Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Walt Whitman

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

-Leaves of Grass,

Book III Song of Myself,

Walt Whitman

Everyone in the US has heard of him. Some may know the name, but not his occupation. But even the name Whitman rings a bell with people who do not know his poetry. Walt Whitman was a witness to his times, and his writings and poetry are the vehicle of his history and the people of that time’s history. People who’ve read his work could say it is superfluous and long winded, but I disagree.

His poetry exists for praise. He praises the living and the dead. He praises the rich and poor, the virtuous and the criminal, prostitutes and virgins. He leaves no one out. He showers love and attention on everyone, indiscriminately, and accepts everyone just as he accepts his own body, his faults, and his own inevitable death. For him, no topic was off limits. He wrote about God, the soul, sex, foreign countries, and equality for all sexes and races.

In my exploration of Leaves of Grass, I found that his writing is meant to be cherished and savored. The slower I read his writing, the more inspiration and appreciation I have for his detailed work. His work has brought new inspiration to my own life and has introduced new topics and broken down boundaries and preconceived notions that I never realized I had. He has forced me to look at myself and my writing and love every detail and every flaw. He has given me the courage to improve. So many of his poems and passages exhibit such simple but profound observations of his world and of human nature. And now that I have read his work, I feel that I understand more of the world that I live in.

So without any hesitation, I dedicate my first April post to Whitman and I will proceed with a few excerpts from Leaves of Grass that I enjoyed the most.

As Adam Early in the Morning

  As Adam early in the morning,

  Walking forth from the bower refresh'd with sleep,

  Behold me where I pass, hear my voice, approach,

  Touch me, touch the palm of your hand to my body as I pass,

  Be not afraid of my body.

The fact that the subject of the poem is Adam, most like the Adam from Eden, his first thoughts when he fell from God’s graces was shame of his body. In embarrassment, he reaches for a fig leaf to cover his nakedness and hide what makes him human.

However, Whitman praises the body. Many passages throughout the book describe in great deal the touching and feeling of faces and limbs and of the beauty of movement while people work, play or have sex. And the last line of this excerpt shows that most people are afraid of others and afraid of their own body. Afraid of the unknown and afraid to break free from what they are taught. The narrator implores almost tries to persuade and seduce Adam to touch him. In a way, Adam is being tempted away from his shame and embarrassment.

Book VI, Salut au Monde! (Praise the World!)

All you continentals of Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia, indifferent

      of place!

  All you on the numberless islands of the archipelagoes of the sea!

  And you of centuries hence when you listen to me!

  And you each and everywhere whom I specify not, but include just the same!

  Health to you! good will to you all, from me and America sent!

  Each of us inevitable,

  Each of us limitless—each of us with his or her right upon the earth,

  Each of us allow'd the eternal purports of the earth,

  Each of us here as divinely as any is here.

This passage is self-explanatory, but it sums up much of what Whitman tries to explain in his writing. He describes that no one is greater or better than another, no God, person, or animal. All are divine and beautiful. All have a purpose and a right to the Earth. I love this piece because the last stanza clarifies what he wishes to impart on his readers. He is upfront and unapologetic and one must remember the age when he wrote Leaves of Grass. Stating that everyone is divine would be considered blasphemy in the eyes of 1800s America immersed in a religious awakening.

Book III, Song of Myself

You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through

      the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,

  You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,

  You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

In such eloquent words, he states don’t believe anything anyone says, not even what he says. Only listen and then decide what you believe and decide who you are without the influence of others. For me, this passage closely speaks to writing style and the topic of concern for many writers; the fear of sounding like their favorite authors. Whitman implores you to look at the world through your own eyes and see it, observe it, and experience it so that you can fully become yourself. His advice holds true for the writer. As long as we stay true to our experiences, we will stay true to our unique styles and bring forth original and engaging work.

If you're interested in reading Leaves of Grass, you can read it for free here on Project Gutenberg.

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