Overrated Famous Poems #1: “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman

The way I see it, most of contemporary poetry’s problems result from the fact that the vast majority of people — at least in America — never see a poem anywhere besides school.  For the vast majority of that vast majority, “school” means high school.  And the designers of high school curricula are notoriously — and, I must say, puzzlingly — bad at presenting the students with poems they might actually like.  Honestly, the goal is ostensibly to make kids like this stuff, so you give them “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud?”  Not, say, “Kubla Khan” or “Howl” or A Season in Hell or any of the thousands of poems that would make high school kids instantly realize that poetry is the most badass art form and love it forever, but instead the straight-up fruitiest fucking poem you could possibly find?  Oh, you wanted to teach them about meter and rhyme?  Well, okay then, because clearly “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” is the only poem that has those things.  Plus it includes the line “a poet could not but be gay,” which is sure to be handled well by fifteen-year olds, especially in light of the fact that the poem is no-shit about shrieking with glee and breaking into a spontaneous dance because you saw some daffodils, and nothing else.  Kudos.  Sure, “Howl” talks explicitly about getting a train run on your ass by a motorcycle gang, but it’s how it talks about it that matters.  For starters, no daffodils are involved.

Sometimes what poems are famous, and what poems are anthologized, just makes no sense.  And nowhere is this more evident than with the real “America’s Preacher,” Walt Whitman, who inaugurates my Overrated Famous Poems series.  Walt Whitman is the most influential American writer in any genre, and arguably one of the 10 greatest poets of all time in any language, and “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” is his most ubiquitous poem, the most frequently taught and most frequently anthologized.

It is also his only poem that sucks.

I cannot stress how baffling this is.  Leaves of Grass is 500 pages long.  There are like six thousand poems in the damn thing.  Know how you can find one better than “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer?”  Open it at random to any page.   Seriously, every other poem in the entire giant book is the most incredible poem you’ve ever seen, until you turn the page and there are five poems that are even better.  Alright, maybe you don’t want to give high-school kids the one about the hooker.  Fine, don’t.  Maybe there are a few others that you also think are inappropriate for high school.  Fine.  But you know what?  Even if half the book were inappropriate for high school—which it’s not—that would still leave you with two hundred and fifty fucking pages of poems that are not only not inappropriate, but are also mind-blowingly fantastic and the best representations of what poetry means and what constitutes its duties that you could possibly lay before a student or anyone.  Without having to give them “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.”

WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and  ……… measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much ……… applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Unlike in every other Whitman poem, there is not much to “get.”  It is a variation on the Wordsworthian “Tables Turned” conceit that experiencing Nature is superior to dissecting it.  True enough, but Whitman here takes the idea one fatal step farther.  Wordsworth’s point had been that you want to get outside once in a while instead of reading all the time.  The point of “Learn’d Astronomer” is that knowing about stuff is for chumps, period.

Are you having trouble paying attention because I used “farther” instead of “further” three sentences back?  Well, the way I see it, “farther” is correct there.  The rule is that “farther” should be used for literal distance and “further” for metaphoric degree.  But I was talking about steps there, which are taken over distance.  No-one is literally taking steps, but within the metaphor distance is involved, so it becomes a question of whether you think the metaphor ends after the word “step,” or after the subsequent adverb.  If the subsequent adverb is part of the metaphor, which I think it is, then said adverb should be “farther .”

There, wasn’t that interesting?  More interesting than, say, looking in perfect silence at a dictionary?

People who love things are supposed to analyze them.  That’s how you get good at them, and preserve the means for subsequent generations to get good at them.  For lack of a better idea, the place where humanity conducts such business is school.  It was a bad idea for this poem to suggest that people should ignore what is presented to them in school.  Because you know what they present you with in school now?  THIS POEM.

Actually, maybe this is Whitman’s most ingenious poem of all and, knowing that it would one day become standard high-school fare, he wrote it in a secret plan to make the dumb kids’ heads explode:  “This poem says I shouldn’t pay attention to what they give me in school, so I won’t, but they gave me this poem in school, so I shouldn’t pay attention to this poem, which means I should pay attention to what they give me in school, which means I should pay attention to this poem, which means…”

Ka-BOOM!!  And that’s what you get for beating me up because I stare at other boys and wear a stupid hat and have a fake butterfly on my finger, dumb kids!

I wish that had been his plan.  But alas, it was not, and this poem just sucks.  There are worse famous poems, but “When I Heard the Learn’d Astonomer” gets to kick off the series for being not only a bad poem, but a bad poem that negatively affects every other poem in the world, including other poems by the same author, which are all great, by providing lazy people with a convenient excuse not to read poetry.  This poem is why the kids in your poetry classes today, when you ask them who they read, just lean back with douchey grins on their greasy little faces and say “I don’t read ANYBODY, man — I just do my OWN thing!”, as if that makes them awesome instead of giant assholes.  In other words, thanks to Walt Whitman, the people who would benefit most from reading Walt Whitman are able to use Walt Whitman as an excuse not to read Walt Whitman.

Nice going, Walt Whitman.

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(In the unlikely event that you are unfamiliar with Walt Whitman but reading a poetry blog anyway for some reason, and would like to read a good poem by him, read any other poem by him besides the one I was just talking about.  If that is not specific enough, read “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”)

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10 Responses to “Overrated Famous Poems #1: “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman”

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