Poetics of Presence, Vocation, and Attention: The Example of Whitman

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Abstract

This essay reevaluates Walt Whitman’s poetics of presence via three new books (by Lucy Alford, Mark Doty, and Peter Riley), arguing that the poet’s commitment to an undifferentiated ontology is as much a part of his radicalism as is his inclusive democratic politics. That undifferentiated ontology (“every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”) permits Whitman to overcome spatiotemporal boundaries and to address our contemporaneity. His work thus resists historicist models of scholarship that locate him securely in the nineteenth century. Whitman’s conviction that his poetry involves an encounter not with a textual object but with an embodied presence, a living voice, has consequences for our understanding of poetry more broadly. The essay contends that academic criticism misrepresents poems by treating them primarily as textual objects for scholarly or classroom analysis. Claiming that the devocalization of poetry in academic literary studies helps to explain its disciplinary neglect, the essay connects Whitman’s theory of voice and the preponderance of vocatives in his poetry with a nonexceptionalist account of poetic vocation. Whitman encourages contemporary scholars to grasp how attending to a poem entails hearing its vocalization, listening to it rather than reading it only.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)161-180
JournalAmerican Literary History
Volume33
Issue number1
DOIs
StatePublished - Feb 22 2021

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