Saturday, May 31, 2008

Happy Birthday, Walt Whitman

The good gray poet, ne'er-do-well and dreamer, destroyer of poetical forms and warper of syntax and sentence structure, practitioner of "adhesive love" (what we today would call homosexuality), America's "national poet" was born on this day in 1819. I decided that this year, in honor of the old gentleman's birthday, I was actually going to read "Leaves of Grass," and I have to say -- the more I read, the more I like old Walt. Sure, he is often silly, his word inversions are strange and inserted in the middle of sentences for no reason I can fathom, and the frequent use of Lo! and O! are off-putting in the way that so much 19th-century poetry is. But when you read something like "The Wound Dresser" you can smell the gangrene and blood in the Army field hospital, and some of the pieces in the "Sons of Adam" and "Calamus" sections of "Leaves" are the most brilliant celebrations of human lust in all of American letters. So my recommendation to you is: stop what you're doing, get ye to your local bookseller, and buy a copy.

What, are you still sitting there at your keyboard??? To the bookseller! Move!!!

It's the birthday of poet Walt Whitman born in West Hills, Long Island, New York (1819). He grew up in Brooklyn and lived in New York City for most of his life. He began working as a printer's assistant from a very young age, and in the '40s and '50s he worked for a series of newspapers in Brooklyn and Manhattan. He always loved New York. In one editorial, he wrote that New York City was "the great place of the Western continent, the heart, the brain, the focus, the main spring, the pinnacle, the extremity, the no more beyond of the New World."

It was in New York City, in 1855, that Whitman published the first edition of his poetry collection Leaves of Grass. He couldn't find anyone to publish it for him so he sold a house and used the money to publish it himself. There was no publisher's name or author's name on the cover, just a picture of Whitman himself. He wrote the poems in a new style, a kind of free verse without rhyme or meter. He said in one preface to the book, "Here are the roughs and beards and space and ruggedness and nonchalance that the soul loves."

Leaves of Grass got mostly bad reviews, but Ralph Waldo Emerson called it "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed." Whitman printed Emerson's comment on the second edition of the book, and he wrote an anonymous review of it himself, hoping to spark sales.

Whitman continued to add poems to Leaves of Grass and publish it in different editions throughout his life. It eventually went through nine different editions; Whitman compared the finished book to a cathedral that took years to build, or a tree with visible circles of growth. In the 1880s, the Society for the Suppression of Vice called it immoral in a Boston newspaper, and that's when it finally started to sell. Whitman used the money to buy a cottage in Camden, where he spent the rest of his life.

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