Walt Whitman Gives Advice to Aspiring Young Writers: “Don’t Write Poetry” & Other Practical Tips (1888)

whitman advice

Some of the best, most suc­cinct writ­ing advice I ever received came from the great John McPhee, via one of his for­mer stu­dents: “Writ­ing is pay­ing atten­tion.” What do you see, hear, taste, etc.? Ques­tions of style, syn­tax, and punc­tu­a­tion come lat­er. Obsess over them before you’ve learned to pay atten­tion, and you’ll have noth­ing of inter­est to write about. And in order to notice what you’re notic­ing, you’ve got to record it; so keep a note­book with you at all times to jot down over­heard expres­sions, thrilling sights and insights, dra­mat­ic chance encoun­ters… hoard­ing mate­r­i­al, all the time.

Amongst the tidal wave of advice you’ll encounter when you first begin to write—much of it con­tra­dic­to­ry and some of lit­tle prac­ti­cal benefit—you’d have a hard time find­ing any­one who dis­agrees with McPhee. Not even Walt Whit­man, who embraced con­trari­ness and con­tra­dic­tion like no oth­er Amer­i­can writer, thus becom­ing all the more an hon­est reflec­tion of the nation. Few writ­ers spent more time notic­ing than Whit­man, who seem­ing­ly record­ed every­thing he saw and heard on his trav­els. “I heard what the talk­ers were talk­ing,” he pro­claimed, “I per­ceive after all so many utter­ing tongues.” Whitman—as a project called Har­vardX Neu­ro­science dubs him—was a “poet of per­cep­tion.”

But he was also a hard-head­ed real­ist with a bent toward the util­i­tar­i­an and a scrap­py resource­ful­ness that made him an artis­tic sur­vivor. Whit­man con­tained mul­ti­tudes, not only in his poet­ry but in his writ­ing advice. When edi­tors of The Sig­nal, news­pa­per of The Col­lege of New Jer­sey, asked the poet in 1888 to advise young schol­ars on the “lit­er­ary life,” he oblig­ed, giv­ing the paper a brief inter­view in which the “gray-haired, hand­some, aged poet of Cam­den” prof­fered the fol­low­ing (con­densed in list form below):

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

Whit­man’s advice con­tains sound, prac­ti­cal tips on what we might today call “pro­fes­sion­al­iza­tion.” Should we take his admon­ish­ment against writ­ing poet­ry seri­ous­ly? Why not? For a good por­tion of his life, Whit­man earned a liv­ing “whack­ing away,” as he liked to say often, at more util­i­tar­i­an forms of writ­ing, from reportage to an advice col­umn. Whit­man took seri­ous­ly his role as a voice of work­ing peo­ple and per­haps saw this inter­view as an occa­sion to address them.

Whit­man’s “seething rejec­tion of poet­ry,” writes Nicole Kukaws­ki in the Walt Whit­man Quar­ter­ly Review, should not sur­prise us; it is “sim­ply part of his attack on con­ven­tion­al­i­ty in all respects… poet­ry can nev­er be ‘utilitarian’—in no way can it reach the mass­es for their ben­e­fit.” Unlike our day, poet­ry was ubiq­ui­tous in late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca, part of an entrenched, high­ly con­ven­tion­al polite dis­course. Who knows, maybe a Whit­man of the ear­ly 21st cen­tu­ry would feel very dif­fer­ent­ly on this point. Sure­ly we could use a great deal more “poet­ic expres­sion” these days.

Whit­man’s final piece of advice accords ful­ly with John McPhee’s—and sev­er­al hun­dred oth­er writ­ers and teach­ers. But in Whit­man’s esti­ma­tion, notic­ing, and acquir­ing “a vast fund of infor­ma­tion,” was not only essen­tial to the lit­er­ary life but also key to pur­su­ing an “indi­vid­u­al­is­tic,” real-world self-edu­ca­tion. “One sub­ject about which Whit­man did not con­tra­dict him­self,” writes Kukaws­ki, “was his con­sis­tent belief that the schol­ar should learn by encoun­ter­ing life instead of read­ing books alone.” There may be no bet­ter exem­plar of that phi­los­o­phy in Amer­i­can let­ters than Walt Whit­man him­self.

via Austin Kleon

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Walt Whitman’s Unearthed Health Man­u­al, “Man­ly Health & Train­ing,” Urges Read­ers to Stand (Don’t Sit!) and Eat Plen­ty of Meat (1858)

Walt Whitman’s Poem “A Noise­less Patient Spi­der” Brought to Life in Three Ani­ma­tions

Watch “The Poet­ry of Per­cep­tion”: Har­vard Ani­mates Walt Whit­man, Emi­ly Dick­in­son & William Car­los Williams

Iggy Pop Reads Walt Whit­man in Col­lab­o­ra­tions With Elec­tron­ic Artists Alva Noto and Tar­wa­ter

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Wayne Hoss says:

    Always write from with­in, let it flow, nev­er force it!The Lords Bless­ing

    Because you came to me before the end
    Now it is for your soul that I will send
    You have real­ized your sin’s and that is good
    You are sor­ry for sin­ning against your broth­er­hood

    In the end you were no longer fight­ing Life
    You final­ly gave in to its strife
    You final­ly real­ized that I want­ed you to love me by faith not fear
    That is why you couldn’t see me but knew that I was here

    At first you hat­ed life and its demands
    Until you reached out for my lov­ing hands
    Tell your fam­i­ly, “Please do not grieve!”
    For I promised eter­ni­ty for he that would believe

    Tell them you will be wait­ing in the Promised Land
    Some­day togeth­er you will play in the sand
    Tell them to go after that one that went astray
    Bring them clos­er, don’t push them away

    Work togeth­er, stay by their side
    Teach them my love, but don’t insult their pride
    Show them my love, raise their spir­its high
    Tell your fam­i­ly I need­ed you here in heav­en up high

    Tell them please do not shed a tear
    Before long they will join you here
    Tell them that I have for­giv­en you for all of your sin
    Tell them I also opened heav­ens gate to let you in

    Be a good friend and a good host
    Show them the way to the Holy Ghost
    Be there when they fall to lift them high
    Do all these things and they join you in the sky

    By: Wayne Hoss

  • I real­ly like this con­cept. It is true that in writ­ing you can tell when the writer means it or does­n’t mean it. Imagery that is made up does not feel gen­uine, and it becomes easy to lose your read­er. If you take the time to observe, you can cre­ate the kind of imagery that will cap­ture a read­er. Thank you for all of your help­ful tips for aspir­ing writ­ers!

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