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From Song of Myself by Walt Whitman

Yesterday's poem, the first of National Poetry Month, was "The Oven Bird" by Robert Frost. The line that caused me to post yesterday's poem in the first place was this one: "But that he knows in singing not to sing". Today, a poem that is related to song - an excerpt from Song of Myself by Walt Whitman.

To best understand this poem, I strongly urge you to read it aloud. There is a lovely rising and falling within the words that only becomes truly evident when read aloud. And the pauses indicated by commas and semicolons are important to the pacing of this poem, and are too easily skipped by if you merely skim through it.

from Song of Myself

A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is, any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer, designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we
&emsp may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic;
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white;
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you, curling grass;
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men;
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon out of
&emsp their mother's laps;
And here you are the mother's laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon
&emsp out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprouts show there is really no death;
And if ever there was, it led forward life, and does not wait at the end
&emsp to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appear'd.

All goes onward and outward -- nothing collapses;
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.



Born in 1819, Walt Whitman lived, laughed and loved until his death in 1892. Harold Bloom has termed him "the central American poet," although in his day he was under-appreciated. His works are full of sexual references (including homosexual and homoerotic references). His master-work, Leaves of Grass, was declared "obscene" by Anthony Comstock, causing Whitman to lose his job in the Department of the Interior. "Central poet" or "depraved monster?" Let us go with Abraham Lincoln's assessment: "Well, he looks like a man."

Today's excerpt from Song of Myself is the sixth poem, which is frequently referred to as "A child said, What is the grass?" because that is part of its first line. I have taken my punctuation tips, spellings and (in the case of a particular line) word choices, from a very early edition of the poem, published in 1905. The particular line where a word difference exists reads, in other editions, "It may be that you are from old people and women, and from offspring taken soon out of their mothers' laps", but I've gone with the earlier iteration (as did the aforementioned Harold Bloom in his collection, The Best Poems of the English Language, which I heartily recommend.

He moves from tangible grass, in the child's hands, to the general idea of grass in various places, to grass atop graves. And once he's arrived at the graveyard, he considers the dead, buried beneath the grass, and wonders about their fates. The last two stanzas are lovely, I think -- Whitman concludes that the dead aren't dead, but are alive somewhere. That death is only there to lead forward life, and is not standing about waiting to end it. That life is what is real, and death is what dies (or ends) whenever life appears.

And oh, the beauty of those last two lines:

"All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,/And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier."

And yes, Nerdfighters, this portion of the poem makes a major appearance in Paper Towns by John Green, as I discussed in length at an excellent but under-read post over at Guys Lit Wire. In fact, if you want to watch this oldie but goodie vlog from the days of Brotherhood 2.0, John talks about Whitman and quotes some Whitman, including lines from this-here poem at the end.


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Comments

( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
bluemalibu
Apr. 2nd, 2009 04:14 am (UTC)
HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

May this year be a fabulous one!
kellyrfineman
Apr. 2nd, 2009 11:58 am (UTC)
Thank you Meg!
christy_lenzi
Apr. 2nd, 2009 05:03 am (UTC)
It's your birthday? How lucky I dropped in. I wish I had cake. Oh and I wish I had cake for you, too. Thank you for the slice of Whitman, though. Hearty and delicious.
kellyrfineman
Apr. 2nd, 2009 11:57 am (UTC)
It's no longer my birthday here, although at the time you commented, it was still my birthday there (I think).

I love this bit of Whitman. I struggle with some of his work, but not with this - this is simply marvelous.
liz_scanlon
Apr. 2nd, 2009 01:32 pm (UTC)
"..nothing collapses;
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier."


Would that we could hold onto this thought there'd be so much less fear in the air, don't you think?
kellyrfineman
Apr. 2nd, 2009 05:54 pm (UTC)
Indeed. I love those lines.
tessagratton
Apr. 2nd, 2009 01:44 pm (UTC)
I remember a weekend when I was an undergrad where I read straight through the entirety of a collected works of Walt Whitman. It was pretty intense, but I was a crazy college student and that was my weird idea of fun.
kellyrfineman
Apr. 2nd, 2009 05:56 pm (UTC)
I stayed up all night one Saturday reading A Tale of Two Cities while a sophomore in college. It was not assigned reading.

I also read all of the works D.H. Lawrence that the library had. We'd been assigned Sons & Lovers, and I read all the rest of it because I found him fascinating. I understand intense, crazy, weird ideas of fun.
hipwritermama
Apr. 2nd, 2009 02:39 pm (UTC)
I've always loved this poem. Thanks for reminding me of it.

And I hope you have a fantastic birthday!


kellyrfineman
Apr. 2nd, 2009 05:57 pm (UTC)
I love this poem, too. And I had a great birthday - thanks Vivian!
maryecronin
Apr. 2nd, 2009 03:51 pm (UTC)
birthday
Belated birthday greetings, Kelly! I hope you had a wonderful one.

--Mary
kellyrfineman
Apr. 2nd, 2009 05:57 pm (UTC)
Re: birthday
It was a good day overall. Thanks Mary!
susanwrites
Apr. 3rd, 2009 03:15 am (UTC)
I have tried to read this several times before and I guess I just don't "get" Whitman. Even now I look for lines to speak to me but I just get confused.
kellyrfineman
Apr. 3rd, 2009 12:56 pm (UTC)
Whitman is interesting to me - I really love some of his stuff, and I really feel at sea with most of it. I suspect I might be better off if I read lots and lots of it without really trying to parse it, but I've never managed it. Not all poems or poets are for everyone, though, so I don't worry about it, and neither should you.
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )

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