On Reading Walt Whitman

By Christopher B. Daly 

I have been reading American literature for most of my life, but I had never read Walt Whitman’s masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, out loud. Until yesterday.

I took a couple of hours and ran through the whole 1855 version of the great, sprawling poem. Whitman himself said his poem was meant to be read aloud, and I now see why.  So many wonders leap out when the poem is read aloud — strong, varied rhythms; slashing sarcasm; a character/narrator called Walt Whitman passing in and out; a cast of hundreds; poems within poems; a poke-your-ribs sense of humor; a deep respect for the many people in 19th C. America who were neither free nor equal.

I am working on a new book in which Whitman, who worked as a journalist when he was a young man, will feature in the first chapter. As I work on Whitman, I plan to post more of his great, very contemporary work.

For today, I want to highlight one such passage. This is part of the section of Leaves of Grass that would, in later editions, acquire the title “I Sing the Body Electric”:

The man’s body is sacred and the woman’s body is sacred 

    .   .   .   .    it is no matter who,

Is it a slave? Is it one of the dullfaced immigrants just landed 

on the wharf?

Each belongs here or anywhere just as much as the welloff

   .   .   .   . just as much as you,

Each has his or her place in the procession.

All is a procession,

The universe is a procession with measured and beautiful motion. 

(Leaves of Grass, Library of America edition, p. 122)

 

whitman-nyc-lead

Walt Whitman, detail from the frontspiece to the 1855 edition. Engraving by Hollyer.

 

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Filed under journalism history, Uncategorized, Walt Whitman

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