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Walt Whitman

The Self in the Poem

Through you I shall be born again; myself again and again; myself without others; myself with a tomb; myself beyond death. I imagine you taking my name; I imagine you saying “myself myself” again and again. And suddenly there will be no blue sky [...]

Whitman in Baghdad

“I was going to hold forth on arms, and the violence of warfare, in a meter suited to the manner,” wrote the Roman poet Ovid at the outset of his Amores, “but Cupid, laughing,” he continued, “stole one foot from the second line,” shifting [...]

Dead and Divine, and Brother of All

On Tuesday, December 16, the New York Herald printed a list of soldiers killed or wounded at Fredericksburg, including an entry for “First Lieutenant G. W. Whitmore, Company D,” of the 51st New York Infantry. It was mid-morning when poet Walt Whitman saw the item and surmised that it referred to his brother George.

Whitman’s Compost

Walt Whitman, Charles Feinberg Collection, Library of Congress The day Abraham Lincoln was first elected president, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) arrived in Washington, DC, to find, in the words of a British reporter, a “strange ci [...]

A Monk’s Tale

For forty years I’d been a socially engaged antiwar poet. I was engaged in the civil rights campaigns of the sixties, supported feminist issues of the seventies, and had, in fact, been a devoted nonviolent revolutionary my entire adult life. And now I was being invited to the White House, where plans were well under way to sell our nation a pack of lies and fears, and an innocent nation—the very cradle of civilization—would be destroyed, our Constitution undermined, and all the worldwide sympathy and compassion extended toward us since the September 11 attack would evaporate. Several human rights organizations already claimed that a million Iraqis had died for lack of necessities under the embargo; hundreds of thousands more could die in an American shock-and-awe attack. 

Whitman and Patriotism

What some might call Whitman's essentialism is only one of the features of his statement about the United States that might mark it, in some eyes, as dated, obsolete, historically confined and limited. Another is his use of the plural verb “are,” as opposed to the “is” that gradually became dominant after the American Civil War forever rearranged the notion of an American nation. Only 79 years into the American experiment in 1855, Whitman’s grammar reflects the evolving balance between, on the one hand, the plura of e pluribus and, on the other, the emerging unum under construction. In addition, without listening closely to history, or to various histories, we might not catch the note of desperate, even doomed, hopefulness behind the vatic pronouncement that the United States are essentially the greatest poem. With the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act the year before and the first virulent eruptions of the killing that would go on for more than a decade, Whitman is not so much swaggering and flexing as he is urgently speaking a spell or charm against social and political malignancy, even as it too rapidly metastasizes.

In Whitman’s Country

I cannot imagine myself in America without Whitman.

Sometimes, in times of difficulty, when reinvention of the self is a fierce necessity—a time such as now—I think of myself as having been wafted here by Walt, a creature with a tumbling grey beard, cap askew, bony wings sprouting out of his corduroy jacket. 

There are bits of grass in his mouth, and when I am about to pass out, with all the air gushing through—we make a curious kind of airplane together—he pushes a few stalks into my mouth. The grass is filled with moisture, rather cold and glittery, and the bits of ice on the blades help moisten my tongue. I totter a little with the unsteadiness of it all. Am I on a “trottoir,” as he called it? Am I really in Mannahatta? 

Whitman in Liège

While the American military conducted a war promoted in metaphysical terms—“a war against terror”—two occasions invited self-reflection. An election approached, followed by a date of more specialized interest: the 150th anniversary of Leaves of Grass.

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