Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

I have often heard and read that Walt Whitman was the central figure in the development of American poetry, yet I had never read much of his work until last year. I tend to read small poetry books, but there are no small volumes of Whitman. Unlike many poets who publish new collections every few years, Whitman kept revising and enlarging the same title, Leaves of Grass. Over the course of several months, day by day, I read this classic work and I think I now see why Whitman is so well regarded. He was encyclopedic and comprehensive, writing about everything that he saw. I think a course on nineteenth century America could be based on this work. In his poems about American laborers, you believe that he worked beside farmers, steelworkers, sailors, and teamsters. He wrote with great regret and tenderness about the Civil War and the many men to which he attended in military hospitals. He described the hardships in women’s lives when men were not writing about such topics. Some of his works were sensual and, of course, controversial when published. He spoke directly to readers of his time and those in following centuries, stating that all time is current. Unlike European poets and the American poets of his time who modeled themselves on Europeans, he used no mythological references in his work. His heroes were common Americans. The work is more accessible than you might think. He rarely bothered with rhyming but his lines are often musical. Readers will need many weeks to read Leaves of Grass. Libraries should be generous with renewals. Every library should have several copies.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: the "Death-Bed" Edition. New York: Modern Library, 2000. ISBN 0679783423

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