John D’Agata’s The Making of the American Essay (2016) has a witty sequence of epigraphs from Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, and John Ashbery, one epigraph to a page: “Make it plain.” “Make it new.” “Make it sweet again.”
D’Agata does not identify sources. If there is a source for Whitman, I’m unable to find it. Two children’s biographies of Whitman have him writing these words:
“Make it plain,” he wrote. “Lumber the writing with nothing — let it go as lightly as a bird flies,” &c.But the relevant passage from Whitman’s prose is missing “Make it plain”:
Catherine Reef, Walt Whitman (1995).
“Make it plain,“ he advised himself. “Lumber the writing with nothing — let it go as lightly as a bird flies,” &c.
Milton Meltzer, Walt Whitman: A Biography (2002).
Make no quotations, and no references to any other writers.—There are various accounts of Whitman using the words “make it plain” in conversation. He is reported to have said, in speaking of slavery, “I never lost any opportunity to make it plain where I stood.” But I can find nothing that suggests a Whitmanic imperative related to writing.
Lumber the writing with nothing, — let it go as lightly as a bird flies in the air — or a fish swims in the sea.
Selected Poems, 1855–1892, ed. Gary Schmidgall (1999).
Pound’s imperative “Make It New” (properly capitalized) long ago became a motto of literary modernism. Here is a fine account of the imperative’s history.
Ashbery’s words, followed by an exclamation point, end the poem “But What Is the Reader to Make of This?” (A Wave, 1984):
And what is the reader to make of “it”? Is “it” “the general life”? Or the mood? These lines give us Ashbery in Romantic mode, with the hope of recovering something lost (as in Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”) and echoes of Shelley (“Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass”) and Stevens (“Alas, that they should wear our colors there, / The silken weavings of our afternoons”). But Ashbery’s words are hardly a precept for writing.
What most surprised me in looking into these epigraphs is that they have appeared together before, in Douglas Crase’s introduction to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays: First and Second Series (1990):
No one owns these words, of course. But it’s clear that Crase got there first. I still don’t know what to make of “Make it plain.”
January 19, 2017: A source for “make it plain,” from a Whitman notebook page:
Rule in all addresses — and poems and other writings, etc. — Do not undertake to say any thing however plain to you, unless you are positive are making it perfectly plain to those who hear or read. — Make it plain.“[Y]ou are positive are making it”: not a typo. Grier dates the materials on this notebook page to “probably before and shortly after 1855.” “Make it plain” seems to have first seen print in Paul Zweig’s Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet (New York: Basic Books, 1984). Thanks to the reader who pointed me to these sources.
Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts, ed. Edward F. Grier, vol. 1, Family Notes and Autobiography, Brooklyn and New York (New York: New York University Press, 1984).
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