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How to Keep Criticism from Sinking Your Confidence: Walt Whitman and the Discipline of Creative Self-Esteem

“I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood.”

How to Keep Criticism from Sinking Your Confidence: Walt Whitman and the Discipline of Creative Self-Esteem

“Re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul,” Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) wrote in offering his timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life in the preface to Leaves of Grass. When Whitman first published his masterpiece in 1855, it was met with indifference punctuated by bursts of harsh criticism. It is difficult to imagine just how insulting to the young poet’s soul such reception must have been, or what it took for him to dismiss it and carry on writing. What buoyed his spirit through the tidal wave of negativity was an extraordinary letter of appreciation from Ralph Waldo Emerson — the era’s most respected literary tastemaker and Whitman’s greatest hero, whose 1844 essay The Poet had inspired Leaves of Grass. The young poet wore Emerson’s praise of “incomparable things said incomparably well” like an armor, almost literally — he carried the letter folded in his shirt-pocket over his heart, regularly reading it to friends and lovers.

Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)
Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)

It is certainly easier, though never easy, to dismiss what insults one’s soul when it comes from critics who haven’t earned one’s confidence — “Take no notice of anyone you don’t respect,” Jeanette Winterson offered in her ten wise rules of writing. But to dismiss criticism that insults the soul from someone we respect — or, harder still, love — requires superhuman strength of spirit. How do we hold on to the integrity and solidity of our conviction and vision, be it creative or existential, when it is being challenged and censured by a person we regard with high intellectual esteem and tenderness of heart?

Whitman modeled this exquisitely in an encounter with Emerson himself.

On a crisp February afternoon in 1860, five years after the publication of Leaves of Grass, the two men took a two-hour walk along Boston Common. They had by then befriended one another and formed a courteous, frank relationship embodying Emerson’s ideal of friendship: “A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere.” That winter day, Whitman found Emerson to be “in his prime, keen, physically and morally magnetic, arm’d at every point, and when he chose, wielding the emotional just as well as the intellectual.” When the criticism came, Whitman knew it sprang from that selfsame source — a quality of character he deeply respected, even revered. And yet, rather than coming undone by self-doubt, he was able to stay rooted in his own values and vision.

One of Margaret C. Cook’s illustrations for a stunning rare edition of Leaves of Grass.

Writing in Specimen Days (public library) — the endlessly rewarding collection of prose fragments and diary entries, which gave us Whitman on the wisdom of trees, the power of music, the essence of happiness, the “meaning” of art, and optimism as a force of resistance — he recounts:

During those two hours he was the talker and I the listener. It was an argumentstatement, reconnoitring, review, attack, and pressing home, (like an army corps in order, artillery, cavalry, infantry,) of all that could be said against that part (and a main part) in the construction of my poems, “Children of Adam.” More precious than gold to me that dissertation — it afforded me, ever after, this strange and paradoxical lesson; each point of E.’s statement was unanswerable, no judge’s charge ever more complete or convincing, I could never hear the points better put — and then I felt down in my soul the clear and unmistakable conviction to disobey all, and pursue my own way. “What have you to say then to such things?” said E., pausing in conclusion. “Only that while I can’t answer them at all, I feel more settled than ever to adhere to my own theory, and exemplify it,” was my candid response. Whereupon we went and had a good dinner at the American House. And thenceforward I never waver’d or was touch’d with qualms, (as I confess I had been two or three times before).

Emerson — the patron saint of self-reliance, who exhorted: “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” — no doubt appreciated this orientation of spirit. Whitman’s first and foremost biographer, the great naturalist John Burroughs, goes even further in his sublimely poetic 1896 biography Whitman: A Study:

In many ways was Whitman, quite unconsciously to himself, the man Emerson invoked and prayed for,– the absolutely self-reliant man; the man who should find his own day and land sufficient; who had no desire to be Greek, or Italian, or French, or English, but only himself; who should not whine, or apologize, or go abroad; who should not duck, or deprecate, or borrow; and who could see through the many disguises and debasements of our times the lineaments of the same gods that so ravished the bards of old.

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass.

To be sure, Whitman did not dismiss criticism wholesale — rather, he separated the wheat from the chaff through the sieve of confidence and surefooted creative vision. But criticism, he believed, could be far more valuable than praise. In Leaves of Grass, he wrote under the heading “STRONGER LESSONS”:

Have you learn’d lessons only of those who admired you and were tender with you? and stood aside for you?
Have you not learn’d great lessons from those who reject you, and brace themselves against you? or who treat you with contempt, or dispute the passage with you?

The kind of criticism he readily dismissed was that of the professional critics and opinionators — those aimed at tearing down rather than improving a writer’s art, for their judgments are based on the standards of their time and therefore tend to censure any vigorous break with convention. Such critics are apt to pronounce any work of true originality bad, and then to embody W.H. Auden’s incisive observation that “one cannot review a bad book without showing off.”

Burroughs noted this in his praiseful biography of Whitman, composed at a time when the poet was still more rejected than celebrated by his era:

There are no more precious and tonic pages in history than the records of men who have faced unpopularity, odium, hatred, ridicule, detraction, in obedience to an inward voice, and never lost courage or good-nature.

[…]

Every man is a partaker in the triumph of him who is always true to himself and makes no compromises with customs, schools, or opinions.

Whitman himself had proclaimed in Leaves of Grass:

I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood.

Later in life, he would reflect:

Has it never occurr’d to any one how the last deciding tests applicable to a book are entirely outside of technical and grammatical ones, and that any truly first-class production has little or nothing to do with the rules and calibres of ordinary critics?… I have fancied the ocean and the daylight, the mountain and the forest, putting their spirit in a judgment on our books. I have fancied some disembodied human soul giving its verdict.

[…]

The quality of BEING, in the object’s self, according to its own central idea and purpose, and of growing therefrom and thereto — not criticism by other standards, and adjustments thereto — is the lesson of Nature.

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass.

Whitman’s poetry, founded upon the unshakable foundation of his creative and spiritual vision, eventually catapulted him to the top of the English-language literary pantheon. Leaves of Grass endures as one of the most beloved poetic works of all time, having influenced generations of writers and buoyed ordinary livers of life through the worst existential upheavals — such is the power of poetic truth channeled with unwavering stability of confidence and vision.

Complement with Descartes on the crucial difference between confidence and pride, Bruce Lee on willpower and self-esteem, and some excellent advice from great writers on how to survive criticism, then revisit Whitman on creativity, democracy, his advice to the young, and his most direct definition of happiness.

BP

The Puzzle We Call Being: Walt Whitman on Listening to the Song of Existence, Animated

“Now I will do nothing but listen, / To accrue what I hear into this song…”

The Puzzle We Call Being: Walt Whitman on Listening to the Song of Existence, Animated

“Every atom in creation may be said to be acquainted with and married to every other,” the great naturalist John Muir wrote as he contemplated the interconnectedness of the universe not long after Walt Whitman issued his timeless, exquisite reminder that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” And yet, Muir recognized, “the note which any creature forms in the song of existence, it is made first for itself.” To hear the song of existence — ours, or another’s, or the entire symphony of being — is the supreme task of life. But how do we listen to that song when it is drowned out by the ceaseless noise of daily distraction, muffled by apathy, or crowded out by a cacophony of demands?

That is what Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) explores with characteristic splendor of sentiment in the twenty-sixth of the fifty-two numbered section of Song of Myself included in the fourth edition of his revolutionary 1855 masterpiece Leaves of Grass (public library | free ebook).

Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)
Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)

Drawing on his reverence for nature and his reverence for music as the profoundest expression of nature, Whitman composes an invitation to listening that comes alive in this beautiful short film animated by Daniela Shere, narrated by Peter Blegvad, and produced by Massive Science founder Nadja Oertelt for Poetry of Perception — Harvard’s eight-part series exploring representations of sensation and perception through the literary and visual arts, which also brought to life Emily Dickinson’s stunning ode to resilience.

SONG OF MYSELF
Section 26

Now I will do nothing but listen,
To accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds contribute toward it.

I hear bravuras of birds, bustle of growing wheat, gossip of flames,
clack of sticks cooking my meals,
I hear the sound I love, the sound of the human voice,
I hear all sounds running together, combined, fused or following,
Sounds of the city and sounds out of the city, sounds of the day and night,
Talkative young ones to those that like them, the loud laugh of
work-people at their meals,
The angry base of disjointed friendship, the faint tones of the sick,
The judge with hands tight to the desk, his pallid lips pronouncing
a death-sentence,
The heave’e’yo of stevedores unlading ships by the wharves, the
refrain of the anchor-lifters,
The ring of alarm-bells, the cry of fire, the whirr of swift-streaking
engines and hose-carts with premonitory tinkles and color’d lights,
The steam-whistle, the solid roll of the train of approaching cars,
The slow march play’d at the head of the association marching two and two,
(They go to guard some corpse, the flag-tops are draped with black muslin.)

I hear the violoncello, (’tis the young man’s heart’s complaint,)
I hear the key’d cornet, it glides quickly in through my ears,
It shakes mad-sweet pangs through my belly and breast.

I hear the chorus, it is a grand opera,
Ah this indeed is music — this suits me.

A tenor large and fresh as the creation fills me,
The orbic flex of his mouth is pouring and filling me full.

I hear the train’d soprano (what work with hers is this?)
The orchestra whirls me wider than Uranus flies,
It wrenches such ardors from me I did not know I possess’d them,
It sails me, I dab with bare feet, they are lick’d by the indolent waves,
I am cut by bitter and angry hail, I lose my breath,
Steep’d amid honey’d morphine, my windpipe throttled in fakes of death,
At length let up again to feel the puzzle of puzzles,
And that we call Being.

Complement with artist Allen Crawford’s splendid illustrated rendition of Song of Myself, artist Margaret C. Cook’s stunning illustrations for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass, a rare recording of Orson Welles reading from the Whitman classic, and one of James Earl Jones, then revisit Whitman himself on creativity, democracy, the wisdom of trees, the building blocks of character, his most direct definition of happiness, and his timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life.

BP

Walt Whitman on Creativity

Wisdom “for strong artists and leaders—for fresh broods of teachers… and coming musicians.”

“The most regretful people on earth,” Mary Oliver wrote in her beautiful reflection on the central commitment of the creative life, “are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.” A large part of that power, and of its temporal dimension, is an openhearted curiosity about the world — a willingness to take in its varied and often contradictory aspects, in order to distill from them the concentration of truth we call art. Rainer Maria Rilke knew this when he contemplated the combinatorial nature of creativity: “One must see many cities, men and things. One must know the animals, one must feel how the birds fly and know the gesture with which the small flowers open in the morning… One must have memories of many nights of love… But one must also have been beside the dying, one must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window…”

A century and a half before Oliver and many decades before Rilke, another great poet and patron saint of truth turned his singular eye to the question of creativity. Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) explores this abiding mystery in a few verses some three hundred pages into his expanded edition of Leaves of Grass (public library | public domain) — the 1855 masterpiece that nearly broke his career before making it, then gave us his timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life.

Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)
Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)

Under the heading “Laws of Creation,” addressed to “strong artists and leaders… fresh broods of teachers… and coming musicians,” Whitman takes up the necessary risks and core elements of creative work:

All must have reference to the ensemble of the
world, and the compact truth of the world;
There shall be no subject too pronounced — All works
shall illustrate the divine law of indirections.

Art by Margaret Cook for a rare edition of Leaves of Grass

Echoing Emerson’s influential ideal of self-reliance — Emerson, after all, was Whitman’s great hero and the person largely responsible for his success as an artist — he adds:

What do you suppose creation is?
What do you suppose will satisfy the Soul, except to
walk free, and own no superior?
What do you suppose I have intimated to you in a
hundred ways, but that man or woman is as
good as God?
And that there is no God any more divine than Your-
self?
And that that is what the oldest and newest myths
finally mean?
And that you or any one must approach Creations
through such laws?

Complement this particular fragment of the ever-giving Leaves of Grass with Frankenstein author Mary Shelley on creativity, E.E. Cummings on the courage to be yourself, and Rilke on the lonely patience of creative work, then revisit Whitman on the building blocks of character, optimism as a force of resistance, and his most direct definition of happiness.

BP

Walt Whitman on the “Meaning” of Art and How to Best Access the Poetic

“At its best, poetic lore is like what may be heard of conversation in the dusk, from speakers far or hid, of which we get only a few broken murmurs. What is not gather’d is far more — perhaps the main thing.”

Walt Whitman on the “Meaning” of Art and How to Best Access the Poetic

“One can’t write directly about the soul,” Virginia Woolf observed in her diary. “Looked at, it vanishes.” The same could be said of the soul of art, or perhaps of anything of substance and complexity — to write or speak about the meaning of a painting or a poem or a symphony is to flatten and impoverish its essence in some measure.

That is what Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) addresses with poetic precision of insight in a passage from Specimen Days (public library) — the endlessly rewarding collection of his prose fragments and diaries, which gave us Whitman’s meditations on the wisdom of trees, the singular power of music, the essence of happiness, and optimism as a force of resistance.

Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)
Walt Whitman (Library of Congress)

In a diary entry immediately following his reflection on what makes life worth living on the morning of his sixty-fourth birthday in 1882, Whitman writes:

Common teachers or critics are always asking “What does it mean?” Symphony of fine musician, or sunset, or sea-waves rolling up the beach — what do they mean? Undoubtedly in the most subtle-elusive sense they mean something — as love does, and religion does, and the best poem; — but who shall fathom and define those meanings?

In consonance with what Rachel Carson would later term “experiences that gives an odd and hard-to-describe feeling, with so many overtones beyond the facts themselves,” Whitman considers “the soul’s frequent joy in what cannot be defined to the intellectual part, or to calculation,” and writes of poetry what holds true of all art:

At its best, poetic lore is like what may be heard of conversation in the dusk, from speakers far or hid, of which we get only a few broken murmurs. What is not gather’d is far more — perhaps the main thing.

Grandest poetic passages are only to be taken at free removes, as we sometimes look for stars at night, not by gazing directly toward them, but off one side.

Specimen Days remains an indispensable read in its totality. Complement this particular portion with Jeanette Winterson on the paradox of art and pioneering philosopher Susanne Langer on how art works us over, then revisit Whitman on how art enhances life and his timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life.

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