This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, reexamine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.
So Walt Whitman instructs us in the Preface to the 1855 edition of his seminal and landmark book of poetry, Leaves of Grass. This is why I love him. Even 160 years later, the book still strikes like a lightning bolt of profundity. At the time of publishing, no less a personage than Emerson stated in a letter to Whitman that
I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of “Leaves of Grass”…I rubbed my eyes a little, to see if this sunbeam were no illusion…
In her introduction, Helen Vendler, writes that another hero of mine, Thoreau, said
In an 1856 letter, Thoreau, after an initial flinching at Whitman’s candor (“It is as if the beasts spoke”) continued by saying “He is awfully good”, and with an early insight, suggested that Whitman’s apparent “egoism” was earned: “He may turn out the least of a braggart of all, having a better right to be confident.”
Whitman speaks to everyone about everyday things without pretense and in language that is understandable to the masses. He does it in unrhymed free verse without the sometimes intimidating formal structure of other poets and poetry. He addresses issues that were groundbreaking at the time. Some may seem mundane now, some have new urgency or interpretations within his lines, and some need new poets, writers, artists, activists, and everyday people to carry the torch forward.
There is too much that I love here. I can only touch on some of the flashes of genius that have always touched me, and others that strike me with new meaning each time I open the book depending on what my country, culture, or I am struggling with when I reread him.
For example, in other writing and volunteer work I have been involved in the issues of body image and imposed gender expectations have been front and center. But no worries, even back when body image was not necessarily a articulated concept, I find that Walt has covered it:
The bodies of men and women engirth me, and I engirth them,
They will not let me off nor I them till I go with them and respond
to them and love them.
Gender expectations? Sexuality? No problem. Way before androgyny and choosing personal pronouns, Walt was mixing his pronouns and confusing believers in the sexual binary with his poetry of the gray area in between:
If you meet some stranger in the street and love him or her, do I not often
meet strangers in the street and love them?
Darkness you are gentler than my lover….his flesh was sweaty and
I feel the hot moisture yet that he left me.
Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am
The scent of these arm-pits is aroma finer than prayer,
This head is more than churches or bibles or creeds.
If I worship any particular thing it shall be some of the spread of my body;
Translucent mould of me it shall be you,
Shaded ledges and rests, firm masculine coulter, it shall be you,
Whatever goes to the tilth of me it shall be you,
You my rich blood, your milky stream pale stripping of my life;
Breast that presses against other breasts it shall be you.
My brain it shall be your occult convolutions,
Root of washed sweet-flag, timorous pond-snipe, nest of guarded
duplicate eggs, it shall be you.
Mixed tussled hay of head and beard and brawn it shall be you,
Trickling sap of maple, fibre of manly wheat, it shall be you;
Sun so generous it shall be you,
Vapors lighting and shading my face it shall be you,
You sweaty brooks and dews it shall be you,
Winds whose soft-tickling genitals rub against me it shall be you,
Broad muscular fields, branches of liveoak, loving lounger in my winding
paths, it shall be you,
Hands I have taken, face I have kissed, mortal I have ever touched, it shall
My lovers suffocate me!
Crowding my lips, and thick in the pores of my skin,
Jostling me through streets and public halls….coming naked to me at
Crying by day Ahoy from the rocks of the river….swinging and chirping
over my head,
Calling my name from flowerbeds or vines or tangled underbrush,
Or while I swim in the bath….or drink from the pump at the corner….
or the curtain is down at the opera…or I glimpse at a woman’s
face in the railroad car;
Lighting on every moment of my life,
Bussing my body with soft and balsamic busses,
Noiselessly passing handfuls out of their hearts and giving them to
Come closer to me,
Push close my lovers and take the best I possess,
Yield closer and closer and give me the best you possess.
What is known I strip away…I launch all men and women forward with
me into the unknown.
If there is one thing I don’t connect with Walt on, it is his occasional jingoist digressions while singing his nationalistic praise of the United States. But bear with the poet, he has much good advice that our country needs to hear. Confused about our immigrant past or wanting to scapegoat the latest group to want to come here? Walt says,
Here is not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations.
Dismissing the importance of literature and the arts? Alas Whitman’s vision has not quite come to pass…
Of all nations the United States with veins full of poetical stuff most need poets and will doubtless have the greatest and use them the greatest. Their presidents shall not be their common referee so much as their poets shall.
Need encouragement to fight for your particular marginalized rights? Walt has you covered there too:
Not a grave of the murdered for freedom but grows seed for freedom….in
its turn to bear seed.
Which the winds carry afar and re-sow, and the rains and the snows nourish.
Morality and spirituality? Whitman was well read in the western canon and drew off of Christian and Jewish sacred writings but his writings also seem to reflect some of the eastern beliefs and ideas. I hear the Tao in some of his verses.
The vulgar and the refined….what you call sin and what you call
goodness….to think how wide the difference;
To think the difference will still continue to others, yet we lie beyond the difference.
I swear I see now that every thing has an eternal soul!
The trees have, rooted in the ground….the weeds of the sea have….
The beautiful thing about Whitman’s poetry is that it is affirming poetry that most people will find some affirmation within. What you pull out of and what you get from reading Leaves of Grass depends on your own personal history and experience.
My love for Whitman makes resisting new editions especially hard, particularly fine press editions but also quirky new ones like the recent Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself. The Arion Press edition was a no-brainer.
In keeping with Whitman’s desire for his “barbaric yawp” to appeal to the masses, this 100th Arion Press edition was kept simple but elegant. No converting Whitman into a livre de artiste here. The illustrations are confined to the familiar portrait of Walt from the original edition and an image of grass by Arion Press binder Rochelle Youk. The binding is beautiful with oak veneered boards and green Nigerian goatskin. The book block and spine are nicely rounded, a welcome departure from the disappointingly frequent flat spine of recent Arion books. My one nit with the design is that the titling on the spine of the book is very fine and hard to read. I would have liked the title to stand out as boldly and saucily as Whitman does in his portrait. The book is cased in a nicely done and equally elegant slipcase. As usual with me, the paper is the clincher, a special 1985 run of Langley from the Barcham Green Mill with watermarks of the mill and of the Arion Press’ lyre pressmark. And rough deckle edge seems like just the right touch for Leaves of Grass.
In her lucid foreword, Helen Vendler states that the opening poem, which later was named “Song of Myself”, is “…the first masterpiece of American poetry, and has influenced not only every subsequent generation of American writers but also foreign poets from Russia to Chile. Indeed, I love finding references to Whitman among the words of writers. One of my favorite recent poems of homage to Whitman is by Rudulfo Anaya. I found “Walt Whitman Strides the Llano of New Mexico” in The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry. It’s a long poem and worth seeking out. I’ll just quote a small part:
Hold me in the safety of your arms, wise poet, old poet,
Abuelo de todos. Your fingers stir my memory.
Leaves of Grass should be our National Poem, if such a thing existed, though I’m not sure we still deserve it, if ever we did. Walt might have a few things to say about how our nation has strayed. But that is part of the beauty of Whitman’s gift. He gives this gift freely, without judgment of our need or worth. Open the gift in whatever form you can: fine or trade edition, used or new, graphic adaptation, paperback, e-book. Take a turn together….it will repay you.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
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 some where waiting for you.
AVAILABILITY: The Arion Press edition is limited to 275 copies at a price of $1250. It was almost instantly out of print.