I've heard the titles and parts of some of Walt Whitman's poems over the years without connecting them to him. "Song of Myself," "I Sing the Body Electric," "O Captain! My Captain!" I've enjoyed this past month as I've gotten to know his work better.
Leaves of Grass, First Impressions
I hadn't read Leaves of Grass before this month. Two things I knew about it were that Bill Clinton gave a copy of it to Monica Lewinsky, and the chemist Gale Boetticher gave a copy of it to his mentor, Walter White, in the series Breaking Bad. What book of poetry could cross that gap?
I approached it with an open mind and immediately became confused. It was written in the mid to late 1800s and I could understand the patriotic themes, but shuffled between that theme and long rambling lists were bits of erotica and amazing perception. What rabbit hole was this? In the heat of passion the last thing I'd want to hear is the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Maybe times have changed but the patriotic themes were an anaphrodisiac to me. It seemed like porn for Tea-Partiers.
His Life's Work
But this was his most famous work and I didn't want to judge it too quickly. As I read his prose writings I learned that Leaves of Grass was actually put together carefully over the course of thirty years. He published the first edition in 1855 when he was 36 years old and he kept adding to it, printing new editions until shortly before his death. He considered Leaves of Grass his life's work and had a clear purpose in writing it:
“The theory of my Leaves of Grass as a composition of verses has been from first to last, (if I am to give impromptu a hint of the spinal marrow of the business, and sign it with my name,) to thoroughly possess the mind, memory, cognizance of the author himself, with everything beforehand—a full armory of concrete actualities, observations, humanity, past poems, ballads, facts, technique, war and peace, politics, North and South, East and West, nothing too large or too small, the sciences as far as possible—and above all America and the present—after and out of which the subject of the poem, long or short, has been invariably turned over to his Emotionality, even Personality, to be shaped thence; and emerges strictly therefrom, with all its merits and demerits on its head. Every page of my poetic or attempt at poetic utterance therefore smacks of the living physical identity, date, environment, individuality, probably beyond anything known, and in style often offensive to the conventions.”Walt Whitman's Last, Complete Prose Works
Whitman saw firsthand how close we came to the dissolution of the United States, so the theme of democracy became central to his writing. He saw things as democratic or non-democratic. He even imagined that Shakespeare—who wrote from a strong pro-aristocratic perspective—may have been alluding to democracy in his plays. He saw it everywhere.
Strong Drink, Small Sips
I think Leaves of Grass was hard for me to take in at first because I was trying to read it too fast. It contains some of the most vivid imagery I have read. He removed everything he felt didn't belong, so even all the long lists of occupations and place names are there to reinforce his underlying purpose.
“...after many MS. doings and undoings—(I had great trouble in leaving out the stock "poetical" touches, but succeeded at last.)”Through Eight Years, Specimen Days
I enjoy it much more when I read a few poems at a time.
He always carried paper with him to write on, a notebook or the blank end papers torn from books. On his daily walks he would often stop and record his impressions.
“I find the woods in mid-May and early June my best places for composition. Seated on logs or stumps there, or resting on rails, nearly all the following memoranda have been jotted down. Wherever I go, indeed, winter or summer, city or country, alone at home or traveling, I must take notes...”New Themes Entered Upon, Specimen Days
One thing I've learned from reading Whitman is to be observant and capture your impressions as quickly as possible:
"The secret of it all, is to write in the gush, the throb, the flood, of the moment—to put things down without deliberation—without worrying about their style—without waiting for a fit time or place. I always worked that way. I took the first scrap of paper, the first doorstep, the first desk, and wrote—wrote, wrote…By writing at the instant the very heartbeat of life is caught."Commentary
Another important thing to keep in mind when writing your story is to make sure your characters are grounded in their time as well as place.
“No great poem or other literary or artistic work of any scope, old or new, can be essentially consider'd without weighing first the age, politics (or want of politics) and aim, visible forms, unseen soul, and current times, out of the midst of which it rises and is formulated...”An Old Man's Rejoinder, Complete Prose Works
Pissing on Poe
Whitman was well acquainted with the works of his contemporaries, and even knew some of them personally. He wrote an essay, "Edgar Poe's Significance," in which he struggled to say something nice. After illuminating why he didn't like Poe's style he reluctantly concedes:
“For a long while, and until lately, I had a distaste for Poe's writings. I wanted, and still want for poetry, the clear sun shining, and fresh air blowing—the strength and power of health, not of delirium, even amid the stormiest passions—with always the background of the eternal moralities. Non-complying with these requirements, Poe's genius has yet conquer'd a special recognition for itself, and I too have come to fully admit it, and appreciate it and him.”Edgar Poe's Significance, Complete Prose Works
Poetry is a Mutual Endeavor
After trying to read a scholarly work on poetry titled, The Theory of Poetry, he gave up in frustration and wrote some of his own ideas on the subject.
“At its best, poetic lore is like what may be heard of conversation in the dusk, from speakers far or hid, of which we get only a few broken murmurs. What is not gather'd is far more—perhaps the main thing.”After Trying a Certain Book, Complete Prose Works
A poem is a shared experience between the poet and the reader. The poet shouldn't spell everything out. There needs to be enough room for the readers' experiences to complete the understanding, making the interpretation personal.
“I only seek to put you in rapport. Your own brain, heart, evolution, must not only understand the matter, but largely supply it.”Ibid.
He expands this idea in referring to the works of Shakespeare:
“In the whole matter I should specially dwell on, and make much of, that inexplicable element of every highest poetic nature which causes it to cover up and involve its real purpose and meanings in folded removes and far recesses. Of this trait—hiding the nest where common seekers may never find it—the Shaksperean works afford the most numerous and mark'd illustrations known to me. I would even call that trait the leading one through the whole of those works.”Walt Whitman, Complete Prose Works
True American Literature
At the end of his life he wondered if there would ever arise a true American Literature. "We want mighty authors" who not only respectfully build on the literary heritage of our past, but
“clearly understand and justify, and be devoted to and exploit our own day, its diffused light, freedom, responsibilities, with all it necessitates...”American National Literature, Complete Prose Works
What do you think? In the 122 years since Whitman's death, who would you identify as our "mighty authors?"
And finally, here is a poster of Walt Whitman with an inspirational quote on writing.