A friend is hosting a party this weekend at which everyone is to read a poem. I was an English major once upon a time, and intended a career as a literary scholar: I've read quite a lot of poetry. But that was more than twenty years ago, and I've rarely read verse for pleasure since. Though recently that part of me has resurfaced, at least enough that I've been writing some verse.
At any rate, I thought I'd just recite the one of Shakespeare's sonnets I remember liking from when I last read them, at ninteen. And ended up, in a mad rush this evening, re-reading all of them for the first time in over twenty-five years &mdash and realizing I had not understood them at all.
Having devoured the sonnets, and discovered in the process that great poetry can make lot more sense after you've been beaten about the head and shoulders by life for a couple decades, I also realized that reading one of them at the party might not be the best idea: while I didn't much care for the sonnets as a kid, I devoured most of the rest of Shakespeare, and have re-read some of the plays in the intervening years. So I can read the sonnets for their poetry now not least because my earlier training gave me the vocabulary and context to read them at all. Most of them would require some footnoting for a lay audience, and that would IMO would spoil the fun. So I found myself thinking What's good, but more accessible?
A few lines from Whitman, who I'd never read, caught my attention several years ago, and one of the few books I didn't put into storage in 2004, and has been with me ever since, is a scholarly edition of Leaves of Grass
. But I've barely more than dipped into it for five or ten minutes a few times. Leaves of Grass
was Whitman's life's work. He published something like seven editions in his lifetime, and there's a small industry of scholarship surrounding those revisions. Which, given my background, made me feel like I was ill-prepared to read him, thinking perhaps I should hold off until I could take a class in Whitman.
But instead of getting the book off the shelf in the livingroom, tonight I decided to just Google it; I quickly found the text of the first edition — The 1855 Leaves of Grass
— and once I started, simply fell into it. It's electric. It's like nothing I've ever read. It was considered shocking at the time, and I can see why.
Loafe with me on the grass . . . . loose the stop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want . . . . not custom or lecture, not even the best,
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice.
I mind how we lay in June, such a transparent summer morning;
You settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my barestript heart,
And reached till you felt my beard, and reached till you held my feet.
Blacksmiths with grimed and hairy chests environ the anvil,
Each has his main-sledge . . . . they are all out . . . . there is a great heat in the fire.
From the cinder-strewed threshold I follow their movements,
The lithe sheer of their waists plays even with their massive arms,
Overhand the hammers roll—overhand so slow—overhand so sure,
They do not hasten, each man hits in his place.
The negro holds firmly the reins of his four horses . . . . the block swags underneath on its tied-over chain,
The negro that drives the huge dray of the stoneyard . . . . steady and tall he stands poised on one leg on the stringpiece,
His blue shirt exposes his ample neck and breast and loosens over his hipband,
His glance is calm and commanding . . . . he tosses the slouch of his hat away from his forehead,
The sun falls on his crispy hair and moustache . . . . falls on the black of his polish'd and perfect limbs.
Excuse me — is it hot in here or what?
. Writing like that could make a straight guy seriously consider switch-hitting.
I don't want to give the wrong impression: it's not all, or even mainly, thinly veiled homoeroticism. It's this mad rushing river of words that's all about life
, the joy and the agony and the sheer wonder
of being alive in the world, and I found myself reading it like I've never read anything, pouring it into my eyes, letting the impressions light up far corners of my brain and leave me tingling.
But unlike the chewier stuff of lyric poetry, I did not want to stop and savour and linger and consider. I just wanted to keep rushing along. I used to have a '60s Datsun roadster — think an MG-B, but with reliable mechanical and electrical systems and a roof that didn't leak — and remember thrashing it along winding roads near Mt. Rainier. I would never have imagined reading poetry could give me that same feeling.
I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuffed with the stuff that is coarse, and stuffed with the stuff that is fine,
One of the great nation, the nation of many nations....
I read until my eyes burned, and then in a rush I wrote this. Which must sound mad. Perhaps just to show that I have not lost all rational faculties, I'll point out that I realized even as I was immersed in it that the key to the sense of madly rushing, of taking life in big gulps, lies in Whitman's endless lists. Which I haven't quoted any of above, because I was looking for powerful extracts. But they're key to why the poem has the effect it does, so I'll close with an eample:
I think I will do nothing for a long time but listen,
And accrue what I hear into myself . . . . and let sounds contribute toward me.
I hear the bravuras of birds . . . . the bustle of growing wheat . . . . gossip of flames . . . .
clack of sticks cooking my meals.
I hear the sound of the human voice . . . . a sound I love,
I hear all sounds as they are tuned to their uses . . . . sounds of the city and sounds out of the city . . . . sounds of the day and night;
Talkative young ones to those that like them . . . . the recitative of fish-pedlars and fruit-pedlars . . . . the loud laugh of workpeople at their meals,
The angry base of disjointed friendship . . . . the faint tones of the sick,
The judge with hands tight to the desk, his shaky lips pronouncing a death-sentence,
The heave'e'yo of stevedores unlading ships by the wharves . . . . the refrain of the anchor-lifters;
The ring of alarm-bells . . . . the cry of fire . . . . the whirr of swift-streaking engines and hose-carts with premonitory tinkles and colored lights,
The steam-whistle . . . . the solid roll of the train of approaching cars;
The slow-march played at night at the head of the association,
They go to guard some corpse . . . . the flag-tops are draped with black muslin.
I hear the violincello or man's heart's complaint,
And hear the keyed cornet or else the echo of sunset.
I hear the chorus . . . . it is a grand-opera . . . . this indeed is music!
A tenor large and fresh as the creation fills me,
The orbic flex of his mouth is pouring and filling me full.
I hear the trained soprano . . . . she convulses me like the climax of my love-grip;
The orchestra whirls me wider than Uranus flies,
It wrenches unnamable ardors from my breast,
It throbs me to gulps of the farthest down horror,
It sails me . . . . I dab with bare feet . . . . they are licked by the indolent waves,
I am exposed . . . . cut by bitter and poisoned hail,
Steeped amid honeyed morphine . . . . my windpipe squeezed in the fakes of death,
Let up again to feel the puzzle of puzzles,
And that we call Being.