by Walt Whitman
Leaves of Grass is another poetry collection for which, like Ezra Pound’s Cathay, I can easily appreciate its importance to the history of Western literature. Wanting to create modern poetry for the New World, Whitman eschewed antique forms and themes, minimizing focus on structured rhymes, instead expressing more of the mundane and that which wasn’t commonly discussed, namely sexuality. (Tragically, in attempting to create something that appealed to the lower, working classes, it was largely ignored by the common man during his time. I’m under the impression that this want to honestly express sexuality is what caused Leaves of Grass to be considered amoral in many circles during the 19th century.) And I respect him quite a bit for doing this, but a few issues with the collection diminish this somewhat, the first being Whitman’s staggering narcissism. Perhaps it’s more noticeable more because I just finished reading a Bukowski collection, but Whitman makes clear how highly he holds himself and his art, especially early on in the book. While I agree that he was ahead of his time in many ways, his egotism likely made me go out of my way to find flaws in his collection in an attempt to knock him down a peg.
And that’s unfortunate, because there’s a lot about both Leaves of Grass and its author to like. Whitman comes across as very modern in both the way he thinks and the extent of his empathy. In his poems, he thoughtfully discusses lofty concepts such as the significance of the individual (“A Song of the Rolling Earth”), the responsibility of the citizen to accept and deal with even the ugly aspects of society (“By Blue Ontario’s Shore”), and how our biases and experiences alter the legacies of the dead (“Unnamed Lands”). But there’s more to it than that; Whitman employs an impeccable use of the language, allowing him to express these ideas eloquently and musically, giving us beauties like “As the Time Draws Nigh” or “Song of the Open Road.” This, however, brings us to the next major issue: Whitman’s love of long lists. Too many poems in the collection start off strong but get bogged down by a list of each American state and something he loves about it, or listing every part of the body that happens to be sacred––all or, at least, most of them, it turns out––or every profession that should be thought to be significant. It makes large swaths of the collection tedious as all hell to get through.
So, really, there’s plenty to love in Leaves of Grass, but there’s also plenty that makes it hard to get through. It’s worth the try, and perhaps you’ll be a more patient and understanding reader than I was. (Or perhaps you’ll be choosier as to what poems you actually sample out of the collection.)