I’ll be honest with you: The first time I picked up Leaves of Grass (in college), it bored me to tears.
Maybe it’s a thing you have to grow into? I for sure skimmed the book to pass the class, but didn’t understand why so many people considered it a classic. It was definitely the most “traditional” choice for my literature class, which also included on the syllabus Ghost World and Sarah Kane. I couldn’t see then how truly revolutionary it was, how well it belonged there. Nah, I was just like, this is boring, self-absorbed free verse by an old, dead, white man. I couldn’t be bothered to care.
Walt Whitman re-entered my life in a strange way: through ice cream. When first moving to New York, my favorite local ice cream shop was the (then small) Ample Hills Creamery in Park Slope. Ample Hills — it’s a Whitman reference! And just like there are now Ample Hills franchises all over New York City, so too does it feel like Walt Whitman is everywhere for me now.
I forget who brought me to this poem, but I had it in an open tab for many weeks:
Keep your splendid silent sun;
Keep your woods, O Nature, and the quiet places by
Keep your fields of clover and timothy, and your corn-
fields and orchards;
Keep the blossoming buckwheat fields, where the Ninth-
month bees hum;
Give me faces and streets! give me these phantoms in-
cessant and endless along the trottoirs!
Give me interminable eyes! give me women! give me
comrades and lovers by the thousand!
Let me see new ones every day! let me hold new ones
by the hand every day!
Give me such shows! give me the streets of Manhattan!
I wonder how Walt Whitman would have felt about the Manhattan of today. I listened to The Bowery Boys episode #283 Walt Whitman in New York and Brooklyn while riding the M116 bus crosstown. With his Song of Myself in my ears above the hum and rattle of a bus engine beneath me, I felt excitement alive in Walt’s words. He contains multitudes! And the joy apparent. I finally got it. I finally appreciated Walt Whitman.
Just in time for him to turn 200. Happy birthday, Walt.
image via Wikimedia Commons