Essay Whitman

Michael Bourne has written a lovely, quite honest essay about Walt Whitman for The Millions. Specifically, it covers how Leaves of Grass saved his life, but it also calls our attention to the fact that the book has gone through its share of editions since its initial publication on July 4, 1855: "Until the very last weeks of his life, Whitman continued to put out new editions of Leaves of Grass, each time adding new poems and revising the old ones, so that by the time he published the 1892 so-called Death-Bed Edition, the version most often sold in stores or excerpted in anthologies, he had expanded the original twelve poems to 383."

Yes, this was posted on the Fourth, but in case you were out fireworking, recall your spirit: "The publication date cannot have been accidental. Whitman was a journalist and a fierce believer in a united United States, and six years before the outbreak of the Civil War, with Kansas bleeding and the country riven by sectional strife, Whitman saw Leaves of Grass as, among other things, a sort of poetical pamphlet that could somehow sing the nation into unity."

It is the first 1855 edition Bourne points to, calling it "a poetical Declaration of Independence in so many ways it can be hard to keep track of them all." He goes on to remark on Whitman's formal innovation, his "deeply un-Western view on humanity and the divine," his promotion by queer theorists to the "Good Gay Poet," and the intimacy of "Song of Myself":

It was this intimacy, the sense Whitman creates in the original poems that not only is he talking to you but listening as well, that drew me in during that awful year in San Francisco. I was a young man who needed a good talking to, but also one yearning to be heard. I was living, like a lot of lost, lonely people, in a closed ecosystem of my own neuroses, which thrived on hours spent in bed mentally composing suicide notes that would, depending on my mood, devastate my loved ones or bring tears to their eyes at the lost promise of my genius. This was all so crazy I couldn’t possibly tell anyone, yet I desperately needed someone to tell. So, by some alchemical literary process I do not understand to this day, Walt Whitman became my confessor and courage-teacher. I sensed, correctly I think, that Whitman “got” it. He’d been there 150 years before I had, and if I could just teach myself how to listen to him, he might teach me how to stay alive.

And he did. The central tension in the poems in the 1855 edition is between “I” and “you.” The poet is constantly yearning to reach out to you; or reeling from contact with you; or entering into you, thinking your thoughts and feeling your feelings. But who is this you? Sometimes it’s the reader, while at other times it is some stranger the poet has picked out of the crowd, and at still other times it is “my soul” or the “other I am.” After many readings and re-readings, it occurred to me that what I had at first taken to be a conflation of “you’s,” or, worse, a simple confusion, was in fact the whole damn point. What Whitman is saying in Leaves of Grass is that we are all one and the same, not just in the political sense that the slave is equal in worth to the slave master, but that we are all intimately linked in one unbreakable chain of being. The fact that you exist is enough, because whether you have “outstript…the President” or are a “prostitute draggl[ing] her shawl,” by the mere fact of existing you take your rightful place in a miraculous, inter-connected system called the world.

You can read the entire tearjerker here.

Study Questions

1. Describe Whitman’s conceptions of the soul and the body, and the relationship between the two. Which is more important, in his view?

The soul and the body are inextricably linked for Whitman. While the soul is the ultimate repository of the self, and connection between souls is the highest order of relating, the body is the vessel that allows the soul to experience the world. Therefore the body is just as important. This is why he says in “Starting from Paumanok” that he will make his poems from the body and from material things, for the soul will follow from those. The body is also the source of identity in the world and the means for connection to others. Thus in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” he speaks of the body as one’s identity: it is the means by which different generations can experience the same thing (in this case the ferry crossing). Whitman values both the soul and the body, but the body is much easier to work with.

2. How do you account for the eroticism in Whitman’s poetry? Does he use homosexual eroticism differently from heterosexual eroticism?

Eroticism, in Whitman’s poetry, symbolizes the profound but always incomplete communion between people. Sex is as close as two people can get to becoming one, but the physical body, while it enables this closeness, is also a barrier to complete connection. Heterosexual eroticism is often used to discuss childbearing, which comes out of the same generative process that creates poetry. Homoeroticism, since it is purely about the connection between two people and has no biological function, can be used to talk about a broader range of ideas. In particular, homoeroticism comes to symbolize the kind of valorization of the body and the kind of sympathetic connection between people that Whitman values most.

3. What kinds of structures does Whitman use in his poetry? Why might he be using these rather than traditional structures like rhyme?

Two of the most important structures in Whitman’s poetry are the list and the anecdote. The list enables Whitman to present a great number of disparate items without having to make any claims as to their relative worth; this is a truly democratic way of presenting material. It is also an easy way for him to go about cataloguing America, a nation that is raw material for poetry. Anecdotes, on the other hand, are a way for him to demonstrate the kind of sympathetic experience he hopes his poetry will be. When he presents a story he’s heard from another, he presents it as something that has become so real to him that he feels he has experienced it himself. This kind of intense connection between people is the goal of Whitman’s poetry. He avoids traditional structures like rhyme because he wants to show that his is a truly American poetry, one that is fresh and new, and not indebted to previous poets from other countries.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. Describe Whitman’s diction. What kind of language does he use? Does this have implications politically? Poetically?

2. Discuss the relationship of the poems in Leaves of Grass to one another. Are they intended to be read together or separately? Do they form one larger document? What about the different editions of Leaves of Grass? Why did Whitman keep revising this work?

3. How does Whitman handle modernity and technological change? What kinds of landscapes do we see in his poetry? What role does the city play? What role does nature play?

4. What is uniquely American about Whitman’s poetry? Consider both substance and style.

5. How does Whitman incorporate current events into his poetry? What about the Civil War?

6. What, in Whitman’s view, is the function of poetry? Does it have a public or ceremonial role?

7. Describe Whitman’s account of his development as a poet. What experiences were important, and why?

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