Monday, September 07, 2009

Book Review: Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

Leaves of Grass
By Walt Whitman
Genre: Poetry
456 p

Walt Whitman issued numerous invitations to me over the years of my reading. Quotations from his Leaves of Grass popped up when I was reading about writing, about creativity, about the environment, about democracy. There they were in books about psychology, about spirituality. When I read about the wonders of nature, his voice joined the chorus. On American history and civics, he had many things to say. In books discussing great love poetry his lines did not blush to snuggle up to Elizabeth Barret Browning’s, Lord Byron’s, nor even Shakespeare’s.

I put Whitman on my mental need-to-read-someday list. And there he stayed for years. Until the spring of 97 when he was mentioned or quoted in over a half dozen different sources I encountered in one weeks time, including a TV documentary and someone’s web page I surfed onto. I had recently been reading about synchronicity so this cluster of encounters took me by the shoulders and gave me a shake, saying isn’t it past time you laid your eyes on this horse’s own mouth?

On my next trip to the library I brought home a copy. I was not instantly enthralled. In fact I was dismayed as I leafed through the pages and began to realize that those small jewels (two lines, three, six, set in white space) gracing chapter headings elsewhere, were here embedded in a dense garden of verses, in poems that went on for pages as long as chapters. At first my heart wilted but as I grazed the pages with my eyes I found new jewels. Each one introduced itself with a small electric thrill and then settled in my soul with a gentle glow.

The trick in finding these is to slow down. No speed reading allowed. There are no throwaway words in Whitman. The major clue to how to read him he gives us himself over and over when he calls his poems songs. He means that exactly. Songs set to the music of language. Each one with its own cadence. Sometimes a march. Sometimes a dirge. Sometimes a waltz or a hymn.

Over the next several months, I monopolized the library copy of Leaves of Grass. Soon more than guilt over that made the arrangement unsatisfactory. I itched to pick up my colored marking pencils which only books I own may be honored with. I asked for and received my own paperback copy for Christmas. I still haven’t finished it but I couldn’t wait to sing its praises here. I read in it two ways. The usual way of advancing a bookmark from front to back--slow and steady. And the way I first learned to appreciate it, by leafing through and letting words and phrases jump out at me, waiting for he thrill of surprise that reveals itself as recognition of a true thing I always knew.

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The above is a recycled review from my neglected Joyread site. It was written in late 1998 or early 1999 before our move to California. Sadly my copy of Leaves of Grass was one of the books left behind in our storage unit when we hopped a bus for Southern Oregon and so was lost with the rest of our belongings when we were unable to return for them.

I'm in the process of synchronizing the book reviews on Joystory with Joyread and then hope to start cross posting the new ones to both places at once--if I can also get the makeover of Joyread done.

Hope to do a similar thing with Joywrite as most of the poems I wrote in the last couple of years were written for Monday Poetry Train and aren't posted at Joywrite. But Joywrite needs a makeover as well. And there's too much on my agenda before the first of the year to worry about them. What with my cataract surgery this month, NaNo in November, another visit to my mom's in December and the holidays.

Meanwhile here are a couple links where more info and resources regarding Walt Whitman can be found:

The Walt Whitman Archive
Library of Congress Walt Whitman resources

The Library of Congress is where I found the two pictures gracing this post and the story regarding them. The cardboard butterfly is the one Whitman is holding in the photo at top.

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