How I Learned to Kind of Like Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1855
walt whitman

This post has a companion quiz that wordpress will not allow me to embed. It’s “Can You Tell the Difference Between Walt Whitman and a Doc Bronner’s Bottle” Click the link below to take the quiz.

In the spirit of complete honesty, I was not excited to read Walt Whitman. I have never liked his poetry very much. I never understood why people name schools after him or engrave marble walls of DC metro stations with quotes from his poetry. I don’t like it, and part of me didn’t believe that anyone else really likes it.

However, one of my greatest sources of satisfaction in life is learning to love someone else’s interests. Not into comic books? Talk to a passionate fan and, by seeing things through their eyes, you may just find a new source of pleasure in this world. For example, I was a cynical teen who would rather draw the curtains and watch a zombie movie than attend anything so gauche and extroverted as a parade. But, I dated a guy who loved parades and attended a few for his sake. Listening to him comment on the craft of a costume or the humor of a performer made me start to appreciate what he appreciated. Now I will not only attend, but participate in parades. Hell yeah, let’s get dressed up and walk somewhere! Together. With a muddled and abstract sense of purpose.

I went into Leaves of Grass with a mixed attitude. I partially wanted to prove myself right by discovering that no one actually likes Walt Whitman, but I expected to learn to see him through the eyes of his fans. One evening, I grumbled to a few friends that Whitman was next up on my reading list. They immediately started talking over each other, exuberantly praising Whitman.

“Oh, I love Walt Whitman.”

“Really, you don’t like him?”

“He’s so great.”

“I sing the body electric.”

“Hell, yeah. That shit is badass.”

I thought, ok, I was wrong; people do like him; let’s get ready to learn to love Whitman.

It didn’t go so well. I found Leaves of Grass plodding, repetitive, rambling. I love line breaks, economy of word, cynicism. Whitman has none of these. Try William Carlos Williams, if you also love those elements of in poetry.

I also like to read poetry aloud. I do it all the time. My roommate, not one of the professed Whitman lovers, begged me to stop reading Leaves of Grass. She’s also crazy about literature, so it was the poet that annoyed her, not poetry itself. I had to press on through what seems like a massive tome, but actually consists of only twelve poems. So, I kept reading snippets within the range of her hearing and she continued begging me to stop. I was beginning to think that my original hypothesis was correct, no one actually likes Whitman.

To further test this theory, I read “I sing the body electric” to my two friends who professed to love it. Rather, I tried to read it to them. I made it about a stanza and a half before they, too, begged me to stop. It turns out they just liked the sound and idea of that first line. The second line is “The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them.” My supposed Whitman adherents did not like that line as much. Nor do I. “Engirth” is an awkward word, typical of Whitman’s sense of sound.

I won’t claim that no one anywhere likes Walt Whitman. Given his place in the cannon, there has to be at least one true admirer out there.

I almost published this post with not one word in Whitman’s favor, but the pangs of my conscience spoke. I reached out to one of my college professors, Desales Harrison. I took a poetry course with him (11 freakin’ years ago) and I unshakably trust his response to poetry. I am going to embarrass myself by quoting him here. He’s much more eloquent than me….I.

“Alas, I fear I must confirm your worst suspicions that I do love Whitman. A lot. He’s an immensity in my heaven of writers, every bit as immense as Emily Dickinson, even though Dickinson manages to be immense and minuscule at the same time, which is quite a feat. I wonder whether in the general astronomical progression of things if the Whitmanian comet (resplendently bearded as it may be) isn’t at the dark and remote extreme of his orbit. He burned so terribly brightly from about 1947 to 1970, when for many people he was the home-grown answer and antidote to a Europhoric High Modernism, a kind of magical gay grandfather from New Jersey who preferred sex to Anglo-catholicism or Fascism and really wanted to give everyone living or dead a gigantic, hirsute, unwashed hug. But now maybe he smells a little of old patchouli, and is the nineteenth century equivalent of the doddering baby-boomer. As for the poems, take another look at Crossing Brooklyn Ferry and When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. Both are, in my opinion, immeasurably great, in their intricate and inimitable music, and in their conceptual complexity. Whitman is I think the greatest poet of intimate address since John Donne; there is an urgent pressure animating all the work to get through something to a beloved you. And by you, he means you, literally, irreplaceably you, not just whoever is holding the book but you, Sydney. And me DeSales.”

Did that not lift your spirits? He kindly wrote much more to me, but that’s the most important part. This post is long already. Thanks for sticking with us.

Two grand takeaways from what Desales wrote:

  1. Yes, Whitman’s message and philosophy are wonderful, inspiring, refreshing. In the midst of Victorian prudery, he enthusiastically embraced the physical. (I thought of making a video of myself reading lines from Leaves of Grass about every part of the body being equally great while zooming in on a butthole. I didn’t, though. You’re welcome, family members.)
  2. For the purposes of this review I only read the original 1855 Leaves of Grass. It’s hardly fair judge Whitman based entirely on juvenilia that he revised continually throughout his life. I do love “When Liliacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. I do. I do. What I don’t love is long lists of all the types of tradespeople Whitman admired.

It took almost one hundred years for another poet to write as openly about sexuality, including homosexuality. Whitman preached a doctrine of love for all elements of existence. Which is wonderful. Doc Bronner preached the same message. But with rhyme, and vim and vigor, and honestly more concisely than Whitman. That’s not a dig at Whitman. It is praise for the Doc Bronner’s bottle and the Moral ABCs.

You might like Walt Whitman if:

  • you are Desales Harrison.
  • you’re kind of a hippie.
  • Well, I was going to write “if you like Ginsberg and Kerouac,” but the two gentleman who claimed to like Whitman do genuinely like Ginsberg and Kerouac. So, I don’t know. Whitman’s a mystery to me.
  • you’re more of a philosopher than me.

You might not like Walt Whitman if:

  • you, like Polonius, believe that “brevity is the soul of wit.”
  • you’re not currently in between acid trips.

Final thoughts: Fundamentally, my problem with Whitman is style. I prefer a different style of poetry. I will read a William Carlos Williams poem over and over, pausing to consider possible interpretations of each line break. I will read an Edgar Allan Poem over and over, relishing “the tintinnabulation that so musically wells.” I will read Coleridge again and again, exalting over the cacophony of “throats unslaked with black lips baked.” I will read Elizabeth Barret Browning, no slob when it comes to intimate address, for the story and for her earnest emotion. If I read Whitman again, it will be one of poems Desales recommended. I’d be happy if I never heard another word of “Song of Myself.”

*Whoa, whoa. Wait! I almost forgot that his poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” changed my life! I tell this story to my students all the time. In the poem, the speaker goes to listen to a renowned astronomer. He rejects numbers and figures as a way of understanding the world and walks out into the night to admire the stars. From this poem, I, the daughter of multiple generations of biologists learned to accept that dedication to a career in science is not the only way to express respect for the majesty of the natural world. I dropped my biology major in favor of creative writing and English. I became an English teacher. It’s not an easy job, but every time I think “oh no, I left a staggeringly beautiful work of classic literature at home and I can’t do my job without it” I feel lucky. And I owe that in part to Walt Whitman. He owes me a career in science, though.