Leaves of Grass

‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘‘ ‘‘ ” ” ” ‘whitman-leaves-of-grass-2Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman’s collection of free-verse poems in tribute to America, was first published in 1855.

I was introduced to Whitman by my friend, Richard. I was twenty. Richard was forty. Richard had a degree in literature from Bard College. I thought he was brilliant; he became a sort of intellectual godfather and mentor. Together, we read Shakespeare, Moby Dick, and Huckleberry Finn. We listened to classical music from his large collection of LPs. We went to the theater. We went to the movies. We saw all of the Marcello Mastroianni films. It was a heady time that fanned the flames of my passion for the arts and humanities.

In his LP collection was a recording of Ed Begley reading a selection of poems from Leaves of Grass. The sound of Begley’s voice and the beauty of the poetry captured my interest and imagination. I bought a Signet Classics edition of Leaves for seventy-five cents. I marked the poems from the Begley recording and read them countless times. I could recite my favorite poems from memory. Richard gave me the recording which I kept until 1992 when I made what might now be considered an ill-advised decision to get rid of my vinyl records.

Whitman had a profound influence on my life and on my intellectual development. In the “Who goes there” canto of “Song of Myself,” Whitman writes:

To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow,
All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means.

That phrase and the thought it expresses became my raison d’être for writing: “not… to impart knowledge to others,” as Judith Guest says of writers, “… [but] to inform [myself].” I have written many times about the converging objects of the universe and their meaning to me. As a spiritual person, Whitman offers me great wisdom and insight.

I sought at one time to write poetry. Curious to know how it “feels” to be a poet, I thought copying Leaves of Grass by hand would help me understand. Every morning, for two months, I transcribed Whitman’s poems into a notebook. The activity became my morning writing and meditation practice. It was a fascinating experience that I could not sustain. The rest of my life called me to attention.

Whether or not I will ever become a “poet” remains an unanswered question. What I gained from the experience and continue to get from Whitman is a sense of the beauty of language and the unlimited potential of poetic expression.

Last week I bought a Kindle Fire as a birthday gift to myself. I thought having Leaves of Grass on my Kindle would be a good thing. Finding a copy was easy enough. What about an audio transcription, I wondered. Just as easily found, the best part of the search was uncovering an audiobook edition of the Ed Begley recording. It was like meeting an old and dear friend after many years of separation.

To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow,
All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means.

0 thoughts on “Leaves of Grass

  1. Karen

    This is amazing! Last evening I sat and watched a two hour concert with Dancer Paul Taylor and Company on Valley Public TV. He had choreographed the most breathtaking pieces from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass!
    Synchronicity?!
    Love Karen

    Reply
    1. Dennis Post author

      “To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow,
      All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means.”

      Reply
  2. iola

    Whitman had a defining impact on my life when I came across Leaves of Grass in a bookstore, when I was about 17 years old, unfortunately I was without a mentor into the world of literature. But I was thirsting and spent hours drinking in the language and learning all I could about the man who was Whitman. I think those connections are gifts that cannot be bought. How wonderful for you. How great that you were able to find the collections being read by Begley. Happy belated birthday.

    Reply
    1. Dennis Post author

      My friend, Karen, calls these “connections” synchronicities.” I think you are right. They are gifts that cannot be bought.

      Than you for the birthday wishes. My birthday is May 16, so they are not belated at all.

      Reply
  3. Jer

    One of my favorite lines by anyone: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

    Reply
      1. Karen

        Time is an interesting element here too. I was a junior in high school in Newcastle, Wyoming, when our English teacher, Mr. Hanson took us through Leaves of Grass, line by line. It was an amazing experience and one of the times I enjoyed poetry. I too, may need to revisit Walt Whitman!
        Love Karen

        Reply
  4. Joan Raymond

    As much as I’ve tried to read poetry, I find it very difficult to comprehend. After you’ve given some insight it appears more clear.

    With all the Lit classes I take, I keep hoping I’ll have more of a chance to read and understand different poets. As much as I’ve had to read, I really desire to just read for personal pleasure and enjoyment. I do think though, that each poem will mean something to each person and no class could tell me what I’m supposed to understand. That must come from within.

    Thanks Dennis for the wonderful story of this book of poetry by Whitman. I will definitely look for it.

    Reply
    1. Dennis Post author

      Poetry, as all art forms, has an emotional impact. We each respond in our own way. The experience is intensely personal. I’m pleased you enjoyed my post. I hope reading Whitman will be enjoyable.

      Reply
  5. Anna Stewart

    Much as it shames me to admit, I’ve never read much Whitman. I may have to make a point of it. That said, I am fascinated by your project-become-meditation of transcribing his poetry every day…I wonder…did it help you to gain greater insight into the works? I was thinking it must and I now have a mental list of several poets I’d like to sit and transcribe in the hopes of cracking the egg just a bit further…loved your post!

    Reply
    1. Dennis Post author

      I don’t know that the process gave me greater understanding of Whitman’s poetry as much as it opened my mind to his use of language and his juxtaposition of images and sounds. Often I underlined words or phrases in the text that caught my attention. I find the awareness of poetry invaluable in creative writing. I am pleased you “loved” my post. Thank you for commenting.

      Reply
  6. Mark Fisher

    My poetic influences didn’t include Whitman. But recently I wrote a poetic response to “When I heard the learn’d Astronomer.” Since it seemed to me that astronomer was being mis-represented.

    Reply
    1. Dennis Post author

      I understand thinking the astronomer is misunderstood. “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” is about the poet, not the astronomer. Having sat through many lectures on scientific or technical subjects, I have often felt as the poet feels. While I appreciate the theory and scholarship that underpins the topic, I feel overwhelmed. I don’t want to know what makes it work. Sometimes I am happy just to look up “in perfect silence at the stars.”

      Reply
  7. Annis

    Beautiful post, Dennis. I believe every person is sent to our lives for a reason, and look what gifts Richard’s arrival brought to you. It must have been a half-century ago that I consciously read any of Whitman’s work. Your post makes me want to look him up and see what I think/feel.

    Favorite line in this post: “The rest of my life called me to attention.”

    Love. xoA

    Reply
  8. Terry Redman

    One of my favorite classes to teach was the day I introduced the students to Walt Whitman. I printed out a series of lines from Song of Myself and handed slips of paper out each slip had what I called blades of grass–three to 10 lines from the poem. After letting them practice for a while I had them read their blade of grass. To read they had to stand on the seat of their desk; how else would one read the poem? Attentive and inspired is how I’d describe those students. after the reading I asked questions: did he enjoy life, what did he think about war, about slavery, was he classical or romantic, did you understand it, do you like it? then we read O Captain My Captain, and the students understood the significance to calling me Captain. We had already read Emerson and Thoreau. Only the juniors, or those who had been in my class did that. One student who wrote a paper on Whitman described his poetry as, “A freeity.” Best analysis I’ve heard.

    Reply
    1. Dennis Post author

      Standing on a chair to proclaim Whitman’s “Song of Myself” seems appropriate. What a great idea! I think I’ll try it. What an experience you gave you students with Whitman. I can imagine that many of them still remember their “blades” of grass.

      Reply
  9. Donnee Patrese

    I understand. There were many novels that influenced me when i was journeying through writing. When I got a Kindle Fire for Christmas I hunted down my favorites. Great Post!

    Reply
    1. Dennis Post author

      Me, too, and all those novels are an important resource to draw on. I think my Kindle is make me a more efficient reader. At least, it seems so.

      Reply

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