Friday, April 24, 2009

Reader's Diary #483- Walt Whitman: Leaves of Grass (The Deathbed Edition)

If you'd asked me before I started this book, I'd have said I was a fan of Walt Whitman. Truthfully though I'd only had a passing familiarity with a handful of poems; you know, the ones that pop up in every anthology: "I Sing The Body Electric," "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer," "A Noiseless Patient Spider" and a few others. I still enjoy those, but hardly any others from the entire 405 pages appealed to me. I'd go so far as to say that I even found reading Leaves of Grass to be a chore.

Oddly, I'd say I'm more of a fan now than when I started.

It seems to be a theme of much of my reading lately, or at least a theme I'm choosing to extract, that true love isn't about denying flaws, it's about accepting and perhaps even appreciating them. I've said many times that I don't particularly like reading overly long poems. Admittedly, this is a fault of mine rather than Whitman's, though many of his poems are quite lengthy. More problematic for me was Whitman's over-reliance on lists. If he mentioned a stone mason, you could be sure a farmer, a lumberjack, a stonemason, a blacksmith, etc were close behind. Likewise, I dreaded the mention of any particular state because as soon as Oregon popped up, so did California, Maine, Texas, New York, and company. It was as if he was so worried about hurting one party's feelings that he felt the need to always balance out the love.

But it's also the love that endeared me to Whitman. So many of these poems call for equality and love for all races, creeds, and classes that I started to refer to Whitman as the original hippy. Fortunately, just when I thought the love-in was growing too long, the third day of Woodstock was interrupted by war memories. War, what is it good for? Balance.

I have one recommendation to make: don't read Leaves of Grass from start to finish as I did. Buy it, put it on your shelf and flick through it from time to time. I checked mine out from the library so I didn't have that luxury-- it nearly killed my appreciation. His style can get monotonous in large doses.

When I heard the learn'd astronomer
When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much
applause in the lecture-room,

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.

And here's one that was new to me. I'll dedicate it to FerryTales, a friend of mine, since it made me think of one her recent blog posts:

The Calming Thought of All
That coursing on, whate'er men's speculations,
Amid the changing schools, theologies, philosophies,
Amid the bawling presentations new and old,
The round earth's silent vital laws, facts, modes continue.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

I have never read the astronomer poem before. Perfect for those daydreamers among us.

John Mutford said...

Barbara: I love that he reclaims the magic.

Tricia said...

I've been reading this in small doses thanks to an e-mail subscription. It's a great way to get Whitman in small doses. My paperback copy is dog-eared and worn, reminding me just how much I love him.

Thanks for sharing your reflections on his work.

Allison said...

Lovely poem. Especially love the line, "Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars."