It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I used to really dislike Walt Whitman. And I’m not talking about lukewarm feelings; no, I actually groaned in dismay any time we had to read his work in high school. I don’t know what it was that alienated me, really, but I just could not connect with his writing whatsoever. Now, to be fair, we didn’t really delve into his work too much beyond a few of his poems in Leaves of Grass – oh, and that spider poem that I’m still not too fond of, honestly.* I just couldn’t get into it… and I loved poetry. I was already nuts about Percy Shelley, Jack Kerouac, Christina Rossetti, Will Shakespeare (or Shakesy, we’re on a nickname basis)… I was kind of a poetry nerd. Yet for some reason, I just did not dig old man, Whit.
Needless to say, as soon as I was no longer required to read Whitman’s writing, I didn’t. It was a welcome exit and I didn’t think about him for a long time. It was nearly twenty years before I read another Whitman poem. When I was thirty, after more than a decade of being out of school, I decided to go to university and get my BA. And so, Whitman came back into my life during a course on 19th Century American Literature.
And I fell in love
It was poem 52 from “Song of Myself” in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and my professor had just finished reading these two stanzas aloud:
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
It’s difficult to articulate just what it was that moved me, but I had a very visceral reaction, goosebumps formed along my arms, and my heart suddenly lifted and grew light. It was not only Whitman’s words themselves, it was hearing them being spoken aloud that sent my soul all aflutter. My relationship with Whitman was instantly transformed.
The fact that I could have such a negative reaction to a piece of text as a teenager, and then have the very same words affect me so profoundly nearly twenty years later, prompts me to explore this topic further. My particular interest lies in the multi-layered relationships readers have with Whitman’s texts, and more specifically, Leaves of Grass.