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Walt Whitman

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 [...]

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 [...]

Give Me Life Coarse and Rank

As the American poet, Whitman is scrutinized, taken apart, reassembled, and categorized more than any other. Yet often he ends up in the wrong pigeonhole. Some readers type him as an American original who sprang fully formed from the brow of Ralph Waldo Emerson; others take him for a Civil War hippie, a no-holds bard playing tennis without a net or even a racket. In this essay, David Kirby connects Whitman to two traditions that tell a lot more about him and his poetry, the ancient tradition of dithyrambic verse and that of “the old, weird America.”

Inventing Walt Whitman

But more than that, we see the earliest example of that most American trick: self-invention. Walter Whitman had been born into a humble family of Quakers on Long Island, and his social standing had allowed him to rise no further than fleeting stints as editor of various small-time newspapers. For the better part of the 1840s, Walter had fashioned himself a dandy, complete with cane and boutonniere, in a vain attempt to boost his status. But for the frontispiece of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman changed all that. His broad hat tipped back, his beard thick and mottled, he stood defiantly, one hand crooked at his hip, the other thrust in his pocket. Most importantly, he was dressed in the clothes of the common man. No waistcoat or tie, he posed with his collar open, revealing a workingman’s undershirt. And this new persona required a new name; Walter became Walt.

Old Papa Cosmos

Walt Whitman has always been problematic for me. Too vatic, too nationalistic, too in-your-face. For years I didn't pay much attention to him, being smitten with Miss Dickinson, who told it slant, and others who told it otherwise but in a lower register. It wasn't until I began to loosen and lengthen my own lines (as well as my so-called aesthetic) around 1975, when I was forty years old, that I picked up “Song of Myself” and read it seriously for the first time.

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