If asked to choose a handful of poetry volumes I would want, if a handful were all I might have, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass would be very close to the top of the list, if not actually on the top. Like The Upanishads or the Bible, Whitman’s book seems all-encompassing, all-embracing, a book that addresses the needs and desires of all and goes to great pains to exclude none.
Some of the greatest, most magnanimous, most compassionate poems in the English language may be found within its covers, including “Song of Myself,” “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” “A Noiseless Patient Spider,” “O Captain, My Captain,” “I Sing the Body Electric,” “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” and … well, I could go on and on.
You get the idea.
In fact, I think a cogent case might be made for seeing Leaves of Grass as being one large single poem, composed of multitudinous “verses,” much like the idea that America is composed of each and every individual who resides here.
I believe that is what is at the core of what Whitman himself believed and what he most enthusiastically wished to pass on.
One week from this Thursday, on April 14th, at 7:30 pm in Classroom A, the 3 Poems By … Discussion Group will meet up to consider 3 poems by Walt Whitman. If you are interested, come join us for a lively discussion of the work of the man known as the “Father of American Poetry.”
The three poems we will be discussing are To You, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, and As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life. On occasion, the 3 Poems By … Group has been known to sneak in a 4th poem and if we do this time it will be A Noiseless Patient Spider.
And, finally, what would a post about poetry be without a poem? Father Walt, as Allen Ginsberg so aptly called him, only rarely wrote anything short that might fit neatly into the brief in-and-out world of the blog post. When he did, however, he somehow managed to encompass the big ideas and subjects of which he was so very fond in his classic long-lined (in both senses of the term) verses into a mere handful of lines. Here is one poem I’ve just read for the first time and, as with most of his work, I like it very much:
Continuities (From a talk I had lately with a German spiritualist)
Nothing is ever really lost, or can be lost,
No birth, identity, form—no object of the world.
Nor life, nor force, nor any visible thing;
Appearance must not foil, nor shifted sphere confuse thy brain.
Ample are time and space—ample the fields of Nature.
The body, sluggish, aged, cold—the embers left from earlier fires,
The light in the eye grown dim, shall duly flame again;
The sun now low in the west rises for mornings and for noons continual;
To frozen clods ever the spring’s invisible law returns,
With grass and flowers and summer fruits and corn.
My first thought on reading this was of my favorite Bible verse, from Isaiah: “All flesh is grass.” There is grass in the last line of Whitman’s “Continuities” and grass in the title of his volume, Leaves of Grass, and grass in this Bible verse. That got me to thinking even further and I called to mind the famous haiku by Master Bashō:
The summer’s grass!
all that’s left
of warriors’ dreams.
Suddenly, Whitman’s naturalistic title, Leaves of Grass, takes on a fuller meaning, one that encompasses the work of Isaiah, Whitman’s own Continuities, and Bashō , highlighting the metaphoric/literal teachings of cultures as seemingly diverse as one might ever imagine.
But, really, there is only one culture, only one country, only one world.
That’s another little something with which I believe Father Walt would most heartily agree.