On Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass

I could drop my finger anywhere in Leaves of Grass—preferably the 1860 edition, less formless than the giddy first, far less bloated or smoothed over than the mighty last—and find a concrete reminder, when I need one, which I often do, of why I've bent my life around poetry, a practice which, in an off minute, when life is grinding down upon me with too many of its ugly knuckles, can seem needlessly indulgent, if not ridiculous.

Of course, it's not: it's one of the few essential things, words being almost as warm as a house, as Whitman attests with every one of his long, generous lines. Take this passage, which begins with one of Whitman's favorite words, "and," his shorthand to awaken us to the fact that we are ever on a continuum, ever dropping in on a profound conversation midway:

        And that my soul embraces you this hour, and that we affect each other without ever seeing each other, and never perhaps to see each other, is every bit as wonderful

This ample, wrapping line, plucked from "Who Learns My Lesson Complete?" from 1855, is as typical of Whitman as any, and this bard at this best: immediate, philosophical, open-hearted, reaching out a hand to us that we can hold but can't quite grasp.

I read and write poems to address and be addressed. To remember I am always a part of things that began before my life and will end after it. Whitman may well be the poet who, among all the poets ever in the world, addresses his words absolutely broadly, to all who do and do not hear them, and who manages to come close—as close, perhaps, as one's own self—to each individual listener. Nowhere else but in Whitman do I know, as I know in the passage above, that someone distant and dead is speaking into the air with specifically me in mind—because it's me he's addressing—each of us is his "you"—a reader who he has never met and will never meet, who affects him because he believes—he knows—she or he will find his poems later, a reader who needs desperately at one or all moments to know she or he is not alone. That is most certainly me, and I hope that's who, if anyone, reads my poems, because that's who they're written for.  We are never alone with Whitman; company like that is as much as we can ask from poetry.




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