This article originally appeared in the May 22, 1981 issue of Commonweal
ONLY ONCE did I meet the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. I had gone to his home where we both began discussing literature extensively. Gradually I noticed that on the desk in Neruda’s study there was a bust of Walt Whitman, and in fact, this was the only bust of a writer in Neruda’s home. So I asked him, “Have you been influenced greatly by Whitman?”
“Whitman has been my greatest teacher,” he replied, “and I, myself, am a direct disciple of his.”
Whitman’s influence over Neruda was not unique because the nineteenth century American poet has influenced all Spanish-American poets, and I believe all of them owe something to Whitman. And that he continues to exercise influence, more than other poets, on all of world literature.
Myself, I wrote my book Fervor de Buenos Aires under the direct influence of Walt Whitman and wrote that in the book’s prologue. In my opinion, Whitman is the father of all that is modern in poetry.
From that moment in 1855 when he published his Leaves of Grass and invented blank verse—based on the Psalms, of course, but very different from them—from that moment, the poetic personage has become one of the greatest feats of the North Americans and their literature. Inspired by experiences in the bedrooms of New Orleans and on Georgian battlefields it has been essential for the literatures of every continent.
The literary destiny of Whitman’s followers has been, above all else, to imitate the results of his work, that somewhat popular poetry, that tone that causes him to be less a poet than an orator. But no one has thought about the intimate aspects of Whitman’s experiment. That dream of democracy, what Americans call “the American dream,” was the great dream of Whitman, who believed fervently in the possibility of that experiment. He was a great partisan of democracy and he wanted the hero of his poem to be everyone.
Now then, there was always a hero in epic poetry; Vergil said, “I sing of arms, deeds, and the man”; that is to say, a man is chosen and exalted. Heroes like Achilles, Ulysses, Roland, and El Cid are some examples.
Everyone was the hero of Whitman’s poem since he wrote it in relation to democracy, in relation to an ideal of equality among all men on earth. He invented a personage whom he called “Walt Whitman” who was not the one offered to us by his biographers; a lonely, unhappy man who led a sad life. Instead the other Whitman, the Whitman of the poem, is a sort of magnificent vagabond who travels from no man’s land to the land of everyone.
Does that mean, then, that there are two Whitmans, the friendly savage and the poor, solitary writer, who invented him?