Walt Whitman: out in the open
What more can be said that has not been said about Walt Whitman? A good question.
To be honest I do not have any more insight than the average man out there who has read Whitman, but let me give you my point of view anyhow, for what it is worth, and it may not be worth a lot, and then on the other hand it may be a treasure, you never know.
He was known as perhaps the Father of Free Verse, old news, and he was known perhaps as the gay, or homosexual, or bisexual poet of the 19th Century, born 1819, and died 1892. He mostly wrote on his book: “Leaves of Grass,” which started out with 12-poems, and ended up with close to 400, over a forty to sixty year span, he revised the book, like a man would with a weight problem.
In his early editions, or revisions, you can tell when he writes about women, he really means men, and in his later editions, he is more free to unwind this secret of his past, it all has to do with—I would guess—the times.
Whitman was Allen Ginsberg’s hero, as Whitman’s hero was Emerson. Everyone has a hero, even Elvis’ had a hero, who was James Dean, and Stalin’s hero was Hitler. We pick out those most suitable to us—so it seems.
To be frank, I want to cut the chase to this essay and get down to business. Was Whitman’s life time goal to make a perfect book? And this book of course would have been “Leaves of Grass”—right? And did he accomplish it?
Ginsberg tried to be like Whitman in a way. Before Ginsberg died, and prior to it, he did what I’m going to tell you he did, in a more frantic way than I can express, and it seems to me a egoistic quark of Whitman’s also; that is, he’d write his poetic prose, and have his assistant put each typed letter, or poem, into his files, like a man with a precious coin, who feels he needs to preserve it for posterity’s sake. On the other hand, Whitman went over and over and over and over his poems in “Leaves of Grass,” like a man on narcotics, who needs his next fix.
In Whitman’s case, again, I see him doing this for the same reason Ginsberg did his little dance, with his typed out poetry: afraid, posterity might overlook, or not forgive him. Thus both tried to enshrine their poems for humankind’s benefit.
Well, as I was saying, Whitman went over his poetry as if a comma might have been out of place 40-years prior, or a period 60-years prior. He died at 72-years old, and at 17, I think his first book was produced; he paid for its publication out of his pocket, about 800-copies were made, so I am assuming he started writing poetry about the age I did, 11 or 12 years old.
I call all this work he did on revision: destructive change, compromise, tampering with something he should not have been. Why? After ten years, I do not know what I was thinking at the very mount I wrote a certain piece of poetry. And I have written a certain amount every decade 50s, 60s 70s, 80s, 90s, and now; same as he did in his life time.
We need to ask, what was our motive then back then, if indeed we dare rewrite our poetry, and if we can’t come up with an exact reason, then hang it up? I think he, Walt, screwed up a many of his poems in the process of revision, he took and took a good work, and made it into a plain, ordinary work.
Recently I had a review of one of my books, “Death on Demand,” it was done five years ago. A year after that book, I did another called, “Dracula’s Ghost,” both with several short stories. But one story was in both books, and I changed only the name of the story, and the person who did the review of the book said in so many words: why in heaven’s name did he change the name, it was a good name, it followed the story well, because the story was great, he did it damage. And when I look back at it, he is absolutely right.
There are several additions to “Leaves of Grass,” the first 1855, the second 1860, and one in 1881, and another in 1926, and the one in 1926, seems to have most of the 1855 stuff in it. And there is an edition I think in 1876. My recommendation is to find one that takes the best of the best out of the first, and if you can add some of his later poems, all the better. Another noteworthy comment might be, is that, it is not for children, but open minded, mature individuals.
I could tell you my best poems I like of his, if it does not get in your way in reading him, but it will, so if you have not tried Whitman, why not, put your biases aside, and enjoy a good readying, and read between the lines—carefully.
(Example of a change; “Out of the Rocked Cradle,” vs. “Out of the cradle endless rocking”.)