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At 150, ‘Leaves of Grass’ celebrates itself

Whitman's seminal work gets return to original version as a birthday gift
/ Source: The Associated Press

Every year, high school poetry students are introduced to Walt Whitman with a thud, the sound of his seminal work, “Leaves of Grass,” hitting their desks. Revised and expanded over four decades, the final collection runs hundreds of pages.

This year, Whitman devotees and scholars are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the original 1855 edition, the concise masterpiece of just 12 poems that pushed the boundaries of social decency and of poetry itself. By rejecting the rigid structures of British meter, Whitman offered readers free-spirited bursts of consciousness that forever changed American poetry.

“The final ‘Leaves of Grass’ is an enormous book, with which Whitman did not do himself a favor because a lot of the poetry is pure padding, purely hot air,” said biographer Justin Kaplan. “But if you go back to the original, it’s a wonderfully sparse little book, something like 96 pages of absolutely remarkable, stunning poetry.”

Across the country, celebrations of the anniversary have been as unpredictable as Whitman’s poetry, from lectures and readings to a performance by the Brooklyn Philharmonic, from guided meditations to musical and dance tributes.

“It is the landmark in Western Hemisphere literature,” said literary critic Harold Bloom, a professor at Yale University, which is commemorating the anniversary with an exhibit including five copies of the rare 1855 text. “It is the first appearance of someone I judge to be the most important, the strongest, the most beautiful, the greatest writer in any of the languages used in the New World.”

Experts suspect only a few hundred copies of the original edition exist and are using the anniversary to try to count them.

Self-published, the original edition contains the now famous “carpenter portrait” of Whitman inside. While writers traditionally were shown in head-and-shoulders images suggesting that their art was a product of the mind, Whitman was shown in work clothes. Experts say it suggests “Leaves of Grass” was a product of the entire body.

“I celebrate myself,” Whitman began, the first three words of a poem that would become known as “Song of Myself.”

Almost immediately, controversy followed.

“People thought the sex scenes were far too frank and inappropriate for the civilized reading public,” said Ivan Marki, a Whitman scholar and a professor at Eckerd College in Florida. “People said it was not really poetry. They were used to the works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.”

Whitman’s discussion of sexuality drew criticism for years. In 1881, it was banned in Boston after the district attorney deemed it obscene.

“In his lifetime, it was condemned for its frank reflection of heterosexuality,” Kaplan said. “The people seemed not to realize that this is a very overtly homosexual work.”

'This burst of poetry'Ralph Waldo Emerson, however, was so moved by the book that he wrote Whitman a letter praising it.

“I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” Emerson wrote.

Whitman inscribed the quote on the bindings of future editions, a brazen move that some say made him the first person in publishing to use a critic’s blurb on a book. He was a master promoter, including photographs of himself with his letters and sometimes reviewing his own work anonymously.

“To be candid, Walt Whitman is a pretty hard nut to crack,” Whitman wrote of himself in an 1871 letter on display at Yale. “His involved sentences are always hiding at least half their meaning.”

His sentences proved to have resonance, however, in American poetry. Ezra Pound addressed him by name in his 1916 poem, “A Pact.”

“It was you that broke the new wood,” Pound wrote. “Now is a time for carving.”

Beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem, “Howl,” is a long, winding verse reminiscent of “Song of Myself.” Ginsberg’s title, Marki said, referred to a line in Whitman’s poem in which he suggests mankind restrains its emotions in the name of manners: “what howls restrain’d by decorum.”

Jerome Loving, a Texas A&M professor and a frequent author on Whitman, said the anniversary offers a timely opportunity to ponder that influence and read the original 12 poems, a collection he called “authentic.”

“That’s the book that we’re celebrating this year, this burst of poetry on the American scene,” he said. “Before that, American poetry really hadn’t done that much for itself. It’s a time to be marked. It’s worth celebrating.”