I have funny feelings about Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. When I first encountered it, most traditional poetry forms felt foreign to me, and I had no idea what to do with free verse. Sometimes I feel like I am still in good company in that sense, since even a few professors of the humanities I know and respect have expressed their discomfort with Whitman’s form, and some doubt whether it can even be called poetry.
One thing I chiefly remember: the lecturer on Whitman in my Core class did something I hadn’t seen before, which perhaps sparked my comfort with my discomfort with poetry. He dwelt on Whitman’s line “I loafe and I invite my soul, / I lean and loafe at my ease…” He told us to sound it out in our own mouths: “What does the sound of those words make you think of? ‘I loafe…I lean and loafe.” I thought of the languid sound it made, its round drowsiness; it made me want to flop down on a sofa. I liked it. Sad to say that this experience, as a sophomore in college, was the first time someone was pointing out to me that a poet can choose words whose mere sounds pack meaning into the verse.
Countless times I’ve told people who say they “do not like” poetry: Have you just read it out loud? Forget what it “means,” what do the words make you feel, make you think of? Whitman himself, in today’s selection, mocks such obsession with meaning, insofar as it is considered some answer to a puzzle: “Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?”
Note: This selection is from the Penguin edition, edited by Malcolm Cowley, based on the first 1855 Edition of the work.
Leaves of Grass
“Song of Myself”
I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
Houses and rooms are full of perfumes…the shelves are
crowded with perfumes,
I breathe the fragrance myself, and know it and like it,
The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.
The atmosphere is not a perfume…it has no taste of the
distillation…it is odorless,
It is for my mouth forever…I am in love with it,
I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.
The smoke of my own breath,
Echoes, ripples, and buzzed whispers…loveroot, silkthread,
crotch and vine,
My respiration and inspiration…the beating of my heart…the
passing of blood and air through my lungs,
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and
dark-color’d sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn,
The sound of the belch’d words of my voice…words loosed to the
eddies of the wind,
A few light kisses…a few embraces…a reaching around of arms,
The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs
The delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along the
fields and hill-sides,
The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising
from bed and meeting the sun.
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the
origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun…there are
millions of suns left,
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand…nor
look through the eyes of the dead…nor feed on the
spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self…