Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Poets to Come" (1860)
Author:
Schneider, Steven P.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"Poets to Come" was first published as number 14 of "Chants Democratic" in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. It was shortened and improved in 1867, transferred to "The Answerer" group in 1871 and 1876, and finally moved to the opening "Inscriptions" section of Leaves of Grass in 1881.

In this poem Whitman addresses future American poets, "a new brood, native, athletic, continental," and encourages them to "justify" him. The poem exhorts his successors to take up the work Whitman hints he has only begun in Leaves of Grass. That work includes his development of the poetic line, the incorporation of colloquial speech into American poetry, and a willingness to treat in a direct way both physical and spiritual matters. In the last two lines of the poem he challenges his poetic descendants to complete what he has initiated: "Leaving it to you to prove and define it / Expecting the main things from you."

The ongoing poetic response is accounted for in Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song (1981), in which the editors organize chronologically the vast number of poems, letters, essays, and tributes that have been written to and about Walt Whitman. "Poets to Come" serves as an apt epigraph for that collection. As Ed Folsom indicates in his introductory essay "Talking Back to Walt Whitman," "most American poets after Whitman have directly taken him on—to argue with him, agree with him, revise, question, reject and accept him—in an essay or a poem" (xxi).

Thus, "Poets to Come" is an historic invitation, responded to in one way or another, by poets who have followed in Whitman's footsteps. Fully cognizant of his own mortality in this poem—"I but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness"—Whitman anticipates an immortal link between himself and future generations of poets.

Bibliography

Folsom, Ed. "Talking Back to Walt Whitman: An Introduction." Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song. Ed. Jim Perlman, Ed Folsom, and Dan Campion. Minneapolis: Holy Cow!, 1981. xxi–liii.

Martin, Robert K. The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1992.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Ed. Sculley Bradley and Harold W. Blodgett. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1973.


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