I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,
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 parlours of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
And the cow crunching with depress’d head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.
- Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
These days (as time permits, of course) I’m concentrating seriously on Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the last item on the reading list of a young man finishing up his high school credits from far off-campus. So many of the classics on his list, both fiction and nonfiction, were depressing and bleak that, when the group leader asked members for suggestions, I felt the student deserved something upbeat and life-affirming. I don’t know that I’ve ever before read Whitman’s whole long, rambling work from beginning to end, straight through. I do know that I’m loving the experience and hope the student will, as well.
I’d forgotten, if I ever knew, that Whitman wrote Leaves of Grass over a period of roughly 30 years, adding to it, rearranging and altering sections through edition after edition. Certain lines and phrases (“my barbaric yawp,” for instance, and “I sing the body electric” and, of course, “I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d”)) leap out at me familiarly. Much more feels like pure discovery. My little old Penguin paperback is bristling with Post-it tabs.
Why should I wish to see God better than this day?
I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then....
Is it only my imagination, or is the fullness of nature in August, a time for harvest in the fields and seed-scattering in the wild, particularly appropriate for reading Leaves of Grass?
Dazzling and tremendous, how quick the sun-rise would kill me,
If I could not now and always send sun-rise out of me.
We also ascend dazzling and tremendous as the sun,
We found our own, O my soul, in the calm and cool of the daybreak.
My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach,
With the twirl of my tongue I encompass worlds and volumes of worlds.
In the morning when the grasses and wildflowers and roadside weeds are heavy with dew, I seem to notice each species more, in its separateness, for reading Whitman before sunrise. There by the cattails is Joe-Pye-weed, and there are sedges, and nearby there is goldenrod, and along the road the heavy-headed blooms of Queen-Anne’s-lace stand waiting like spectators before the parade comes by.
Like the United States of America, this poem grew and grew and sprawls still, practically overflowing its pages. (Leaves. Obvious as it is, I love that thought that keeps recurring.) Whitman is sometimes called an urban poet, but there is as much countryside and wilderness as there is city and town in these free-form verses, as much field and stream as factory and street corner. In a hundred different ways, the poet announces his desire to be everything and everywhere. The reader becomes joyfully breathless trying to keep up with the poet’s flights. Nothing is alien to him. Nothing human or animal or vegetable or mineral. Nothing is omitted or rejected. And there is detail, detail, detail.
...Where the rattlesnake suns his flabby length on a rock, where the otter is feeding on fish,
Where the alligator in his tough pimples sleeps by the bayou,
Where the black bear is searching for roots or honey, where the beaver pats the mud with his paddle-shaped tail;
Over the growing sugar, over the yellow-flower’d cotton plant, over the rice in its low moist field,
Over the sharp-peak’d farm house, with its scallop’d scum and slender shoots from the gutters,
Over the western persimmon, over the long-leav’d corn, over the delicate blue-flower flax....
Whitman’s spirit is democratic, avowing that “there is no trade or employment but the young man following it may become a hero." His spirit is transcendental and accepting, “Knowing the perfect fitness and equanimity of things.” Above all, his spirit of that of a happy man, in love with all existence.
All forces have been steadily employ’d to complete and delight me.
Now on this spot I stand with my robust soul.
I find this work inordinately refreshing. Something tells me that Walt Whitman wouldn't have been bothered at all by the sight of invasive loosestrife. He would have seen the blooms as beautiful and would have taken the name at its word.