Whitman taught us how in Leaves of Grass, and it is as new today as when he wrote it . . .
My friend Ed brought out his copy of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” last weekend, and, as we read I realized how little I had understood those marvelous words.
It is one of the most humble books I’ve ever read, yet, when first published (and still is to the casual reader)it appears to be one huge ego trip. Nothing, however, could be farther from the truth, even though the very first words are those memorable, “I Celebrate Myself.”
For, “One’s Self,” is the compass-needle necessary to find the secret Walt hid in the haystack of his poetry. For when he carols out “Of One’s Self, I sing, a simple separate person” it is well to remember that it was not just ‘his’ self he sang about, but ‘all’ selves. Separate enough, as we well know, but still…thinking, feeling, being and loving as one.
Like all seemingly ‘decent’ people, we feel that too much candor about our inner emotions might be judged either vanity or bad taste. Tacky is the word oft used today, or even worse, it might be called boring.
But the first thing one learns from “The Leaves” is that candor about one’s private emotions may not be egotism at all, but deep humility. Openness about one’s inner struggles do not divide one from another, but brings about the comforting assurance that all men are born, suffer, enjoy, love and die in much the same manner.
I belatedly learned the truth that Whitman found over a century-and-a-half ago and revealed his feelings in his simple, yet mind-blowing way.
Get out your copy of “The Leaves”, let it lie around on a handy table, and prowl the pages. It isn’t meant to be read as a novel, but to be picked up casually. Dipped into, and though the term was unknown at his time, today it could be included in what’s become known as “a bathroom book’. Why not?
Oh, what a self-acceptance he had as he penned: “I know I am august, and I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood. I exist as I am, that is enough, and if no other in the world be aware, I sit content. And yet, if each and all be aware, I shall still sit and be content.” Immense!
He sang the Song of Me and sang it as though he looked out from the eyes of man, woman, worker, slave, master, (yes, his life spanned the Civil War) or, a leaf of grass. He sang of the beauty of a man’s or woman’s body, he sang of the everyday ecstasy of sex. He sang of birth and death and knew them both to be but different aspects of the same every-flowing life.
Whitman, couldn’t you guess, was not thought well of in his time. Those same subjects, even today are looked upon, by some blinded people, with averted eyes and ears. Those who knew Whitman closely, including both Emerson and Thoreau, were the same. Oh, yes, they liked him, they admired and praised both him and his work, but at the same time, they liked him better when he was in the next town, living with some one else.
But that’s always the way fore-runners are treated. They, in themselves, have no sense of proportion. They cannot adhere to a schedule or stay off subjects most average people consider improper. So, with their free, outspoken manner, they can be uncomfortable to be around.
No one is a genius to those who know them on a day by day basis, except, that is, except before they arrive or after they have gone their way. And that was the way with Whitman.
But his genius lives on, and if you haven’t poked through your copy of “The Leaves” lately, do so. There are dozens of issues, and at all prices, but Whitman will tell you more about yourself than you ever knew, or could guess. Take off your blinders, forget your guilts, forget your fear and forget your ‘pride of uniqueness’. Read Whitman and learn to know yourself.