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….”