Friday, October 9, 2015

Leaves of Grass

I hated most of Leaves of Grass.


Now, everyone (okay, all the English majors and the hipsters) is probably puffed up with rage right now.  They might even look something like this:


And that's fine.  I stand by my opinion, but seeing that the majority of humans who have read this book enjoyed it (dogs, cats, and other creatures--I know not what they think), it's a bit strange to be all alone over here on the concrete jungle side of the fence.

What saddens me is that it's obvious that Walt Whitman was a wildly talented poet.  Unfortunately, the majority of his poems are so bloated and repetitive that it's difficult to see the genius behind all of the words.  So many words.  Words everywhere!

Whitman can make lists.  Whitman can use a thesaurus.  However, simply because he could do these things does not mean that he should have.  This is from "Song of Myself," for example:

"Where the panther walks to and fro on a limb overhead,
where the buck turns furiously at the hunter,
Where the rattlesnake suns his flabby length on a rock,
where the otter is feeding on fish,
Where the alligator in his tough pimples sleeps by the bayou,
Where the black bear is searching for roots or honey,
where the beaver pats the mud with his paddle-shaped tall;
Over the growing sugar, over the yellow-flower'd cotton plant,
over the rice in its low moist field"

et cetera.  I mean, there pages and pages and pages of this.  It's a strange litany of nature and adjectives and descriptions that made me sleepy.

Here's "Song of the Broad-Axe":

"Welcome are all earth's lands, each for its kind,
Welcome are lands of pine and oak,
Welcome are lands of the lemon and fig,
Welcome are lands of gold,
Welcome are lands of wheat and maize,
welcome those of the grape,
Welcome are lands of sugar and rice,
Welcome the cotton-lands, welcome those of the white potato and sweet potato,
Welcome are mountains, flats, sands, forests, prairies,
Welcome the rich borders of rivers, table-lands, openings,
Welcome the measureless grazing-lands, welcome the teeming soil of orchards, flax, honey, hemp;"

These could be used as soporifics.  I'm getting sleepy just looking at them.  I feel like saying, "Wow, Walt, congratulations! You can list all the plants you've ever seen and call it poetry!  Cool!"

And am I supposed to be wowed by lines like "You Chinaman and Chinawoman of China!  You Tartar of Tartary!"  Where else would they be from?  Did people say, "Oh my, I thought that that Chinese person was from Poland"?

This happens in pretty much all of his longer poetry.  So, I found the shorter ones easier to handle, although it was a bit strange reconciling my mental picture of Walt Whitman with his ... zeal for awkwardly described sex.  And nudity.  Preferably in nature.  I just kept having this horrible loop of a white-bearded dude dancing around the forest in the buff and everyone else going, "Ah, yes, Walt's 'writing poetry' again!"  He did describe himself as "liberal and lusty."  Woo, the vapors.

There are obviously no images of Walt Whitman doing a jig.
Just imagine Spider-Man with a hat and a big beard.
And then there's the treatment of race.  The poet claims to love everyone as brothers, but there's such a distinction made between black and white people that it's rather awkward to read today.  I understand that these terms were common and not derogatory then, but I would think that if you were so progressive a thinker as to say "all men are brothers," then would you spend pages and pages talking about other ethnicities as, at best, gentle, domesticated animals?  To wit:

"You women of the earth subordinated at your tasks!" (Ah, all men are brothers.  Got it.  The women are less, but you know, still ... "brothers.")

"You Caffre, Berber, Soudanese!  You haggard, uncouth, untutor'd Bedowee!  You plague-swarms in Madras, Nankin, Kaubul, Cairo!  You benighted roamer of Amazonia! you Patagonian! you Feejeeman!  I do not prefer others so very much before you either,  I do not say one word against you, away back there where you stand,  (You will come forward in due time to my side.)"  Hipster Walt says, "So, hey, you guys are like, okay, but you've got a lot of civilizing to do to catch up with me and my AWESOME COUNTRY, AMERICA.  When you guys get better at this human thing we'll hang out more."

This line, the opening of "Ethiopia Saluting the Colors," is particularly nice:

"Who are you dusky woman, so ancient hardly human..."  I'll just leave that there.

In "The Sleeper," Walt tells us that in sleep, slaves and their masters are totally chill with each other: "The call of the slave is one with the master's call, and the master salutes the slave."


Most of these poems are also about how super-awesome America is and how great it was that these other countries have contact with America.  I know, I know: the earlier poems were written to try and unify people as the Civil War loomed.

Speaking of which, I really did enjoy Whitman's poems about the Civil War, and I have a fondness for "O Captain!  My Captain!"  Yes, it's because of Robin Williams in Dead Poets' Society.  But it's also a really good poem, without too much woo-wah nature-y stuff.

Actually, the Calamus section of poems, which really shocked people of Whitman's day because they were definitely about men, were some of my favorites, just for the lovely sentiments expressed therein.  It was that love didn't have to be some wild, overtly in-your-face thing, but it's also the loneliness at night, the touch of a hand, the caress of lips.  It's very simple, natural, and good.

"I am not to speak to you, I am to think of you when I sit alone or wake at night alone,  I am to wait, I do not doubt I am to meet you again,  I am to see to it that I do not lose you."

"But I walk or sit indifferent, I am satisfied,  He ahold of my hand has completely satisfied me."

"There we two, content, happy in being together, speaking little, perhaps not a word."


But these poems were short, and I had to slog through the "Walt Whitman will now list all the countries he knows about and what their inhabitants are called" poems.  That left a horrid taste in my mouth and fatigued me more than I could bear.

I would say read the whole volume if you absolutely have to (like an English teacher is going to fail you if you don't," but the majority of the poems with which most people are already familiar are the shorter ones, so just ... yeah.  Go watch Dead Poets' Society and feel all depressed.  Do not think about Walt Whitman doing a jig in the buff, celebrating Nature.



2 comments:

  1. Ah, Pamela, think of all the English teachers who might hate this and still have to teach it because "Our country's *classic*!" At least you only had to read it once. ;-) There do seem to be a number of books that are compulsory study in the U.S. such as Moby Dick, and I'm always reading complaints about that on Goodreads, FWIW. At least you guys try to read local stuff. At my school we have only one set text that's Australian and none by a woman. On the other hand, the English teachers do get to sit down and discuss next year's set texts, which I suspect is not the case where you live.

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  2. I am so, so grateful I didn't have to read this for school. I did read Inferno, but I had a seriously amazing professor and I LOVED it (still do!).

    Oh yeah, I'm not sure why certain books are done at every school everywhere, but there is a national hatred of The Scarlet Letter that blows me away. Somehow I DIDN'T have to read it in school, read it on my own, and thought it was awesome!

    None by a woman? O_O

    Ugh, I wish they discussed set texts. We also have these "Battle of the Books" things and "English Fest" where the teachers get together and create book lists to torture librarians with (HA HA HA) ... I mean, quiz kids on, and they expect us to have all the copies for everyone in the city. HA HA HA no.

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