My relationship with Leaves of Grass was turbulent from the beginning. I’m not really well-read in poetry, nor have I ever been particularly enamored with it as a genre, and Leaves of Grass is a commitment both in language and length.
I did feel some comradery with Whitman based solely on our mutual love of the parenthetical, but I wasn’t sure it would be enough to make it through the book.
It doesn’t help that Leaves of Grass is front-loaded with some of Walt Whitman’s incredibly long, rambling poems about boats and dock workers. He also apparently was on a quest to name drop every State and landmark of those states, not to mention important rivers. It is not an easy volume of poetry to get emotionally involved with, and the volume is long.
But after spending three months with Walt Whitman, my feelings towards him and his poetry changed. It was gradual, I still wanted to rip the pages out whenever I saw the word “ship” or “boat,” but Whitman caught me somehow. At some point I was entangled in his feverish dream of humanity.
Walt Whitman has an equal love for humanity in all its forms, across races, across countries, even for those who we see as the worst of us. He professed a love of the weak, not just the bold, that the crippling self-doubt and self-hatred we fall victim to makes us no less loveable as human beings. The man was so capable of boundless love that he saw beauty and sanctity in death, just as much and if not more than life.
After the Union was restored, Whitman saw a chance for previously unachieved equality in America. Racism, borders, all of the barriers of prejudice and racism would dwindle in a new age of brotherhood and travel. For, in travel, Whitman saw only the possibly that by knowing each other, we could only love each other more for we would understand how we are all the same.
Whitman as a writer is a voice of the spirit of this country. His poetry is distinctively American in both its ideology and the romanticism of the American life. He captures the fiery devotion to liberty and freedom and the rugged individualism that is iconic of our culture.
Comparing the America Whitman envisioned, and perhaps experienced, compared to the one I have experienced was painful. In the past few years I have felt abject despair at America’s path, in its continuing inability to respect the dignity of persons within its borders and outside.
Following the news, I feel utter defeat as a woman, faced with an institution that seems determined to deny me my personhood, an level playing field in my chosen career, equal pay if I do achieve my dream job despite the incredible harshness of the sexism in my chosen field, and inevitable criticism if I choose to be unmarried, childless, and devoted to my work.
And that is just what is relevant to my life, and nothing of the institutional racism that is deadly in my country, or the institutional mishandling of justice in law.
Currents events, endlessly horrific, are enough to make me despair not just about my country but about this whole world. What would Whitman think of us? For a man who imagined such a dream of unity and indiscriminate love, how could he understand where we went?
Recently politicians have been throwing around this phrase “making America great again.” It’s tempting, for any society, when in a bad position of strife to look backwards and try to identify a better time. The problem with looking backwards is that America was never great. What country can claim to have been truly great?
When you look backwards, it’s easy to focus on the bright spotlights of the good and relegate the bad to the dark periphery. Point to me a time in American history where things were great for all peoples. It can’t be before slavery was illegal. It can’t be before women had the right to vote. It can’t be when that same America created Internment camps for Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor. It can’t even be before marriage rights were given the chance to be equal, and that only happened so very recently.
We can’t make America “great again.” Walt Whitman wasn’t in delirious happiness about the Union being restored after the Civil War because it meant the country would go back to being the way it was. Rather, he believed that now it could move on to be better.
That is what I want, for my country—for it to be better.
The contrast between Walt Whitman’s surety in the beautiful path America must take with the reality here in 2016 left me emotionally exhausted. Every time I picked up Leaves of Grass, Whitman was waiting to erratically espouse his love for men, for women, for anything remotely alive and even in nature what isn’t alive.
“I swear they are all beautiful,
Every one that sleeps is beautiful, everything in the dim light is beautiful,
The wildest and the bloodiest is over, and all is peace.
Peace is always beautiful.”
But then I would close the book and the reality of current events would re-assert itself, pressuring me back into pessimism.
When I was nearing the end of Leaves of Grass and I read the poem “So Long!” I didn’t know how much I needed Whitman’s words.
Whitman occasionally “breaks the 4th wall” if it can be called that in a book of poems and addresses the reader. After three months of trying political times—racist hate speech, photos of bombed cities, denial of women the right to their bodies in the case of access to health care through the defunding of planned Parenthood, the list goes on— I was at a breaking point.
And then Whitman steps off the page.
“Comerado, this is no book,
Who touches this touches a man,
(Is it night? Are we here together alone?)
It is I you hold and who holds you,
I spring from the pages into your arms—decease calls me forth.
Oh how your fingers drowse me,
You breath falls around me like dew, your pulse lulls the tympans of my ears,
I feel immerged from head to foot,
Dear friend whoever you are take this kiss,
I give it especially to you, do not forget me”
I had been looking into Whitman this whole time, learning his most intimate feelings and dreams. But, as with all books, the author can’t look back. Somehow though, this poem transcended that limitation. Like my sudden bursting into tears would indicate, damned if I didn’t feel looked back at. It felt personal. It felt intimate. It felt like he had heard the apology I so desperately wanted to make regarding the failure of his vision.
I’m sure that presenting this quote out of the context of struggling through three months with a 600 page volume of antiquated poetry does not capture my feelings. I had wished, up until that moment, that Whitman had hired a damn editor to cut some of the poems out of the book. I can never wish that now because without the length, the rambling, the obsession with, yes, boats, I wouldn’t have felt so connected to Whitman.
I had spent three months suffering through this man’s wildly spinning thoughts and now we were, in his words, touching.
It is hard to recommend a book to someone with the promise that it will “change their life.” Literature affects us differently depending where we are in life. I would never have thought that I would be someone to say that Leaves of Grass is undeniably a part of who I am, based on my brief exposure to selected poems of his I read in school.
But here we are, Leaves of Grass affected me deeply and I cried like a b*** reading Walt Whitman’s poetry.