Among the books that are most rewarding to buy in a used book store is Leaves of Grass. I’ve owned three and what makes them so wonderful (besides Whitman’s poetry) are the relics often hidden inside. No one buys that book without loving it. Inside all the old copies I’ve owned have been newspaper clippings, notes, favorite lines written in margins, dedications usually signed with “love.”
Today is Walt Whitman’s birthday.
I remember the day Reagan was inaugurated. I had a party in my apartment in Denver. I was a year or two out of graduate school. I had worked on John Anderson’s campaign. The party was some of my real-life personal friends and a bunch of people from the Anderson campaign. Someone had to bring a TV because I didn’t have one. The plan was to watch Bedtime for Bonzo in which our new President was the adopted father of a chimpanzee. I didn’t have a lot of furniture and my floor was solid oak. There was no where comfortable and I wasn’t really interested in the movie. My friends and I stayed in the kitchen, got plowed and that led, naturally, to my reading Walt Whitman (whether anyone liked it or not).
Back then I had the belief that poetry was more important than politics and writing was the single most important thing for me to do, beyond earning a living or love or anything else.
Whitman had influenced some of that.
There are many amazing poems in Leaves of Grass. Some I’ve taught, particularly “There was a Child Went Forth” which I had my students act out as a way to prove that poetry is not inaccessible. Another that often made it up on my chalkboard was “A Noiseless, Patient Spider” —
A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.
This one I drew.
But that night of Reagan’s inauguration I wasn’t reading these poems. I don’t think I’d even met them, yet. I was reading from the book within the book, Calamus. My favorite at the time was “Scented Herbage of My Breast.” It spoke to me so clearly of artistic integrity, sexuality and death. He is speaking to the leaves of grass (and other plants) that come out of his heart and will someday rise from the ground above his body.
Nor will I allow you to balk me any more with what I was calling life,
For now it is convey’d to me that you are the purports essential,
That you hide in these shifting forms of life, for reasons, and that
they are mainly for you,
That you beyond them come forth to remain, the real reality,
That behind the mask of materials you patiently wait, no matter
That you will one day perhaps take control of all,
That you will perhaps dissipate this entire show of appearance,
That may-be you are what it is all for, but it does not last so very
But you will last very long.
At this point in the story — so many years later — I remember that young woman who got so drunk on wine and poetry that she banged her head on the ledge below her kitchen sink when she sat down. I remember her ecstatic lecture to the small group (four? five?) of friends who were also not interested in the antics of Ronald Reagan and a monkey. I doubt they were all that interested in Whitman, either, but the young woman all on her own was a pretty good show.
Far more often than I think of that evening, I think of this poem. I think of what it means to “dissipate the entire show of appearance” and how much that matters.
As for the “scented herbage of my breast” — that young woman had no idea what it would be, what that would mean. She wrote anyway, but had no real story except a sad but lovely romance that could never work.
So she wrote it, as practice, you know, for the real stories that came later.
A song from the practice story…
A lovely movie starring Rip Torn as Walt Whitman — Beautiful Dreamers