The Poets’ Niche
By Mark Sconce
Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
In 1855, when Ralph Waldo Emerson called Leaves of Grass “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed,” folks paid attention. And they kept on paying attention for the next thirty-odd years as each edition heralded new Whitman poems. The last edition boasted 293, the first but 12. I have yet to meet the man intrepid enough, determined enough, and with stamina enough to rake through Leaves of Grass today. (Of course women do it all the time.) Song of Myself, containing some of Whitman’s best writing, is one of those prodigious poems. Others described it as “trashy, profane & obscene” and the author “a pretentious ass.” “Incoherent,” they said. “Contradictory,” they said. Whitman said, “Very well then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes. Missing me one place, search another; I stop somewhere waiting for you.” Then, in his signature free verse style:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
Here’s vintage Whitman:
The lunatic is carried at last to the asylum a confirmed case,
He will never sleep any more as he did it in the cot in his mother’s bedroom;
The dour printer with gray head and gaunt jaws works at his case,
He turns his quid of tobacco, his eyes get blurred with the manuscript;
The malformed limbs are tied to the anatomist’s table,
What is removed drops horribly in a pail;
The quadroon girl is sold at the stand—the drunkard nods by the barroom stove.
Oh, Captain, My Captain may be his poem we know best grieving the recently slain Abraham Lincoln. I Hear America Singing also moves us.
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong.
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work or of the girl sewing or washing.
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Sing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
Walt is a friend, and, like so many of my gay friends, he exhibited the kind of compassion and empathy that led him to nurse wounded soldiers in the middle of the Civil War. “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.”
I understand the large hearts of heroes,
The courage of present times and all times,
How the skipper saw the crowded and rudderless wreck of the steam-ship, and
Death chasing it up and down the storm,
How he knuckled tight and gave not back an inch, and was faithful of nights,
And chalked in large letters on a board, Be of good cheer, we will not desert you;
How he follow’d with them and tack’d with them three days and would not give it up,
How he saved the drifting company at last,
How the lank loose-gown’d women looked when boated from the side of their prepared graves,
How the silent old-faced infants and the lifted sick, and the sharp-lipp’d unshaved men;
All this I swallow, it tastes good, I like it well, it becomes mine, I am the man, I suffered, I was there.
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