A question Whitman asked in "The Song of Myself," a question more integral to his project than it at first seems: "Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?" What this implies is that there are mysteries in ordinary poems, secrets that are to be decoded, depths that only the initiated can dare to or are capable of plumbing.

But in fact, what's striking is that there are no "depths" in Whitman, no secrets, no allegories, no symbols in the sense of one thing standing for another, an aspect of matter standing for an element of spirit. Everything in Whitman's poems is brought to the surface, everything is articulated, made as clear and vivid as in a way as uninterpretable as it can be. If something does stand for something else—the bird in "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," for instance, or the lilac or thrush in "When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom'd"—he tells us, or all but tells us, it does; he makes sure that there can be no mistake about his intention. It would be foolhardy to read Whitman with an eye to Eliot's "objective correlatives"—his notion of images embodying complex ideations—because nothing in the poems answers to that definition, although everything in them serves the same function of enrichment, of layering of response. The layers are all laid out on the page: the complexity of the response that's demanded is the same Eliot described, but it's a complexity, again, an equation, all of whose parts are revealed.

This is a key element in Whitman's aesthetic, perhaps its essence. Perhaps, too, it's a part of his ambition to make a poem that would be emblematic of American democracy while at the same time embodying it. It might also help to explain Whitman's disappointment that the poem didn't have the wide reception he'd hoped and assumed it would; his surprise that the poets who still worked in an aesthetic that he characterized "European" would receive vastly greater attention than he did.

From C. K. Williams on Whitman, copyright © 2010 by C. K. Williams. From the Writers on Writers series, Princeton University Press.