Mr. Whitman recently spoke to San Antonio poet Don Mathis in an exclusive interview for the Good Men Project. The words of Old Walt are in italics, Don Mathis has paraphrased the rest.
Walt Whitman – Live and In Person
I was born two hundred years ago, May 31, 1819. They say I died on March 26, 1892, but I am still around. Call it a Miracle!
Why, who makes much of a miracle?
As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of the water,
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or talk by day with any one I love,
or sleep in the bed at night with any one I love,
Or sit at table at dinner with the rest,
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,
Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive of a summer forenoon,
Or animals feeding in the fields,
Or birds, or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,
Or the wonderfulness of the sundown,
or of stars shining so quiet and bright,
Or the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new moon in spring;
These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,
The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.
To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same,
Every foot of the interior swarms with the same.
To me the sea is a continual miracle,
The fishes that swim – the rocks – the motion of the waves
the ships with men in them,
What stranger miracles are there?
I’ve been called all kinds of names: Freethinker, Patriot, Revolutionary, Sentimental, Modest, Energetic… And also Huckster, Rough, Disorderly, Fleshly, Grotesque, Unsentimental, Immodest, Lazy… You can call me what you want, but what I believe is what is important.
I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect,
and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
And the cow crunching with depressed head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.
I was born on May 31, 1819, in a house my father built in West Hills, Long Island. He built it right. It’s still standing – right down the highway from Walt Whitman Shopping Center. Dad moved us to Brooklyn just before my fourth birthday, but my heart always remained in the wild and the rural.
School didn’t interest me; I dropped out at age 11. But I would shout Shakespeare and Homer to the ocean. I devoured James Fennimore Cooper and Sir Walter Scott. Their work left me simmering. I wanted more!
I would walk up and down Broadway in New York from the ferry landing to 14thStreet. Those three miles were full of theaters, full of boarding houses, full of bars and restaurants, full of life! And I would swim in it as in the sea!
The songs of Rossini, Bellini, Mozart, and Verdi enthralled me and I would sing them loud. I talked to everyone –cooks and clerks, foreigners and firemen, carpenters and blacksmiths. I would walk into a place, all six feet of me; barrel-chested, 180 pounds, baggy pants tucked into leather boots, and ask questions.
Stranger! If you, passing, meet me, and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me? And why should I not speak to you?
I gain inspiration from many authors, musicians, stable hands and barmaids. My travels through the American frontier exposed me to many of these people. I gain inspiration as well from democracy, from service, from love, and from friendship.
Many poets write from torment, from pain, from misery. I write from what makes me happy – no, what makes me ecstatic! I write from nature, from humanity, from the pieces of the cosmos! I just did what I did because I did it — that’s the whole secret.
I wrote in the day and age where people put a skirt on tables so the legs would not be shamed. But I celebrated legs – all the way down to their aromatic feet.
I started writing “Leaves of Grass” in 1850. I published it five years later; even set some of the type myself. Twelve poems filled 83 pages. I didn’t even put my name on it (but I did include my picture, hand on hip, jaunty pose, cockeyed hat). I figured the absence of an author’s name would emphasize the belief that the voice in “Leaves of Grass” is for everyone.
You’ve got to realize that before “Leaves,” poets were a serious and pretentious lot. Grandiose themes and romantic subjects were set to strict rules of rhyme and meter. Mother thought my poems were muddled. The fact that few of my poems rhymed bothered a lot of critics. So, I critiqued myself.
I wrote unsigned reviews of “Leaves” and a fair amount of them were published. My favorite book blurbs were designed to attract the common man: “An American bard at last!“ “We announce a great philosopher.” “Perhaps a Great Poet.”
But my stroke of luck was mailing the manuscript to one of my favorite writers. I had never met Ralph Waldo Emerson, never corresponded with him. We had no friends in common and I had no reason to expect a reply.
“I rubbed my eyes a little to see if this sunbeam were no illusion,” Emerson wrote back from Concord. He wrote that “Leaves of Grass” is “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Sometimes, people ask me about the title, “Why Leaves of Grass?”
A child once asked me…
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 if is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and (dropped on purpose),
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we 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.
I never got rich from “Leaves“ – that was never my intention. Nonetheless, I could have used the $300,000 that the original book sold for recently.
I am with you, Americans, citizens of the world, through my “Leaves of Grass.”
I am with you, you men and women of a generation,
or ever so many generations hence;
I project myself – also I return – I am with you, and know how it is.
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt;
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd;
Just as you are refreshed by the gladness of the river and the bright flow,
I was refreshed;
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current,
I stood, yet was hurried;
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships,
and the thick-stemmed pipes of steamboats, I looked.
I have long prided myself as an American. I abhorred slavery because it hindered the destiny of the United States. I felt that the introduction of slavery into new territories would discourage whites from migrating to those areas. White labor could never economically compete with slave labor.
I was thinking of the slaves at auction when I wrote, “I Sing the Body Electric.” My poem celebrates the beauty, dignity, and strength of people of color. In contrast to the prevailing stereotypes, I emphasized the centrality of black persons to the future of America.
Regarding our Native Americans, I prefer the term “aborigine” because “Indian” is such a European word. I served for a time with the Indian Bureau of the Department of the Interior and met several impressive Native delegations. Their manners and conversations were quite animated and significant.
I watched the annihilation of the aborigines through newspaper accounts and could see the demise of a culture. And to preserve the aborigine legacy, I favor renaming more of America’s places and rivers with the original word.
It is not enough to have the most important city (Manhattan) or the biggest river (Mississippi), or the biggest state (Texas, or is that Alaska?) to have an aborigine name. Native words have an authenticity, they fit the American landscape, and they color the language with original echoes.
The echoes of my words have been reverberating a while. Read my poetry should the sound grow faint. I leave you now with words to strive for –to live by:
This is what you shall do;
Love the earth and sun and the animals,
give alms to every one that asks,
stand up for the stupid and crazy,
devote your income and labor to others,
argue not concerning God,
have patience and indulgence toward the people,
take off your hat to nothing known or unknown
or to any man or number of men,
go freely with powerful uneducated persons
and with the young and with the mothers of families,
read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life,
re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book,
dismiss whatever insults your own soul,
and your very flesh shall be a great poem
and have the richest fluency not only in its words
but in the silent lines of its lips and face
and between the lashes of your eyes
and in every motion and joint of your body.
Go in peace.
Don Mathis has presented this narrative at theaters, festivals, and other events. Click here https://www.facebook.com/CelebrationCircle/videos/298852880777537/(fast forward to minute 24) to view his delivery at Celebration Circle in February. Email [email protected]if you would like Walt Whitman to visit your school or organization.
Photo: Wikipedia Commons