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.