Reading Kwame’s confession a couple days ago concerning Whitman made me think of my own meandering path towards the Jolly Big Fellow. When I was in my early twenties, I resisted Old Graybeard, because I didn’t find the wild imagery on a line-by-line basis that I coveted in those days. In fact, I found Old Graybeard kind of boring; I couldn’t figure out what all the hoopla was about—the language seemed too direct and bloated, the sentiments too over-the-top and obvious. Little did I know then that the limitations were inside me, and not the text. Five years ago I returned to Song of Myself and was sliced up into little pieces. Suddenly I was able to see the bigger picture, the democracy of his vision, how the scope of the project was extremely imaginative, that he was using the self as a poetic vehicle, creating a persona who shared his name, expanding way beyond himself.

I was glad to see Kwame point out the friction between Whitman the human being and Whitman the poet. That’s something I’ve thought of a bunch, and recently tried approaching in a poem. One example of this friction is in the line (paraphrased) about “you will find me under your boot soles”, which gives this image of the speaker’s ashes being sprinkled across the earth and organically rising up in the form of grass blades, but in real life Whitman’s ashes were not scattered; he squirreled away money towards the end so he could purchase a tomb in a picturesque hillside in a New Jersey cemetery.
Now I see that even when I was shunning Whitman in my twenties, his shadow was still all over my fingers via poets that were influenced by him: Ginsberg (who I also partially shunned on the surface for a while) and William Carlos Williams among others, and also via international writers, like Tomaz Salamun and Neruda. That’s always a funny thing—when traces of a US writer get refracted back via poets from other countries. This week, for one of my classes (The Visceral I), we read the Portuguese modernist Fernando Pessoa and his heteronyms. I’d forgotten what a huge influence Whitman had been on Pessoa (and the Sensationist Alberto Caeiro and the melancholy Alvaro de Campos). I love how Pessoa throws our ideas of self into a grinder, and how committed he was to his project.
Last spring at Sarah Lawrence we had a live reading of Song of Myself, all 52 sections, read by a mixture of professors (from a variety of disciplines), mfa students, and undergrads. It was one of the most moving readings I’ve ever been a part of. I felt like we lived the poem together. We used three readers trading off passages to pull off the 7-page section (33).There were ebbs and flows, emotional crescendos. Yes, it took nearly three hours, but we were transformed by the experience, something had been shared.

Originally Published: March 30th, 2007

Jeffrey McDaniel is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Chapel of Inadvertent Joy (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013). Other books include The Endarkenment (Pittsburgh, 2008), The Splinter Factory (Manic D, 2002), The Forgiveness Parade (Manic D Press, 1998), and Alibi School (Manic D, 1995). His poems have...

  1. March 30, 2007

    I've always been pretty cold on Whitman too. A professor once told me that Whitman is like opera; unfortunately, I don't have much of a soft spot for opera either, though I see its appeal more now than I used to. Having just entered my thirties and resolved to try harder to read poetry better, perhaps it's time to give Whitman another shot.

  2. March 30, 2007

    Hi Daryl,
    If you do plunge into Whitman again, I would suggest Song of Myself, the 1855 edition. (I think Penquin sells it for like eight bucks.) Read the interesting intro by Malcolm Cowley, but avoid Whitman's own (long-winded) intro and commit to reading all 52 sections, commit to seeing the text through. Maybe think of it as a hike through a national park, and you cannot exit the way you entered.
    It might be useful to speak some of the poem aloud. (It would be great if you could get a friend to read it with you, though I don't know how realistic that is.) Revel in the child-like awe of section 6. Revel in the celebratory rhythms of section 24. Revel in the eroticism of section 11, where Whitman shrewdly invents a female character to filter his own desire through.
    If, after reading the book, you still feel cold, at least you know you went into it with an open mind. And hey, it will still be there if you ever want to venture back.
    Good luck, Jeffrey

  3. March 30, 2007

    Thanks for the pointers, Jeffrey. I'll definitely revisit Song of Myself with them in mind once I whittle my current backlog down a bit.

  4. March 30, 2007

    I was arguing with a professor of mine last year over which of the manifold versions of Leaves of Grass was the superior one. I argued for the "Deathbed" edition, solely on the basis of comprehensiveness. I lost. What, then, are the supposed deficiencies in a work that was the last thing the poet touched?

  5. April 1, 2007

    Malcolm Cowley makes a pretty good argument in the introduction (I don't have it in front of me, but it's easy to find if you're interested) that Whitman's first version of Song of Myself was the best, that the revisions he made were detrimental. It's kind of an interesting introduction because it's actually quite critical (as well as celebratory).
    But the fact is I am not an expert on which is the best version. I can say I've read the 1855 version a number of times and it feels cohesive.