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The Barbaric Yawp of Walt Whitman


This year is the 100th anniversary of Walt Whitman's death. In his honor I've been re- reading "Leaves of Grass."

I celebrate myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,

I lean and loafe at my ease . . . observing a spear of summer grass.

With those lines, Whitman began the first and longest of the 12 poems which he initially printed and bound himself in July, 1855. Much later he would finally name that first poem "Song of Myself."

The slender volume had an odd look. The author's name didn't appear on either the cover or the title page. Only a portrait identified the poet -- an engraved daguerreotype of a bearded man in a work shirt and a wide-brimmed hat. He stood casually with one hand in his pocket and stared out nonchalantly at the reader. He didn't announce himself until half-way through that first poem.

Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos,

Disorderly fleshy and sensual . . . eating drinking and breeding,

No sentimentalist . . . no stander above men and women or apart from them . . . no more modest than immodest.

The poetry itself was even more unconventional. It was "neither in rhyme nor blank verse," one perplexed critic complained, "but in a sort of excited prose broken into lines without any attempt at measure or regularity."

I know I have the best of time and space -- and that I was never measured, and never will be measured.

The language was often more objectionable than the style. Offended reviewers warned their readers about the explicit sexuality.

Through me forbidden voices,

Voices of sexes and lusts . . . voices veiled, and I remove the veil,

Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigured.

Whitman received a cold welcome from the few critics who bothered to read those first poems. In fact, he himself secretly wrote three of the five favorable reviews that were forthcoming. ("An American bard at last!" he anonymously hailed himself.)

He was immediately blessed, however, with a legitimate

accolade of profound significance. He had sent a copy of his poetry to Ralph Waldo Emerson, the dean of 19th-century American letters. The great man liked it and wrote Whitman a famous letter to tell him so: "I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit & wisdom that America has yet contributed. . . . I greet you at the beginning of a great career."

What Emerson saw in that long first poem was an artistic and religious epic. It's an archetypal autobiography of the poet in the very process of discovering his own artistic powers and claiming for himself as poet the god-like role of savior.

Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touched from;

The scent of these arm-pits is aroma finer than prayer,

This head is more than churches or bibles or creeds.

Whitman did not claim to be a redeemer as an individual personality but as a poet whose artistic self -- his "real me" or "Me myself" -- personified and dramatized the poetic powers inherent in every human being.

In all people I see myself, none more and not one barleycorn less,

And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them.

This new poet had a visionary, mystical conception of a transcendental union of the spiritual and physical realms.

Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and joy and knowledge that pass all the art and argument of the earth;

And I know that the hand of God is the elderhand of my own,

And I know that the spirit of God is the eldest brother of my own,

And that all the men ever born are also my brothers . . . and the women my sisters and lovers,

And that a kelson of the creation is love.

Whitman's exhilaration may sound peculiar today. We live in this later age where irony and cynicism prevail over optimism and idealism. But if you'd like to re-experience his astonishment, and reclaim your own, open the "Leaves of Grass" to that first poem.

Make sure you have the 1855 version. Your old college paperback gathering dust on your bookshelf is probably the 1891 or "deathbed" edition, and that's the one you're still likely to find in most bookstores. In the later editions, however, Whitman buried his original masterpiece under a pile of revisions. His continual tinkering dulled and even deliberately obscured the fresh and vivid impulsive spontaneity which vibrates throughout the 1855 original.

Fortunately you can find the authentic 1855 poem. Penguin Classics publishes the first edition of "Leaves of Grass" in paperback. The 1855 version also appears in Penguin's "The Portable Walt Whitman," which is also in paperback.

Read his first poem as it was first written. Read it all in one $H sitting if you can. Read it when you wake up in the morning.

We also ascend dazzling and tremendous as the sun,

We found our own my soul in the calm and cool of the daybreak.

Go off by yourself and read it out loud. Don't interrupt the flow of the language by trying to underline the verses you want to remember. Let them sweep you along.

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work

of the stars,

L And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and

the egg of the wren,

And the tree-toad is a chef-d'oeuvre for the highest,

And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven . . .

Whitman later wrote other magnificent poems. But that first one remains his central and defining creative moment. Across time it still summons each of us to set out on our own spiritual journey.

Long have you timidly waded, holding a plank by the shore,

Now I will you to be a bold swimmer,

To jump off in the midst of the sea, and rise again and nod to me and shout, and laughingly -- with your hair.

In these and many other verses of startling vitality you can still hear the inspired young poet sounding his "barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world." As the great poem comes to an end, he departs, moves out ahead and then beckons us to follow.

L I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,

If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,

But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,

And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,

Missing me one place search another,

I stop some where waiting for you

Tim Baker's column appears here on alternate Mondays.

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