August 5, 2020

Walt Whitman’s Advice to the State Scholars

In a little house, narrow and low, facing Mickle Street, in the city of Camden, N.J., there lives to-day a man who, in his own way, following the dictates of his own peculiar conscience, he himself pervaded with that poetic “ego” which has marked toward infinity the limit of his intellect, has done more to revolutionize poetic thought than any other writer of the nineteenth century. That man is Walt Whitman, the gray-haired, handsome, aged poet of Camden, who to-day has won for himself a world-wide reputation as a leader among men.

With George Worman, Model Class of ’86, I called upon Walt Whitman some time ago and asked him if he could give to us some rule or regulation whereby those in the State Schools of New Jersey, who desired to follow a literary life, could profit, and better equip themselves for the fray.

The poet sat in a great oak chair by the fire; the room was cheerful in the morning sunlight, which streamed upon a carpet of waste paper – letters, journals, pamphlets, story books and manuscript. The somewhat impudent character of the question propounded by partial strangers, if I may use the term, (I had met Walt Whitman a year or so before this interview,) seemed to please the poet, for he laughed and said: “Yes, I’ll tell you what to say to the State scholars who have literary ambitions. Just this: Practice is the main thing at all times, and subservient to this but almost equal in importance, is the statement never be discouraged. Whack away at everything pertaining to literary life – mechanical part as well as the rest. Learn to set type, learn to work at the ‘case’, learn to be a practical printer, and whatever you do learn condensation. I’ll tell you the best literary characters are individualistic; they let out what they have in them; they give themselves full sweep and play. This is true, especially in America, where thought is untrammeled and men are free. To young literateurs I want to give three bits of advice: First, don’t write poetry; second ditto; third ditto. You may be surprised to hear me say so, but there is no particular need of poetic expression. We are utilitarian, and the current cannot be stopped. To people who will write verse, I have nothing to say. This much I will state, that at present it is a great struggle to get out of the mud into which conventional poetry has placed us. The efforts of the poets of the past is to put us in the mire. We must not be conventional, we must be free.

“I make another suggestion. It is a good plan for every young man or woman having literary aspirations to carry a pencil and a piece of paper and constantly jot down striking events in daily life. They thus acquire a vast fund of information. One of the best things you know is habit. Again, the best of reading is not so much in the information it conveys as the thoughts it suggests. Remember this above all. There is no royal road to learning.”

So ended our interview with one of the strangest, one of the sublimest poets America ever produced: with Whitman, a poet who told us he acquired meter as the eye sees or the bird sings: with a person who knows the world – to whom a man is the true image of the Maker, and who to-day has scarcely an equal in this or any other land.


– From The Signal, February 1888, as recovered by Nicole Kukawski, senior English major

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