April 16, 2017 at 6:46 am Leave a comment


Leaves-of-Grass might be the most ambitious and arrogant book you will ever read, and surprisingly the most successful. In it Whitman is self consciously trying to create a nation, America – and many argue he succeeds. But if the nation inside the heads of many Americans is the one Whitman wrote, unfortunately the nation resting on the southern half of the continent of North America is not.

Leaves of Grass is a poetry collection. It was first published in 1855, but Whitman spent most of his professional life writing and re-writing it multiple times until his death. This resulted in vastly different editions over four decades—the first a small book of twelve poems and the last a compilation of over 400′.

A very good, and short, American review written in 2005 reflects many of my thoughts about american attitudes to Whitman.

With the upcoming 150th anniversary, America’s poets and critics have found unmediated love for our most American poet, the man who came to shape our ideas of nationhood, democracy, and freedom.

Incredibly to me  it seems Whitman not only shaped American ideas, he knew that is what he was doing, that was his aim, and he was prepared to declare this ambition at the outset, apropro of nothing, and when he was nobody. Imagine writing this in your first, self published, collection of poems – he is so arrogant he reckons he is doing us a favour by allowing us, rather than some hero, to read his stuff.

Here, take this gift,
I was reserving it for some hero, speaker, or general,
One who should serve the good old cause, the great idea, the progress and freedom of the race,
Some brave confronter of despots, some daring rebel;
But I see that what I was reserving belongs to you just as much as to any.

And he is so ambitious that he doesn’t just want to write a vision of America – he wants us to know that is what he is doing.

Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power,
Cheerful, for freest action form’d under the laws divine,
The Modern Man I sing.

Poets to come! orators, singers, musicians to come!
Not to-day is to justify me and answer what I am for,
But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than before known,
Arouse! for you must justify me.

I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future,
I but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness.

I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping, turns a
casual look upon you and then averts his face,
Leaving it to you to prove and define it,

Expecting the main things from you.

Americans say ‘it aint bargain if you can back it up’. IF so Whitman wasn’t bragging. Reading Leaves of Grass you can see why Whitman is considered America’s poet – not only because he says he is, but also because everything he says is now reflected in how Americans talk about themselves.

The book reads like the invention of the idea of America. It helped explain for me why some (most?) Americans and some Europeans seem so in love with the idea of America. Never having been there, I have not understood why these people speak of America in the way that they do – as the home of the brave and the free, the last resort to desperate, and so on. To me it has always been a failed and fading imperial overlord, rife with inequality, and the source of much of the world’s violence and dysfunction, rather than the home of the free.

However, reading Whitman i discovered where these people get their ideas from. He creates a very appealing vision of America as a democratic and equal society. It is a progressive, optimistic and individualistic vision.

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

I found it very revealing and helpful to be reading this at the time we did –  in the wake of the Trump election. American politics, for my whole life time, seems to have been a progressive movement away from equality and freedom towards the rule of the many by the few. To me the Trump election was just another, admittedly extreme, step in that direction. So I have never understood America’s rhetoric about itself, and never less so than on the election of Trump.

But this book really helps explain the mismatch between rhetoric and reality. In stark contrast to the direction of modern American politics, in Whitman’s America there is a place for everyone. Everyone is equal and everyone can be who they want to be. If that’s the image that Americans have  of their country I can understand some of their attitudes and their talk.

However I find it impossible to match this vision, beautifully expressed though it is, with the reality that I’ve grown up with on my TV screen. All the images that have saturated my life show no connection to the beautiful ideas vividly evoked by Whitman. So while Whitman helps explain American rhetoric, he does not help explain American politics or American society.

On the contrary, both are even more difficult to understand after reading their national poet. You would think all politicians and activists would need to do is quote Whitman to make an opponent realize they’re heading down the wrong track but clearly that is not enough.

The word might be mightier than the sword but it seems the dollar is mightier than both.

Whitman seems to have been spectacularly successful in his huge ambition of creating a vision for a country. Americans have not only bought his vision, they have run around telling everyone about it, proclaiming how great is, even claiming to use military force to export it around the world – but they have failed to live it.

Reading that vision in the 21st century seems like an accusation rather than a celebration.

“The man’s body is sacred and the woman’s body is sacred,
No matter who it is, it is sacred—is it the meanest one in the laborers’ gang?
Is it one of the dull-faced immigrants just landed on the wharf?
Each belongs here or anywhere just as much as the well-off, just as much as you,
Each has his or her place in the procession.

(All is a procession,
The universe is a procession with measured and perfect motion.)

Do you know so much yourself that you call the meanest ignorant?
Do you suppose you have a right to a good sight, and he or she has no right to a sight?
Do you think matter has cohered together from its diffuse float, and
the soil is on the surface, and water runs and vegetation sprouts,
For you only, and not for him and her?”

Excerpt From: Walt Whitman. “Leaves of Grass.” iBooks.



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