Poetry and Patience
Walt Whitman worked on ‘Leaves of Grass’ for four decades. Do poets have a unique relationship with patience, perhaps?
In 1850, Walt Whitman started writing Leaves of Grass, a sprawling work of free-verse poetry that he would keep working on until he died, 42 years later.
As I write this I’m inching towards 42 and just last night my son said to me, cheerfully, “You’re probably about halfway through your life, huh?” I thought about all the life I’ve lived in 41-and-a-half years and how honestly really a lot has happened — I mean, I started as a baby — and all the things I might do and write in the next 42 years. My son asked me how that felt, to potentially be right in the middle of my life, “except instead of getting stronger and adding things like in the first half of your life, you start getting weaker?”
I told him to go to bed.
The ever-expanding Leaves of Grass evolved and grew as Whitman wrote and revised (I get it, I also mess with my writing endlessly — he would have loved the ever-editable internet!), and the result is a prismatic self-portrait of a life lived during very interesting times. Have you read it with fresh eyes since you encountered the Dead Poets Society bit or the Fame song bit (!) ? I dove back in recently and it’s even weirder and wilder than I’d remembered:
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
Okay, so yes he is deathless, we all are, how wonderful. But in the here-and-now of Whitman’s life, how did he live in a creative space of never-being-done? To me, and probably to many writers, there is an almost intoxicating endorphin ping when the writing is done — published online, or sent out to subscribers, or passed along to the publishers. Done, at last, thank goodness!
Maybe poets have access to a unique form of patience? Or at least a more reliably strong inner compass, since, certain Instagram poets aside, the readership for poetry is infamously small. Novelists get chided for unspectacular sales, reminded again and again that publishing is a business and novels are products and often ROI-negative ones. The very real possibility that a novel could actually make money makes publishing — or writing! — one all the more confusing: Is it a product or is it art, and who is meant to decide? But poets get left alone! (Do they? I’m making this up, poets please feel free to yell at me gently in the responses.)
Last year I had a poet of my own.
In February of 2020 I left my husband who I had been with since I was 20 — college sweethearts! Don’t marry them! — so, for half of my life. A month later, the pandemic had closed down much of America or at least much of New York City. The timing was, we’ll call it, interesting.
I was at this time corresponding with a poet who I’d met in graduate school and had shared many moments of intense eye contact with from across a classroom, long ago, back in the Midwest. Divorce offers a great opportunity to check in on old crushes or suspected crushes, to fact check all those gazes you told yourself you were imagining.
Spoiler alert: You weren’t imagining them.
The poet had lost his day job and seemed to do nothing but write poems, which he produced at the pace of one a day. I was amazed, at first, at how he would write something and then send it to me, and sometimes also post it online, right away, within hours of starting it. I’m always amazed by this kind of rapid-release writing, since I usually work on novels for months and years and decades before I will allow any bit of them to see the light of the day. (That said, I’m writing this and will probably publish it to the internet immediately, and be happy if people read it and respond, so obviously on some level I get it — what, after all, is writing, but a way to communicate? How, really, can your writing communicate if you don’t let anyone see it?)
The poems that he sent me started to change in tone and theme. Some of them arrived via mail, typewritten onto postcards. They made me giggle in such a ridiculous way that my children would gather around going “What? What?” What a thing, to get postcards of poetry, brightening those grim early quarantine-life days! The poems were full of islands and seas and long nights and longing, and occasionally a twinge of lust. I mean if you have to be a recent divorcee in a pandemic, I recommended being buoyed by bespoke poems.
He started intimating that he wanted to see me in person. This was when the pandemic was raging, and we live halfway across the country from each other. I didn’t see how that could happen. He wrote to me: “I can wait. I’m a patient man.”
Somehow Whitman kept the faith as he kept working and reworking his epic poem, which at first he self-published, to meager sales and mixed responses. There were some rave reviews, to be fair, written by, uh, Whitman himself. An excerpt:
AN American bard at last!…No sniveller, or tea-drinking poet, no puny clawback or prude, is Walt Whitman. He will bring poems fit to fill the days and nights — fit for men and women with the attributes of throbbing blood and flesh. The body, he teaches, is beautiful. Sex is also beautiful….Must not the true American poet indeed absorb all others, and present a new and far more ample and vigorous type?
I wonder if that attitude, actually, was the key — the confidence, the swagger. The “If you done it, it ain’t bragging” — !! Any writing is a kind of high-wire act, and you need to be a little bit stupid, or, I mean confident, if you’re going to get to the other side.
Maybe, if we want to stick with an epic work for four decades, or even just get through a draft of something, we should all write ourselves rave reviews, Whitman-style. “An American bard at last!” I’ll write at the bottom of my WIP draft every time I leave off in the novel to go work or parent or wallow in self-doubt.
But apart from keeping the faith in the work, I think another reason why sticking with something over a long stretch of time is so difficult is that you have to be so un-single-minded. We love the myth of the writer banging out a novel in three days (as Whitman claimed he did, while drunk!), but really any ambitious, large-scale anything is woven into the fabric of life, and life is complicated, with so, so, so many strands.
Eventually I told my poet that I’d started seeing someone in actual real life. I figured it wasn’t that big a deal. After all, we were just pals — penpals! — right? Plus, I assumed he assumed that words and texts and postcards, while lovely, weren’t really going to sustain me, being an actual alive person in a body in the present and not a character in a Victorian novel, and I assumed as much of him too — but I wanted to be clear. Poets are good at “negative capability,” being in uncertainty, living with mystery, etc — right? Intimate with the unknown, unattached to idea that only one reality exists at a time, and above all else, very, very patient?
The poet said, oh okay, well, I tried. He never wrote me again.