Think Sermon on the Mount. Think Beats. Think St. Paul’s first Epistle to the Corinthians. Think Faulkner’s sentences and Coltrane’s sheets of sound. Like, for instance, “And he opened his mouth, and taught them …” Like Ginsberg’s “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night …” Like “Now I beseech you, brethren … that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no schisms among you; but that you be perfect in the same mind, and in the same judgment.” Long poetic lines running like a hound through Yoknapatawpha County pines, its nose to the ground in seemingly wandering but relentless pursuit. Like ’Trane’s “My Favorite Things,” with its fervent homophonic flow of tones loaded on chords rushing forth with sirocco intensity. Then knead them all into one and get a hint of the energy and blunt force of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, published in 1855, when America was about two dozen years shy of its 100th birthday.
Whitman was an earth-walking tongue-talking witness to America’s great dawn. “I tramp a perpetual journey, my signs are a rain-proof coat and good shoes, and a staff cut from the woods;/ No friend of mine takes his case in my chair;/ I have no chair, nor church or philosophy.” He took it all in with the capable apparatus of his being, his five senses wide-angled and deeply focused, reaping a harvest of everything he surveyed. “All forces have been steadily employed to complete me and delight me,/ Now I stand on this spot with my soul.”
His magnum opus, the first of its kind, featured a cornucopia of ripe and succulent images perhaps too raw for the pallet of a young nation hungry to indulge in Manifest Destiny. Whitman offers a carte of songs. Song of himself: “I celebrate myself,/ And what I assume you shall assume,/ For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Songs for occupations: “I bring what you much need, yet always have,/ I bring not money or amours or dress or eating…but I bring as good;/ And send no agent or medium…and offer no representative of value — but offer/ the value itself.” And songs of faces and bodies: “The bodies of men and women engirth me, and I engirth them,/ They will not let me off nor I them till I go with them and respond to them/ and love them.” And he thinks of Time. “…to think through the retrospection,/ To think of today…and the ages continued henceforward.”
During a period in history when America had the blood of Native Americans, enslaved Africans and buffalo on the leaves of its grass, Whitman, in his naiveté, munificence, giddiness or perhaps egotism, offered himself as a vessel of oneness, in St. Paul’s spirit, for America and its entire people. If our nation had listened to him back then, things may have turned out differently. Whitman craved unity of high and low, mainstream and middling, distinguished and tolerable, the white, brown, red, ruddy and black. He pleaded for the coming together of the rich, the replaced and the renegade; the haughty, the holy and the hounded.
Leaves of Grass is supreme music. It’s let ’er rip rock ’n’ roll and a joyful, long-breathed love song to a nation bursting with possibilities. It is a blues-drenched warning to cast off temptations of hubris and humbug, to straighten up and fly right. And it is also a jazzy rush of sightings, ripostes and rants setting the tempo, the downbeat to a stream of American aesthetics whose fiery spirit is still rolling on.
“What is known I strip away … I launch all men and women forward with me into the unknown,” said Whitman, prototype hipster, O.G. guru in a cocked hat. “My words,” he had the audacity to declare, “… itch at your ears till you understand them.”Bill Harris is a local poet. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org