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)