I’ve been struggling with Whitman for a long, long time. There are a few lines that capture the imagination, starting with some of the titles: “Leaves of Grass,” “Song of Myself” and “I Sing the Body Electric,” but when I read the poems themselves, I was left scratching my head. I’m fine with prose poetry, but many times I have no idea what he is referring to, or what he’s trying to say. And the most outrageous meaning seems … silly? implausible?
An aside: it’s only through this book that I realized ‘O Captain!’, that darling of school elocution competitions, is by Whitman. And Rupali pointed me to “There Was a Child Went Forth Every Day,” which is pretty clear in its message.
So. My goal in reading this book was to get a context for what Whitman’s message is, to hopefully understand what his poetry is about (and what the fuss is all about!) and to revisit LoG. It delivered, on this and more.
It turns out that Whitman was quite the marketer! I wonder how much of his current stature is due to his poetry and how much is due to his self-promotion. It looks like even before the first edition, his goal was to be recognized as the voice of America. Unfortunately, the success that each edition garnered was overshadowed by the lofty goals that Whitman had set, so of course, he was bitterly disappointed till the end.
It also turns out that a lot of the lines that I puzzled over are actually as explicit as I had thought 🙂
Outside Whitman, American culture and politics in the mid-nineteenth century was pretty bad (anyone for ‘Gangs of New York’?). Corruption was rife, and it seems like Lincoln was the only decent President that the USA had in that period. In this context, the Trump presidency is more of a reversion to the mean, rather than the outlier that everyone hoped it was. Another recent read, Fortune’s Children, covers roughly the same period, and the contrast between how Whitman and his family lived at the same time but in completely different worlds as the extremely wealthy NYC society is shocking.
A final observation: homosexuality was relatively tolerated, but describing heterosexual encounters was not. It’s interesting how norms change over short time spans – by the 1930s homosexuality was being persecuted. I’m currently also reading a book about WEIRD people, and it’s interesting to think about how these changes may have come about.
Okay, it’s time to take another crack at Leaves of Grass