My Time With Walt

A few months ago I ran across a list of the ten best American poems, posted by Jay Parini on the Guardian web site.  He starts with “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman.  I’d read Whitman as a student and recall thinking:  stuffy 19th Century language full of poeticisms and bad odes to Lincoln.  But, here was a Brit saying Whitman’s “Song” was number one in a list of the ten best.  I had to start over with Walt.

I don’t recall where or how I heard about C. K. Williams 2010 book, On Whitman.  It’s a joyous celebration of what moves Williams about Whitman:  his music.  He starts with Whitman’s genius:  where did it come from?  Maybe the King James Bible, maybe Shakespeare; maybe, just maybe from nowhere but inside Whitman’s head and heart and ear. 

Williams discusses Whitman’s biography, his notebooks and revisions, his audacity, his sexuality, the poets influenced by him, and Whitman’s imagination:  inclusive, accepting and exhalting.  “Isn’t this, finally, what all art eternally promises us?  That it will make our own imaginations more encompassing and at the same time more acute?” Williams asks.

Williams drops references like leaves along a path, and I now have a list of about a dozen books, compendiums and scholarly analyses, about Walt Whitman.  However, recalling my original memory of Whitman’s poems, I discovered that I probably read the “death bed” version of 1891-92.  I knew that Whitman tramped about, adding and scribbling, expanding on Leaves of Grass over time, but what I did not know – what my teachers did not tell me – is that Whitman suffered from “the law of elapsed time,” in Galway Kinnell’s words in The Essential Whitman.

Kinnell writes, “All writers know this law:  revision succeeds in inverse ratio to the amount of time passed since the work was written.”  Whitman’s final, self-approved version of 1891-92 is the one that he probably thought addressed the critics, covered for youthful exuberance, seemed more “poetic.”  However, Williams recommends the first, 1855 edition as the greatest poet’s greatest work.  He also recommends Kinnell’s The Essential Whitman, “…a great poet’s personal line-by-line culling and reassembling of the best of the poetry,” and Gary Schmidgall’s Walt Whitman:  Selected Poems 1855-1892.

The thing is, except for these two recommendations, it is not easy to find the early Walt Whitman.  I stopped at a university bookstore and among the five books of Walt Whitman’s poems or Leaves of Grass, the prefaces all quoted from Whitman’s preface to the 1891-92 version as Whitman’s own final version, and that is what followed.  I wanted Walt on my Kindle; the various versions available are not identified by edition.  Reading them, they appear to be the deathbed version.  I finally found the 1855 First Edition version of Leaves of Grass, for ninety-nine cents, by searching the Amazon website first and then clicking on the Kindle version.

So now I have a good handle on which “Song of Myself” to read:

I celebrate myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul.

I lean and loafe at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass.

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