“I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
As I mentioned in my meditation on my library blog I want to approach my reading towards the end of the year more deliberately, challenging myself to read even more deeply and to confront those books I have been avoiding reading. After finishing H(A)PPY for a second time I spent a little time meditating over the books on my shelves, picking out a few which have been wallowing there for some time waiting for that ‘someday’ to arrive when I would be in the right frame of mind to read them. Eventually I settled on Walt Whitman. I’m not exactly sure why Walt Whitman, other than I’ve had a copy of Leaves of Grass for about 5 years now, and I’ve read so many great things about Whitman, how he has influenced so many other writers, that it seems a bit criminal that I’ve not managed to ever read this important work. My copy of Leaves of Grass, too, is huge. It contains both the original 1855 version and the ‘death bed’ version; Whitman continued to edit Leaves of Grass throughout his lifetime – he was, I think, the model that Ridley Scott moulded himself on – and the collection expanded from a manageable 140ish pages long to around 600 pages. Whitman was not, it seems, decisive, or perhaps he just enjoyed tinkering and the original material gave him a lot to tinker with. So besides being poetry, which can be difficult to read continuously, it is also a chunky book – 785 pages in total – and it would require both patience and concentration to read it. Plus I didn’t want to just get through it I wanted to absorb and appreciate it, which I knew would take a bit of time. I couldn’t allow myself to feel pressured or rushed in my reading. Armed with these lofty ideals, I embarked, with some nervousness, on this focused, slow reading attempt.
The poems in Leaves of Grass are considerably more famous than my blog, but there’s a lot more to Leaves of Grass than Song of Myself, and I Sing the Body Electric, or, not to forget, the wonderful O Captain! My Captain! which many people probably haven’t read but know all about from that gorgeous movie Dead Poets Society. Whitman wrote, or sang, of the ordinary daily lives of 19th Century America. He sang songs not just of himself but of the workers, the sailors, politics – notably Abraham Lincoln who he wrote about extensively – slaves, prostitutes; he wrote about love, about the glory of life, about death, about war; he wrote of dawn, of small birds and the wonders of nature; he was, I think, the embodiment of the meditative principle – he attended to everything, to the smallest and meanest of things and he sought and saw the beauty in them. Yet his poems are not calm, they are not measured. They are explosive, passionate, joyful; Whitman celebrates everything. His poems are full of bravado, bragging, self-celebration and yet humility. Whitman had a firm grip on what mattered – love, relationships, kindness, acceptance, respect – and what didn’t. He was a fierce proponent of equality, his poems advocate the equality of the slave and the President, of women and men, of lovers of women and lovers of men. Love, in fact, permeates everything Whitman writes. In this way it made me think that despite their distance in age and geography, somehow Whitman was the natural, divine perhaps, successor to John Donne, just John Donne taken even further. Just as Donne’s poems dripped with passion, with sex, with the desires of the human body, Whitman’s are flooded with them. This was particularly so in the original 1855 edition which is untempered, rougher and, I think, somewhat lovelier for it. By the time Whitman has expanded and refined his poetry for the death-bed edition, it is evident that he had learned to be more discerning, more deliberate, and some of the rawness is lost as a result. The poems are better, but some of the innocence is lost.
Perhaps not surprisingly, my intense reading experience didn’t go exactly as I’d hoped. For a start it is hard reading poetry continuously. I have read epic poetry before, but such poetry has always been in the form of a story; something like Beowulf or The Odyssey where the poetic form allows the story to flow. That’s not the case with Whitman. He is, first and foremost, a poet not a storyteller. He transmits ideas, philosophical concepts, often in heavy metaphors. All of this is difficult to process, it takes time and mental acuity and it is not easy to absorb. I found I couldn’t concentrate on the words if there was any background chatter. Usually I’m pretty good at phasing that out when I’m reading, but for these poems I found they just wouldn’t register if I could hear words anywhere else. Despite these difficulties I managed to get about 400 pages in before I admitted defeat. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with the poetry, rather the attempt to read it all in one go was a mistake. It isn’t how poetry, or Whitman’s poetry at least, is best approached. I wasn’t doing the great man justice. I was reading his words but not reading his words, there was a kind of mental numbness that developed and however hard I tried to focus after around 25 minutes I simply couldn’t take any more in. I decided that rather than continuing to slavishly work my way through the book – because it had become work at that point – I would select a few more poems and read them carefully.
Usually I would be disappointed with myself for what I would see as a ‘failure’ in my mission to complete a specific challenge, but perhaps my reading of the Tao has paid off because this time I didn’t. I think I’ve found that more surprising than anything. I felt like I had absorbed the essence of Whitman; I had felt his passion, his soulfulness, his humanity, his irrepressible love. There were moments in poems that had moved me to tears, there were moments that made me laugh, there were moments that made me stop and think. I had realised that to properly appreciate Whitman I had to take him slowly and I could not wolf him down like a McDonalds meal. He deserved much more attention than that. I loved his celebratory tone, the way he celebrated himself in that famous opening to Song of Myself, but not just himself but everyone around him. He saw the world as a wondrous, juicy, delicious feast and he wanted to absorb it with all his senses. He wanted to be drunk on it, overwhelmed by it, and he was. He desired to be no one’s President, he desired neither power nor prestige, just love and love and love in all its abundance, as he describes so beautifully here in this poem When I Heard at the Close of the Day:
“WHEN I HEARD AT THE CLOSE OF THE DAY
When I heard at the close of the day how my name had been
receiv’d with plaudits in the capitol, still it was not a happy
night for me that follow’d,
And else when I carous’d, or when my plans were accomplish’d,
still I was not happy.
But the day when I rose at dawn from the bed of perfect health,
refresh’d, singing, inhaling the ripe breath of autumn,
When I saw the full moon in the west grow pale and disappear in
the morning light,
When I wander’d alone over the breach and undressing bathed,
laughing with the cool waters, and saw the sun rise,
And when I thought how my drea friend my lover was on his way
coming, O then I was happy,
O then each breath tasted sweeter, and all that day my food
nourish’d me more, and the beautiful day pass’d well,
And the next came with equal joy, and with the next at evening
came my friend,
And that night while all was still I Heard the waters roll slowly
continually up the shores,
I heard the hissing rustle of the liquid and sands as directed to me
whispering to congratulate me,
For the one I love most lay sleeping by me under the same cover
in the cool night,
In the stillness in the autumn moonbeams his face was inclined
And his arm lay lightly around my breast – and that night I was
And I’ve learned from Whitman, I’ve learned some important lessons. As I read the 1855 version of Song of Myself, which is huge (over 100 pages long) and magnificent and gorgeously celebratory, I found myself wondering what a ‘song of myself’ would sound like and I realised it would probably be rather self-critical, maybe a bit mopey and grumbly, and I realised, too, that this isn’t the kind of song I wanted to represent my life. Whitman made me think about how it is so easy to find fault and so hard to find joy and beauty, and yet Whitman makes it seem effortless. And perhaps if I change my perspective a little, I can make it effortless too. I resolved to change my song to one which is more bombastic, more humane and more loving. What would your song sound like?
One other thing I realised as I was struggling with Whitman’s words is that poetry, some poetry certainly, needs to be read aloud. It is intended to be heard. I think this is certainly true of Whitman. I managed to track down a selection of readings from Leaves of Grass via Spotify, a lovely rendition read by Ed Begley (of Twelve Angry Men fame, amongst other things). Hearing Whitman brings an extra dimension to the experience, and Begley’s voice is perfect for it, exceeded only, perhaps, by the man himself. Because there are recordings of Whitman reading his own poems. Here you can listen to Whitman reading his quite rarely melancholy, yet lovely poem Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking. Why not take a listen for yourself?
I might not have quite achieved what I set out to achieve here, but I’ve learned a lot from the experience. For one this was my first foray into audio books and whilst I’m not a complete convert I can see a space in which audio books augment the reading experience. And I’ve learned from Whitman to be more than just forgiving, to be celebratory, to see the wonder that exists all around us even in ordinary things. I’ve learned the power of attention, attention focused not on pulling something apart but in bigging it up. And I’ve realised that when approaching a work of master poetry, it’s probably a good idea to break it up. If you were thinking of reading Whitman I would recommend reading the 1855 edition and death bed edition separately, though I do think there is merit in reading both editions. Whilst there is overlap, they both have their unique charms. Most importantly, I’ve a much better appreciation of Whitman as a poet and the reasons why his poetry has been so influential to so many people. There’s a wonderful earthiness to his writing, it is physical and sensual, he is rooted in his body and the bodies of others. His humane approach is a lesson to us all, to set aside our endless need to differentiate ourselves and accept that we are different and yet the same. We are connected, we are all as good as each other and if we can approach the world with eyes of wonder and love we can transform our experience from one of disgust and dismissal to one of acceptance and community.
I am glad to have met minds with you, Walt Whitman because every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.