"Outside a dog a book is man's best friend, inside a dog it is too dark to read!" -Groucho Marx========="The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." -Jane Austen========="I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book."-JK Rowling========"I spend a lot of time reading." -Bill Gates=========“Ahhh. Bed, book, kitten, sandwich. All one needed in life, really.” -Jacqueline Kelly=========

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. My first time reading it.

Walt Whitman, Library of Congress. Photo taken by George C Cox; restored by Adam Cuerden
Unbelievably, I am taking a maiden voyage. I am reading Selections from Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman for the first time. In my initial exploration of the slim volume of the Selections from Leaves of Grass that I have in my library I learned quite a bit, which made me even more determined to read it.
  • Walt Whitman is considered to be the first poet of democracy, or the first truly American poet whose voice is singularly American.
  • Harold Blood said, "If you are American, then Walt Whitman is your imaginative father and mother." He went on to say that of all the literary works we associate with America--- Huck Finn, Moby Dick, Emerson's Essays--- Leaves of Grass tops the list.
  • Whitman kept editing Leaves of Grass throughout his writing career and published nine editions of it. Each edition had different variations of poems. He didn't just keep adding and adding, he sometimes subtracted poems, too.
  • The influence of "Song of Myself", Whitman's most famous work, on American poetry is incalculable. "The poet insists that 'every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you'—words that have inspired countless poets to map new worlds. Indeed it is hard to imagine William Carlos Williams discovering “the pure products of America,” Theodore Roethke undertaking “the long journey out of the self,” or Allen Ginsburg writing “Howl” absent Whitman...We all live under the gaze of that pioneer who counsels us, in the final lines of “Song of Myself,” to look for him under our boot-soles."---Univ. of Iowa
  • "Song of Myself" has 52 numbered sections. One per week of the year? Even though it got longer with the different editions, and renamed, it is still a marvel and was thought so from its first printing onward. The version I am reading is unnumbered and not sectioned, so I believe it to be the original 1855 edition.
  • The poem "Song of Myself" is so long it can't be easily summarized but suffice it to say that what, at first glance, appears to be a very self-centered poem is actually the opposite. As it says in the first stanza, "For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you." Whitman seems to love everything and everybody except those who are judgmental or preachy. Seems like a good message for today's politics.
  • Henry Canby, who wrote the biographical notes on one of the editions of Leaves of Grass said, "nobody ever read or should attempt to read Leaves of Grass cover to cover." Good. I will have an excuse to take my time.
Favorite lines from "Song of Myself:"

lI celebrate myself, and sing myself,
     And what I assume you shall assume,
     For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

lThere was never any more inception than there is now,
     Not any more youth or age than there is now,

lI believe in you my soul...

lI resist any thing better than my own diversity,
     Breathe the air but leave plenty after me...

lI exist as I am, that is enough,
     If no other in the world be aware I sit content...

lWhoever degrades another degrades me,
     And whatever is done or said returns at last to me. 

lThe clock indicates the moment --- but what does eternity indicate?

"O Captain, My Captain" Goes to show how little I know. I had no idea that this poem, a favorite of mine since the movie Dead Poet Society came out, was written by Whitman after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The poem was embraced by the American public as soon as it was published for good reason. Reread it and you will see what I mean. Everyone in the country is celebrating because the battle is over and the victory is secured, but the captain lays dead. How can they celebrate?
                      Exult O shores, and ring O bells! 
                            But I with mournful tread, 
                               Walk the deck my Captain lies, 
                                  Fallen cold and dead.

"I Sing the Body Electric" Well here is another Whitman poem I recognize by title. But when I went searching for some audio version, I ran into this, from the 1980s movie, Fame. The title of the song is just about all that is borrowed from this poem. I did enjoy listening to the song, so thought I'd give you the chance to listen and watch, too, this blast from the past.
"Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" When Whitman first published Leaves of Grass some people considered it obscene since some of the poems contain quite frank lines about our bodies and sexuality. By today's standards, of course, they are quite tame. Here is a line I found tucked in this poem, "About my body for me, and your body for you, be hung our divinest aromas." It speaks to me of the mysteries of knowing another person fully.

"Song of the Open Road". Years ago, when I was a classroom teacher and taught Sociology my students and I would explore the theme of cultural literacy, or being able to understand and participate in one's culture fluently. I would then send out my students and have them interview teachers, parents, grandparents about what they thought every American should know to be culturally literate. When we convened we would compile and discuss our lists. Usually our lists contained things like knowing the rules to baseball; the words to the National Anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance; nuanced things like which side of the stairs to walk up/down, etc. Apparently, however, it never occurred to anyone, including me, that Whitman should be included on the list. I'm bumping into lines in his poems which I seem to know by heart, without even knowing how I know them or knowing that he wrote them. Case in point are the opening lines to this poem, "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. 

"Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking". Here is another thing I just discovered. I know the titles of many of Whitman's poems, once again not knowing that they were his, like the title of this poem. Don't these titles just roll off your tongue? "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking"; "Song of the Open Road"; "I Sing the Body Electric"; "I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing."  The titles alone invite the reader in. Now granted, all the 52 (there's that number again!) poems in this slim volume don't have wonderful, catching titles, but many, possibly most, do.

Selections from Leaves of Grass, the edition I hold in my hands right now, is one of the Walt Whitman poetry books in the GKHS library. It is a slim, plain volume weighing in at 109 pages. It was published in 1961. Apparently, book font styles were very different in past decades. Even though the book is short, the font is small and the text cramped. For the longer poems like "Song of Myself" and "Song of the Open Road" I found myself searching on the the Internet for copies of the poem which were easier to read. I liked those I found on The Poetry Foundation the best. I'm sure you agree. Font size and style really do make a difference for  reading enjoyment.

Death is a theme I see repeated in Whitman's poems but he doesn't get all morose or creepy as he describes it. In fact in several poems, one gets the impression that he welcomes it or at least likes it.
"When Lilacs in the Dooryard Bloom'd" is an elegy to Abraham Lincoln after he was assassinated in 1865. In this poem he uses a lovely and comforting metaphor for death---"a dark mother as gliding near with soft feet." The poem "Scented Herbage of My Breast" seems to be all about death and being buried with lines like this that evoke a very natural order of things---"Tomb-leaves, body-leaves growing up above me above death..." In the poem "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking", where a boy (Whitman) is awakened to poetry through nature because he observes and then hears the lovely and heart-rending lament of a sparrow who is mourning the loss of his mate.
     O past! O happy life! O songs of Joy!
     In the air, in the woods, over field,
     Loved! loved! loved! loved! loved!
     But my mate no more, no more with me!
     We two together no more.

Favorites. It seems that everyone has a Whitman favorite. I think my favorite is "O Captain, My Captain.", but now that I've read this volume full of other favorites I think I may change my mind. I'll let them simmer a few more days before I decide for sure. What about you? What is your favorite Whitman poem?

"Says" is the last poem in this collection. In this poem Whitman seems to be giving us all advice. Here are a few of the gems he leaves us with:
l"I say nourish a great intellect, a great brain;"

      l"I say man shall not hold property in man;
            I say the least developed person on earth is just as important and sacred to himself or herself, 
            as the most developed person is to himself or herself."

     l"...anything is most beautiful without ornament,"

     l "I say that every single right, in politics or what-not, shall be eligible 
            to that one man or woman, on the same terms as any."

I like that last thought so much I highlighted it.

Whitman was truly a great poet and I'll claim him as my "imaginative father." Thanks for sticking with me, dear reader. This is a log post and you deserve credit for reading to the end.

Edition: Whitman, Walt. Selections from Leaves of Grass. Avenel Press. New York. 1961. Print.



  1. I don't know his poetry (my excuse is I'm British) but one of my favourite pieces of music includes choral versions of extracts from Leaves of Grass - Ralph Vaughan Williams' 1st Symphony - the Sea Symphony. If you don't already know it and enjoy orchestral music, you may find it worth listening to... :)

  2. I studied this in one of my American lit classes in classes - during one of our classes when we were going over it the professor actually had us all go over a park just off campus and enjoy nature! :)

    1. I wish I had taken some English Lit classes in college. I think I would have loved them and could definitely stand the help and insights from professors.

  3. I didn't know that those poems were his either; many of the titles were very familiar!


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