G.K. Chesterton argued that Walt Whitman is the greatest American. Leaves of Grass, first published in 1855 and augmented every few years until the poet's death in 1892, is his masterpiece. It was greeted by Ralph Waldo Emerson as "the wonderful gift ... the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed."
You have come in good time, Walt Whitman! In opinions, in manners, in costumes, in books, in the aims and occupancy of life, in associates, in poems, conformity to all unnatural and tainted customs passes without remark, while perfect naturalness, health, faith, self-reliance, and all primal expressions of the manliest love and friendship, subject one to the stare and controversy of the world.
In any event, whether I've enjoyed the books or not, when I sit down to review them, I do so knowing that my better-read friends have probably already read them, often decades ago. And thus it is with Leaves of Grass. There's nothing I'm going to be able to say to shed any new light on a work that's been loved, hated, studied and scrutinized for over a century, and has had numerous critical works written about it. So I won't even try. But here are a few personal observations, in lazy man's bullet points, because I write paragraphs for a living and I'm on vacation right now:
- This is a warm, beautiful collection of writings. Whitman makes constant references to throwing his arm around you, the reader, and the tone of the writing bears that out. Walt is the drunk guy at the party who really loves you, maaaaaannnnn, and keeps giving you hugs.
- I love how he manages to give structure to his poems. "Free verse" is really a misnomer, I think, because the verse is musical and wonderfully well-crafted. Shorn of the restrictions of meter or rhyme, Whitman makes amazing use of alliteration and psalm-like repetition to impart rhythm. These are lovely poems to read out loud.
- This stuff must have been scandalously graphic for the time period. There's a lot of throbbing and sliding going on. I can see why Emily Dickinson hated it.
- It's interesting how Whitman's persona and point of view subtly shift: from omnipotent and omniscient, to solipsistic; from being above all, to being one with everything. One moment he's a silent, ghostly observer, separate from the observed, and the next moment he's just one more microscopic cell in the sweaty body of humanity.
Leaves of Grass is so intense that it actually started to burn a bit by the end, an overstimulated, almost snowblind feeling. I suppose that's to be expected when you read in a few dozen hours what took a lifetime to write. I feel as though this is a book I will come back to for small doses, re-savoring favorite passages when the occasion and mood call for it. Wise, kind, funny, sexy, generous, and passionate. I'm sorry I waited 38 years to let Walt sound his barbarian yawp across the screen of my Kindle.
Although to some, the poems may be too open-ended, long, tedious or verbose to appear enjoyable - but, when you lay bare the meaning behind Whitman's words, you cannot help but feel empowered, aware, introspective, a believer in life, the lover of a human body, and a worshiper of the human soul. What more can you ask from a poet, and his poetry? Read it, live it, and love it!
i suppose i dont feel like walt's radical equanimity and universal love have much to offer the present moment in the US. like, ya i get that it must have been super subversive for the time, thats rad and all, but walt only gets as far as "mb... criminals and poor ppl r not bad," never quite reaching "mb... police and rich ppl r bad"
yes im being reductive but frankly idgaf. like, this sort of even-handedness can only do so much, can only go so far. at least nietzsche transforms his ultra-individualism into a clarion call for action and vibrant life. i certainly like walt's sort of existentialism better than nietzsche's, but damn walt just makes it so fucking BORING, so content w the world as it is! nietzsche, in his refutation of schopenhauer and the dharmic traditions, attempted to find a role for striving, for desire, for ego within the physical world of direct unmediated sensation. when this centered direction is taken out of existentialism, we're left w a bland acceptance of the world of illusions, a sad refusal to acknowledge to reality of suffering that suffuses all, in its horrifying depth
several passages reminded me of this famous dril tweet:
the wise man bowed his head solemnly and spoke: "theres actually zero difference between good and bad things. you imbecile. you fucking moron." (June 1, 2014)
Walt Whitman discusses the connectedness of nature, democracy, and subtler, prettier things.
In the introduction by Williams, he wrote, “Whitman came from a rhetorical and long-winded age.” I laughed and didn’t feel so bad that I had said Whitman word-puked in my recent Leaves of Grass review. He also wrote, “Never to my knowledge had the subjects of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass been so presented! The poem came alive for me as if for the first time.” Well said. I uploaded a few pictures in my gallery to share.
On Equality from “Song of Myself”:
“I am the poet of the woman
the same as the man;
And I say it is as great to be
a woman as to be a man;
And I say there is nothing
greater than the mother
On Celebration of the Body and the Relationship between Men and Women, from “I Sing the Body Electric”:
“I sing the Body electric;
The armies of those I love engirth me,
and I engirth them;
They will not let me off till I go with them,
respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full
with the charge of the Soul.
Was it doubted that those who corrupt
their own bodies conceal themselves?
And if those who defile the living
are as bad as they who defile the dead?
And if the body does not do as much
as the Soul?
And if the body were not the Soul,
what is the Soul?
The love of the Body of man or woman
balks account – the body itself balks account;
That of the male is perfect, and that
of the female is perfect.”
On Aging, from “To Old Age”:
“I see in you the estuary that
enlarges and spreads itself grandly
as it pours in the great Sea.” ----- I love this line
On Adventure and the Journey of Life, from “Song of the Open Road”:
“Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose.
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing
Henceforth I ask not good-fortune – I myself am good-fortune;
Strong and content, I travel the open road.”
“Now I re-examine philosophies and religions,
They may prove well in lecture-rooms, yet not prove at all under the spacious
clouds, and along the landscape and flowing currents.”
“Mon enfant! I give you my hand!
I give you my love, more precious than money,
I give you myself, before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?”
On President Lincoln’s Assassination – one of his most moving pieces:
"O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up--for you the flag is flung--for you the bugle trills; 10
For you bouquets and ribbon'd wreaths--for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head;
It is some dream that on the deck,
You've fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor'd safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won; 20
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead."
On Whitman’s Acceptance of Death:
“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I am,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.”
This is the only reason I am not giving it 5 stars. And it's no fault of Walt's. Not even my own, I just felt I needed to own this edition. Surely I will procure the deathbed edition in due time and while some more hours away in the sunshine reading his genius.
I love Walt Whitman, period.
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form'd from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.
Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.
My memory of this experience boils down to this: "The red marauder." Wouldn't Whitman want to be remembered for more?
Excerpt from section Full Of Life Now
"When you read these I that was visible am become invisible,
Now it is you, compact, visible, realizing my poems, seeking me,
Fancying how happy you were if I could be with you and become your comrade;
Be it as if I were with you. (Be not too certain but I am now with you.)"
I downloaded my copy from Project Gutenberg after doing a bit of research. I decided to read the "Deathbed Version" of the original 12 poems, which were untitled when originally published in 1855. Whitman continuously revised his work for the remainder of his life with nearly 400 poems making up the 1892 Deathbed version.
I found it difficult to sit and read more than a couple of poems in one sitting. Whitman's stunning volume of words wore me down.
I would say I somewhat enjoyed the poems I read and that my 3 star rating reflects this. I acknowledge Whitman's innovation, creativity and place in history.
I'd like to think I'd come back to read other selected poems in Leaves of Grass, such as the ones dealing with Lincoln and the patriotic ones pre-Civil War.
What I really need is a proper guide and analysis plus a comparison of the poems during their evolution over the years. But that all begins to sound like a lot of study and effort that I'm not keen to undertake.
The poems I read were:
Song of Myself
A Song for Occupations
To Think of Time
I Sing the Body Electric
Song of the Answerer
Europe: The 72d and 73d Years of These States
A Boston Ballad
There Was a Child Went Forth
Who Learns My Lesson Complete?
Great Are the Myths