Walt Whitman’s poetry collapses boundaries: between past, present, and future; between countries, cities, and regions of the world; between races, ethnicities, classes, and occupations; between the young and old, the foolish and wise, the public and private realms. He breaks down all the categories we use to tell us who, when, where, and what we are, the terms we reflexively rely on to structure our everyday lives. He even blurs usually sacrosanct distinctions between body and soul, and man and God. In so doing, he prepares us for the perception of a single, universal truth and for our subsequent transformation into the kind of people we need to be.
In his sweeping impulse to erase difference and approach unity, Whitman’s verse can be considered the poetic expression of the principles of the Transcendental movement that flourished in the northeast in the late 1820s and 1830s. Indeed, Leaves of Grass was Whitman’s direct response to an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the founder of Transcendentalism, who had called for a unique American poetry to give voice to the grandeur and promise of the new land. As Whitman is said to have remarked to a friend, “I was simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil.” The slim volume of verse that Whitman self-published in 1855 answered and exceeded the Emersonian challenge. Shortly after its publication, Emerson praised it as “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.”
Whitman’s poetry bears another and perhaps deeper debt, however (one Emerson also acknowledged), and that is to the great mystical tradition that cuts a wide swath through most major religions, both Eastern and Western. If we define mysticism in its broadest sense, as the development, through certain practices, of a unique state of consciousness that may yield to the seeker a direct perception, often ecstatic, of ultimate reality, then we can begin to make the argument that Whitman’s grand objective is nothing less than to induce mystical insight in the reader through the office of poetry.
Emerson described mystical states in numerous places throughout his oeuvre. In “Nature,” he wrote, “I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God.” But the essay form required him to appeal to his reader through reasoned argument, which, by definition, was antimystical. (As Whitman noted, “To elaborate is no avail, learn’d and unlearn’d feel that it is so.”) Using poetry, Whitman could venture beyond concepts into a suprarational realm, where the ultimate reality that Emerson had presented to readers’ intellects might be experienced as an actual, subjective state. To accomplish this, he needed to use language itself as the necessary mystical practice, the agent of enlightenment. His solution—and his great poetic achievement—was to develop a long-phrased, repetitive, rolling, rhythmic, insistent, climaxing, exclamatory language that brings to mind Hebraic psalms, pagan incantations, monastic chants, and the dance of whirling dervishes. To be in any form, what is that? / (Round and round we go, all of us, and ever come back thither.) By infusing the deep-souled, physical cadences of ancient rituals into colloquial American speech, he was able to create a singular poetic voice (much-imitated and highly recognizable) that sought, with fresh linguistic relevance, to jolt his readers’ minds from the mundane, temporal world into the higher realm of profound insight. In this, Whitman staked out new literary territory altogether. Moving beyond the treatises of the Transcendentalists (and the personal testimonies of the English Romantic poets, who had also lauded insight and intuition), he became a mystic priest.
Walt Whitman, a Kosmos
True to this authorial role, Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is not about himself at all. While close to the beginning of the poem Whitman identifies himself in specific terms—I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin—he quickly abandons the particular Walt Whitman for an “I” of cosmic proportions, whose identity includes all others: Southerner, Yankee, father, mother, farmer, comrade, boatman, coalman, raftsman, and, one assumes, any other kind of man or woman whose temporal identity can be added to a list. Whitman has occasionally been accused of a certain bombastic narcissism, but his “song of himself” is actually the opposite. He eagerly sheds the husk of his personal identity to blend his eternal essence with the spirits of every animate being and inanimate object—with anything and everything that his senses perceive. Unlike a narcissist, he doesn’t care how the world values him, and spares not a single lamentation for the inevitable end of himself in death. Instead, he hungers for self-annihilation, the kind that flattens the walls of the feebly constructed self so that it may be blown away by the strong wind of enlightened joy.
Whitman cannot expand himself into a “kosmos” without first collapsing a significant boundary, the one between God and man. This separation is a crucial, foundational structure of any psyche steeped in and succored by Christian theology—a group that includes most nineteenthcentury Americans and a good portion of our present population. But, as Emerson did, Whitman puts God and man on equal or nearly equal footing, and finds in their new relationship, not the dreaded end to religion, but a fulfillment of the spiritual quest. Whitman’s God is thus quite different from the Calvinist God of the Puritans: He is not separate, not unknowable, not more powerful than man. He is a God brought down to earth, so to speak; who reveals Himself in all aspects of His creation—in plants and animals, in all the organs and processes of the human body; who is present in every blade of grass on the field of existence; whose truth and goodness reside in the purity of our own hungering or satiated souls. When Whitman says, “And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is,” he is not mouthing a pretty cosmological notion. I do not say these things for a dollar or to fill up the time while I wait for a boat. He believes he is stating a Word of God more truthful and profound than any word in the Bible. A typical reader of Whitman’s time could not have fully accepted this teaching without experiencing an almost total psychic reorganization—a kind of nonreligious conversion experience—an outcome Whitman eagerly awaits.
Conversion was practically a sport in nineteenth-century America. In 1855, the year of the publication of Leaves of Grass, the Second Great Awakening, which had carried on for fifty or more years, burning with special intensity in the Midwest and Northeast, had given way to the Third Great Awakening, which would add an estimated one million converts to the churches of the United States. The hellfire and damnation sermon was the instrument of the sought-after conversion experience; by Whitman’s time it had become a finely tuned art form in itself.
Whitman’s proselytizing verse might fit easily into the category of conversion literature were it not for one important difference. While Christian preachers sought to bring sinners to Jesus, to guide them to peace and rest in the bosom of the risen Christ, Whitman puts forth himself as a redeemer. When he says, “Who wishes to walk with me?” and “Now I wash the gum from your eyes,” his words clearly echo the words of Christ. “Many times have I been rejected, taunted, put in prison, and crucified, and many times shall be again,” writes Whitman without apology. In “Whispers of Heavenly Death,” the “I” who speaks is none other than “Santa Spirita, breather, life.” The poet Whitman is even capable of raising the dead:
To any one dying, thither I speed and twist the knob of the door,
Turn the bedclothes toward the foot of the bed,
Let the physician and the priest go home.
I seize the descending man and raise him with resistless will,
O despairer, here is my neck,
By God, you shall not go down! hang your whole weight upon me.
I dilate you with tremendous breath, I buoy you up,
Every room of the house do I fill with an arm’d force,
Lovers of me, bafflers of graves.
Sleep—I and they keep guard all night,
Not doubt, not disease shall dare to lay a finger upon you,
I have embraced you, and henceforth possess you to myself,
And when you rise in the morning you will find what I tell you is so.
—from “Song of Myself”
Here we see Whitman at one of the highest peaks of his conviction and artistic power. Unabashed author of a new kind of sacred text (which is Leaves of Grass itself), he is confident of his spiritual magnetism, of his sure possession of the profound esoteric wisdom that he knows is the only prize worth winning, one that can never, by its very nature, be handed over wholesale to the supplicant or drily parsed in a doctrinal text. You are also asking me questions, and I hear you, / I answer that I cannot answer, you must find out for yourself. Because we want, or ought to want, the precious stuff that he holds and owns and cannot give away, we are endlessly drawn to him, always gathered round, always in need. I teach straying from me, yet who can stray from me?
O You and I!
The tension between Whitman’s separation from the reader (the separation of the enlightened from the unenlightened) and his generous embrace of the reader, his healing Christlike love, is at the heart of his poetry’s ability to move us. For Leaves of Grass, we sense immediately, is a book written for us. Whitman has us in his sights at every moment; he knows our deepest, most secret need, even when it is so deep and secret that we ourselves do not realize it exists. We are his children, his pupils, his misbehaving charges, and we are well and truly loved. (I might as well say that reading Whitman requires a state of regression in the reader. Despite his straw hat, tattered coveralls, and “common man” posing, we are still being asked to submit to the authority of his masterful, imperious “I,” to leave aside what we think we know and become teachable.) Whitman is so passionately dedicated to reaching and teaching his readers that no strategy of communication is too undignified for him to employ. At times he seduces with feigned intimacy: “I might not tell everybody, but I will tell you.” At others he yells across a roadway: “What are you doing, young man?” He resorts to stealth: “Closer yet I approach you.” He lectures, cajoles, humors, and charms us—he demands a relationship and will not let up. He believes that his urge to reach us is greater than ours to resist; if nothing else, he will simply tire us out. Failing that, he is prepared to mock and accost us.
You there, impotent, loose in the knees,
Open your scarf’d chops till I blow grit within you,
Spread your palms and lift the flaps of your pockets,
I am not to be denied, I compel, I have stores plenty and to spare,
And any thing I have I bestow.
—from “Song of Myself”
It is interesting to skim the pages of Leaves of Grass, scanning for pronouns. The verses are dotted with multitudinous I’s and a goodly number of you’s. There are very few we’s because Whitman and his reader are made of different spiritual stuff and cannot yet think, feel, or act together in a unified way. They are in the courtship stage; the marriage that would allow them to claim a joint identity has not yet taken place. As for they’s, it comes as no surprise that there is a dearth of this pronoun in the pages of Leaves of Grass. The various occupations and kinds of people Whitman references are understood in their singularity and their symbolism; they rarely coalesce into a functioning group. Indeed, what difference could they—the vast, anonymous public—make to Walt Whitman and me, entwined as we are in our high-stakes, tumultuous affair? What is it to us that the rest do or think?
Which brings us to sex. Whitman’s nineteenth-century readers, we have long been told, considered it a base, shameful, animal function best kept out of the light. With radical bravura, Whitman raised sex, celebrated it, exulted in it. Ever the collapser of boundaries and destroyer of categories, he merged sex with the human being’s highest faculty, the soul. Indeed, in the first lines of the inscription to Leaves of Grass, before he embarks upon a single verse, Whitman informs the reader that body and soul are one. “Come, said my Soul, / Such verses for my Body let us write, (for we are one).” The soul’s yearning and the body’s appetites spring from the same ground, from existence itself. Soul and body are, in their essences, the same thing. The seeker who chants and sways after enlightenment, and the man or woman who gives his or her body in the act of love, are engaged in fundamentally identical acts. So the long, rhythmic lines that bring to mind Sufi whirling and monastic chants also conjure the sex act itself. Consider the anaphoric thrusts, the building, breathless commas, and the orgasmic exclamation points. Or simply consider the words themselves: “Love-thoughts, love-juice, loveodor, love-yielding, love-climbers, and the climbing sap, / Arms and hands of love, lips of love, phallic thumb of love, breasts of love, bellies pressed and glued together with love . . .”
Even staunch defender Emerson suggested toning down the imagery, but the warning went unheeded by the exultant poet, who had sworn an “oath of procreation.”
But Whitman is no mere shock artist, out to upset stuffy nineteenth-century taboos. Nor is he a gaudy exhibitionist. He “sings the body electric” because the body—through its senses, sensuality, sexuality—knows how to break down its boundaries and open itself to the world. In its natural wisdom, the body is our sure and constant teacher: the man or woman who explores and revels in his or her physicality, who loves each of the body’s processes, touches upon Truth. Body and soul entwine and inform each other, and to repress one or the other is to stunt the growth of man. Thus, Whitman’s swagger is a prayer of joy; his open shirt a testament of faith. When Whitman writes, “I pour the stuff to start sons and daughters,” his seed is as generous, sacred, and ordinary as the letters of God that he finds “dropped in the street, and every one is sign’d by God’s name, / And I leave them where they are, for I know that wheresoe’er I go / Others will punctually come forever and ever.”
E Pluribus Unum
Whitman as mystic priest tells only half his story. To more completely know him, we need to see that his near-constant state of rapturous unity, and his passion for sharing and inducing it, is not an abstract esoteric pursuit, not an end in itself; it is a political mandate. In both Whitman and Emerson’s estimations, the success of democracy depended on the strength and sanity of its citizens. So Emerson invented and described the selfreliant man who thought for himself and took his own conscience as his guide. Such a man stood eyetoeye with priests and governors. He didn’t strain after riches and power; his satisfaction came from knowing and possessing his own soul. If such a type became common in American society, Emerson believed, then democracy might indeed be able to fulfill its exceptional potential.
The job of shaping the archetype of the American man or woman, building and solidifying the American character, was as central to Whitman’s oeuvre as it was to Emerson’s. Only the theme I sing, the great and strong-possess’d soul. But, again, while Emerson described the self-reliant man, Walt Whitman went one step further: he became that man. Even today, if a visitor seeking to understand the American character were to stop us on the street and ask, “Who is the quintessential American?” we would not be wrong to give his name.
So in addition to being a mystic priest, Whitman’s “I” is a living, breathing, fully constructed American man, aware of his luck and itching to get on with the public project. A loafer, a lover, a worker, a wanderer in fields and along roads, a denizen of a big, fertile land, his roots are in the soil and the cities, in every piece of this American nation. Westward expansion, technological innovation, the open floodgates of immigration—all this he folds into himself without qualm or hesitation, growing better and stronger with each challenge. His heart swells to “encompass all” that America is becoming, and can be. The main shapes arise! / Shapes of Democracy total. On every page of Leaves of Grass, the poet liberally and tirelessly reveals himself as a type of the ideal American—a person willing to grow with the growth of the country, to march without fear to the drumbeat of progress, to see himself in every face he passes on the street, to be the glad inheritor of every culture and tradition, and to know that this country is a destiny, not just a place. At first we might merely admire the great man we find on the pages, but soon, if he has his way, we will want to be him. His open book serves as our catechism, showing us the kind of people we must become if the American experiment is to succeed.
“I say that the real and permanent grandeur of the states must be their religion,” Whitman writes. He’s not talking about organized religion: that had been deconstructed by Emerson’s Transcendentalism and Whitman’s own spiritual experiences. He’s talking instead about the popular religion (with a small r) that he and Emerson were defining, a nondenominational system of values and ideals that all Americans could emulate without coming to harm, that would take us where we needed to go together, as one body politic, and that might (only time would tell) become synonymous with the American character. Here Whitman collapses one more boundary—the one between the people’s spirituality and the state. The two aren’t separate, he tells us; like body and soul, they interpenetrate, and in so doing, give each other breath and form. Political success depends on the people’s just character and shared wisdom. Strongpossessed souls can make a society great.
Thus, Walt Whitman takes us on a cosmic journey only to deposit us once again in the real world: the cities, fields, homes, and factories of these hopeful, troubled, turbulent United States, where our work as citizens is cut out for us. He remains before us as our model, our guide. In the preface to Leaves of Grass, he wrote, “The greatest poet places himself where the future becomes the present.” We the readers may not be able to sustain his mystical raptures or clear political vision, but if we simply head toward the place where he is standing, we will always be going in the right direction.
—ELISABETH PANTTAJA BRINK
For the past ten years, always on a Monday evening early in June, New York City’s Poets House has held its annual Brooklyn Bridge Poetry Walk. Typically, several hundred people gather on the Manhattan side of the bridge, where relevant poems by Hart Crane, Marianne Moore, and others are read by a number of highprofile poets. Then the group, bearing placards and programs, begins its walk across the bridge, pausing under the first cathedral-like arch for more poetry readings, much to the puzzlement of some of the passing joggers and bicyclists. The high point of the event is always the concluding reading, performed on the Brooklyn side by Galway Kinnell, of Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” the ferry that was made obsolete by the very bridge that is being celebrated. Standing with his back to the East River, as it rushes along on one of its tidal runs and, beyond it, the Manhattan skyline now featuring the stunning gaps where the World Trade Center once towered, Kinnell intones the poem with fullthroated ease and brings the listeners into a noticeably eerie sense of connection to Whitman. This is the poem, you might remember, that insistently addresses readers and listeners of the future who will stand here one day, just where Whitman stood:
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.
Whitman aims his poem at a posterity that now, as the sun weakens over New Jersey on this early-summer evening, includes this contemporary group of poetry readers who are standing by the same river he so frequently crossed:
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.
By making its listener an essential part of the drama, the poem draws us into a kind of prophetic conspiracy with Whitman and makes us wonder for a moment how he knew we would be here. The sensation of Whitman’s physical presence is a dramatic reminder of one of the more striking innovations that Whitman brought to poetry, that is, a radical, unheard-of level of intimacy:
It avails not, time nor place—distance, avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt. . . .
No poet I know prior to Whitman had ever used the second-person address in quite this way. The “you” or “thou” that appears in the long tradition of English love poetry, prominently in the Elizabethan sonnet, always meant the beloved. Under the influence of this inheritance, readers of contemporary American poetry tend to take any unspecified “you” as a romantic addressee. Mention “you” in a poem, and your reader will see valentines and love arrows in flight. But in Whitman, the “you” is you the reader, holding the book in your hands. You. The “you” is a beloved only in the sense that Whitman wishes to circumscribe his readers within his outreaching cosmic love.
This freshly intense intimacy begins in 1855 with the first edition of Leaves of Grass. So innovative was this authorial coziness, it may be seen as analogous to the radical breaking of the theatrical barrier separating actors and audience in the heyday of the theater of the absurd. Just as an actor might stride into the seats, grab a spectator by the lapel and drag him onstage, so Whitman steps off the page and into his reader’s domestic and psychic space, often closing in from a number of angles. He threatens to overwhelm the reader’s own identity by asserting “what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” He boasts shamelessly: “Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems.” He issues grandiose commands: “It is time to explain myself—let us stand up.” He confides: “I might not tell everybody, but I will tell you.” He shows the way: “each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll, / My left hand hooking you around the waist, / My right hand pointing to landscapes of continents and the public road.” And he whispers and beckons seductively: “Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat, / Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the best, / Only the lull I like, the hum of your valvèd voice.”
The academic question as to whether this bold and cozy poetic voice is identical to that of the biographical Walt Whitman, native Long Islander, or simply a persona, melts away in the heat of this new tone of familiarity as it issues directly forth from the man who speaks the poem and who is in the process of exhibiting himself to the world. The notorious Samuel Hollyer drawing on the book’s frontispiece—based on a photograph by Gabriel Harrison—shows the poet as a “rough,” the antithesis of the “literary” figure of the day, who would have been pictured in a vested suit in a book-lined room, not outdoors with his shirt open and his hat cocked. This is the half-invented but wholly felt character that Whitman summoned forth to deliver his poem. If a novelist must invent many characters to fill the chapters of a book, a poet must invent only one—that is, the voice through which he or she speaks. Whitman’s “character,” who is the vocal extension of that photograph, is a composite of many men, mostly ones met on the streets or on the ferry, whom he described in his notebooks with such adjectives as independent, coarse, free-spirited, strong, sensitive, amiable, and reflective—in short, an American amalgam of fierce and contradictory elements. The swelling, libidinous ego of the poem seems determined to disarm the reader’s critical responses and to overwhelm him with a radical kind of audacity, a verbal bear hug. Remember, this is the poet who rendered Randall Jarrell as close to speechless as he had ever been in the face of a literary text. In his article on Leaves of Grass, all Jarrell could do was tip his critic’s hat and proclaim that Whitman reaches “a point at which criticism seems not only unnecessary but absurd.” He deals with Whitman’s faults by declaring—in italics—that they “do not matter.”
• • •
Just as revolutionary in 1855 as the intimate voice of the poem, ranging as it does from whispers to “barbaric yawps,” was the poem’s apparent disregard for the conventions of inherited form. Leaves of Grass is, indeed, the first poem in English to flout the deeply ingrained etiquette of both regular meter and end rhyme. As such, it exists as a poem without borders. The sonnet, to pick an extreme example, must exclude everything but the fourteen lines (strictly speaking, the 140 syllables) necessary for its expression. Whitman’s poem, on the other hand, allows all to flow in: all trades, scenes, people, places, tools, impulses, memories, projections, wishes, seasons. The poem is not so much a rejection of form as a demolishing of boundaries—both the outer walls of the poem, which would keep it separate from the world, and the inner walls, which would partition the poem’s many elements. It is a poem without walls and without a clock to limit the length of its duration. Was it this free-for-all feel of the poem or its unabashedly sexual speaker that prompted James Russell Lowell—one of the ruling tri-nominate class of poets—to pitch his copy of Leaves of Grass into a roaring fireplace? And that inspired another contemporary to proclaim: “If this is not poetry, it is something greater than poetry.”
Of course, for all the look and sound of spontaneity that the poem conveys, Leaves of Grass does possess a distinct underlying form. Whitman seems relatively artless as he sings his long American love song, but, in fact, he was a compulsive reviser, an inveterate journal keeper, as well as a dedicated collector of words. His poem seems to “step outside the institution of literature,” according to Paul Zweig, but only because it shows no sign of the influence of Tennyson, William Cullen Bryant, or other likely predecessors, but rather that of the Bible, the raging prose of Thomas Carlyle, and Italian opera. Instead of being stabilized by end rhyme, the poem uses repetition at the beginning of lines (anaphora) to hold together its diverse ingredients. And instead of the ticking of the iambic metronome, the pulse of natural speech combines with the cascading movement of biblical rhetoric to give the poem its enthralling cadence. Whitman described his own sense of poetic rhythm organically as the “free growth of metrical laws” that “bud[s] from them as unerringly and loosely as lilacs and roses on a bush, and take[s] shapes as compact as the shapes of chestnuts and oranges.”
Whitman’s drastic innovations become even more interesting when placed in an historical context. In 1798, over a half century before the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, Wordsworth argued for a more ordinary language for poetry; and over a half century after 1855, Pound insisted that poets break free from the iambic yoke. Situated midway between the beginnings of English Romanticism and High Modernism, Whitman’s bold enactment of natural diction and cadence makes Wordsworth’s and Pound’s declarations seem like theoretical proposals. Whitman stands isolated in the middle of a century whose literary tradition he never fit into. Whitman gives no sign of being influenced by Wordsworth and company, and Pound gives Whitman only grudging credit for breaking “new wood” in a poem that begins “I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman—I have detested you long enough.” His ambivalent essay “What I Feel About Walt Whitman” admits that Whitman is America, but adds that he is not an artist, for he lacks “reticence and restraint.” Pound even puts distance between himself and his poetic ancestor by claiming to prefer a collar and a dress shirt to Whitman’s bohemian getup. All who follow Whitman seem obliged to acknowledge him; and for every poet he inspires, there is another poet whom he just makes nervous.
Indeed, the most distinguishing aspect of Whitman as a literary figure is the varied kinds of influence he has had on the American poets who follow him, Pound being one of the more cantankerous. In the century and a half since the first edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman has become such a pervasive part of American literature that his influence, if assiduously looked for, can be found just about anywhere. He is the male pillar—Dickinson the female—that supports the temple of nineteenth-century American poetry, and from that position, his influence spreads in all directions. The extent of his alleged sway is so wide and diverse as to be stretched sometimes beyond the borders of sense. Critics have found traces of his spirit alive in Dylan Thomas and D. H. Lawrence, in Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith, in William Carlos Williams and Jorie Graham, and in Hamlin Garland and Fernando Pessoa. Whitman is a torchbearer for socialists, environmentalists, and labor activists. And let us not forget his purported impact on the Harlem Renaissance and the Native-American poetry movement. The Whitman web has been cast so wide, it is difficult to find anyone swimming free of it.
Whitman’s influence has been assigned so loosely, it might be helpful to distinguish between poets who recognize Whitman as a literary father and poets who use Whitman as a stylistic model by directly imitating and even appropriating his poetic innovations. In Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song, Ed Folsom and his coeditors make it clear that few poets have been immune to paying some kind of attention to Whitman. In the nineteenth century, many wrote tributes to him as an American icon; ironically, most of these tributes were written in just the kind of stiff formal meters whose mold Whitman had cracked. Some penned elegies or, like Swinburne, hailed him as a patron saint of human liberty: “O strong-winged soul with prophetic / Lips hot with souls as with swords . . . Make us too music, to be with us / As a word from a world’s heart warm, / To sail the dark as the sea with us, / Full-sailed, outsinging the storm.” Worshipful eulogies stand alongside imaginary debates and, of course, parodies and caricatures. Whitman acts as a magnet for a host of reactions.
The long and varied list of writers who felt compelled to respond to Whitman in prose would include Willa Cather, Sherwood Anderson, T. S. Eliot, Muriel Rukeyser, and Borges, to name a few familiar names. Carl Sandburg called Whitman “the only established epic poet in America.” D. H. Lawrence considered his “One Identity” a “prison of horrors”; but he also dubbed Whitman “the Greatest of Americans,” a poet “who has gone further, in actual living expression, than any man.” Langston Hughes put together an edition and a biographical version of Whitman; Lorca wrote a nostalgic poem to him; and Pessoa not only drew on the rolling pace of Whitman’s style, but mirrored Whitman’s powers of empathy by claiming an identity with Walt himself (“You know that I am You, and you are happy about it!”).
Yet not until Hart Crane can a poet be seen as feeling the anxiety of Whitman’s direct stylistic influence. The “Cape Hatteras” section of The Bridge stands as an ode to Whitman in which the poet is theatrically addressed. “O Walt!—Ascensions of thee hover in me now /As thou at junctions elegiac . . . ,” Crane calls out, and finally ends the poem by placing his hand in Whitman’s: “no, never to let go / My hand / in yours / Walt Whitman— / so—” But a greater tribute to Whitman lies in Crane’s imitation of the rolling motion, the open-windowed consciousness, and the declamatory tone of Leaves of Grass:
O sinewy silver biplane, nudging the wind’s withers!
There, from Kill Devils Hill at Kitty Hawk
Two brothers in their twinship left the dune;
Warping the gale, the Wright windwrestlers veered
Capeward, then blading the wind’s flank, banked and spun
What ciphers risen from prophetic script,
What marathons new-set between the stars!
It is hard to imagine such lines being written without the prior existence of Whitman, but a heavier stylistic debt is owed by Allen Ginsberg, whose early poetry shows an almost parasitic dependency on Whitman. “A Supermarket in California” embraces Whitman as its model and its subject. Removed from the open road of the nineteenth century and placed in a modern supermarket of the twentieth, Whitman appears as a “childless lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.” He is transformed into a surrealist shopper who asks who killed the pork chops and what price bananas. In 1955, at Six Gallery in San Francisco, exactly one hundred years after the first edition of Leaves of Grass, Ginsberg publicly performed “Howl” for the first time. The poem’s indebtedness to Whitman was so striking that Ferlinghetti, publisher of City Lights Books, later wrote Ginsberg a note that mimicked Emerson’s famous lines of encouragement to Whitman: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?”
From its first exhalations, “Howl” conveys the open-ended, roving spirit of Whitman’s great poem. The long lines, the breathing rhythm, the run of free associations, and the reliance on anaphora to ritualize the poem are unashamedly indebted to Leaves of Grass. The overall feel of “Howl” and particularly its theme of homoerotic love leave no doubt that Whitman is Ginsberg’s poetic father.
But while Whitman’s is a poem of celebration, Ginsberg’s is a poem of social criticism and a proclamation of a new radical consciousness, both lifted and tormented by drugs. Whitman unites everything American under the belief in a single identity; Ginsberg divides America into the Outsiders and the Establishment, the “angelheaded hipsters” versus the squares of Wall Street. Ginsberg issues in this emerging generation of beat visionaries against a backdrop of corporate and civic order, “the narcotic tobacco haze of Capitalism.” Unlike the openhearted embrace of Leaves of Grass, “Howl” is a poem of protest whose opening rant gives way to a litany against the tyrannical Semitic deity of Moloch, here the god of greed, government and war, industry and bombs. Whitman’s poem ends with an image of the patient poet who has stopped somewhere to wait for the reader to catch up with him; Ginsberg’s ends with a disturbing entreaty to the mental patient Carl Solomon, straitjacketed victim of electroshock.
These differences between the two poems are hardly surprising given the intervening one hundred years and the Cold War context of Ginsberg’s outcry. The kinds of imagery deployed in the poems vividly reflect the two distinct sensibilities. Whitman’s images are clearly visual. Ginsberg’s are often surreal, distorted in a kind of syntactic funhouse mirror. In Whitman, “winter wolves bark amid wastes of snow and icicled trees”; in Ginsberg, beat souls listen “to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox” and plunge “themselves under meat trucks looking for an egg.”
The sharp clarity of Whitman’s imagery is an essential feature of Leaves of Grass, especially in the way the poet embeds these discrete, stable images in the loose, rhetorical flow of the poem. The vocal wave of the poem keeps tumbling forward, propelled by anaphoric repetition and the sheer power of Whitman’s declarations, but the poem is dotted with tiny scenes that act as still pictures within the larger movie of the poem. The forward roll of the poem, which evokes the cadences of the Bible and Blake’s prophetic works, is periodically checked by glimpses of precise scenes like frames in a halted film or, more apt for the times, pictures viewed in a stereopticon. Taken from some of the earlier sections of the poem, here is a sampler of such concise, haikulike images:
“The butcher-boy puts off his killing-clothes, or sharpens his knife at the stall in the market.”
“The negro holds firmly the reins of his four horses, the block swags underneath on its tied-over chain”
“The brood of the turkey-hen and she with her halfspread wings”
“The mate stands braced in the whale-boat, lance and harpoon are ready,
The duck-shooter walks by silent and cautious stretches”
“The cleanhair’d Yankee girl works with her sewing machine or in the factory or mill”
“As the fare-collector goes through the train he gives notice by the jingling of loose change.”
Given Whitman’s habit of entering daily scenes and images in a notebook, much of the poem would seem to be a stitching together of his many recorded observations. Whitman even called these notebook entries “the a b c” of his long poem. And he remarked elsewhere on the abundance and ubiquity of the world’s imagery: “Every hour of the day and night, and every acre of the earth and shore, and every point or patch of the sea and sky, is full of pictures.” Such is the practice of every journaltoting writer. What is unique about Whitman’s practice is how such moments of keen observation are made to fit into the larger, more sweeping, operatic movement of the poem. Whitman expressed the wish to avoid all the “stock touches,” the poeticisms of his day, and he achieves this precisely through this combination of wave and picture, movie and photograph, which accounts for his poem’s unprecedented tempo and texture.
Leaves of Grass has left many critics speechless—an accomplishment in itself. Randall Jarrell was neither the first nor the last to notice that the poem tends to resist critical analysis. Proponents of the New Criticism virtually ignored Whitman’s existence because his open-throated singing lacked “tension,” “irony,” and “paradox,” which had become the key signs of literary value; and at the time when “speaker” and “persona” had become critical bywords, Whitman’s dropping of any literary mask struck many as nothing short of embarrassing. Whitman would have been denied admission to the confessional school of poetry because he lacked the psychic pain to qualify, and he would be considered too expansive, too chatty, for the adherents to Deep Image. But today, Whitman is among the most approachable of poets. While he retains his iconic status in the American literary tradition, he is a poet who has finally found the kind of wide readership that his expansive voice—not to mention his selfadvertising—sought to assemble. Whitman believed that the greatness of poetry was directly proportionate to the greatness of its audience, and it is safe to say, 150 years after his first explosive publication, that his audience continues to grow not only in greater numbers but also in the depth of their comprehension, their gratitude, and their empathy. At a time when the built-in nihilism of deconstruction has brought it to its inevitable dead end, and when academics and theorists are returning to the long-neglected literary texts themselves, Whitman will be found still waiting for them; if they want him again, they have only to look under their boot soles.
AUTHOR’S NOTE FROM 1891–92 EDITION
As there are now several editions of L. of G., different text and dates, I wish to say that I prefer and recommend this present one, complete, for future printing, if there should be any; a copy and facsimile, indeed, of the text of these 438 pages. The subsequent adjusting interval which is so important to form’d and launch’d work, books especially, has pass’d; and waiting till fully after that, I have given my concluding words.
ONE’S-SELF I SING
One’s-self I sing, a simple separate person,
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.
Of physiology from top to toe I sing,
Not physiognomy alone nor brain alone is worthy for the Muse,
I say the Form complete is worthier far,
The Female equally with the Male I sing.
Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power,
Cheerful, for freest action form’d under the laws divine,
The Modern Man I sing.
AS I PONDER’D IN SILENCE
As I ponder’d in silence,
Returning upon my poems, considering, lingering long,
A Phantom arose before me with distrustful aspect,
Terrible in beauty, age, and power,
The genius of poets of old lands,
As to me directing like flame its eyes,
With finger pointing to many immortal songs,
And menacing voice, What singest thou? it said,
Know’st thou not there is but one theme for ever-enduring bards?
And that is the theme of War, the fortune of battles,
The making of perfect soldiers.
Be it so, then I answer’d,
I too haughty Shade also sing war, and a longer and greater one than any,
Waged in my book with varying fortune, with flight, advance and retreat, victory deferr’d and wavering,
(Yet methinks certain, or as good as certain, at the last,) the field the world,
For life and death, for the Body and for the eternal Soul,
Lo, I too am come, chanting the chant of battles,
I above all promote brave soldiers.
IN CABIN’D SHIPS AT SEA
In cabin’d ships at sea,
The boundless blue on every side expanding,
With whistling winds and music of the waves, the large imperious waves,
Or some lone bark buoy’d on the dense marine,
Where joyous full of faith, spreading white sails,
She cleaves the ether mid the sparkle and the foam of day, or under many a star at night,
By sailors young and old haply will I, a reminiscence of the land, be read,
In full rapport at last.
Here are our thoughts, voyagers’ thoughts.
Here not the land, firm land, alone appears, may then by them be said,
The sky o’erarches here, we feel the undulating deck beneath our feet,
We feel the long pulsation, ebb and flow of endless motion,
The tones of unseen mystery, the vague and vast suggestions of the briny world, the liquid-flowing syllables,
The perfume, the faint creaking of the cordage, the melancholy rhythm,
The boundless vista and the horizon far and dim are all here,
And this is ocean’s poem.
Then falter not O book, fulfil your destiny,
You not a reminiscence of the land alone,
You too as a lone bark cleaving the ether, purpos’d I know not whither, yet ever full of faith,
Consort to every ship that sails, sail you!
Bear forth to them folded my love, (dear mariners, for you I fold it here in every leaf;)
Speed on my book! spread your white sails my little bark athwart the imperious waves,
Chant on, sail on, bear o’er the boundless blue from me to every sea,
This song for mariners and all their ships.
TO FOREIGN LANDS
I heard that you ask’d for something to prove this puzzle the New World,
and to define America, her athletic Democracy,
Therefore I send you my poems that you behold in them what you wanted.
TO A HISTORIAN
You who celebrate bygones,
Who have explored the outward, the surfaces of the races, the life that has exhibited itself,
Who have treated of man as the creature of politics, aggregates, rulers and priests,
I, habitan of the Alleghanies, treating of him as he is in himself in his own rights,
Pressing the pulse of the life that has seldom exhibited itself, (the great pride of man in himself,)
Chanter of Personality, outlining what is yet to be,
I project the history of the future.
TO THEE OLD CAUSE
To thee old cause!
Thou peerless, passionate, good cause,
Thou stern, remorseless, sweet idea,
Deathless throughout the ages, races, lands,
After a strange sad war, great war for thee,
(I think all war through time was really fought, and ever will be really fought, for thee,)
These chants for thee, the eternal march of thee.
(A war O soldiers not for itself alone,
Far, far more stood silently waiting behind, now to advance in this book.)
Thou orb of many orbs!
Thou seething principle! Thou well-kept, latent germ! Thou centre!
Around the idea of thee the war revolving,
With all its angry and vehement play of causes,
(With vast results to come for thrice a thousand years,)
These recitatives for thee,—my book and the war are one,
Merged in its spirit I and mine, as the contest hinged on thee,
As a wheel on its axis turns, this book unwitting to itself,
Around the idea of thee.
I met a seer,
Passing the hues and objects of the world,
The fields of art and learning, pleasure, sense,
To glean eidólons.
Put in thy chants said he,
No more the puzzling hour nor day, nor segments, parts, put in,
Put first before the rest as light for all and entrance-song of all,
That of eidólons.
Ever the dim beginning,
Ever the growth, the rounding of the circle,
Ever the summit and the merge at last, (to surely start again,)
Ever the mutable,
Ever materials, changing, crumbling, re-cohering,
Ever the ateliers, the factories divine,
Lo, I or you,
Or woman, man, or state, known or unknown,
We seeming solid wealth, strength, beauty build,
But really build eidólons.
The ostent evanescent,
The substance of an artist’s mood or savan’s studies long,
Or warrior’s, martyr’s, hero’s toils,
To fashion his eidólon.
Of every human life,
(The units gather’d, posted, not a thought, emotion, deed, left out,)
The whole or large or small summ’d, added up,
In its eidólon.
The old, old urge,
Based on the ancient pinnacles, lo, newer, higher pinnacles,
From science and the modern still impell’d,
The old, old urge, eidólons.
The present now and here,
America’s busy, teeming, intricate whirl,
Of aggregate and segregate for only thence releasing,
These with the past,
Of vanish’d lands, of all the reigns of kings across the sea,
Old conquerors, old campaigns, old sailors’ voyages,
Densities, growth, façades,
Strata of mountains, soils, rocks, giant trees,
Far-born, far-dying, living long, to leave,
Exaltè, rapt, ecstatic,
The visible but their womb of birth,
Of orbic tendencies to shape and shape and shape,
The mighty earth-eidólon.
All space, all time,
(the stars, the terrible perturbations of the suns,
Swelling, collapsing, ending, serving their longer, shorter use,)
fill’d with eidólons only.
The noiseless myriads,
The infinite oceans where the rivers empty,
The separate countless free identities, like eyesight,
The true realities, eidólons.
Not this the world,
Nor these the universes, they the universes,
Purport and end, ever the permanent life of life,
Beyond thy lectures learn’d professor,
Beyond thy telescope or spectroscope observer keen, beyond all mathematics,
Beyond the doctor’s surgery, anatomy, beyond the chemist with his chemistry,
The entities of entities, eidólons.
Unfix’d yet fix’d,
Ever shall be, ever have been and are,
Sweeping the present to the infinite future,
Eidólons, eidólons, eidólons.
The prophet and the bard,
Shall yet maintain themselves, in higher stages yet,
Shall mediate to the modern, to democracy, interpret yet to them,
God and eidólons.
And thee my soul,
Joys, ceaseless exercises, exaltations,
Thy yearning amply fed at last, prepared to meet,
Thy mates, eidólons.
Thy body permanent,
The body lurking there within thy body,
The only purport of the form thou art, the real i myself,
An image, an eidólon.
Thy very songs not in thy songs,
No special strains to sing, none for itself,
But from the whole resulting, rising at last and floating,
A round full-orb’d eidólon.
FOR HIM I SING
For him I sing,
I raise the present on the past,
(As some perennial tree out of its roots, the present on the past,)
With time and space I him dilate and fuse the immortal laws,
To make himself by them the law unto himself.
WHEN I READ THE BOOK
When I read the book, the biography famous,
And is this then (said I) what the author calls a man’s life?
And so will some one when I am dead and gone write my life?
(As if any man really knew aught of my life,
Why even I myself I often think know little or nothing of my real life,
Only a few hints, a few diffused faint clews and indirections
I seek for my own use to trace out here.)
BEGINNING MY STUDIES
Beginning my studies the first step pleas’d me so much,
The mere fact consciousness, these forms, the power of motion,
The least insect or animal, the senses, eyesight, love,
The first step I say awed me and pleas’d me so much,
I have hardly gone and hardly wish’d to go any farther,
But stop and loiter all the time to sing it in ecstatic songs.
How they are provided for upon the earth, (appearing at intervals,)
How dear and dreadful they are to the earth,
How they inure to themselves as much as to any—what a paradox appears their age,
How people respond to them, yet know them not,
How there is something relentless in their fate all times,
How all times mischoose the objects of their adulation and reward,
And how the same inexorable price must still be paid for the same great purchase.
TO THE STATES
To the States or any one of them, or any city of the States,
Resist much, obey little,
Once unquestioning obedience, once fully enslaved,
Once fully enslaved, no nation, state, city of this earth, ever afterward resumes its liberty.
ON JOURNEYS THROUGH THE STATES
On journeys through the States we start,
(Ay through the world, urged by these songs,
Sailing henceforth to every land, to every sea,)
We willing learners of all, teachers of all, and lovers of all.
We have watch’d the seasons dispensing themselves and passing on,
And have said, why should not a man or woman do as much as the seasons, and effuse as much?
We dwell a while in every city and town,
We pass through Kanada, the North-east, the vast valley of the Mississippi, and the Southern States,
We confer on equal terms with each of the States,
We make trial of ourselves and invite men and women to hear,
We say to ourselves, Remember, fear not, be candid, promulge the body and the soul,
Dwell a while and pass on, be copious, temperate, chaste, magnetic,
And what you effuse may then return as the seasons return,
And may be just as much as the seasons.
TO A CERTAIN CANTATRICE
Here, take this gift,
I was reserving it for some hero, speaker, or general,
One who should serve the good old cause, the great idea, the progress and freedom of the race,
Some brave confronter of despots, some daring rebel;
But I see that what I was reserving belongs to you just as much as to any.
Me imperturbe, standing at ease in nature,
Master of all or mistress of all, aplomb in the midst of irrational things,
Imbued as they, passive, receptive, silent as they,
Finding my occupation, poverty, notoriety, foibles, crimes, less important than I thought,
Me toward the Mexican sea, or in the Mannahatta or the Tennessee, or far north or inland,
A river man, or a man of the woods or of any farm-life of these States or of the coast, or the lakes or Kanada,
Me wherever my life is lived, O to be self-balanced for contingencies,
To confront night, storms, hunger, ridicule, accidents, rebuffs, as the trees and animals do.
Thither as I look I see each result and glory retracing itself and nestling close, always obligated,
Thither hours, months, years—thither trades, compacts, establishments, even the most minute,
Thither every-day life, speech, utensils, politics, persons, estates;
Thither we also, I with my leaves and songs, trustful, admirant,
As a father to his father going takes his children along with him.
THE SHIP STARTING
Lo, the unbounded sea,
On its breast a ship starting, spreading all sails, carrying even her moonsails,
The pennant is flying aloft as she speeds she speeds so stately—below emulous waves press forward,
They surround the ship with shining curving motions and foam.
I HEAR AMERICA SINGING
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deck-hand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
WHAT PLACE IS BESIEGED?
What place is besieged, and vainly tries to raise the siege?
Lo, I send to that place a commander, swift, brave, immortal,
And with him horse and foot, and parks of artillery,
And artillery-men, the deadliest that ever fired gun.
STILL THOUGH THE ONE I SING
Still though the one I sing,
(one, yet of contradictions made,) I dedicate to nationality,
I leave in him revolt, (o latent right of insurrection! O quenchless, indispensable fire!)
SHUT NOT YOUR DOORS
Shut not your doors to me proud libraries,
For that which was lacking on all your well-fill’d shelves, yet needed most, I bring,
Forth from the war emerging, a book I have made,
The words of my book nothing, the drift of it every thing,
A book separate, not link’d with the rest nor felt by the intellect,
But you ye untold latencies will thrill to every page.
POETS TO COME
Poets to come! Orators, singers, musicians to come!
Not to-day is to justify me and answer what I am for,
But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than before known,
Arouse! For you must justify me.
I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future,
I but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness.
I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping, turns a casual look upon you and then averts his face,
Leaving it to you to prove and define it,
Expecting the main things from you.
Stranger, if you passing meet me and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me?
And why should I not speak to you?
Thou reader throbbest life and pride and love the same as I,
Therefore for thee the following chants.
STARTING FROM PAUMANOK
Starting from fish-shape paumanok where I was born,
Well-begotten, and rais’d by a perfect mother,
After roaming many lands, lover of populous pavements,
Dweller in Mannahatta my city, or on southern savannas,
Or a soldier camp’d or carrying my knapsack and gun, or a miner in California,
Or rude in my home in Dakota’s woods, my diet meat, my drink from the spring,
Or withdrawn to muse and meditate in some deep recess,
Far from the clank of crowds intervals passing rapt and happy,
Aware of the fresh free giver the flowing Missouri, aware of mighty Niagara,
Aware of the buffalo herds grazing the plains, the hirsute and strong-breasted bull,
Of earth, rocks, Fifth-month flowers experienced, stars, rain, snow, my amaze,
Having studied the mocking-bird’s tones and the flight of the mountain-hawk,
And heard at dawn the unrivall’d one, the hermit thrush from the swamp-cedars,
Solitary, singing in the West, I strike up for a New World.
Victory, union, faith, identity, time,
The indissoluble compacts, riches, mystery,
Eternal progress, the kosmos, and the modern reports.
This then is life,
Here is what has come to the surface after so many throes and convulsions.
How curious! How real!
Underfoot the divine soil, overhead the sun.
See revolving globe,
The ancestor-continents away group’d together,
The present and future continents north and south, with the isthmus between.
See, vast trackless spaces,
As in a dream they change, they swiftly fill,
Countless masses debouch upon them,
They are now cover’d with the foremost people, arts, institutions, known.
See, projected through time,
For me an audience interminable.
With firm and regular step they wend, they never stop,
Successions of men, americanos, a hundred millions,
One generation playing its part and passing on,
Another generation playing its part and passing on in its turn,
With faces turn’d sideways or backward towards me to listen,
With eyes retrospective towards me.
Americanos! Conquerors! Marches humanitarian!
Foremost! Century marches! Libertad! Masses!
For you a programme of chants.
Chants of the prairies,
Chants of the long-running Mississippi, and down to the Mexican sea,
Chants of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota,
Chants going forth from the centre from Kansas, and thence equidistant,
Shooting in pulses of fire ceaseless to vivify all.
Take my leaves America, take them South and take them North,
Make welcome for them everywhere, for they are your own offspring,
Surround them East and West, for they would surround you,
And you precedents, connect lovingly with them, for they connect lovingly with you.
I conn’d old times,
I sat studying at the feet of the great masters,
Now if eligible O that the great masters might return and study me.
In the name of these states shall I scorn the antique?
Why these are the children of the antique to justify it.
Dead poets, philosophs, priests,
Martyrs, artists, inventors, governments long since,
Language-shapers on other shores,
Nations once powerful, now reduced, withdrawn, or desolate,
I dare not proceed till I respectfully credit what you have left wafted hither,
I have perused it, own it is admirable, (moving awhile among it,)
Think nothing can ever be greater, nothing can ever deserve more than it deserves,
Regarding it all intently a long while, then dismissing it,
I stand in my place with my own day here.
Here lands female and male,
Here the heir-ship and heiress-ship of the world, here the flame of materials,
Here spirituality the translatress, the openly-avow’d,
The ever-tending, the finalè of visible forms,
The satisfier, after due long-waiting now advancing,
Yes here comes my mistress the soul.
Forever and forever—longer than soil is brown and solid—longer than water ebbs and flows.
I will make the poems of materials, for I think they are to be the most spiritual poems,
And I will make the poems of my body and of mortality,
For I think I shall then supply myself with the poems of my soul and of immortality.
I will make a song for these States that no one state may under any circumstances be subjected to another State,
And I will make a song that there shall be comity by day and by night between all the states, and between any two of them,
And I will make a song for the ears of the president, full of weapons with menacing points,
And behind the weapons countless dissatisfied faces;
And a song make I of the One form’d out of all,
The fang’d and glittering One whose head is over all,
Resolute warlike One including and over all,
(however high the head of any else that head is over all.)
I will acknowledge contemporary lands,
I will trail the whole geography of the globe and salute courteously every city large and small,
And employments! I will put in my poems that with you is heroism upon land and sea,
And I will report all heroism from an American point of view.
I will sing the song of companionship,
I will show what alone must finally compact these,
I believe these are to found their own ideal of manly love, indicating it in me,
I will therefore let flame from me the burning fires that were threatening to consume me,
I will lift what has too long kept down those smouldering fires,
I will give them complete abandonment,
I will write the evangel-poem of comrades and of love,
For who but I should understand love with all its sorrow and joy?
And who but I should be the poet of comrades?
I am the credulous man of qualities, ages, races,
I advance from the people in their own spirit,
Here is what sings unrestricted faith.
Omnes! omnes! let others ignore what they may,
I make the poem of evil also, I commemorate that part also,
I am myself just as much evil as good, and my nation is— and I say there is in fact no evil,
(or if there is I say it is just as important to you, to the land or to me, as any thing else.)
I too, following many and follow’d by many, inaugurate a religion, I descend into the arena,
(it may be I am destin’d to utter the loudest cries there, the winner’s pealing shouts,
Who knows? They may rise from me yet, and soar above every thing.)
Each is not for its own sake,
I say the whole earth and all the stars in the sky are for religion’s sake.
I say no man has ever yet been half devout enough,
None has ever yet adored or worship’d half enough,
None has begun to think how divine he himself is, and how certain the future is.
I say that the real and permanent grandeur of these states must be their religion,
Otherwise there is no real and permanent grandeur;
(nor character nor life worthy the name without religion,
Nor land nor man or woman without religion.)
What are you doing young man?
Are you so earnest, so given up to literature, science, art, amours?
These ostensible realities, politics, points?
Your ambition or business whatever it may be?
It is well—against such I say not a word, I am their poet also,
But behold! Such swiftly subside, burnt up for religion’s sake,
For not all matter is fuel to heat, impalpable flame, the essential life of the earth,
Any more than such are to religion.
What do you seek so pensive and silent?
What do you need camerado?
Dear son do you think it is love?
Listen dear son—listen America, daughter or son,
It is a painful thing to love a man or woman to excess, and yet it satisfies, it is great,
But there is something else very great, it makes the whole coincide,
It, magnificent, beyond materials, with continuous hands sweeps and provides for all.
Know you, solely to drop in the earth the germs of a greater religion,
The following chants each for its kind I sing.
For you to share with me two greatnesses, and a third one rising inclusive and more resplendent,
The greatness of Love and Democracy, and the greatness of Religion.
Melange mine own, the unseen and the seen,
Mysterious ocean where the streams empty,
Prophetic spirit of materials shifting and flickering around me,
Living beings, identities now doubtless near us in the air that we know not of,
Contact daily and hourly that will not release me,
These selecting, these in hints demanded of me.
Not he with a daily kiss onward from childhood kissing me,
Has winded and twisted around me that which holds me to him,
Any more than I am held to the heavens and all the spiritual world,
After what they have done to me, suggesting themes.
O such themes—equalities! O divine average!
Warblings under the sun, usher’d as now, or at noon, or setting,
Strains musical flowing through ages, now reaching hither,
I take to your reckless and composite chords, add to them, and cheerfully pass them forward.
As I have walk’d in Alabama my morning walk,
I have seen where the she-bird the mocking-bird sat on her nest in the briers hatching her brood.
I have seen the he-bird also,
I have paus’d to hear him near at hand inflating his throat and joyfully singing.
And while I paus’d it came to me that what he really sang for was not there only,
Nor for his mate nor himself only, nor all sent back by the echoes,
But subtle, clandestine, away beyond,
A charge transmitted and gift occult for those being born.
Democracy! near at hand to you a throat is now inflating itself and joyfully singing.
Ma femme! for the brood beyond us and of us,
For those who belong here and those to come,
I exultant to be ready for them will now shake out carols stronger and haughtier than have ever yet been heard upon earth.
I will make the songs of passion to give them their way,
And your songs outlaw’d offenders, for I scan you with kindred eyes, and carry you with me the same as any.
I will make the true poem of riches,
To earn for the body and the mind whatever adheres and goes forward and is not dropt by death;
I will effuse egotism and show it underlying all, and I will be the bard of personality,
And I will show of male and female that either is but the equal of the other,
And sexual organs and acts! do you concentrate in me, for I am determin’d to tell you with courageous clear voice to prove you illustrious,
And I will show that there is no imperfection in the present, and can be none in the future,
And I will show that whatever happens to anybody it may be turn’d to beautiful results,
And I will show that nothing can happen more beautiful than death,
And I will thread a thread through my poems that time and events are compact,
And that all the things of the universe are perfect miracles, each as profound as any.
I will not make poems with reference to parts,
But I will make poems, songs, thoughts, with reference to ensemble,
And I will not sing with reference to a day, but with reference to all days,
And I will not make a poem nor the least part of a poem but has reference to the soul,
Because having look’d at the objects of the universe, I find there is no one nor any particle of one but has reference to the soul.
Was somebody asking to see the soul?
See, your own shape and countenance, persons, substances, beasts, the trees, the running rivers, the rocks and sands.
All hold spiritual joys and afterwards loosen them;
How can the real body ever die and be buried?
Of your real body and any man’s or woman’s real body,
Item for item it will elude the hands of the corpse-cleaners and pass to fitting spheres,
Carrying what has accrued to it from the moment of birth to the moment of death.
Not the types set up by the printer return their impression, the meaning, the main concern,
Any more than a man’s substance and life or a woman’s substance and life return in the body and the soul,
Indifferently before death and after death.
Behold, the body includes and is the meaning, the main concern, and includes and is the soul;
Whoever you are, how superb and how divine is your body, or any part of it!
Whoever you are, to you endless announcements!
Daughter of the lands did you wait for your poet?
Did you wait for one with a flowing mouth and indicative hand?
Toward the male of the States, and toward the female of the States,
Exulting words, words to Democracy’s lands.
Interlink’d, food-yielding lands!
Land of coal and iron! land of gold! land of cotton, sugar, rice!
Land of wheat, beef, pork! land of wool and hemp! land of the apple and the grape!
Land of the pastoral plains, the grass-fields of the world! land of those sweet-air’d interminable plateaus!
Land of the herd, the garden, the healthy house of adobie!
Lands where the north-west Columbia winds, and where the south-west Colorado winds!
Land of the eastern Chesapeake! land of the Delaware!
Land of Ontario, Erie, Huron, Michigan!
Land of the Old Thirteen! Massachusetts land! land of Vermont and Connecticut!
Land of the ocean shores! land of sierras and peaks!
Land of boatmen and sailors! fishermen’s land!
Inextricable lands! the clutch’d together! the passionate ones!
The side by side! the elder and younger brothers! the bony-limb’d!
The great women’s land! the feminine! the experienced sisters and the inexperienced sisters!
Far breath’d land! Arctic braced! Mexican breez’d! the diverse! the compact!
The Pennsylvanian! the Virginian! the double Carolinian!
O all and each well-loved by me! my intrepid nations! O I at any rate include you all with perfect love!
I cannot be discharged from you! not from one any sooner than another!
O death! O for all that, I am yet of you unseen this hour with irrepressible love,
Walking New England, a friend, a traveler,
Splashing my bare feet in the edge of the summer ripples on Paumanok’s sands,
Crossing the prairies, dwelling again in Chicago, dwelling in every town,
Observing shows, births, improvements, structures, arts,
Listening to orators and oratresses in public halls,
Of and through the States as during life, each man and woman my neighbor,
The Louisianian, the Georgian, as near to me, and I as near to him and her,
The Mississippian and Arkansian yet with me, and I yet with any of them,
Yet upon the plains west of the spinal river, yet in my house of adobie,
Yet returning eastward, yet in the Seaside State or in Maryland,
Yet Kanadian cheerily braving the winter, the snow and ice welcome to me,
Yet a true son either of Maine or of the Granite State, or the Narragansett Bay State, or the Empire State,
Yet sailing to other shores to annex the same, yet welcoming every new brother,
Hereby applying these leaves to the new ones from the hour they unite with the old ones,
Coming among the new ones myself to be their companion and equal, coming personally to you now,
Enjoining you to acts, characters, spectacles, with me.
With me with firm holding, yet haste, haste on.
For your life adhere to me,
(I may have to be persuaded many times before I consent to give myself really to you, but what of that?
Must not Nature be persuaded many times?)
No dainty dolce affettuoso I,
Bearded, sun-burnt, gray-neck’d, forbidding, I have arrived,
To be wrestled with as I pass for the solid prizes of the universe,
For such I afford whoever can persevere to win them.
On my way a moment I pause,
Here for you! and here for America!
Still the present I raise aloft, still the future of the States I harbinge glad and sublime,
And for the past I pronounce what the air holds of the red aborigines.
The red aborigines,
Leaving natural breaths, sounds of rain and winds, calls as of birds and animals in the woods, syllabled to us for names,
Okonee, Koosa, Ottawa, Monongahela, Sauk, Natchez, Chattahoochee, Kaqueta, Oronoco,
Wabash, Miami, Saginaw, Chippewa, Oshkosh, Walla-Walla,
Leaving such to the States they melt, they depart, charging the water and the land with names.
Expanding and swift, henceforth,
Elements, breeds, adjustments, turbulent, quick and audacious,
A world primal again, vistas of glory incessant and branching,
A new race dominating previous ones and grander far, with new contests,
New politics, new literatures and religions, new inventions and arts.
These, my voice announcing—I will sleep no more but arise,
You oceans that have been calm within me! how I feel you, fathomless, stirring, preparing unprecedented waves and storms.
See, steamers steaming through my poems,
See, in my poems immigrants continually coming and landing,
See, in arriere, the wigwam, the trail, the hunter’s hut, the flat-boat, the maize-leaf, the claim, the rude fence, and the backwoods village,
See, on the one side the Western Sea and on the other the Eastern Sea, how they advance and retreat upon my poems as upon their own shores,
See, pastures and forests in my poems—see, animals wild and tame—see, beyond the Kaw, countless herds of buffalo feeding on short curly grass,
See, in my poems, cities, solid, vast, inland, with paved streets, with iron and stone edifices, ceaseless vehicles, and commerce,
See, the many-cylinder’d steam printing-press—see, the electric telegraph stretching across the continent,
See, through Atlantica’s depths pulses American Europe reaching, pulses of Europe duly return’d,
See, the strong and quick locomotive as it departs, panting, blowing the steam-whistle,
See, ploughmen ploughing farms—see, miners digging mines—see, the numberless factories,
See, mechanics busy at their benches with tools—see from among them superior judges, philosophs, Presidents, emerge, drest in working dresses,
See, lounging through the shops and fields of the States, me well-belov’d, close-held by day and night,
Hear the loud echoes of my songs here—read the hints come at last.
O camerado close! O you and me at last, and us two only.
O a word to clear one’s path ahead endlessly!
O something ecstatic and undemonstrable! O music wild!
O now I triumph—and you shall also;
O hand in hand—O wholesome pleasure—O one more desirer and lover!
O to haste firm holding—to haste, haste on with me.
Song of Myself
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.
Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded with perfumes,
I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it,
The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.
The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is odorless,
It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it,
I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.
The smoke of my own breath,
Echoes, ripples, buzz’d whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine,
My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air through my lungs,
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and dark-color’d sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn,
The sound of the belch’d words of my voice loos’d to the eddies of the wind,
A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms,
The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag,
The delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields and hill-sides,
The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun.
Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d the earth much?
Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.
Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.
Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and increase, always sex,
Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.
To elaborate is no avail, learn’d and unlearn’d feel that it is so.
Sure as the most certain sure, plumb in the uprights, well entretied, braced in the beams,
Stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical,
I and this mystery here we stand.
Clear and sweet is my soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul.
Lack one lacks both, and the unseen is proved by the seen,
Till that becomes unseen and receives proof in its turn.
Showing the best and dividing it from the worst age vexes age,
Knowing the perfect fitness and equanimity of things, while they discuss I am silent, and go bathe and admire myself.
Welcome is every organ and attribute of me, and of any man hearty and clean,
Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be less familiar than the rest.
I am satisfied—I see, dance, laugh, sing;
As the hugging and loving bed-fellow sleeps at my side through the night, and withdraws at the peep of the day with stealthy tread,
Leaving me baskets cover’d with white towels swelling the house with their plenty,
Shall I postpone my acceptation and realization and scream at my eyes,
That they turn from gazing after and down the road,
And forthwith cipher and show me to a cent,
Exactly the value of one and exactly the value of two, and which is ahead?
Trippers and askers surround me,
People I meet, the effect upon me of my early life or the ward and city I live in, or the nation,
The latest dates, discoveries, inventions, societies, authors old and new,
My dinner, dress, associates, looks, compliments, dues,
The real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I love,
The sickness of one of my folks or of myself, or ill-doing or loss or lack of money, or depressions or exaltations,
Battles, the horrors of fratricidal war, the fever of doubtful news, the fitful events;
These come to me days and nights and go from me again,
But they are not the Me myself.
Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.
Backward I see in my own days where I sweated through fog with linguists and contenders,
I have no mockings or arguments, I witness and wait.
I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you,
And you must not be abased to the other.
Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the best,
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valvèd voice.
I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning,
How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn’d over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart,
And reach’d till you felt my beard, and reach’d till you held my feet.
Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth,
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love,
And limitless are leaves stiff or drooping in the fields,
And brown ants in the little wells beneath them,
And mossy scabs of the worm fence, heap’d stones, elder, mullein and poke-weed.
A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands,
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?
Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.
Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.
And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon out of their mothers’ laps,
And here you are the mothers’ laps.
This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.
O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues,
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.
I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?
They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.
I pass death with the dying and birth with the new-wash’d babe, and am not contain’d between my hat and boots,
And peruse manifold objects, no two alike and everyone good,
The earth good and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good.
I am not an earth nor an adjunct of an earth,
I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself,
(They do not know how immortal, but I know.)
Every kind for itself and its own, for me mine male and female,
For me those that have been boys and that love women,
For me the man that is proud and feels how it stings to be slighted,
For me the sweet-heart and the old maid, for me mothers and the mothers of mothers,
For me lips that have smiled, eyes that have shed tears,
For me children and the begetters of children.
Undrape! you are not guilty to me, nor stale nor discarded,
I see through the broadcloth and gingham whether or no,
And am around, tenacious, acquisitive, tireless, and cannot be shaken away.
The little one sleeps in its cradle,
I lift the gauze and look a long time, and silently brush away flies with my hand.
The youngster and the red-faced girl turn aside up the bushy hill,
I peeringly view them from the top.
The suicide sprawls on the bloody floor of the bedroom,
I witness the corpse with its dabbled hair, I note where the pistol has fallen.
The blab of the pave, tires of carts, sluff of boot-soles, talk of the promenaders,
The heavy omnibus, the driver with his interrogating thumb, the clank of the shod horses on the granite floor,
The snow-sleighs, clinkink, shouted jokes, pelts of snow-balls,
The hurrahs for popular favorites, the fury of rous’d mobs,
The flap of the curtain’d litter, a sick man inside borne to the hospital,
The meeting of enemies, the sudden oath, the blows and fall,
The excited crowd, the policeman with his star quickly working his passage to the centre of the crowd,
The impassive stones that receive and return so many echoes,
What groans of over-fed or half-starv’d who fall sunstruck or in fits,
What exclamations of women taken suddenly who hurry home and give birth to babes,
What living and buried speech is always vibrating here, what howls restrain’d by decorum,
Arrests of criminals, slights, adulterous offers made, acceptances, rejections with convex lips,
I mind them or the show or resonance of them—I come and I depart.
The big doors of the country barn stand open and ready,
The dried grass of the harvest-time loads the slow-drawn wagon,
The clear light plays on the brown gray and green intertinged,
The armfuls are pack’d to the sagging mow.
I am there, I help, I came stretch’d atop of the load,
I felt its soft jolts, one leg reclined on the other,
I jump from the cross-beams and seize the clover and timothy,
And roll head over heels and tangle my hair full of wisps.
Alone far in the wilds and mountains I hunt,
Wandering amazed at my own lightness and glee,
In the late afternoon choosing a safe spot to pass the night,
Kindling a fire and broiling the fresh-kill’d game,
Falling asleep on the gather’d leaves with my dog and gun by my side.
The Yankee clipper is under her sky-sails, she cuts the sparkle and scud,
My eyes settle the land, I bend at her prow or shout joyously from the deck.
The boatmen and clam-diggers arose early and stopt for me,
I tuck’d my trowser-ends in my boots and went and had a good time;
You should have been with us that day round the chowder-kettle.
I saw the marriage of the trapper in the open air in the far west, the bride was a red girl,
Excerpted from The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. Copyright © 2013 by Meg Wolitzer. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.