Whitman's 'Leaves of Grass' Marks 150th Anniversary

"I lean and loafe at my ease... observing a spear of summer grass." This summer marks the 150th anniversary of Walt Whitman's exuberant free-verse work Leaves of Grass. Published in July 1855, the book expanded poetry's boundaries.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

In 1855, a book of poetry appeared that captured the soul of America and expanded the possibilities for all poetry.

Mr. ROBERT PINSKY: (Reading) I celebrate myself and what I assume you shall assume, for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

HANSEN: Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" was the first great American poem and is being celebrated this year with a new 150th anniversary edition of the original. From New York, Tom Vitale has the story.

TOM VITALE reporting:

When "Leaves of Grass" appeared in 1855, nothing like it had ever been seen in print before. A dozen untitled poems spanning 83 pages urging the reader to join the poet in a new perspective. Excerpts are read by former poet laureate Robert Pinsky.

Mr. PINSKY: (Reading) Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems. You shall possess the good of the Earth and sun. There are millions of suns left. You shall no longer take things at second or third hand nor look through the eyes of the dead nor feed on the specters in books. You shall not look through my eyes either nor take things from me. You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.

VITALE: It was the beginnings of free verse, long, exuberant flowing lines that didn't rhyme. Like his 19th century contemporaries, Whitman started out writing conventional poetry, but unlike the English romantics and the American poets who tried to imitate them, Whitman wrote in the language and cadence of everyday Americans.

Whitman was born in 1819 to a poor family on Long Island. He left school at the age 11 to become a printer's apprentice and later worked as a newspaper editor. Biographer David Reynolds says by the time Whitman turned 30, what he saw around him changed the way he wrote.

Mr. DAVID REYNOLDS (Biographer): Of course, this was just before the Civil War and he was extremely of about what was happening in his country at that time. He saw the division between the North and the South. He saw the enslavement of nearly four million African-Americans, but then when the fugitive slave law came in 1850, he really bursts out in wrath and anger and slowly we see his social passions kind of exploding that kind of effete, sentimental diction of his earlier poetry, and suddenly we're in a new poetic universe now.

VITALE: It was a poetic universe that embraced the diversity of the nation.

Mr. PINSKY: (Reading) I'm of old and young, the foolish as much as the wise, regardless of others, ever regardful of others, maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man, stuffed with the stuff that is coarse and stuffed with the stuff that is fine. One of the great nations, the nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the largest the same, a Southerner as soon as a Northerner.

VITALE: Robert Pinsky says "Leaves of Grass" is a literary landmark not only for its stylistic innovations, but also because it was the first poem to express national ideals in passionate verse.

Mr. PINSKY: It takes a lot of thoughts that people had all through the 19th century, thoughts that people had about the United States, the thought that the democracy of experience, that the interior life of every person regardless is equal, that they're all related, and he finds this bold, unwavering way of expressing those thoughts that is both sort of idiosyncratic and that is universal the way opera is universal.

VITALE: The universality of "Leaves of Grass" goes beyond politics to a Zenlike appreciation of the miracles of everyday life. Scholar David Reynolds says the poem has a healing influence.

Mr. REYNOLDS: Looking at the natural world, the mystery of it, the beauty of it, things that you and I could easily take for granted, a mouse or the hair growing out of the back of his hand, to me, that's what's just beautiful about "Leaves of Grass." You can read this. You can sit there in the open air and read it and then look around you and the world can seem new and fresh.

Mr. PINSKY: (Reading) I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars and the pismire is equally perfect and the grain of the sand and the egg of a wren and a tree toad is a chef-d'oeuvre for the highest and the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven and the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery.

VITALE: Whitman tinkered with "Leaves of Grass" for the rest of his life. He published five more editions, each retaining the earlier poems while adding new ones, including the famous elegies for Lincoln, "O Captain! My Captain!" and "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." But David Reynolds, who edited the 150th anniversary edition of "Leaves of Grass," says none of Whitman's later poems match the sheer energy of the originals.

Mr. REYNOLDS: You know, Whitman even late in life looked back on that and said, `I've missed the ecstasy of statement of the 1855 edition. It had such directness and such sort of turbulent force.' And it really does. It's almost like a volcanic explosion of feeling and of vision.

VITALE: And it was an emotional call to frankness and tolerance, as embodied in the poem by the character of Whitman himself.

Mr. PINSKY: (Reading) Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a cosmos, disorderly, fleshy and sensual, eating, drinking and breathing. No sentimentalist. No stander above men and women or apart from them. No more modest than immodest. Unscrew the locks from the doors. Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs.

VITALE: When the first edition of less than a thousand copies of "Leaves of Grass" appeared, Whitman's 19th century readers weren't buying it.

Mr. REYNOLDS: That 1855 edition didn't sell many copies. Whitman later said he had to give a lot of them away. It got some terrible reviews. It was called a stupid mass of filth. It did, however, elicit the response from Emerson that this was the most magnificent piece of wisdom that America has yet produced.

VITALE: Robert Pinsky agrees with Emerson.

Mr. PINSKY: "Leaves of Grass," I believe like American jazz, like certain American feature films, represents the best of our experiment, our effort to become a people and a people that is not based on sharing some religion or some blood, but a people based on this idea literally of freedom.

VITALE: At the end of his life, Walt Whitman's genius was finally recognized and his work was celebrated first in England, then here in the United States. He died in 1892. For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

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