A recent Guardian article which lists the "Ten Best American Poems" puts Walt Whitman's Song of Myself at number one, the important normative criteria for such an evaluation being durability and the ability to "shift the course of poetry in the United States."
I could see durability, in the sense of an ongoing fascination with remarkable poems from the past, as an important standard, but the idea of an established "course of poetry" seems much more problematic. American poetry is better described as a procession of eccentric events, rather than an adherence to poetic forms or schools in the sense of European programs such as symbolism, surrealism, early modernism, and others operative in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. If American poetry has ever followed an established track, it certainly isn't obvious to me.
Critics outside the U.S. continually try to find some causality principle or set of defining ideas to come to terms with American poetry. The Guardian reviewer suggests that Song of Myself "reinvents American poetry in... peerless self-performance," which is "keyed to the energy and rhythms of a young nation waking to its own voice and vision."
Such twaddle might be composed by somebody on the outside looking in, who tries to find meaning in a situation which was inherently unstable, not to say chaotic, to begin with. The persistent confusion in a country split apart in the nineteenth century by warfare and the invasion of hordes of mostly non-English-speaking immigrants was not the environment capable of providing the degree of social coherence necessary to engender a unitary national "voice and vision." You need a national history to legitimize such proclamations, and in Whitman's time there was little enough of that around.
Although I'd probably agree to placing him at the top of the nineteenth-century poetical ant-heap, I can never forget how incredibly problematic Whitman is. His admirers have seen him as a visionary pioneer, like William Blake opening the gates to cosmic consciousness (as Richard Bucke defined it). But isn't this hyper-inflation of the ego an advanced case of puerile narcissism? And all the gush about loving everything and everybody, isn't it an early species of New Age intellectual dissipation?
And this adoring strangle-hold Whitman apparently has upon the whole universe, isn't it in reality some kind of inverted power-grab? Whitman as the self-imagined metaphysical Übermensch, an uneducated American Nietzsche?
In any event, surely what rests behind the endless attempts at self-assertion and self-definition is his own demand for recognition as a gay person -- in an era when nobody had any idea of what being gay meant, at least conceptually. How different from the approach taken by Herman Melville, the other great gay writer of the 19th century, who quietly and perceptively analyzed the homoerotic tensions and their transformation into outright sadism among a sailing crew in a work like Billy Budd. No cosmic pretensions here, just the authorial craftsman going about his business.
So I tend to think of Walt Whitman as a metaphysical fraudster, at times big-hearted enough, but not to be taken at face-value, at least by me. It seems indicative that no other writer of his century took such pains to have himself photographed as carefully as he did. The engraving above was made from a whole row of original photos taken along with many others in Whitman's old age, the right one selected for optimum effect. All the familiar iconic pictures of the poet seem to have been the result of similarly careful contemplation, the images of an artist who truly couldn't stop singing about himself.