On July 4, A Celebration Of Walt Whitman's Irreverent Hymnal For "This Week's Must-Read" poet Rowan Ricardo Phillips turns to Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, the man who first heard America singing.


On July 4, A Celebration Of Walt Whitman's Irreverent Hymnal

On July 4, A Celebration Of Walt Whitman's Irreverent Hymnal

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Leaves of Grass
By Walt Whitman

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Leaves of Grass
Walt Whitman

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Instead of you throwing a curve here instead is a fastball, high and hard.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the granddaddy of American poetry; the gray ghost; the big thumper; the barbarian's text with its barbaric yawp; the nation's first truly great mega biblion; the Kosmos; the Civil War witness; the seaside songbook; the irreverent hymnal; the book of the lover; the book of the loafer; the peacemaker; Leaves of Grass.

"To have great poets, there must be great audiences," Whitman said. And more than ever, we are the audience Leaves of Grass has waited for. The beauty of this book of poems lies both in its music and its basic understanding that the borders between our private and public lives are in fact misunderstood.

Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!

When we celebrate American independence we are celebrating the best sense of an idea, a process in process. In this sense, we are beautifully, frustratingly imperfect: as is Leaves of Grass. It grew from an original 12 untitled poems first published in 1855, to versions in 1856, 1860, 1867, 1871-72, 1881-82, and its final magnificent version of 1891-92, commonly referred to as the deathbed edition.

And I recommend this book to you now not because you may not know it, but precisely because you think you know it. Visit it again and start anywhere, read it with the liberty that its free verse and insistent theme of personal freedom ask you to embrace. It's perfect in portions and every portion symbolizes the best sense of the whole. Our country (and your vacation) should be so.

In short, choose your own adventure. What you'll find is that the great sensations behind the book order themselves around you, like planets around the sun. You will be hard pressed to read another book that understands you as well as Leaves of Grass does. It was made for you in the way that the constellations were made for you. It understands and makes space for your doubts, your love, the guilt and passions of your life and waits for you. You'll struggle to find a moment of empathy in a book as touching, grand and unapologetic as the last line of "Song of Myself":

Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

Catch up to it.

Rowan Ricardo Phillips is the author of The Ground: Poems.