Wednesday, July 09, 2008
Philip Metres just turned 38 and so did I, so I was glad to find his entry from a few days ago about Leaves of Grass. I do the same thing—bring out Leaves of Grass to read occasionally to help commemorate milestones or else to just enjoy how my response to the book changes over the years. I can’t think of a book that’s more American. After finding this article on Silliman’s blog, I had to write something. Is Leaves more of a question or an answer? Can it be both? Leaves of Grass evokes some sense of inspired awareness, but not a simplistic religious pluralism. It isn’t that Whitman calls for us to worship what is around us, but he does make the case for a spirituality that hinges on our awareness of the interrelatedness of ourselves and our surroundings. Does a greater awareness mean greater freedom? Or is a heightened awareness of ourselves and the world we live in just another, albeit more elaborate, illusion? At its core the book celebrates existence in a way that hasn’t been seen since. I don’t see Walt Whitman as a prophet necessarily (but if anyone else does, I do agree he wore it well and suffered a bit from vanity but what poet doesn’t), but he points the way to what might be the only way to truly exit the modern condition. In the mid 1950s Jean-Paul Sartre (in the play "No Exit" I believe) formulated an opposite perspective and even went so far as to famously exclaim “hell is other people,” but Leaves of Grass conquers its literary “competition” through quiet persistence. It seems to just get better with age. Whitman reworked Leaves tirelessly. The book went through eleven successive editions until the time of Whitman's death in 1892, by which time 283 poems had been added. Jim Morrison once proclaimed himself an "erotic politician" but I think that applies more to Walt Whitman. There's more sex in Leaves of Grass than nearly any other book in the American literary canon, but Whitman takes us there through his spirituality. It's dangerous and still just really, really good.