Walt Whitman

The Cinematic Whitman

Intimacy and Intrigue


I am embarrassed to admit to reading Leaves of Grass for the first time last summer, at the ripe age of 43. I had tried The Essential Whitman years before, and it put me to sleep. The long, luxuriant lines, cramped in that tiny book, could only be compared to a Reader’s Digest Condensed version of Proust.

Digging into Leaves of Grass, I found its inscriptions delightful. Have you seen 1940 movies whose melodramatic orchestral soundtracks open the credits? The crashing cymbals and sudden melodic changes set my heart beating, and I think, “Wow, this is going to be some movie!”

Whitman achieves the same effect by inscribing his work. You get a taste of his outrageous ability to address everyone and everything, from “a historian” to “ships at sea.” Startlingly, he speaks to the reader as “you,” establishing a connection: “Thou reader throbbest life and pride and love the same as I, Therefore for thee the following chants.”

Lights, Camera, Walt!

“We’re really the same, you and I,” he whispers across a century. And that’s the hook. As a reader, I say, “Okay, Walt. What do you have to show me?” We could benefit here from the warning of Bette Davis, “Fasten your seat-belts!”

Whitman goes on a wild, omniscient journey, encompassing everything from the individual to towns, states, countries; from nature and God to inanimate objects and industry and every minute detail in between. What makes people accept this “perpetual journey,” which flies easily from Paumonok to Blue Ontario’s shore?

The original covenant—the one-on-one relationship—made in the Inscriptions keeps the reader committed. You have the sense of a wizard taking the novice along for the ride. Whitman’s skill allows us to be present with him, to see, feel, hear and—yes, even smell—as he does. Note the senses exercised in stanza 36 from “Song of Myself”:

The captain on the quarter-deck coldly giving his orders through
a countenance white as a sheet,
Near by the corpse of the child that serv’d in the cabins,
The dead face of an old salt with long white hair and carefully curled whiskers,
The flames spite of all that can be done flickering aloft and below,
The husky voices of the two or three officers yet fit for duty,
Formless stacks of bodies and bodies by themselves, dabs of flesh upon the masts and spars,
Cut of cordage, dangle of rigging, slick shock of the soothe of waves,
Black and impassive guns, litter of powder-parcels, strong scent,
A few large stars overhead, silent and mournful shining,
Delicate sniffs of sea-breeze [...]

In these 10 lines, we hear the captain, officers and even flames “flickering”; smell gun powder and salt air; and see an El Greco-esque scene of death and life aboard a ship. And here is Whitman’s real skill, as a cameraman, panning from the central character, the captain, to the dead passengers, rigging, guns and finally “a few large stars overhead.” What a sweep! This cinematic ability is a microcosm of what Whitman achieves in the entire book.

Time Travel

Another amazing gift from Leaves of Grass is Whitman’s reporting of the events following Lincoln’s assassination. In stanza six of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” the former journalist uses his observational powers and poetic skills to bring us a feeling account of the nation’s shock:

Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
Through day and night with the great cloud darkening the land,
With the pomp of the inloop’d flags with the cities draped in black,
With the show of the States themselves as of crape-veil’d women standing,
With processions long and winding and the flambeaus of the night,
With the countless torches lit, with the silent seas of faces and the unbared heads,
With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,
With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising strong and solemn,
With all the mournful voices of the dirges pour’d around the coffin,
The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs—where amid these you journey,
With the tolling tolling bells’ perpetual clang,
Here, coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac.

We’ve seen haunting black and white photos of the time, people stiff with disbelief, the macabre banner announcing, “A Nation Mourns.” And yet these lines add movement: “processions long and standing”; light: “countless torches lit” and sound: “thousand voices”, “dirges”, “shuddering organs” and “tolling tolling bells”.

This layered detail, in contrast to the simplicity of the final lines, prepares us to truly see the “coffin that slowly passes”. Whitman delivers the experience in full “where amid these you journey” to the reader. Appreciating this window on history, what do you think we poets need to write about today? You’ll have to decide.

Let’s ID Walt

In the meantime, Whitman is alive and well. Like Allen Ginsberg once did, I saw him recently at a grocery store in Vermont. He was on line, buying a six-pack of beer. The clerk, a young man with gold wire rim glasses who picked his nose frequently, asked him if he was 21. Walt, Walt, former newspaperman and Civil War nurse, how compassionate in his poetry, how he embraces the world! How could anyone question who he is?

Born near Huntington, Long Island, in 1819, Whitman moved with his family to Brooklyn where he attended public school until age 11. He left school to learn the printing trade and in 1846 became editor of the Brooklyn Eagle and later the New Orleans Crescent. His first edition of Leaves of Grass appeared on July 4, 1855, endorsed by Ralph Waldo Emerson who wrote the poet, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.”

Whitman’s later work as a volunteer nurse in Washington, DC, can be felt in his vivid Civil War recollections. Deemed “immoral” by some for its breathtaking sensuality, the book caused

Whitman to lose a job as a clerk in the Department of the Interior. After suffering a stroke in 1873, he retired to Camden, New Jersey, where he reworked his tome and welcomed such visitors as Oscar Wilde. He completed Leaves of Grass in January 1892 and died two months later.

Perhaps only Proust could imagine giving an entire adult life to one written work. Whitman reflects on this rare commitment in “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads,” an essay where he “sits gossiping in the early candle-light of old age.” What he really does is defend his work, arguing that a burgeoning Industrial America deserves “a spirit of song superior to anything past or present.”

And he delivers big time: His long lines and chaotic journeys imprint American literature with the expansiveness of spirit and land he perceived in our nation. His experimentation made a reckless break from centuries of gifted if traditional British poets. Reading Leaves of Grass, you may stumble across familiar passages now part of our cultural inheritance. I will always be grateful for “Now Voyager,” the title and cornerstone to my favorite Bette Davis movie.

The Untold Want

The untold want by life and land ne’er granted,
Now voyager sail thou forth to seek and find.

See: Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. The Deathbed Edition. Introduction by William Carlos Williams. New York: The Modern Library, 2001.