‘The secret of it all is to write in the gush, the throb, the flood, of the moment – to put things done without deliberation – without worrying about their style – without waiting for the 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.’
– Walt Whitman
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (1819-1892) had been on my reading shelf for too long. I can’t recall how many times I picked up and turned over in my hand this large scope of writings that after reading a complimentary copy, Ralph Waldo Emerson said was:
‘The most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.’
With a sense of duty to great literature and a desire to nurture a growing respect and understanding of how to read all types of poetry – finally, I am now reading Whitman’s work piece-by-piece. I describe my process in this way because the works are offered up piece-meal with capitalized individual titles over either short, economic but still profoundly enlightening and pleasurable morsels of literary nourishment or longer pieces that either require longer to digest or I feel need to be contemplated and read over a few times.
Leaves of Grass oscillates between concise profound prose-style poetics that read like statements or discoveries about man and life, to romantic and idealist ramblings or structured realism that is detailed, visual, vivid, explanatory and descriptive in a pattern. Rhyme is not a feature of Whitman. Personally, I prefer poetry that reads like prose or a story or a conversation or a lecture of enlightenment with the poet, where I can be a silent mindful listener and observer of the feelings and images the poems evoke.
In July 1855, Whitman had just turned thirty-six years old when the first edition of Leaves of Grass was published. Six editions over the next thirty-five years gave the additional work a breadth and depth that makes for a compelling swell of a myriad of styles of narrative patterns. I like the variety of prose poetry in his expansive offering.
In the biography in the Oxford World’s Classics Leaves of Grass (2009, Oxford University Press, Oxford) Whitman is described as a poet: ‘whose expansive form and theme reflected the lives and occupations of Americans […] Whitman celebrated the American (and human) nature in practically all its aspects.
I feel human thought and feeling is portrayed by Whitman with emotional authenticity. I sense that Whitman’s work will resonate differently with different people depending on their mood or circumstance or stage of life.
Whitman embraces maturity – his passage from youth into adulthood and the different and emerging perspectives of all the steps of the journey – with each new poem. The collection presented in Leaves of Grass is Whitman’s life work. It is a continual display of his constant life in poetry for the world to examine and appreciate on their own terms in relation to their own life. The work is timeless. Past, present and future readers will find a part of their own lives and their own selves in his writing; I did. I think Whitman was courageous; he was willing to share; to invite the reader into his p
anoramic poetic life. He was also gracious and kind enough to help the reader find themselves in his work.
Where is the Whitman of today? I sense we see him more and more in the modern day poet in the guise of the lyricist; the songwriter. Bob Dylan seems a good example to mention here only because I am making my way through the tome of all his lyrics; reading a few lyrics a day to gather an impression of the writings of this recent Nobel Prize Winner. The more I read Dylan, the more I witness the commitment and genius of this singer-songwriter. Not only are his lyrics personal, they are political. America and life are present in Dylan’s writings.
I see reflections of Whitman in Dylan; both men in their unique way record life in their works.
Here are a few examples from the early poetics from Leaves of Grass – some clusters of words that caught my attention and touched me in some special way.
In One’s Self I Sing which is the first poem, in the last line he writes: The Modern Man I sing.
These words were written sometime before 1855 but they ring true of the contemporary human being who loves music and finds his soul singing in this world. I know I feel my soul sing each day, therefore, these five simple words delighted me as music and song delight me. It is the recognition that draws me to the words and the celebration of life and humanity in the prose.
The eponymous second poem As I Ponder’d in Silence opens with the same line and here again, I find a part of myself in the prose. As a human being, as a woman, as a spiritually-devoted person, as a mother, as an artist, as a writer, as a student, I too ponder in silence. Whitman with simplicity reflects all of us and part of us in his work.
In When I Read the Book, Whitman asks: And so will some one when I am dead and gone write my life?/ Why even I myself I often think how little or nothing of my real life.’
As I read these words now instantly a memory rises in my consciousness. I see myself arriving back to my birthplace London with four small dependent children on this new road as a lone parent. I see myself in the library opposite their school reading and waiting to collect three of the children (the fourth was at a different school) at these school gates at 4 p.m. with a smile I am practicing so I get it just right when I see them. As I exit the library my eyes wander over the tomb stones in the cemetery next to the library and I think: One day that will be me under the grass, under the earth, who will remember me? If I write and publish books when the reader opens the books I will live on, my voice will live in the story I give to the reader. This is one way I will be remembered by those that never met me; how much more so if I write a book for my children. When they are older they will hear me in the words on the page and my grandchildren will get to know me through my work.
Isn’t it amazing what thoughts and images instantly spring to mind when you read something or look at a scene like a cemetery of broken and moss-covered tomb stones?
But, it was those thoughts that very day that empowered my reading and writing during some of the darkest days of my life when I had just returned to London in the winter of 2011 after a hiatus overseas of eighteen years; a dark time when I wasn’t sure how and if, I would make it on my own with the children; but I did. And, I am. And, I have books and writing to thank for this, as well as some very kind new people who inspired and helped me find a way to survive and thrive again in England.
Writing and reading daily gave me strength, hope and faith in the vision I had for the children and me. I found a companion in each book, and in each author. I was able to reclaim my strength with each word I penned. My gratitude and loyalty will always be to the written word and libraries, those sacred places that welcome you and unknowingly heal and nourish you.
When reading Whitman’s Starting from Paumanok I came across the following words in section 4: ‘I sat studying at the feet of the great masters.’
I know what this feels like and the benefit. Yes, I understand this: I have done that and I am still doing it. I have a spiritual guide; I study spiritual texts. I learn from most of the writers and poets I read. And, the songwriters whose words I admire. I seek out Ancient Wisdom in books and in world travel. Prayer is a constant; I am forever grateful and in communication with my Creator who is the Master of my life; for He is the One that created me, and watches over me and blesses me every day. My appreciation to Him knows no bounds; I am only a writer because of His benevolence.
How wonderful to find one’s own self or part of one’s own life when one reads Whitman and other great writers and poets. That is why I love reading, and I like Whitman. He is a humanitarian writer. The commentary in the biography of Whitman was spot on when it said: Whitman celebrated […]human nature in practically all its aspects. This I find to be true; in every poem I have read I have found so much of me, my past, present and I hope my future, for there is a long way to go still but I am okay with that. I want to savor Whitman and that is possible due to the way he offers his work up to the reader, one thought at a time.
Here is one such example:
Only themselves understand themselves and the like of themselves,
As souls only understand souls.
Was Whitman a prophet or a bard? This is a question you have to explore for yourself. Did he see into our future? Maybe.
Of obedience, faith, adhesiveness;
As I stand aloof, and look there is to me something profoundly
affecting in large masses of men following the lead of those
who do not believe in men.
I will let you delve into Leaves of Grass to explore the world as it was and the world as it is today; for that is the beauty of classic poetry. It is timeless. It carries messages of the future and those in the here and now can see life and all its beauty and its struggles in the words on the page.
Photograph credit: Walt Whitman
Bob Dylan: The Lyrics 1961 – 2012