I think this is going to be another one of those sentences that begin all right, go on all right, and then go on a little too far and become ridiculous. And I know it’s coming because although it does begin all right, it doesn’t begin with much elegance or focus. “Walt Whitman wrote ‘Leaves of Grass'” is a fairly flat beginning. “Yeah, so?” asks the reader. The opening has no promise: my student was merely pushing a pawn, so to speak, as a rather unimaginative rhetorical gambit. Statement of fact.
And the adjective clause that follows offers merely to define the noun just introduced. So, fact followed by definition. (Oh, I know you’re thinking that “which was” could launch an observation rather than a definition: “which was revolutionary in form as well as content”; “which was the first truly American poem”; “which was arguably the most influential poetic work of the American nineteenth century”; and so on. But that’s not what my student had in mind; she wanted a definition, and definition she gave.)
“Walt Whitman wrote ‘Leaves of Grass,’ which was a collection of poems that…” she goes on. The “that” may be launching a definition of the collection or the poems—in other words, a definition of something in the current definition. Or of course she may NOW be about to make an observation or judgment (“that shook the literary establishment,” “that together defined Whitman and his world,” “that he sent to Ralph Waldo Emerson in response to Emerson’s call for a truly American voice”…).
But, at least up to the “that,” she is on solid ground, if not very interesting ground. Put a period in there, my dear, and move quickly to engage your reader with the next sentence!
Here’s what she did:
“Walt Whitman wrote ‘Leaves of Grass,’ which was a collection of poems that he wrote in his lifetime.”
You see? She really didn’t have anything in mind when she began the sentence, but she kept going in hopes that light would dawn. For that, I guess she didn’t go on long enough. But evidently to her the sentence had acquired some necessary gravitas, or sonority, or importance, and was enough. Where the essay went from there I do not recall. Where could it go from there?
This student is not the only one fascinated by the fact that poets tend to write while they are alive. Or perhaps I should say Whitman was not the only poet who wrote while alive: Dante did too, for example.
I honestly don’t know of any poet who wrote before birth, or after death. I once wrote something I had dreamed (Ah, Coleridge, you too?), but I don’t think any dead poets were dictating.
But certainly there are many poets whose work lives on.
Mourning the loss today of Seamus Heaney, whose lyric poems are breathtaking, alive, moving—and whose translation of Beowulf reveals all the vigor of its Old English original as well as the story and its characters. Most distinct in his work is its life. You can’t achieve that if you’re not alive yourself.