, and the one; as far as relates to his conceptions, time and place and number are not. The grammatical forms which express the moods of time, and the difference of persons, and the distinction of place, are convertible with respect to the highest poetry without injuring it as poetry; and the choruses of Aeschylus, and the book of Job, and Dante’s “Paradise” would afford, more than any other writings, examples of this fact, if the limits of this essay did not forbid citation.”

        I think this is true of any great poet in any age.

    • David B. Gosselin

      Your propositions are obviously true. They are statements of literal fact. And that’s essentially my point: we’re talking about poetry and art, so statements of literal fact and logical formulations have very little function in works of poetry and fiction. Fiction can be 100% made up, but are you going to then say it can’t say anything truthful? Couldn’t you even argue that some of the greatest truths are found in works of fiction and poetry, even if the time and place and persons may essentially be made up?

      These kinds of higher truths are communicated in non-literal ways. Some refer to this as a spiritual truth or poetic truth. And thus we also see that many of the world’s sacred texts often use poetic or metaphorical language to communicate. This makes perfect sense. The language is a reflection of the nature of the subject matter. A higher metaphorical type of language is absolutely necessary for communicating the idea-content or spiritual content of these works. Poetry is absolutely necessary for communicating such ideas. And history demonstrates the fact that humans have resorted to this kind of practice throughout their history in the attempt to express and define certain things. It’s not just a question of nice language, novelty and rhetoric, which is what poetry become for most of the Modernists (most of the time).

      I don’t see how any man of letters would argue against this. But this is why Modernism was so often weird, ugly, fragmentary and deformed. It shunned certain basic fundamental truths about the nature of art, the artist and creativity in general, and then sought to find out what it could still create even as it rejected the basic traditions that served as the foundation for Western art for thousands of years…

      They were the first generation of the ”year zero” folks of today. None of the craziness unfolding within academia, politics and even increasingly now even the legal world would have ever even been possible without the Modernists and their break with the classical tradition of Western art and culture that existed for thousands of years.

      The entire Modernist movement was essentially defined as a rejection of this tradition, without having any foundational principles themselves. Hence, why they all sought in different ways to create something new, some kind of novelty, which would serve as ”proof” that they were serious writers.

      These foundational principles or truths were never restrictive, they were always meant as the foundation upon which great things could then be built. In this respect, the Modernists were essentially just the latest tribe of blind architects thinking they could erect a new Babel.

      Babel they did.

      Good on the Classical Poets Society for giving people an opportunity to write in forms that still seek to capture these immutable truths within their own age, and in their own original way.

      Reply
      • Joseph S. Salemi

        You can’t possibly be saying that a statement of literal fact cannot be used in serious poetry. That is insane.

        Poems are acts of fictive mimesis, and can indeed be completely fictional. But the vast majority of poems make use of real-world facts and sensual perceptions. They aren’t all “dreamy” and “visionary,” as you seem to think. They are contextually
        rooted in the world around us, and our reactions to it — not to some Platonic pipe-dream.

        There are historical poems that clearly mention events and persons who really did exist. There are satiric poems that mention and discuss the actual doings of real human beings. There are comic poems that refer to real deeds and personalities. There are didactic poems that tell you how to do something in real-world terms. There are religious poems that touch upon matters that their authors and readers believed to be actual occurrences. There are love poem that describe the actual feelings of the poet towards his beloved, and his unfeigned reactions to the relationship they have. There are vituperative poems that express the real hatred of the writer towards real enemies. There are argumentative poems in any number of contested fields. There are brilliant poems in all of these areas.

        Yes, there is some “poetry of ideas.” But can you be so blind as not to recognize the types of poetry I have just described in the preceding paragraph? Do you seriously hold that the only real poetry is dreamy, gaseous, vague, evocative, metaphor-driven exhalations of longings and “higher truths” that are basically indescribable? If so, you are not a man of letters at all. You are just looking for vague wordiness to cover up some unacknowledged ideology. Is it LaRouche-ism? Is it the murky ideology of The Rising Tide Foundation? Is it the Red Chinese New Silk Road Initiative?

        You refuse to accept propositions as statements of your “higher truths.” Isn’t that just a way for you to disguise the fact that, when push comes to shove, you are really helpless to put into plain words a single one of these “higher truths” that you are so enamored of?

        Do us all a favor. Put one of your “immutable truths” into a simple declarative English sentence.

        One sentence — not twenty paragraphs with long quotes from Shelley and Schiller.

  5. Paul Freeman

    It’s 2 in the morning and I’ve finished reading Part I. I’ll need to be as fresh as a cliche to read the rest later today.

    However, re Part I. I got pilloried for not liking Amanda Gorman’s Inauguration Day poem. My first face plant moment came early on with ‘(braving) the belly of the beast’, having not been primed with the nature of the beast, nor the significance of its belly.

    As for Lawrence Joseph, ‘My brother before my cousin, my cousin before a stranger’ is a common Middle East expression, akin to ‘family first’, and explains some of the frustrations of getting things done efficiently if you’re a stranger in this part of the world.

    Reply
    • Julian D. Woodruff

      Wasn’t In the Belly of the Beast an essay or novel by some incarcerated and highly celebrated (Bernstwin, Mailer) sociopath? Was AG alluding to this title in her … uh … poem? Or did her ears at some point simply pick up and retain for eventual use a catchy phrase?

      Reply
      • Paul Freeman

        I’ve heard the term several times with a meaning like travelling through ‘the heart of darkness’ or the ‘bowels of hell’, though ‘Belly of the Beast’ is also a not very good Steven Seagal film.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        “In the Belly of the Beast” was a memoir and autobiographical excursion written by Jack Abbott, a sociopathic murderer who was imprisoned for many years before he was released following a publicity and pressure campaign run by the idiot Norman Mailer.

        Mailer thought that, because Abbott was a good writer, he should be forgiven his crimes and let loose. Mailer lionized Abbott as some kind of brilliant genius who deserved freedom in spite of his vicious murders. Predictably, very soon after his release Abbott murdered an inoffensive waiter at a restaurant, for no apparent reason other than some imagined disrespect. He stabbed the waiter in the heart.

        Mailer was pilloried after this fiasco, but he stupidly and intransigently proclaimed that it was “right” to release Abbott, because “art is worth sacrifices.” Mailer was always an asshole, but he never was a bigger one that in this Jack Abbott disaster.

        Jack Abbott was sent back to prison for life, where he eventually hanged himself. If we had certain and quick capital punishment for murderers, Abbott would never have lived to murder again. And if we didn’t have sentimental buffoons like Norman Mailer, he would never have been released in the first place.

      • James Sale

        Joe is absolutely right on this. I cannot quote source now on this since it was so long ago, but I remember the now defunct literary periodical The Listener (owned by the BBC in its pre-Woke state) running a review article somewhere in the mid-80s reviewing the 20 year effect of the abolition of capital punishment in the UK. They gave specific figures which I cannot now exactly recall, but it was something like from 1947-1967 it was estimated that about 20 innocent people had been hanged – dreadful, dreadful, dreadful – the liberal elite cry: abolish hanging, innocent people dying. But then it pointed out, approximately over 200 people in a comparable time period, 1967 – 1987, had been murdered by convicted murderers who has subsequently been released from prison. In other words, some 10 times more innocent people dying as a result of not executing the guilty! Talk about the law of unintended consequences. But this information – and others like it – is always kept under wraps for it undermines the liberal – and Pelagian – project. Which is? Utopia here on earth.

  6. Daniel Kemper

    I enjoyed this very much and also agree. I’ve thought of Whitman as almost entirely a purveyor of shaggy dog stories, him being the shaggy dog. Heh. That’s a little harsh; it’s not that there’s no value. It has been a puzzle for me over the years how someone like Harold Bloom could be endeared of him though.

    Reply
  7. Paul Freeman

    What a fabulous read. Milton comes over almost as a motivational speaker in describing his blindness.

    Walt Whitman was interesting. We barely hear of him in the UK, but he’s always popping up on TV (even in Breaking Bad). He seems to be an early proponent of celebrity and celebrity culture. His ‘Song of Myself’ could have just as easily been titled ‘Keeping up with the Whitman’, but then would not have been ‘equal-opportunity solipsism’.

    I do find that with Wordsworth, even though autobiographical events are fairly common in his work, Nature is the overarching, brooding focus when he references himself.

    Thanks again for the read, Adam.

    Reply
  8. James Sale

    A very fine essay by Adam Sedia and – accepting Joseph Salemi’s small but important caveat – I have long used the word solipsistic as a term of severe critical disapprobation, so I am pleased to see it explored in this comprehensive way by Sedia. Indeed, those of you who have read my HellWard collection, Canto 11, will know there is a character placed in hell there called Wilt Witless who is specifically there for crimes against poetry, therefore humanity! There are plenty of clues in the poem as the true identity of who Wilt Wiltless is; here is a relevant passage, as Dante comments to the Poet in the poem:

    Why, here’s a famous poet wannabe,
    Who pilfered laurels on his frantic climb

    To be America’s biggest me, me, me!’
    I looked and saw Wilt Witless yawping hard
    With sounds barbaric and untranslatably

    Full, singing self with multitudes of words.’
    How pitiful he seemed, jaw in a lock,
    Noise foaming forth, as spittle flew like birds

    In sprays before his mouth which couldn’t stop
    Its own inelegance from sounding trash.

    But I would like to add just a little to Sedia’s analysis, not to contradict to him, but to get at one of the problems of dealing with the solipsistic and contemporary poetry. It’s what I call the Asymmetry and Emperor’s New Clothes. What do I mean by this? Simply this; we need to be aware that in order to establish what real and true poetry is, we have to go much more than the extra mile; for this is where there is asymmetry. If we were entirely honest and reviewed the poetry on the SCP site, what we would find is that we have some outstanding poetry, some very good poetry, some outstanding verse, some very good verse, and we have also some weak poetry and weak verse. This is inevitable; no outlet can only be responsible for generating works of genius. But the thing is, how would we know how to identify the weak poetry and weak verse?

    Well, the answer is relatively simple: we spot it because it is those poems which have strained syntax, forced rhymes, archaic diction, metrical failure, mixed metaphors and/or two or three other technical matters which we can be very specific about. We know because we understand how language works, and can see where it is not working. Thus, it is very easy to pick holes in the work of classical/formal poets, especially as they are learning their trade and their first efforts are not what their potential will finally realise.

    Can you see the asymmetry here? It is very difficult for real poets – formal poets – to get through in the first place. This is not the case with the free-versing, solipsizing poets who write in cut-up prose. For – unless we have the insight and experience of an Adam Sedia – what can we criticise? And if it’s about me, me, me, then there is also the problem that we are conditioned to think that it is negative to comment on somebody’s ‘truth’ – ‘speaking my truth’. This contemporary poetry becomes immune from criticism essentially because it’s a mess in the first place and one scarcely knows where to begin in calling it to account!

    And that is the Emperor’s New clothes syndrome: as Sedia remarks, the mainstream media treats it as if it were poetry – despite its nakedness and absence of virtually anything poetical – and who are we to say they are wrong? Perhaps … God forbid … I have missed something, haven’t understood something, perhaps it is indeed profound! Of course, it’s not – but that’s the dilemma we all face.

    So Sedia’s article is welcome. We must be clear and clearer about what is and isn’t poetry – and frankly call the nonsense out for what it is as often as possible. At the same time we must advance the arts of our art form and aim to make our poetry deliciously irresistible even for those who have imbibed the ‘freedom from rules = democracy’ claptrap.

    Reply
  9. Joseph S. Salemi

    Let me post just a small addendum to James Sale’s very pertinent remarks. A correspondent sent me the following information:

    The respected literary commentator “J.C.” at the London Times Literary Supplement (TLS) of July 10, 2020 (page 31) has made the following statement:

    “There is no longer any critically authorized tradition of merit in poetry. The contemporary scene is run to a large extent on identity approval, not critical judgment.”

    This was written in his weekly column, where he discussed the removal of Don Share as the editor of the American magazine Poetry (along with some members of the magazine’s Board of Directors), after a vicious and well-organized Twitter campaign protesting the imagined “racism” of a certain poem.

    Soon after the publication of these words by “J.C.”, he too was forced out of his position at the TLS. What was once one of the most important and serious organs of literary comment in the Western world is now controlled by cultural Marxism.

    When all poetry is about self-proclaimed identity, and where “feelings” are paramount, no critical judgment of any serious kind can be brought to bear on what is published by anybody. This is the poisonous fruit of solipsism, identity-politics, and the supremacy of emotional reaction.

    Reply
  10. Norma Okun

    Is it honest? Is the poet seeing someone or something honestly? Is sincerity a musical birth? If it is than thank you for writing it.

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  11. Andrew Benson Brown

    This is a great essay. Much thanks to Mr. Sedia for outlining the historical development of this dangerous tendency. James Sale’s observations about the lack of criteria in distinguishing the merit of free verse was also very insightful.

    The canceling of editors and contributors from (formerly) prestigious periodicals is very disturbing. Whoever would have thought that being in the Po-Biz was so perilous?

    When we’re talking about free verse, we’re basically talking about miscategorized prose. So while one can’t critique its meter or forced rhymes, one can of course apply standards of good vs bad prose, which essentially has to do with the adeptness with which the writer employs literary devices, characterization, development of themes and symbolism, etc. Since creative writing students are no longer expected to learn terms like ‘anaphora’ or ‘asyndeton,’ nor engage in the negative capability of true character creation, nor deploy symbolism in subtle ways that are not completely obvious on their surface, one would only expect that the miscategorized prose being created today is atrocious by the standards of the modernist free verse of a hundred years ago, which was produced by people who still knew these things and had a grasp of the formalist methods they were diverging from.

    As the standards of cultural Marxism rest upon notions of power rather than truth, simply pointing out the facts doesn’t get anywhere. Fortunately the SCP functions as an alternative space where valid ideas can still be expressed and discussed. I would say that individuals like the author of this above essay are thought leaders writing pieces that demonstrate sound critical judgment—the ‘small truths’ of which Sedia referred to—even if only there are a few others out there who currently acknowledge this.

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  12. Cynthia Erlandson

    I am thankful for this fascinating and very helpful essay. It explains to me why, even as far back as high school, I couldn’t stand Whitman — or Sandburg or W.C. Williams, who have been mentioned by someone else in this thread. I found it frustrating and even angering that some of their poems were included in our textbooks, but couldn’t articulate good reasons, such as Mr. Sedia’s, for my reactions.
    Since satire is not my strong suit, I’ll throw out this idea for a title for anyone who may want to use it: “Song of My Selfie”.

    Reply
  13. Julian D. Woodruff

    That Engrossing Mirror

    The self–rapt bent above described
    In modern poetry
    Indeed begs for a diatribe
    To atone in some degree.

    Page after page in Poetry
    Highlights this sort of stuff,
    Where “I” and “my” won’t let us be,
    Where “you” means “me”—enough!

    To chide such poets is the task
    Of those who want a turn
    Away from ego–tending, ask
    They show a new concern

    Perhaps for form or metaphor
    Or some display of grace
    In what they write, and not to bore
    Us with their self–embrace.

    Amanda Gorman’s not so young
    That she should not seek shelter:
    Her talent has placed her among
    Elites, so go on, pelt her!

    But neither is she all that old
    That we can’t hope she’ll grow
    To find her egotism cold,
    And some day show us so.

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  14. BDW

    as per Lew Icarus Bede:

    Mr. Sedia’s thoughtful, skillful piece of literary criticism “Whitman’s Curse” expresses several valuable insights.

    First, we are plagued by banality, nihilism, but worst of all “omnipresent solipsism”, which he traces back to Wordsworth and Whitman. Certainly the Romantics, with their cult of the individual, launched this solipsism, in their antagonism toward Neoclassical verse. It is difficult not to see this great cultural shift in English and European arts and sciences, around 1800, from the PreRomantics on. Revolutionary fervor (and fever) was in the air, as Wordsworth noted:

    “Oh! pleasant exercise of hope and joy!
    For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
    Upon our side, we who were strong in love!
    Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
    But to be young was very heaven!—Oh, times,
    In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
    Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
    The attraction of a country in romance!

    Not in Utopia, subterranean fields,
    Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
    But in the very world, which is the world
    Of all of us,—the place where in the end
    We find our happiness, or not at all!”

    Secondly, Mr. Sedia points out that Realists, like Whitman, carried literature to new heights, but mainly brought it down to new depths; so that, through the experiments of the Modernists and PostModernists, we have come to a NewMillennial banality, a dilemma we all must face.

    Thirdly, Mr. Sedia’s looking at the verses of Milton, Wordsworth, Whitman, and Longfellow, together, in and of themselves, is a good reminder of what has been gained and lost in English poetry through the years. Wordsworth, Longfellow, and even more, Whitman, have carried us away from the stilted language of Milton; but by the time I’m reading Whitman, and Pound, I “feel” linguistic’lly freer. [Freedom, like individuality, was a key emphasis of the PreRomantic and Romantic eras; but only the most talented of “individuals”, like Beethoven in music, could brook their fields. In English poetry, of the PreRomantics and Romantics, I “feel” Byron came the closest—not Wordsworth, nor Longfellow.]

    However, notice what was lost—the intricacies of Milton’s language; those have disappeared in much of Wordsworth, Longfellow and Whitman, and so much of the verse following. I don’t know how retrievable they are. Any of us trying desperately to regain mastery of linguistic intricacy, brought to fruition in Shakespeare’s poetic dramas, for example, are trapped by so many things, and so much. Mr. Salemi points out one of those problems is, “In a world that is essentially ruled by the most intrusive, insidious, and debasing forms of advertisement you can expect the vast majority of the population to be centered on personal needs and desires and experiences.”
    As Wordsworth put it,

    “The world is too much with us; late and soon,
    Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
    Little we see in Nature that is ours;
    We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!”

    Fourthly, Mr. Sedia neatly appraises the banal bathos of Gorman, Blanco and Joseph.

    Mr. Sedia did not appraise Miltonic epic or Longfellow narrative; because that was not his topic here; he focused on autobiographical material. When I think of Longfellow autobiographically, I think of his sonnet, “The Cross of Snow”:

    “In the long, sleepless watches of the night,
    A gentle face—the face of one long dead—
    Looks at me from the wall, where round its head
    The night-lamp casts a halo of pale light.
    Here in this room she died; and soul more white
    Never through martyrdom of fire was led
    To its repose; nor can in books be read
    The legend of a life more benedight.
    There is a mountain in the distant West
    that, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
    Displays a cross of snow upon its side.
    Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
    These eighteen years through all the changing scenes
    And seasons, changeless since the day she died.”

    But the voices of Milton, Wordsworth, Longfellow, Whitman, and Pound, as inspiring they may be, as well as others mentioned in the text and comments, including Solomon, Job, Sappho, Aeschylus, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Schiller, Shelley, Poe, Bryant, Frost, Sandburg, Williams, and Ginsberg, are really only a partial list of what NewMillennial poets have at our disposal. I definitely can imagine NewMillennial poets emulating Milton [the great poet of freedom in the English language] and Longfellow “and their timeless revelations instead of the solipsism of Whitman and his heirs”; but Poetry is so grand and so great, despite its detractors, some of us cannot leave it there.

    Reply

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