Along with Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman is often cited as one of the parents of American poetry, and the original edition of Leaves of Grass (1865) sounds, without exaggeration, as fresh today as it ever has, due in part to the massive influence it’s had on American poets since then, perhaps most notably Allen Ginsberg, whose epoch-making piece “Howl” leaned heavily on the style of Whitman’s “Song of Myself”.
Whitman’s biography is often passed in favour of the grand persona he creates in his work, ”Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, disorderly, fleshly, and sensual, no sentimentalist, no stander above men or women or apart from them, no more modest than immodest,” and the obsessively inclusive, celebratory nature of the work. It plays deeply with the cadences of biblical scripture, using a familiar means of mass communication to undermine the message typically relayed by it.
It’s easy to be swept away by Whitman’s easy, sensuous relationship with the world, to want to believe the undeniably well-meaning if naive perspective on his country and the people in it. To invest so boldly in inclusive optimism through the height of the American Civil War, to state that a man is “not contained between my hat and my boots”; it suggests a strength of will that is as intimidating as it is empowering. Here is section LII from “Song of Myself”:
From Song of Myself
The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains
of my gab and my loitering.
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow’d wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.
I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.
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 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 somewhere waiting for you.
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