Friday, 24 August 2012

Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass first popped up on my reading radar during a first read of Blue Highways, where the author mentions packing this book to read as he travels around America. I’ve been curious since then as to why William Least-Heat Moon (yes, that’s his real name and his book I’ll review another time) chose this book in particular. Since then, I’ve become more aware of Leaves of Grass as an important book within the canon of American literature, and the controversial and lively debate surrounding its author - to the extent that Walt and Mark are the two people who adorn my Kindle cover. But it’s only the last few weeks that I’ve properly read Leaves from cover to cover.

Poetry is not a form of literature I’m at ease with. There’s cultural and upbringing reasons for this discomfort. Ironically when very young I won a national poetry competition, more as an act of rebellion against being told that culture such as literature, poetry, classical music and other “fine arts” wasn’t the kind of thing that people of “my type” (farming lower working class) should or could do. That was by the headmistress of the primary school I endured, but hopefully for many reasons she’s now burning in whatever kind of purgatory exists for people of “her type”.

Anyway, that’s why I’m not going to attempt to analyse Leaves of Grass; it’ll just read like some fumbling junior school literature review 101 essay. I’ll just write about what I read.

The edition I perused was a 1986 reprint of the 1959 Viking Press print of the original 1855 text, borrowed from Birmingham Central Library. The first version of Leaves, as Walt tweaked and fiddled about with it for the rest of his life, seemingly never happy with the body of work (typical Virgo, perhaps). The editor of this edition, Malcolm Cowley, added a lengthy introduction and analysis of his own which, for me, didn’t really add or shed any new light on the core work. It speaks for itself pretty well.

Walt Whitman - em Camden, 1891

Leaves is partially a kind of observation of America as it was 160 years ago, the people in it, what they do, how they go about their business. It’s also partially about the author, as a person, a human people, a physical and emotional being, and as an American. The second paragraph of the original work begins:
The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.
So I guess it’s interesting, not just from a literature perspective, but from a historical perspective. For example, there’s a rather graphic retelling of a retelling of the massacre at the Alamo (of the accuracy, we are not sure), of how people of trades travel around their country, of what they wear and what they eat. And there is mention, descriptions, of slaves and slavery; for example:

The runaway slave came to my house and stopped outside, I heard his motions crackling the twigs of the woodpile, Through the swung half-door of the kitchen I saw him limpsey and weak, And went where he sat on a log, and led him in and assured him … And remember putting plasters on the galls of his neck and ankles; He staid with me a week before he was recuperated and passed north, I had him sit next me at the table, my firelock leaned in the corner.
It’s a very person-based piece of work. There’s probably a deep and meaningful poetry phrase that means “person-based”, but that’ll do for me. And Americans, leading American lives, is the element that most reoccurs in the text; for example:
The deckhands make fast the steamboat, the plank is thrown for the shoregoing passengers. The cleanhaired Yankee girl works with her sewing-machine or in the factory or mill. The canal-boys trots on the towpath - the bookkeeper counts at his desk - the shoemaker waxes his thread A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deerskin leggings
Walt obviously takes pleasure in observing Americans being themselves, and makes no secret of this:
And I could come every afternoon of my life to look at the farmer’s girl boiling her iron tea-kettle and baking shortcake.
Speaking of observing women, Leaves of Grass was controversial in its day and for a long time thereafter because of the “explicit” nature of the work. It isn’t, of course, explicit in terms of the low-grade Internet pornography of today. But Walt doesn’t hide his often celebratory thoughts regarding the human body and nakedness, which appear frequently, or his musings about sex. To an extent that a subtext of Leaves of Grass could arguably be “I really want to get laid more”. For example:
Thruster holding me tight and that I hold tight! We hurt each other as the bridegroom and the bride hurt each other.
Voices of sexes and lusts … voices veiled, and I remove the veil
I turn the bridegroom out of bed and stay with the bride myself, And tighten her all night to my thighs and lips
Despite my lack of poetry experience, I did enjoy reading Leaves of Grass fully. It’s a collection of poems and texts that, for me anyway, has to be read in pretty much one go in order to get some kind of grasp on the work. It’s also useful as a historical timeline marker in the compressed, accelerated history of America. This work was published in the decade before the civil war, and less than 80 years after independence - but this is still recent enough that there are people alive today whose grandparents would have been alive then and would have recognised the America, and Americans, described by Walt. The relative “recent-ness” of the text, compared to European historical descriptive poetry which can be many centuries old, is what makes Leaves of Grass still easily readable, and the people and places within it recognisable.

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