If I were ever to teach a class to aspiring American poets, I would have one required text, The 1855 Edition of The Leaves of Grass. Hemingway famously wrote in The Green Hills of Africa that all modern American fiction comes from one book Huckleberry Finn. A similar thing can be said for Walt Whitman and The 1855 Edition of The Leaves of Grass, all modern poetry comes from Whitman.
William Blake and Walt Whitman are the two poets who come closest to the literary archetype of poet/prophet. The poet as prophet is a label that is used much too frequently by reviewers and writers in talking about poets and their work. It is the inevitable result of theological and Biblical illiterates reaching into the religious realm to grasp metaphors and language about concepts they are not mature enough to understand, like when young children try to puzzle out the language of sex – only mis-information and confusion can result.
The trouble with approaching Whitman in the environment of a blog like this is, of course, one of space. Great, long poems cannot realistically be posted here, and most of Whitman’s best work is long indeed. The imperfect solution to to excerpt some lines, but that is always dis-satisfying. It would be like talking about Picasso’s Guernica by looking at just the right corner of the whole painting or studying Hitchcock’s Rear Window by looking at a 2 minute clip from the middle of the movie. How much of the artist and their work can really be appreciated doing that?
And yet… how do you talk about Whitman, or Milton, or Byron, or Shelley at his best without excerpting lines?
So without further delay, some random lines from the greatest of all American Poets (not from the 1855 edition but from Leaves of Grass none the less)… lines chosen by listening with a pencil and my ear.
A dread beyond, of I know not what, darkens me.
I shall go forth,
I shall traverse The States awhile—but I cannot tell whither or how long;
Perhaps soon, some day or night while I am singing, my voice will suddenly cease.
O book, O chants! must all then amount to but this?
Must we barely arrive at this beginning of us?… And yet it is enough, O soul!
O soul! we have positively appear’d—that is enough.