“Leaves of Grass, Still Growing After 150 Years” by Professor Billy Collins


– First of all, let me thank all of you for being here tonight. I think that this is a group that began small and continues
to grow through the years. For those of you who are
here for the first time, let me tell you what this is about. Once a term, we have a
distinguished lecture. We call it the presidential lecture because, frankly, it
originated in my office. (audience laughing) In the fall semester, we invite a luminary from CUNY from some other campus of the university and we have been fortunate enough to have people like David Nasaw, the historian, Louise Mirrer, Dr. Mollenkopf, and today we have Billy Collins. In the spring, we have one of us, and those of you who
were with us last spring, remember the wonderful
presentation by Martin Kutnowski, a wonderful pianist that had
a multi-media presentation and it was a most informative
and entertaining lecture. I am pleased to announce
that in the spring, we’re gonna have the wonderful
economist, Caf Dowlah, who will be presenting for us a presentation that I don’t
know the title of as yet, but it’s gonna be wonderful. But to the business at hand, Billy Collins is known to a lot of us and a lot of people in the United States as the US poet laureate for 2002. He is the author of a
number of books of poetry including “Nine Horses”, “Sailing Alone Around The
Room: New and Selected Poems”, “Picnic, Lightning”, and others. He received the National
Poetry Series competition award for his work “Questions
About Angels” in 1991. I have had the pleasure of
hearing Professor Collins and by the way, he’s a
professor at Lehman College, and I have had the pleasure
of being in his company. I can tell you that his
brilliance matches his words, I can tell you that his personality is one that warms the room, and I can tell you that even
though we’re not friends, through his words, I believe
that I am his friend. I present to you Professor Billy Collins. (audience clapping) – Well, we’re friends. Let’s just be friends from now on. I’m very glad to be here
and to see all of you come indoors on this fairly glorious day and I’m very happy to be part of this rather distinguished series that is bringing CUNY and Queensborough, specifically, speakers to this podium and to enjoy this assembled community of interested listeners. I’m going to talk about Walt Whitman today and I had written out a talk and that took some time,
and so I’m going to read it, but I’m gonna interrupt my reading to talk about Whitman a little bit. And before I actually read the paper, I wanted to say a couple of less premeditated things about Whitman. First of all, I just
wanted to say something about how I came to discover
Walt Whitman as a student. When I was in school, and by that, I mean high school, I once said to a group
of high school students, “high school is the crucible
where personality is formed”, and one of the students said, “Yeah, and they make you
read the crucible, too”. (audience laughing) Not sure he got the metaphor there. But when I was in high school, the poetry we were reading
was rather old fashion poetry. We were reading poetry of people like William Cullen Bryant and
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Poets who were generally male, had three names, (audience laughing) had beards, and who were dead, (audience laughing) although, we found out later that their beards were still growing even though they were dead. I probably encountered a bit of Whitman in a poem or two, maybe “The Noiseless Patient Spider”, but we never really got
much Whitman in school and maybe it was because it
was the conservative late 1950s and maybe it was because it was a rather conservative, Christian
Brothers High School, that we didn’t plunge
into the homoerotic depths of Walt Whitman’s “Song
of Myself” right away. I really discovered
Whitman in a filtered way. I discovered Whitman through
reading Allen Ginsberg and I think there are at
least two kinds of influence. Influence studies are kind
of complicated things. When an author is asked to
name his or her influences, they often have the benefit of hindsight and it’s easy to look in the kind of rear-view
mirror of your career and just invent some influences that sound like flags of convenience. So you can, you know, take your pipe out and say, “Well, Yates,
of course”, and so on, even though you hadn’t
read Yates when you wrote. But I think you can talk about direct influences
and filtered influences. I did not know Whitman
really until I read Ginsberg and influence runs back and forth in both historic directions. Obviously, Whitman
influences Ginsberg’s poetry and I’ll talk about that later, but also our reading of Ginsberg gives us a new way of looking at Whitman. We look at Whitman through
the lenses of Ginsberg, so historically, influence is a kind of
interesting two way street. I was heavily influenced by Ginsberg because of the wildness of his poetry. I was a suburban high school kid who wanted to be a beatnik. I wanted to steal a car and take a lot of pills
and drive to Denver (audience laughing) like all of these exciting beatniks, but I had a quiz the next morning so, (audience laughing)
that left little time for getting the pills and stealing the car and founding out how to get to Denver. But that was my sense. When I teach poetry or
conduct poetry workshops or when I’m asked what
inspires your poetry, I always say jealousy. You know, I think that’s what
motivates people to write. Jealousy. We read someone, and we don’t
just get pleasure out of them, but we also get this nagging feeling that we really wish they would go away and let us be them. If we could just take some
Wite-Out and erase their name and put ours in at the bottom of the page, we would feel a lot
better about ourselves. So I was kind of jealous
of Ginsberg’s wildness and it was only later
that I actually found out that Ginsberg could
not have written “Howl” that in fact Ginsberg was writing the wild open-ended rhetoric of Whitman, and that there were also deep
connections of sensibility joining those two writers. The other thing I just wanted to mention is that most of what I’m
gonna say about Whitman concentrates on the 1855
edition of “Leaves of Grass”, that is to say the first edition. The 150th anniversary of
that is coming up next year, and oddly enough, it was
exactly 100 years later, and I’ll mention that too, in 1955, that Ginsberg first read “Howl” at a cafe in San Francisco. The poem was published the
subsequent year in 1956, but it was precisely 100 years between the first edition
of “Leaves of Grass” and the first uttering
of Ginsberg’s “Howl”. And I will also just mention that that edition of “Leaves of Grass” is fairly unique in American literature. I can’t think of another book that was such the result
of self-promotion. Whitman found a publisher, he found a print shop in
Brooklyn to put the book out. He, of course, came up with
a rather radical new voice and a new style for poetry. He designed some of the type himself. He convinced a shop run by the
Fowler Brothers in Brooklyn, who were specialists in the science of head
reading, of phrenology, and also of kinda crack pot
homeopathic cures at the time, not for poetry, it was a kind of off the
beaten track pharmacy you might say, he convinced them to distribute his book. Whitman as you know also
became his own press agent and wrote reviews of his own, rather glowing reviews, of his own poetry under pseudonyms. So he was sort of a one-man band and he is. I mean, if we now from the
point of view of these times look back at 19th century American poetry, we can see undoubtedly
that Whitman is the father and Emily Dickinson is the mother. It’s hard to picture them together (audience laughing) creating the progeny that was to follow, but they could not be,
as many have pointed out, they could not be more dissimilar people. We were just trying to
looking up in the dictionary to figure out the difference between centripetal and centrifugal, but Whitman was outgoing,
he was centrifugal, and Dickinson was ingoing, centripetal. He was yang and she was yin. He went everywhere and was
a shameless self-promoter and she went pretty much nowhere and was even embarrassed at
the sight of her handwriting on the outside of an envelope. She would often get her sister, Lavinia, to address the envelope because Emily Dickinson
did not want the postman to see her penmanship, which is taking modesty to
certain 19th century extremes. At any rate, that’s how I got to know
Whitman in this indirect way. A few little facts
about this unique moment in the history of American publishing. When the first edition
of “Leaves of Grass” was published in 1855, when Whitman was completely unknown and also, as you know,
was published anonymously, there was a picture of
Whitman on the fly leaf and the picture is a rather famous one. He has his shirt open, he’s outdoors, he has his hat kind of
cocked at a jaunty angle, and he is assuming a very challenging, easy pose as if to immediately distinguish himself from the more buttoned up
literary types of his day with three names. And remember, we forget this, but his name is not
Walter Whitman, you know, it’s Walt Whitman, and that was very unusual for the time when not only did you
not have an abbreviated or a familiar name, but you would throw in
a middle name or two just to make yourself seem a little more prestigious and literary. And it’s only, I would say, seven or eight pages into the poem that he refers to this Walt Whitman, and at that point, he turns a card over and reveals his identity. So I’ll read parts of this and talk a little bit during it and read a little bit during it also. I begin by citing an event that I don’t know if any of
you have participated in it. It’s an event that’s run by the Poets House in New York, that’s an institution on Spring Street, it’s a library of about 50,000 volumes of contemporary or near
contemporary poetry. It’s at 72 Spring Street, if you ever wanna stop up and just look through their
shelves, they’re open. But every June on a
Monday early in the month, they hold what is called their
annual Brooklyn Bridge Walk. Typically, a few hundred people gather in the evening on the
Manhattan side of the bridge where poems by Hart
Crane and Marianne Moore and others mostly connected
to the bridge itself as an architectural
and symbolic structure. These poems are read by a
number of well-known poets who happened to have been invited and are on hand. And then the group, bearing
placards and programs, beings walking across the bridge much to the puzzlement
of joggers and bicyclists who are going back and forth, and the group pauses under the first arch, that great cathedral arch, for more poetry readings. The high point of the experience is always the concluding reading, and the concluding reading
is done on the Brooklyn side. It’s a reading of Whitman’s
“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”, and the very ferry that was made obsolete by the bridge that is being celebrated, and it’s always read, for
the last 10 years at least, as long as the event has been taking place by the poet Galway Kinnell. And Kinnell is a terrific reader. He stands always with his
back to the East River as it’s rushing along
on one of its tidal runs and beyond it, you can
see the Manhattan skyline now featuring the stunning gaps where the World Trade towers once stood. And as Kinnell intones the poem with this full-throated ease of his, he brings his listeners into a noticeably eerie proximity to Whitman as a poet. This is the poem you might remember which is insistently addressed to readers and listeners of the future who Whitman surmises will one day stand here by the East
River just where he stood. And to quote some lines from that poem, “And you that shall cross from
shore to shore years hence “are more to me, and
more in my meditations, “than you might suppose”. Whitman aims this poem at a posterity that now as the sun
weakens over New Jersey on this early summer afternoon, an audience of posterity that includes this contemporary
group of poetry readers standing by the same river that he habitually crossed on the ferry. To quote again from the poem as he speaks directly to us in the future and in his future, “Others will see the
islands large and small; “Fifty years hence, others
will see them as they cross, “the sun half an hour high, “A hundred years hence, or ever
so many hundred years hence, “others will see them, “Will enjoy the sunset, the
pouring in of the flood-tide, “the falling back to the
sea of the ebb-tide”. By making his listener an
essential part of the drama, the poem draws us into a kind of prophetic
conspiracy with Whitman and makes us wonder if only for a moment how he knew we would be there. The sensation of his physical presence is a dramatic reminder of one of the more striking innovations that Whitman brought to poetry that is a radical unheard
of level of intimacy. As he says, “It avails not, time or place, “distance avails not, “I am with you, you men
and women of a generation, “or ever so many generations hence, “Just as you feel when you
look on the river and sky, “so I felt”. No poet I know prior to Whitman had ever used the second person address in quite this way. The you or thou that appears in the long tradition
of Western love poetry, prominently in the Elizabethan sonnet, always meant the beloved, and under the influence
of this inheritance when we, readers of contemporary poetry, we tend to take, I think,
any unspecified you as a romantic addressee,
a romantic listener. Say the word you in a poem, and your reader will see
valentines and arrows flying from Cupid’s bow even if you don’t intend that and you must correct
that later in your poem. But in Whitman, the you is you the reader, the one holding the very
book in your hands, you. The you is a beloved in Whitman only in the sense that Whitman wishes to circumscribe us, his readers, within his outreaching
a cosmic kind of love. This freshly intense intimacy, I would say author-reader intimacy, unheard of before in poetry begins with that first 1855
edition of “Leaves of Grass”. So innovative was this authorial coziness with the reader. It could even be seen as analogous to the kind of radical breaking
of the theatrical barrier that separated actors from audience, that barrier that was so
freely and wildly exploited in the heyday of the
Theater of the Absurd, just as an actor in those days might stride from the stage into the seats and grab someone in the
third row by the lapel and drag him onstage to
become part of the drama. So Whitman seems to
often step off the page and into our domestic and psychic space, then he often closes in from all angles. He threatens at one point to overwhelm his reader’s identity by saying, “what I shall
assume you shall assume, “For every atom belonging to
me as good belongs to you”. He boasts shamelessly by saying, “Stop this day and night with me “and you possess the origin of all poems”. He issues grandiose commands, this is my favorite, by the way, and I think one of the
most audacious lines, Whitman is radical in his intimacy, he is also radical in his
boldness, his audaciousness, one of my favorite lines in Whitman that exemplifies that is he says, “It is time to explain
myself, let us stand up”. (audience laughing) He also confides in us. He says, “I might not tell
everybody, but I will tell you”. And he shows the way when he says, “each man and each woman
of you I lead upon a knoll, “My left hand hooking
you around the waist, “My right hand pointing to
landscapes of continents “and the public road”. And he also whispers and
beckons us seductively, “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”. The question, and it’s
a kind of academic one of whether this intimate, whispering challenging, fronting voice is identical with that of the
biographical Walt Whitman, the native Long Islander actually, or whether it’s another
example of a persona. That question I think melts away in the heat of this tone of familiarity as it issues directly forth from the man who speaks the poem who identifies himself as Walt Whitman and who is in the process of radically exhibiting
himself to the world. I mentioned the drawing
in the front of the book. It’s by a man named Samuel Hollyer. It’s based on a photograph
by Gabryel Harrison and shows Whitman as what
we called in those days a rough, like ruffian, I suppose. The antithesis of the
indoor literary figure who would be pictured not with his shirt open
half way and his hat cocked but dressed in a vested
suit in a book lined room. This photograph in the poem that almost comes out of
the mouth of the photograph is the half invented
but holy felt character that Whitman summoned forth
to deliver his long poem. If a novelist has to
invent many characters, I would say if you’re Dickens,
or Trollope, or Thackeray, you have to concoct
hundreds of characters. A poet has to invent only one character, and that’s the character that is the voice that accommodates that poet enough to deliver all his or her poems. If you flip open Whitman, you flip open Dickinson, you flip open Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, any strong
poet you can think of, you hear that character speaking, and as Louis Zukofsky said, “Each poet is writing one long poem”, it’s the same poem
written in different keys, but basically, it is a seamless utterance. The character that
Whitman presents himself as being this rough and
tumble fellow of the open road is probably a composite of many men, mostly ones met on the street. If Dickinson stayed in her room, Whitman was on the street intentionally bumping into people and starting conversations with them, people he met on the
street, or on the ferry, men he described in his many notebooks as independent, coarse, I’m taking these adjectives
from one of his notebooks, free-spirited, strong, sensitive, amiable, reflective, in short, an American amalgam of fierce and contradictory elements. The swelling, outreaching, libidinous ego of his poem seems determined to even disarm our ability to respond
to the poem critically and to overwhelm us with a kind of radical audacity. I would say a verbal bear hug because he likes to get
ahold of us with his words. Remember, this is the poet, Whitman, who rendered the critic Randall Jarrell as close to speechless as he had ever been in the face of a literary text. In Jarrell’s article on “Leaves of Grass”, all he could do basically was tip his critic’s hat and proclaim that Whitman quote, “reaches a point at which criticism “seems not only necessary but absurd”. Jarrell deals with
Whitman’s flaws and faults because he finds many of them by declaring that they do not matter. That’s very uncharacteristic of a critic to more or less give
up his critical duties and simply genuflect in front of the word. Just as revolutionary, in 1855, as this intimate voice
you hear in the poem, raging as it does, as I’ve said, from these kind of cozy whispers, to what Whitman himself
called these barbaric yawps, these yellings from rooftops, was the poem’s apparent disregard for the conventions of inherited form. “Leaves of Grass” is indeed
the first poem in English to flout the deeply ingrained etiquette of both regular meter and end rhyme. There is lots of poetry without end rhyme called blind verse, mostly Shakespeare, for example, but that is measured out generally in iambic pentameter lines. In a very restricted form like the sonnet, to pick an extreme
example of a tight form, the sonnet has been often
called the golden cage, everything must be excluded
except the 14 lines, strictly speaking the 140 syllables necessary for its expression. Whitman’s poem, on the other hand, allows all to flow in, all trades, scenes, people, places, tools, impulses, memories, projections, wishes, seasons. The poem is not so much
a rejection of form as it is a demolishing of boundaries, both the outer walls of the poem which would keep it
separate from the world and the inner walls which would partition it off from itself. “Leaves of Grass” and
particularly “Song of Myself” is a poem without walls
and without a clock to limit the length of its duration. It was probably this
free-for-all feel of the poem or perhaps its unabashedly erotic speaker that prompted James Russell Lowell, another one with the
three names and the beard, (audience laughing)
to pitch his copy of “Leaves of Grass”
into a roaring fireplace. (audience laughing) A more enlightened and prescient
reader of “Leaves of Grass” said during the great, well not great, but during the squabbling over whether “Leaves of
Grass” was a poem or not, the commentator said of “Leaves of Grass”, “If this is not poetry, “it is something greater than poetry”, balancing out Lowell’s little fit there. But for all the look, and the feel, the sound, the spontaneity that the poem conveys right off the page into the eye and ear, it does possess a distinct
and underlying form. Whitman seems relatively artless as he sings his long American love song but in fact, he was a compulsive reviser, he was even fired from one of his jobs for revising on the job, he was an inveterate journal keeper and even a dedicated collector of words. “His poem only seems to step outside “the institution of literature”, as Paul Zweig put it, but only because it shows
no signs of the influence of predecessors like William
Cullen Bryant or Tennyson, although T. S. Eliot
finds odd similarities between Whitman and Tennyson, but Whitman seems to hop over
those immediate predecessors to find his influence in the raging prose of Thomas Carlyle in the Bible and Italian opera. Instead of being stabilized by end rhyme, Whitman uses a device at
the beginnings of lines to keep his poem nailed down. The device is called anaphora. Anaphora simply means beginning
a line with the same words. Very typical, which holds together these often diverse
ingredients in the poem and instead of ticking off with a metronome and iambic beat, Whitman uses the cadence of speech which he combines with the
cascading rhetoric of the Bible to give the poem its enthralling cadence. Whitman himself described
his sense of poetic rhythm organically as quote, “the free growth of metrical
laws that bud from them “as unerringly and loosely
as lilacs and roses on a bush “and take shapes as compact “as the shapes of chestnuts and oranges”. Whitman’s drastic innovations
become even more interesting when placed in a historical context. In 1798, over half a century before the 1855 edition
of “Leaves of Grass”, Wordsworth argued for a more
ordinary language for poetry, and over half a century after 1855, Ezra Pound insisted that poets break free from the iambic yolk. The situated midpoint between English romanticism
and high modernism, Whitman’s bold enactment of natural diction and organic cadence makes Wordsworth and Pound’s declarations seem like theoretical proposals. Whitman stands isolated
in the middle of a century whose literally traditions
he never fit into. He gives no sign of being influenced by Wordsworth and company and Pound gives Whitman
only grudging credit for breaking new wood in a
poem that begins by Pound, “I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman, “I have detested you long enough”. (audience laughing) Pound also wrote an ambivalent essay called “What I Feel About Walt Whitman”, in which he admits that yes, Whitman is America, but he adds that Whitman is not an artist for he lacks reticence and restraint. Pound even strangely puts distance between himself and Whitman by claiming to prefer a
collar and dress shirt to Whitman’s Bohemian getup. But all who follow Whitman
seem obliged to acknowledge him in one way or another, and for every poet he inspires, there’s another poet whom
he just makes nervous. Perhaps the most distinguishing aspect of Whitman as a literary figure is the very kinds of influence
he has had since 1855 on the American poets
who have followed him, Pound being one of the more cantankerous. In a century and a half
since that first edition, Whitman has become such a pervasive part of American literature, that his influence, if
assiduously looked for, can be found just about anywhere. He is the male pillar,
Dickinson the female, that supports the temple of
19th century American poetry and from that position, his influence flows and
spreads in all directions. The extent of his alleged
sway is so wide and diverse as to be stretched sometimes
beyond the borders of sense. Critics have found traces
of Whitman’s spirit alive in Dylan Thomas and D.H. Lawrence and Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith and William Carlos
Williams and Jorie Graham and Hamlin Garland and Fernando Pessoa. Whitman is a torch-bearer for socialists, environmentalists, and labor activists, and let’s not forget his purported impact on the Harlem Renaissance and the Native American Poetry Movement. The Whitman web has been cast so wide, it is difficult to find
anyone swimming free of it. This influence, I feel, has
been so loosely assigned, it might be helpful to distinguish between poets who recognize
Whitman as a literary father as a writer in whose
shadow they must write and other poets who looked at Whitman as a direct stylistic model, those who directly imitate and even appropriate
his poetic innovations. There’s a very helpful
book on this subject called “Walt Whitman:
The Measure of His Song” edited by Ed Folsom and a number of others that make it clear that
few people have been immune to paying some kind of
attention to Whitman. In the 19th century, many
people wrote tributes to Whitman as an American icon. Most of these tributes, ironically enough, were written in just the
kind of stiff, formal meters whose mold Whitman had cracked, some penned elegies, Swinburne hailed Whitman as a
patron saint of human liberty saying, “O strong-winged
soul with prophetic “Lips hot with souls as with swords “Make us too music, to be with us “As a word from the world’s warm heart, “To sail the dark as the sea with us, “Full-sailed, outsinging the storm.” Worshipful eulogies stand
alongside imaginary debates and, of course, parodies and caricatures. Whitman acts as a magnet
for a host of reactions. The long list of poets who
feel compelled to respond to big daddy Whitman, we might say, is long and varied. Those who have made him
the subject of essays include Willa Cather, Sherwood Anderson, Eliot, Muriel Rukeyser, Borges. Sandburg called him the only established epic poet in America. D.H. Lawrence considered his one identity a quote, “prison of horrors”, but he also dubbed Whitman the greatest of Americans, a poet who has gone further
in actual living expression than any man so far. Langston Hughes put together
an addition of Whitman in a biographical version. Lorca wrote a nostalgic poem to him. And Pessoa not only drew on the rolling pace of Whitman’s style, but mirrored Whitman’s powers of empathy by claiming an identify with Walt himself. Pessoa says, “You know that I am you and
you are happy about it”. (audience laughing) Pessoa I think has a way of
almost getting back at Whitman by matching his coziness. I’ll ready just a little bit from Pessoa from his poem called, Fernando Pessoa, his poem called “Salutation to Walt Whitman”. “From here in Portugal, and
with all ages of my brain, “I salute you, Walt, “I salute you, my brother in the Universe, “I, with my monocle and
tightly buttoned frock coat, “I am not unworthy of you,
Walt, as you well know, “I am not not unworthy of you, “as my greeting you shows, “I, so like you in
indolence, so easily bored, “I am with you, as well you know, “and understand you and love you, “And though I never met you,
born the same year you died, “I know you loved me too, you
knew me, and I was happy”. And that charging out and speaking with that direct frontal way certainly characterizes
what Ed Folsom and others have called “talking back to Whitman”, the sense that writers need to enter into a debate with
him and to challenge him because his shadow is cast so wide and his voice itself is so challenging. Okay, we’re moving along. I wanted to mention Hart Crane, who is perhaps the first poet with Pessoa in whom you feel Whitman’s
direct stylistic influence. Part of his great poem, “The Bridge”, the Brooklyn Bridge, of course, is a section called “Cape Hatteras” which he addresses to, which is really an ode to Whitman. He addresses him theatrically, “O Walt, ascensions of
thee hover in me now “As thou at junctions elegiac”. Crane calls out and finally ends the poem by placing his hand in
Whitman’s and saying, “no, never to let go “My hand in yours, Walt Whitman, so”. So he engages Whitman
and talks back to him, but it’s Hart Crane’s style that really plugs into
Whitman’s poetic energy. I’ll read just a few lines in which you get the same
kind of open windowed, easy rolling motion and declamatory tone. Here, Crane is taking
about the Wright Brothers. He says, “O sinewy silver biplane, “nudging the wind’s withers! “There, from Kill Devils
Hill at Kitty Hawk “Two brothers in their
twinship left the dune, “Warping the gale, the
Wright windwrestlers veered “Capeward, then blading the
wind’s flank, banked and spun “What ciphers risen from prophetic script, “What marathons new-set
between the stars!” It’s difficult to imagine those lines being written without
the existence of Whitman and it is even more difficult to imagine many of Ginsberg’s early poems without the paternal background figure of Whitman, Ginsberg, in his early work, having an almost parasitic
relationship to Whitman. In “A Supermarket in California”, he addresses Whitman directly, and I don’t know. I’ll read a little bit of this. It fits on one page. It’s good to hear Ginsberg’s voice and to hear Whitman kind
of passing through him. “A Supermarket in California”. What Ginsberg does is take Whitman off the open road of the 19th century and places him in the meat section of a modern supermarket. “What thoughts I have of
you tonight, Walt Whitman, “for I walked down the
sidestreets under the trees “with a headache self-conscious
looking at the full moon. “In my hungry fatigue,
and shopping for images, “I went into the neon fruit supermarket, “dreaming of your enumerations! “What peaches and what penumbras! “Whole families shopping at night! “Aisles full of husbands! “Wives in the avocados,
babies in the tomatoes! “and you, Garcia Lorca, “what were you doing
down by the watermelons? (audience laughing) “I saw you, Walt Whitman,
childless, lonely old grubber, “poking among the meats
in the refrigerator “and eyeing the grocery boys. “I heard you asking questions of each: “Who killed the pork chops? “What price bananas? “Are you my Angel? “I wandered in and out “of the brilliant stacks
of cans following you, “and followed in my imagination
by the store detective. “We strode down the
open corridors together “in our solitary fancy tasting artichokes, “possessing every frozen delicacy, “and never passing the cashier. “Where are we going, Walt Whitman? “The doors close in an hour. “Which way does your beard point tonight? “I touch your book and
dream of our odyssey “in the supermarket and feel absurd. “Will we walk all night
through solitary streets? “The trees add shade to shade, “lights out in the houses, “we’ll both be lonely. “We will stroll dreaming
of the lost America “of love past blue
automobiles in driveways, “home to our silent cottage? “Ah, dear father, graybeard, “lonely old courage-teacher, “what America did you have “when Charon first quit poling his ferry “and you got out on a smoking bank “and stood watching the boat disappear “on the black waters of Lethe?” And as I said, exactly 100 years later after the explosion, the literary explosion of
“Leaves of Grass” in 1855, there is a secondary
explosion that goes off in a place called Six
Gallery in San Francisco which is where Ginsberg first
uttered “Howl” out loud. The poem’s indebtedness
to Whitman was so striking that Lawrence Ferlinghetti,
who was in the audience and who then and still does run City Lights Bookstore and is the publisher of City Lights books, he later after the reading Ferlinghetti wrote to Ginsberg a note which mimicked Emerson’s famous lines of
encouragement to Whitman. He said in his note, “I greet you at the
beginning of a new career. “When do I get the manuscript?” So there are stylistic and thematic, there’s a stylistic
and thematic cousinship between these two poems and similarly revolutionary
for their time in style and also in their
unashamed in declarations of a kind of universal but
particularly homoerotic love. The difference is, because there are crucial differences, is that Whitman’s is, and you’d
expect them to be different since we have 100 years intervening and Ginsberg is writing out
of the context of The Cold War and Whitman from pre Civil War times that Whitman’s is a poem
generally of celebration whereas Ginsberg’s is a
poem of social criticism and also Ginsberg’s is a proclamation of a kind of new threatening
radical consciousness both lifted and tormented by drugs that is proclaiming itself to the squares. There is a desire to shock the bourgeoisie explicitly in Ginsberg because if Whitman has this overarching unifying vision of America that stretches from shore to shore and includes all types and all people. Ginsberg sees America divided into the angel headed hipsters and the squares of Wall Street. The Bohemians and the establishment. Ginsberg issues in this
emerging generation of beat visionaries against the backdrop of corporate and civic order what he called the narcotic
tobacco haze of capitalism. An unlikely open-hearted
embrace of “Leaves of Grass”, “Howl” is a poem of protest whose opening rant gives way to a litany against the tyrannical
sematic deity of Moloch, here the god of greed, government at war, industry and bombs. Whitman’s poem ends with an image of the patient poet himself who has stopped somewhere to wait for the reader to catch up. Ginsberg’s ends with a disturbing entreaty to the mental patient, Carl Solomon, straight jacketed victim of electroshock. The kinds of imagery deployed in the two poems beginning to end vividly reflect the two sensibilities of Whitman and Ginsberg. Whitman’s images are clearly visual. Ginsberg’s are often surreal, distorted, in a kind of syntactic fun-house mirror. In Whitman quote, “winter wolves bark “amid wastes of snow and icicled trees”. In Ginsberg beat souls listen quote, “to the crack of doom on
the hydrogen jukebox”, and “they plunged
themselves under meat trucks “looking for an egg”. The sharp clarity of Whitman’s imagery is an essential feature
of “Leaves of Grass”, especially in the way the poet embeds these discreet stable images in a loose rhetorical flow of the poem. There’s a wave in “Leaves of Grass” kind of tumbling forward,
oceanic forward rolling sense of inevitable
un-punctuated progress. At the same time, there are these little
pictures within the poem almost like little photographs. It’s a bit like the poem is
a movie which rolls forward and a series of photographs
that are still at the same time. The poem is dotted with little scenes and this forward kind of biblical, Blakean tumbling roll of the poem is periodically checked by glimpses of very precise scenes almost like frames in a halted film, or maybe more apt to Whitman’s time pictures viewed in one
of those Stereopticons. Here is a little sampler
of some of his images that you can pick your own. “The butcher-boy puts
off his killing-clothes, “or sharpens his knife in
the stall in the market.” “The brood of the turkey-hen “and she with her half-spread wings.” “The mate stands braced in the whale-boat, “lance and harpoon are ready.” “The duck shooter walks by
silent and cautious stretches.” “The clean-hair’d Yankee girl “works with her sewing-machine “or in the factory or mill.” “As the fare-collector
goes through the train “he gives notice by the
jingling of loose change.” Given Whitman’s habit of
entering daily scenes and images in a notebook he carried with him, much of this poem might be seen as a stitching together of
these recorded observations. Whitman even called these notebook entries the ABC of his long poem and he remarked elsewhere on
the abundance and ubiquity of the world’s imagery. He says, “Every hour of the day and night, “and every acre of the earth and shore, “and every point or patch of sea and sky, “is full of pictures.” Such as the practice of
every journal toting writer, but what is unique
about Whitman’s practice is how such moments of keen observation are made to fit into the larger, more sweeping operatic
movement of the poem. Whitman expressed the wish
to avoid all stock touches, the little poeticisms of his day, and the way he achieves this is precisely through this combination of wave and picture, movie and photograph, which finally, I think, accounts for the poem’s
unprecedented tempo and texture. And I just have a final
thought about Whitman today, and that is “Leaves of Grass” has left many critics like Randall Jarrell, speechless, which is I would say an accomplishment in itself. Proponents of the new criticism virtually ignored Whitman’s existence because his open-throated wild singing lacked tension, irony, and paradox, which were the vie words of the day, and at a time when words
like speaker and persona had become entrenched in
the critical vocabulary, Whitman’s dropping of any
apparent literary mask struck many as nothing
short of embarrassing to direct, not deflected enough. Whitman would have been denied admission to the Confessional School of Poetry because he lacked the
psychic pain to qualify and he would be considered
too expansive, too chatty for the adherence of deep image poetry. But today Whitman is among the
most approachable of poets. While he retains his iconic status in the American literary tradition, he is a poet who has finally found the kind of wide readership
that his expansive voice, not to mention his self
advertising song to assemble. Whitman once said that “great poetry required great audiences”, and it’s safe to say 150 years after the demolition of its publication, that his audience, of his first publication, that his audience continues
to grow not only in numbers, but in the depth of their comprehension, their gratitude, and empathy. And finally at a time when deconstruction seems to have reached
its inevitable dead end, or cul-de-sac we might say, academics and theorists now returning to long neglected
literary texts themselves will find Whitman waiting for them. If they want him again, they have only to look
under their boot soles. Thank you. (audience clapping)

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4 thoughts on ““Leaves of Grass, Still Growing After 150 Years” by Professor Billy Collins

  1. Leaves of Grass is a poetry collection by the American poet Walt Whitman (1819–1892).

    Although the first edition was published in 1855, Whitman spent most of his professional life writing and re-writing Leaves of Grass, revising it multiple times until his death.

    This resulted in vastly different editions over four decades—the first a small book of twelve poems and the last a compilation of over 400.

    The poems of Leaves of Grass are loosely connected, with each representing Whitman's celebration of his philosophy of life and humanity.

    This book is notable for its discussion of delight in sensual pleasures during a time when such candid displays were considered immoral.

    Where much previous poetry, especially English, relied on symbolism, allegory, and meditation on the religious and spiritual, Leaves of Grass (particularly the first edition) exalted the body and the material world.

    Influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalist movement, itself an offshoot of Romanticism, Whitman's poetry praises nature and the individual human's role in it.

    However, much like Emerson, Whitman does not diminish the role of the mind or the spirit; rather, he elevates the human form and the human mind, deeming both worthy of poetic praise.

    With one exception, the poems do not rhyme or follow standard rules for meter and line length.

    Among the poems in the collection are "Song of Myself", "I Sing the Body Electric", and "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking".

    Later editions included Whitman's elegy to the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd".

    Leaves of Grass was highly controversial during its time for its explicit sexual imagery, and Whitman was subject to derision by many contemporary critics.

    Over time, however, the collection has infiltrated popular culture and been recognized as one of the central works of American poetry.

  2. Great lecture, thanks Billy Collins. I have big gaps in my poetry education. Sometimes, I don't even realize who has influenced me or what dictums I've introjected.

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