Thursday, May 31, 2012

Walt Whitman, America's poet

Walt Whitman
It is the birthday of poet Walt Whitman (1819), whose poetry collection Leaves of Grass became his defining work. Whitman should be the patron saint of self-publishing. He published the first volume of his work in 1855, set the type himself for much of it and paid for the printing. Whitman had learned the printing trade as a lad and worked as a journalist for several newspapers. But what he really wanted to do was write poetry, and he kept at it all his life.

Leaves of Grass found an immediate audience, and drew immediate criticism as well. Whitman sent a copy of it to poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was by then a prominent poet. Emerson's praise for the book spurred him to continue work on it all his life. Emerson had written an essay noting the need for a truly American poet, writing of the young country's culture. Whitman's vision was to make Leaves of Grass an epic, with no less a model than Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.

Scholars can't agree on just how many editions there were (it depends on how you count editions) but there were at least six and maybe as many as nine. The volume grew from a thin book of 12 poems to a 384-page second edition. Whitman continued to revise and rework his book throughout his life, even working on it as he lay ill in bed at the end of his life. His so-called "deathbed edition" was published in 1891-92.

The book engendered plenty of criticism, especially for its sexual imagery and frank treatment of death. Whitman really didn't seem to care about his detractors, even though the book cost him one of his many jobs—a nice one at the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C. At one point, he refused to remove portions of the book objected to by his publisher, choosing instead to find another publisher.

Whitman left a huge legacy. Critic Harold Bloom included Leaves of Grass on an American literature must-read list along with Moby-Dick and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Whitman was a hero of the Beat Generation. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Gary Snyder all admired him. Composers Benjamin Britten, Leonard Bernstein, Frederick Delius, Kurt Weill, and Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote music to some of his poetry. Expatriate poet Ezra Pound called him "America's poet."

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