Poet 1: Walt Whitman

I finally finished "Song of Myself"! I brought the computer with the MP3 (too lazy to put it on my iPod) Librivox recording on it to golf. I sat in the car while the kids played, and I put the seat back and propped my feet on the dashboard, looking up at the clouds flowing by. It was quite a nice way to get through the first half (about an hour of recordings). Then, I listened to the next 1/4 while Paul played Mozart in the background. Then, I rested in bed and listened. Just like eating an elephant, one bite at a time (Too bad I can't do that for my Julia Child French cooking project - I was going to do that today, but I just didn't have the energy after only four hours of sleep. Kudos to Julie Powell who did all that cooking while working in a full-time job).

So, now I am watching this:

American Experience: Walt Whitman DVD - <span class=It is excellent! (watch online here: Walt Whitman Program

He wrote Leaves of Grass to fight the tide of Civil War. He sacrificed everything to try to force America to face its strange new self. He was a man on a mission. He was self-educated, tall, self-reliant, and somewhat arrogant. He went to New York at 21 years of age. Unbearable as a journalist and rubbed against people in the wrong way. He was not a dedicated worker.

New York was a dirty city, but Walt Whitman saw the beauty in this teaming (and sometimes stinky) metropolis! He had an "urban affection" for the unknown people. He filled his books with jottings of the people he saw, what their names were, and what they were doing. I love that! What is it that separates any of us? Wow!

Whitman was pretty licentious from all accounts. It is reflected in his earlier poems. Tons of sexual references. Ralph Waldo Emerson tried to get Whitmann to tone down the sex stuff, but Whitman would have known of it!

Whitman really felt like Leaves of Grass would prevent the Civil War by helping people to understand love and affection for each other. When it didn't pan out that way, he was devastated and felt adding to LOG was over until he went to a hosptial to find his brother. Here he took care of soldiers (estimated at 600 visits and over 100,000 patients), and he suffered for it. Yet, this inspired him to write a memorial to them all in a book of poetry called Drum Taps. This part of his poetry made me anti-war for good. The documentary combined pictures of civil war amputees with current day war amputees. It was very powerful, but I had already decided that I would be anti-war when I read Drum Taps the days before. This poem got me:

The Wound-Dresser

AN old man bending I come among new faces,
Years looking backward resuming in answer to children,
Come tell us old man, as from young men and maidens that love me,
(Arous’d and angry, I’d thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war,
But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d and I resign’d myself, 5
To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead;)
Years hence of these scenes, of these furious passions, these chances,
Of unsurpass’d heroes (was one side so brave? the other was equally brave;)
Now be witness again, paint the mightiest armies of earth,
Of those armies so rapid so wondrous what saw you to tell us? 10
What stays with you latest and deepest? of curious panics,
Of hard-fought engagements or sieges tremendous what deepest remains?
2

O maidens and young men I love and that love me,
What you ask of my days those the strangest and sudden your talking recalls,
Soldier alert I arrive after a long march cover’d with sweat and dust, 15
In the nick of time I come, plunge in the fight, loudly shout in the rush of successful charge,
Enter the captur’d works—yet lo, like a swift-running river they fade,
Pass and are gone they fade—I dwell not on soldiers’ perils or soldiers’ joys
(Both I remember well—many the hardships, few the joys, yet I was content).
But in silence, in dreams’ projections, 20
While the world of gain and appearance and mirth goes on,
So soon what is over forgotten, and waves wash the imprints off the sand,
With hinged knees returning I enter the doors (while for you up there,
Whoever you are, follow without noise and be of strong heart).
Bearing the bandages, water and sponge, 25
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in,
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground,
Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital,
To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return, 30
To each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss,
An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.
I onward go, I stop,
With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds, 35
I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable,
One turns to me his appealing eyes—poor boy! I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.
3

On, on I go, (open doors of time! open hospital doors!)
The crush’d head I dress (poor crazed hand tear not the bandage away), 40
The neck of the cavalry-man with the bullet through and through I examine,
Hard the breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye, yet life struggles hard
(Come sweet death! be persuaded O beautiful death!
In mercy come quickly).
From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand, 45
I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood,
Back on his pillow the soldier bends with curv’d neck and side-falling head,
His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the bloody stump,
And has not yet look’d on it.
I dress a wound in the side, deep, deep, 50
But a day or two more, for see the frame all wasted and sinking,
And the yellow-blue countenance see.
I dress the perforated shoulder, the foot with the bullet-wound,
Cleanse the one with a gnawing and putrid gangrene, so sickening, so offensive,
While the attendant stands behind aside me holding the tray and pail. 55
I am faithful, I do not give out,
The fractur’d thigh, the knee, the wound in the abdomen,
These and more I dress with impassive hand (yet deep in my breast a fire, a burning flame).
4

Thus in silence in dreams’ projections,
Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals, 60
The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young,
Some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad,
(Many a soldier’s loving arms about this neck have cross’d and rested,
Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips). 65


Whitman would later say that the Civil War was the center or heart of Leaves of Grass and tied it all together. He wanted to see new life come out of the Civil War, but post-war America disappointed him. He had hoped it would bring people all together, but it did not. He died in 1892.

Leaves of Grass went through seven editions starting with 95 pages and 12 poems (he made 795 copies in 1855 and only two dozen sold) to 400 pages and more than 300 poems spanning a period of 35 years. Today, millions of copies are in circulation throughout the globe.

I read a selection of poems that spanned over that length of time, and I liked his later poems more than his earlier ones. His poems on the Civil War were amazing.
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