Why I sobbed like a b*** reading Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

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,

Delicious, enough…

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.

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February 2016 Round-Up

VonG: 

Best of February: Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

I didn’t want to be this person. For some reason, I lump the people who go around saying Walt Whitman is one of their favorite poets with the kind of people who wear nice hats, smoke pipes, and have patches on the elbows of their jackets. Professor types who aren’t actually professors and who berate you for liking your low brow literature because, ugh, who will truly be as great as the authors of the past? Also you’re in your twenties, stop smoking a pipe ffs. Who do you think you are?! But after 600 pages of poetry, some of which made me drool as I disassociated to avoid more poems about boats, I ended this volume with a deep passion and respect for Whitman. It was one of those books you have to call ‘transformative’ about your life even if you shudder a little and you have to resist rolling your eyes back into your head. (Nothing kills a book recommendation like the promise that it will CHANGEYOURLIFE, because let’s face it, we’re all in different points of life and books affect us differently). But I have to say it (shudder), Leaves of Grass changed my life.

Worst Weirdest of February: Juliet Immortal by Stacey Jay

Out of the 12 books I read this month, shockingly none were that awful. I mean, I can’t say they were all GOOD, but none of them induced me far enough into a rage to make a blog post about them, which is surprising. A lot of the YA fic I read this month could only be called mediocre. They weren’t down-right offensive when they strayed into moments I disapproved of and there weren’t even that many moments.For that reason, I’m addressing the weirdest book I read this month instead. I’m one of those people who loves Shakespeare, so whenever there’s a YA book involving Shakespeare, I get a little titillated. This one time I read a book where a girl goes back in time to seduce the playwright, as if someone had flipped through my wishes and penned a book just for me (this is real. Incredible). Juliet Immortal is a story involving Shakespeare that is perplexing from start to finish. First of all, why even involve the name and the play Romeo and Juliet? I’m not sure this story, which held onto the association with about as much conviction as a distracted toddler, even needed to be related to Shakespeare. It probably would have been just of fine of a story if it was completely unrelated. Second of all, What the Darn Diggly??? This book is wild, and I’m still unsure if it is in a good way. I love Stacey Jay’s other work but ??? I don’t even know what else to say.

Maggie:

Best of February: The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois

After crunching some numbers and realizing I hadn’t read a single POC author in January, I vowed to read at least 50% black authors in February in honor of Black  History Month. – The Souls of  Black Folk, Beloved, and works by Octavia Butler. While I may not have enjoyed reading Souls the most – it was published in 1903 and reads like it was published in 1903 – I think it was the most important book I read. It gave me a historical understanding that made the emotional aspects Morrison and Butler brought to their works even more poignant, making their themes of race and racism sink in in a way they couldn’t have if I wasn’t aware of the political, social, and cultural history they were steeped in. Also, on a more day-to-day level, Souls gave me awesome ammo whenever I have the misfortune of conversing with a racist who rightfully deserve to get shot down.

Worst of February: Mostly Harmless by Douglas Adams

It’s almost too painful to talk about this book so soon after reading it, but I’ll try. Have you ever been kicked in the teeth by your best friend? Or kidney punched by your grandmother? Did they then take all your valuables and spit on your dog? That’s kind of how reading Mostly Harmless felt. I have never been more disappointed and dissatisfied with a series arc, especially the ending. Adams took everything that was good in his first two or three books and tore it apart in the finally two, laughing knowingly while he did. The Hitchhiker’s series was only supposed to be a trilogy originally, so I have a theory that Adams was forced by an editor or by the need for some quick cash to write the other two. He must of resented it because he became almost actively hostile to the reader, acknowledging the degrading quality of his stories in little quips throughout the last two books. It was maddening as a reader to watch what started so strongly crash and burn. I don’t think I’ll ever quite trust a series again. Thanks, Douglas Adams.

What The Fuck Wednesday – 01/27/16

Have you ever reached a point in a book where the author clearly just said “fuck it” and called it a day? We’ve dedicated Wednesday to capturing these moments when you have to ask yourself, “What the fuck?”

Maggie:

Ever since it had decided to have Wernher von Braun write space-related articles for it, the publication had become the envy of the industry – copies were “rocketing” off the shelves.

Did you just put quotation marks around your own joke? Shit, man – thanks. In a book titled Rocket Girl and a sentence involving the father of rocket science, I might have missed that one. I feel like this is the literary equivalent of retelling a joke to your friends who didn’t laugh because you think they didn’t get it. No. They got it. It just wasn’t funny.

… impregnated by the sperm cells of deception.

I have heard unexpected pregnancies describe many ways, but this… this is a new one. I have so many questions. How exactly does a sperm cell deceive? Do you know what a sperm cell is? Do you know what pregnancy is? Have you met a woman? What’s happening here? I’m baffled. Fucking baffled.

Like throwing a baby shower for a girl who had been gang-raped, the whole circus would turn a blind eye to what got them there in the first place.

Of all the things that exist in the world, gang rape is what you decide to use as your simile? And then you imply that it is something we should turn a blind eye to?

VonG:

I’ve been reading Leaves of Grass for what feels like ten years now (it’s been nearly two months, that’s basically the same thing). So for this What the Fuck Wednesday, I’m presenting a record of some of my thoughts from the beginning two-thirds of the book.

holy shit why are so many of these poems about boats

i like when walt whitman decides to take us on a visual tour of america. especially because it takes 200 fucking pages because America is huge. nice one whitman.

the good news is that if you want to fuck walt whitman, there’s p much a 99% chance he’d want to fuck you too (i don’t know what that 1% would account for, considering whitman would also fuck inanimate objects like rocks and the ocean)

i’d develop a drinking game for reading Leaves of Grass but idk how to do it in a way that wouldn’t lead to alcohol poisoning. even if there was only one rule: 1. drink when whitman mentions boats

other drinking rules that would kill you: when whitman mentions someone doing physical labor, lists state names, salivates over lumber, screams democracy as loud as he can thru the pages at you

i’d do a count on how many times whitman uses the word ‘boat’ but it would make me want to find a boat to set fire to

i lied i checked, he uses the word boat 51 times and boats an additional 16 times so basically every ten pages you’ve probably read about a boat

i don’t want ppl to think i don’t like whitman. i do, my favorite poems so far are “i really like boats” and “america, **** yeah”

my bonus What the Fuck comes from Living Dead in Dallas by Charlaine Harris, for this gem:

“That’s fascinating,” Eric said, sounding fascinated.

Wow, how descriptive. I’m really glad that you followed the #1 rule of writing that’s taught in 101 classes at the middle school level, show don’t tell. This really paints a vivid picture for me of this character’s reaction, so artful, so clever. Thanks for giving me the faith that I will one day too be a best-selling author, if this is the level of writing needed to cut it :’)

Top Ten Tuesdays– Walt Whitman Edition

Ten Things Walt Whitman Wants to Get Down and Dirty With

 (according to Leaves of Grass)

  1. Nature (esp. grass. Did you notice the title?)
  2. The ocean (actual real thing that Walt Whitman wrote and made me imagine after I read it about the ocean: “that it is safe to allow it to lick my naked body all over with its tongues” COME ON WHITMAN! REALLY?)
  3. Boats. No really, boats.
  4. America, including each state individually, also Canada
  5. Me
  6. You
  7. A lot of the United States Presidents but especially Abraham Lincoln
  8. The wind (another actual real thing that Walt Whitman wrote and made me imagine without ever wanting or needing to “winds whose soft-tickling genitals rub against me” !?! WHAT?)
  9. Women and men, of any age and shape, he’s really not that picky tbh
  10. ??? everyone

 

An American Icon, everyone.