“What is the Grass?”

A 1959 Caedmon recording of Ed Begley, Sr. reading selections from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass echoes in my ears. I was 20 years old and Begley’s voice and Whitman’s poetry formed a major impact on my life. I still have the Signet Classic paperback copy of Leaves of Grass I bought for 75 cents. Dog-eared, with poems annotated, highlighted, and underlined, it is a relic of a lifetime infatuation with Walt Whitman.

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I wanted to write poetry and thought the best way to do that was to write poetry. Every morning, for several weeks, I copied small portions of Leaves of Grass, word for word, into a notebook. Like journaling, copying Whitman was a discipline. I don’t know what copying Whitman’s poetry into a notebook accomplished. The practice did not last long and I did not become a poet.

In “A Song of Myself,” Canto 6 (“What is the grass?”), Whitman poses a child’s question and responds he doesn’t know any more about the topic than the child who asked the question. He then proceeds to posit a number of guesses as to what the answer might be. After so many guesses, he begins to perceive an answer and suggests a conclusion.

Familiar with death from a young age, the reference to death  in the “What is the Grass?” canto appealed to me. My father was killed in an accident when I eight years old. My uncle died when I was ten. My grandmother died when I was 14. Two of my mother’s closest friends died about the time I was eleven—one committed suicide and the other was killed with two of her children in a flashflood.

I had no fear of death. In much the same way that Whitman guesses his way to a conclusion, I figured out that life goes on. Whitman’s confirmation of what I had experienced was reassuring: “They are alive and well somewhere, / The smallest sprout shows there is really no death….”

0 thoughts on ““What is the Grass?”

  1. Joan Raymond

    It’s wonderful how poetry can bring comfort and healing. Even though those days spent copying his work didn’t make you a poet, they became familiar and have been ingrained on your heart and in your mind.

    I’ve not read much of Whitman’s work, but this poem was beautiful and powerful. Thank you for sharing.


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