Walt Whitman on Creativity
Wisdom “for strong artists and leaders — for fresh broods of teachers… and coming musicians.”
By Maria Popova
“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.
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.
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-
And that that is what the oldest and newest myths
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.
Published September 14, 2018