Monday, April 10, 2006

Whitman, where have you been

All my life? In searching out poems for an upcoming reading event, I decided to read all -- yes, ALL -- of Whitman. It's the only way to read him. Excerpts will not do. I went down to my local used book store and got a big fat hardcover collection, printed in 1931. Back when they favored big type, the kind my eyes like even when I have my lenses in. Emblematic of his expansiveness, the large letters sprawl across a page never wide enough for the long breath of his lines. If ever there was an argument for Olson's breath-of-the-line, this poetry is it. But you need big bellows to sing along with such long-listing encomiums.

It's like surfing the big ones, a ride on the North Shore -- like over-flying America without a plane -- like liking everything regardless of personal utility. Whitman renews your faith in similes. He also seemed to be able to see and hear at a distance, which made me suspect supernatural powers. Certainly, his language powers are supernatural. Here's an excerpt from my current favorite:

THERE was a child went forth every day;
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became;
And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day,
or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.

The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass, and white and red morning-glories, and white and red clover, and the song of the phoebe-bird,
And the Third-month lambs, and the sow’s pink-faint litter, and the mare’s foal, and the cow’s calf,
And the noisy brood of the barn-yard, or by the mire of the pond-side,
And the fish suspending themselves so curiously below there—and the beautiful curious liquid,
And the water-plants with their graceful flat heads -- all became part of him.

The horizon’s edge, the flying sea-crow, the fragrance of salt marsh and shore mud; These became part of that child who went forth every day, and who now goes, and will always go forth every day.


  1. Lo these many years ago I read Leaves of Grass, the deathbed edition. It was before I started copying out poems I didn't want to leave behind, and when I was still new to reading poetry books. I liked much, but there was so much, and I didn't like it all. I've been meaning to read Whitman again.

    I'm interested to see a lot of attention has been turned to the differences between the first edition of Leaves and the last, especially. Seems he started censoring. A new edition of Whitman's poems I lately saw included the original Leaves separately from the later revisions.

  2. Glenn,

    Whitman was a maniacal reviser, almost to the point of being self-defeating, some say. Galway Kinnell has a wonderful selection of his Whitman favorites. That little book includes notes on which versions Kinnell thought were best and why. He sometimes even picks out lines from different versions.

    The version I'm reading is the last one. Kinnell's comments make me want to venture into the scholarship on the different versions. Maybe a summer project.