Wednesday, August 19, 2015

2015 #TBRChallenge Reading: Poetry by Walt Whitman

2015 TBR Reading Challenge
Book: Poetry by Walt Whitman edited by Jonathan Levin
My Categories: Poetry
Wendy Crutcher's Category: Impulse Read (I'd been meaning to read this book for ages. Then I was walking by my shelves looking for something to read for this challenge and chose it at random.)

And I'm very glad I did. I'd forgotten the Whitman poems I'd studied in my school years. My poetry education ended in twelfth grade. In recent years, I've done some reading here and there but nothing formal. I've rediscovered my love of the poetry of the Romantic poets, while also attempting others. I seem to be drawn to pastoral themes.

One of the most remembered of Whitman's poems I studied was "O Captain! My Captain!" Imagine my delight when I heard those lines recited as a clarion call to literary arms in the movie "Dead Poets Society"! Whitman deeply mourned Lincoln's assassination and immortalized his admiration and sorrow in this poem.

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
     But O heart! heart! heart!
     O the bleeding drops of red,
     Where on the deck my Captain lies,
     Fallen cold and dead.

Whitman, like Frost whom I wrote about here, was very much an out-and-about tramping kind of a poet, and he wrote about what he saw and experienced during his rambles. He celebrates it in his poem "On Land":

O the gleesome saunter over fields and hillsides!
The leaves and flowers of the commonest weeds, the moist fresh stillness of the woods,
The exquisite smell of the earth at daybreak, and all through the forenoon.

Over his wanders, he discovered the miraculous in the ordinary and plain. Using the poetical device of the catalog, Whitman gives examples in his poem "Miracle":

Why, who makes much of a miracle?
As to me, I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of the water,
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or animals feeding in the fields;
These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,
The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.

Unlike many poets of his time, who took great effort in setting their poems in well-ordered rhyme and meter, Whitman's poems flow in an uncontrollable flood of words and emotions. However, they're not without their own rhythm. Whitman often recited his poetry out loud as he walked and you can hear the pounding of the surf, tramping of the boots, the crackling of twigs underfoot. Listen to these lines from "I Tramp a Perpetual Journey":

I tramp a perpetual journey, (come listen all!)
My signs are a rain-proof coat, good shoes, and a staff cut from the woods,
This day before dawn I ascended a hill and look'd at the crowded heaven,
And I said to my spirit, When we become the enfolders of those orbs, and the pleasure and knowledge of every thing in them, shall we be fill'd and satisfied then?
And my spirit said, No, we but level that lift to pass and continue beyond.

Whitman was a great advocate of and believer in democracy and in the rights of all men. In stanza 24 of 52 of his first poem "Song of Myself," he says:

Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son,
Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding,
No sentimentalist, no stander above men and women or apart from them,
No more modest than immodest.
Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!
Whoever degrades another degrades me,
And whatever is done or said returns at last to me.
I speak the pass-word primeval, I give the sign of democracy,
By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.

And this brings me to one of the most heartbreaking pieces in this collection. It is also from "Song of Myself" and is about assisting a runaway slave in defiance of the federal laws of the time.

The runaway slave came to my house and stopt outside,
I heard his motions crackling the twigs of the woodpile,
Through the swung half-door of the kitchen I saw him limpsy and weak,
And went where he sat on a log and led him in and assured him,
And brought water and fill’d a tub for his sweated body and bruis’d feet,
And gave him a room that enter’d from my own, and gave him some coarse clean clothes,
And remember perfectly well his revolving eyes and his awkwardness,
And remember putting plasters on the galls of his neck and ankles;
He staid with me a week before he was recuperated and pass’d north,
I had him sit next me at table, my fire-lock lean’d in the corner.