Today, May 31, 2019, marks the 200th (!) birth anniversary of the poetic genius Walt Whitman, who in many ways invented American poetry – which is another way of saying that, if one is writing poetry today, in America or elsewhere, Whitman is utterly inescapable, and seems to hover over any poem whatsoever as a guiding and tutelary spirit. Whitman’s poetry, in its long rolling lines and cadences, its oceanic rhythms, its “plain” (I say “plain” in quotes because Whitman’s praised plainness is kind of deceiving; it’s really more subtle, even more hermetic, than “plain” suggests), and earthy and robust manner of addressing himself and the world – there was nothing like this before him, though afterwards and up until today his imitators (including this librarian) have been legion. Read some poetry by Ralph Waldo Emerson, another inventor of American thought and literature, and a great influence on Whitman – these poems might be moving and/or intelligent, subtle and/or intricate; you might find the rhymes or the spiritual insights surprising or interesting; but it (Emerson’s poems – his essays are another matter) really does not touch the achievement of Whitman, who was somehow able to embed within his poems the literary DNA of a large soul, a large person, Walt Whitman, one of the roughs, barbaric yawper, containing multitudes.
I wonder today, because of this birthday, how many people out there have actually read Whitman, as opposed to hearing of him, (or perhaps not even hearing of him, alas). These particular persons might say or think, “Okay, you’ve got my attention. Where do I start? What should I read?”
I am not a Whitman scholar, but the best thing about Whitman is that he speaks to all of us, and one does not have to be a scholar of literature to read and appreciate Whitman. Here is one of my favorite Whitman quotes, from “Song of Myself,” pertaining to this:
Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d the earth much?
Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
So, if I was asked what to read, I would suggest the 1855 “Song of Myself,” and the 1865 “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” both of which are utter masterpieces. Here are links to both of them:
One of my favorite parts of the Whitman mythos is the aura that surrounds his trip to New Orleans in 1848, seven years before he self-published (and we need to think about this as well – Whitman self-published (?!) the 1855 Leaves of Grass) the first edition of his great work in 1855. Whitman left New York as “Walter Whitman,” a hack journalist, but when he came back from New Orleans, he was different, he was “Walt.” What happened to Whitman in New Orleans? Some scholars have speculated that he had a transformative love affair with a man; others have argued he had some kind of life-changing spiritual experience. We’ll probably never know what happened exactly, but there is a clear and real qualitative difference between the articles and fiction he wrote earlier in his career (Whitman wrote a serialized novel that was a potboiler about temperance; he also wrote at least around 1200 articles for many different newspapers, many about social and political issues), and the later radical experimental poetry he would dedicate his life to. One of the most fascinating and amazing products of Whitman scholarship is the digitized manuscript drafts of some parts of the poem, where we can actually see decisions and revisions Whitman made during the process of composition (the actual original manuscript for the 1855 Leaves of Grass is lost; Whitman claimed it had been mistakenly used for a fire and burned by his printer). Take a look at his early notebooks:
My other favorite aspect of Whitman’s biography is the fact that, once the Civil War started, Whitman spent three years tending to soldiers, really like some kind of saint. Here is an excerpt from an article about Whitman’s life during the Civil War (link to whole article is below the excerpt):
“Whitman’s routine was to rest after his office work, bathe, dress in fresh clothes, eat a good meal, and put in four to five hours touring the hospitals. He would often pack a knapsack with fruit, tobacco, paper, envelopes, and the like for individual distribution to the soldiers—materials chiefly paid for with money raised from relatives and friends. He entered the hospitals well-rested, sweet-scented, and cheerful in appearance. Though he might often break down hours after a visit, he took care to steel himself to the agonies he witnessed for as long as he was in the presence of the soldiers, to keep his spirits high. He was not so much a “wound-dresser,” as his poem of that title suggests, as a healer of the spirit, an affectionate comrade or “uncle,” whose curative abilities were nonetheless deeply respected at a time when doctor’s interventions often did more harm than good. Whitman never read his poetry to the men—in fact, he apparently never told them he was a poet—but he would recite Shakespeare or passages from the Bible. He would also hold the men’s hands, kiss them, write letters for them. Some of Whitman’s most admirable prose can be found in letters informing parents, with exquisite tact, of the exact circumstances and manner of the death of a son.”
I once read a famous critic claim that Whitman’s service during the Civil War killed him as a poet. While I am not in a position to evaluate this contention, I think it’s fair to acknowledge that Whitman’s service during that time took its toll. But what does that even mean? The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, “ethics and aesthetics are one.” When I think about Whitman, I think about this apothegm, and I feel that Walt Whitman, more than any American poet in our storied history, really embodied this truth in his work and his life. Today, on his 200th birth anniversary, let’s remember this great poet’s contribution to our ongoing lives, to our democracy, to our ways of thinking and feeling and imagining, to our hope, to our literature, to our dreams, and to our future.
Whitman’s name weirdly and mysteriously did not appear on the title page of the self-published first edition.