The Race of Races
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
Greetings, my fellow bibliophiles!
Today I’m very excited to bring you.
Mike writeswhere he shares his wonderful poetry. In the following piece, Mike artfully explains how a book of poetry, found by chance in a dusty bookshop in Santiago, brought out the poet within. Enjoy!
The first time Leaves of Grass entered my consciousness was when John Keating (played by Robin Williams) read Oh Me! Oh Life! to his students in Peter Weir’s film, The Dead Poet’s Society. I forgot not only the Whitman poem, but also the genre as a whole for nearly a decade.
After completing the rituals of an American teen as well as stumbling through my undergraduate degree and a global pandemic, I found myself in a musty bookstore in Santiago, Chile, just several blocks away from the home and now museum of the country’s most famous poet, Pablo Neruda.
I walked into the store first and foremost to escape the sweltering Chilean sun and secondly to find some books to parse through over the next few weeks. Despite my attempts at learning the language, I could not yet read a book in the local language and found my way to the English section. The majority of English books appeared to be the discarded textbooks of an environmental science student.
While combing the shelves I came across a battered copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Though I read frequently, I couldn’t pin the last time I’d read poetry, if ever. Still, the book called to me. I knew little about it other than the facts that it was 1) poetry and 2) often cited as one of the best pieces of American literature.
I hadn’t been to my homeland in nearly six months, and maybe it was longing or maybe it was the nearby Neruda house, but I decided to purchase a poetry book for the first time.
Later in the afternoon when sitting on the couch in my apartment I read the preface by Whitman and was gripped by a passion for the world which leapt from the page and stole my attention wholly. The preface includes the quote:
“This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despite riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants…”
The line struck a chord even though it was written well over one hundred years ago. It seemed to reach the American in me that was struggling. Over the past decade, I’d witnessed the election of an extremely divisive figure, the continued destruction of wilderness, polarization, and increasing economic inequality. From the get-go, it was clear that this slice of America transcended its time.
My edition started with Song of Myself, and full of wonder, I started reading. Throughout my reading life, I’ve cried, laughed, and felt the spectrum of human emotions. While reading Song of Myself, I felt as if a golden ray of sunshine was placed over my head. As I read each stanza, I felt that my mind opened a little more, and that what I was reading was America.
I thought about Christmas time with my brother when Whitman wrote, “the snow-sleighs, the clinking, shouted jokes, pelts of snowballs”
I thought of fireworks over a lake when Whitman said, “the indescribable crowd is gather’d-it is the Fourth of Seventh month.”
I thought of my time as a backpacking guide in New Mexico when Whitman said, “where the rattlesnake suns his flabby length on a rock.”
I recalled a California road trip when Whitman said, “the white-topt mountains show in the distance, I fling my fancies towards them.”
I thought of my dad when Whitman wrote, “lads ahold of fire-engines and hook-and-ladder ropes no less to me than the Gods of the antique wars.
Reading Song of Myself was more of a walk down memory lane than looking into my iPhone’s camera roll. Whitman describes the vast landscapes, cities, and people, that make of the America of his day. He celebrates its diversity, history, and sentiment. The best way for me to accurately describe Whitman’s work is that he captured the truth of America. His knowledge of its landscapes and people is unparalleled and he does this in a timeless manner. There’s no doubt that the America he existed in looks vastly different than it does today.
When he was writing, it was still legal to own another person. When he was writing, the internet was so far off that it hadn’t even entered science fiction. He catalogues people, animals and places in America such as a runaway slave.
Song of Myself is not limited to describing a country and its nature, but also the audience and the speaker. Some could argue that Whitman writes that we are all a collective conscious, as in the very first line he says:
I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you
The poem concludes with “…I stop somewhere waiting for you.” The circuitous nature of the poem, starting with ‘I’ and ending with ‘you’ is meant to demonstrate that the reader and speaker are connected, interacting through the work.
Song of Myself is one of dozens of poems in Leaves of Grass which includes other classics like O Captain! My Captain! (also read in Dead Poet’s Society), and I Sing the Body Electric. For several weeks, I could not put the book down. I reread poems over and over again. It was nothing like I expected, and was different from my conceptions of poetry as it was written in free verse, which is similar to prose.
Reading Leaves of Grass gave me a better understanding of what it meant to be an American, an identity I’d be struggling with. It was hard for me to have pride for my country when the headlines were full of acts of discrimination, rights being stripped by the Supreme Court, and gross inequality.
Leaves of Grass was a foundational book for me, because it became a beacon of hope in stormy waters. It’s easy to have a bleak outlook on our future, especially when the media in our country showers us in a narrative of divisiveness. But that’s not what America is. To quote Whitman, America is “the race of races” and “of all nations at any time upon the Earth have probably the fullest poetic nature.”
America is a place of diversity from sandy shores to plains of grass to granite mountains. America is people with origins from around the world and America is a place full of potential. Nothing’s perfect, and our country certainly isn’t, but Leaves of Grass is a foundational book because it not only shows our nation’s darkness, but also its rising sun.
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