MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
It's time for another installment in our series, You Must Read This. It's where authors talk about the books they love.
Diane Ackerman is a poet, naturalist, an author of "A Natural History of the Senses." One work she finds herself going back to again and again is a continuing source of inspiration for her own writing.
DIANE ACKERMAN: When I first read Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" in college, I knew I had found a soulmate. Long before the discovery of black holes, he wrote, the bright suns I see, and the dark suns I cannot see, are in their place.
Whitman was the first American poet the Universe didn't scare. Voluptuously in love with life, he believed a poet's duty was to change people's lives by throwing a bucketful of light onto the commonest things. I felt those same instincts and still do.
Whitman decided to invent a radically new poetry, a poetry full of street talk, everyday events and long lists. A poetry so aggressively intimate that it buttonholes the reader, cries with the reader, woos the reader. A poetry written in a breathless, ecstatic style. A poetry that celebrates the human body in frank sexual detail. A poetry that drastically changed the form of poetry by bringing into it gorgeous, untraditional things like Egyptology, carpentry, opera, Hindu epics, the whole big buzzing confusion of life.
He really only wrote one poem. It began with a microscopic eye focused on the beauty of the lowliest miracle, say, a leaf of grass, and then stretched his mental eye out to the beauty of the farthest nebulae.
In "Leaves of Grass," Whitman's portrait of America is sense-luscious and unnervingly complex, but he also saw it whole, as one democratic fabric, and proclaimed its common men and women to have lives of sparkling beauty and dignity. And he believed that perfecting his own life was essential to perfecting his art. Indeed, he became the embodiment of the 19th century ideal, the self-made man, and was self-reliant, robust, obsessed with the physical.
"Leaves of Grass" is, among other things, a journey of self-discovery whose message is that you can change your personality, change your fate, invent the self you want.
I bequeath myself to the dirt, he wrote, to grow from the grass I love. If you want to find me again look for me under your bootsoles. He taught people a way of beholding nature, which is itself a form of prayer. Whitman reminds us that the world is simply unknowable from just one perspective. He continues to inspire me.
I read "Leaves of Grass" as a sacred American text about the essential goodness and perfectibility of people, the sanctity of the common man, the holiness of the human body viewed naked and up close, the need to forge one's own destiny, and the duty of all to discover the world anew by living in a state of rampant amazement at the endless pocket-sized miracles one encounters every day.
I read it as a reminder what grace it is just to be born and live, and that we, too, are natural wonders.
NORRIS: Diane Ackerman is a poet, naturalist and the author of the newly published, "The Zoo Keeper's Wife," and also "A Natural History of the Senses." You can read an excerpt of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" and more You Must Read This recommendations at our Web site, npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.