Walt Whitman from the front piece of the first edition of Leaves of Grass.
We are about to observe on May 19 the bicentennial of Walt Whitman’s birth so this as an especially good time to celebrate the Great Gray poet during National Poetry Month. In his long, defiantly unconventional life, Whitman blew to smithereens all of the polite conventions of poetry as a genteel pastime and repository for lofty sentiment. He blew it up in form, content, and subject. The first self-proclaimed poet of the people gloried unselfconsciously in himself, but also in the throbbing, vibrant world erupting around him. He absorbed it all and celebrated it in torrents of words that seemed to flow from his pen faster than his hand could move across the paper.
An in the process he invented a new poetics. There is none like him and never will be. He is the Godfather to all of us, as Emily Dickinson’s very different voice makes her the Godmother.
Whitman, trademark crushed hat, and butterfly in his hoary and honored age.
Whitman spent his whole life on one book, Leaves of Grass. The first edition of only 12 poems was published in 1855 with a cover blurb purloined from a letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was none too happy to find himself so used. At the end of his life and several editions later the book had ballooned to over 400 poems and many individual poems had been revised and refreshed through several editions.
Despite it’s essential, classic status, Leaves of Grass, like Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, is a seminal work very few have ever read in its entirety. Here are some samples of poems from it you may have never read.
An antebellum locomotive like the one Whitman describes.
To a Locomotive in Winter
Thee for my recitative!
Thee in the driving storm even as now, the snow, the winter-day declining,
Thee in thy panoply, thy measur’d dual throbbing and thy beat convulsive,
Thy black cylindric body, golden brass, and silvery steel,
Thy ponderous side-bars, parallel and connecting rods, gyrating, shuttling at thy sides,
Thy metrical, now swelling pant and roar, now tapering in the distance,
Thy great protruding head-light fix’d in front,
Thy long, pale, floating vapor-pennants, tinged with delicate purple,
The dense and murky clouds out-belching from thy smoke-stack,
Thy knitted frame, thy springs and valves, the tremulous twinkle of thy wheels,
Thy train of cars behind, obedient, merrily following,
Through gale or calm, now swift, now slack, yet steadily careering;
Type of the modern—emblem of motion and power—pulse of the continent,
For once come serve the Muse and merge in verse, even as here I see thee,
With storm and buffeting gusts of wind and falling snow,
By day thy warning ringing bell to sound its notes, By night thy silent signal lamps to swing.
Roll through my chant with all thy lawless music, thy swinging lamps at night,
Thy madly-whistled laughter, echoing, rumbling like an earthquake, rousing all,
Law of thyself complete, thine own track firmly holding,
(No sweetness debonair of tearful harp or glib piano thine,)
Thy trills of shrieks by rocks and hills return’d,
Launch’d o’er the prairies wide, across the lakes, To the free skies unpent and glad and strong.
When I Heard the Learned Astronomer
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide,
and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with
much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Lookdd up in perfect silence at the stars.
Whitman's Manhattan circa 1850.
I was asking for something specific and perfect for my city,
Whereupon lo! upsprang the aboriginal name.
Now I see what there is in a name, a word, liquid, sane,
unruly, musical, self-sufficient,
I see that the word of my city is that word from of old,
Because I see that word nested in nests of water-bays, superb,
Rich, hemm'd thick all around with sailships and steamships,
an island sixteen miles long, solid-founded,
Numberless crowded streets, high growths of iron, slender,
strong, light, splendidly uprising toward clear skies,
Tides swift and ample, well-loved by me, toward sundown,
The flowing sea-currents, the little islands, larger adjoining
islands, the heights, the villas,
The countless masts, the white shore-steamers, the lighters,
the ferry-boats, the black sea-steamers well-model’d,
The down-town streets, the jobbers' houses of business, the
houses of business of the ship-merchants and money-brokers,
Immigrants arriving, fifteen or twenty thousand in a week,
The carts hauling goods, the manly race of drivers of horses,
the brown-faced sailors,
The summer air, the bright sun shining, and the sailing clouds aloft,
The winter snows, the sleigh-bells, the broken ice in the
river, passing along up or down with the flood-tide or ebb-tide,
The mechanics of the city, the masters, well-form’d,
beautiful-faced, looking you straight in the eyes,
Trottoirs throng’d, vehicles, Broadway, the women, the shops and shows,
A million people—manners free and superb—open voices—
hospitality—the most courageous and friendly young men,
City of hurried and sparkling waters! city of spires and masts!
City nested in bays!
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