The Fresh Air Interview: Poet Robert Hass, On Whitman's 'Song Of Myself' Robert Hass, the former poet laureate of the United States, explores one of Walt Whitman's most iconic poems, Song of Myself — and shares his opinion about why the poem still resonates 155 years after it was written.

Robert Hass: On Whitman's 'Song Of Myself'

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This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross.

The first edition of Walt (cough) excuse me, Im sorry - Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" was published in 1855 in an edition of 795 copies. Whitman re-titled it "Song of Myself" in 1881.

My guest Robert Hass describes it perhaps the most unprecedented poem in the English language. Whitman revised the poem through his life. Hass has edited and written the introduction to the new book "Song of Myself and other Poems by Walt Whitman." Hass describes "Song of Myself" as a poem about democracy and imagination, and what to make of life and death.

Hass was poet laureate from 1995 to '97, and is a two-time winner of the National Book Critic Circle Award and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize. In addition to the Whitman book, Hass just published a new collection of his own poems called "The Apple Trees at Olema."

His new book "Song of Myself" reprints the poem as it appeared in 1885 and as it appeared in the final edition from - 1891 to '92.

Professor ROBERT HASS (Editor, "Songs of Myself"): The first few lines begin, famously...

(Reading) I celebrate myself and I what I assume, you shall assume for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. I loaf and invite my soul. I lean and loaf at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass.

And in the last edition, he writes...

(Reading) I celebrate myself and sing myself, and what I assume you shall assume, for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. I loaf and invite my soul. I lean and loaf at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass.

So that he just made this really small change. He added the phrase, And sing myself. In the first edition, it had no name and then in the second he called it "Walt Whitman." And then I think he called it "Walt Whitman, an American" for a while. And it really wasnt until the end of his life that he called it by the name that all schoolchildren know it by, "Song of Myself."

And I think it was at that point also that he added the phrase, And sing myself.

GROSS: Why is "Song of Myself" so important in the history of American poetry?

Prof. HASS: Well, a bunch of reasons but the first one is it's really -was the first experiment in extended free verse. Nobody had done that before. The thing that he took from English poetry, I think, was what the Romantic poets like Wordsworth saying they wanted to write poems in the language men actually spoke, to get away from what felt like artificial in the diction of 18th century poetry.

Whitman who, you know, had at 11 dropped out of school in the seventh grade and got his education as an editor and a typesetter, grew up with the language of newspapers, and he wanted a new kind of verse for a new country. And he imagined that that verse would be the rhythms of actual speech. So thats one very important thing, that first experiment.

And the second reason its important is because it's written at a particular moment before the Civil War, after the Revolution, of enormous optimism and hopefulness about the country. Some people have said Walt Whitman invented the imagery of the New Deal in 1855, by talking about - this cascade of democratic images of all kinds of people.

GROSS: Walt Whitman is always considered, like, you know, the quintessential American poet. And he writes about the American city and he writes about American diversity. I mean, Whitman was into praising diversity before our time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. HASS: Yes.

GROSS: Like, diversity is so in now, but Whitman literally used the word diversity.

Prof. HASS: Almost invented it.

GROSS: Yeah. And I want you to read an example that I think will give a sense of his love of the city, his sense of diversity, and also his, you know, free verse - his lack of rhyme.

Prof. HASS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And another thing it gives a sense of is how he'd often just do lists of things, just like tumbling lists of similar things that he wanted to talk about. So would you read this section for us that begins the blab of the pave?

Prof. HASS: Sure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. HASS: Isnt that wonderful.

GROSS: Pave as in pavement. Blab as in blabber.

Prof. HASS: That was the fun of walking across the campus and think: What does the dictionary say about blab in 1850? Anyway...

(Reading) The blab of the pave, the tires of carts and slough of boot-soles and talk of the promenaders. The heavy omnibus, the driver with his interrogating thumb, the clank of the shod horses on the granite floor. The carnival of sleighs, the clinking and shouted jokes, and pelts of snowballs. The hurrahs for popular favorites, the fury of roused mobs. The flap of the curtained litter, the sick man inside borne to the hospital. The meeting of enemies, the sudden oath, the blows and falls. The excited crowd, the policeman with his star quickly working his passage to the center of the crowd. The impassive stones that receive and return so many echoes. The souls moving along, are they invisible, while the least atom of the stone is visible? What groans of over-fed or half-starved who fall on the flag sun struck or in fits. What exclamations of women taken suddenly who hurry home and give birth to babes. What living and buried speech is always vibrating here. What howls restrained by decorum. Arrests of criminals, slights, adulterous offers made, acceptances, rejections with convex lips, I mind them or the resonance of them, I come again and again.

GROSS: There's several phrases that are changed in the final version, but most dramatically the last phrase of that section you just read. So would you read the last phrase of the original and the last phrase of the final edition?

Prof. HASS: Yes. The last phrase of the original is... I come again and again. And the last phrase of the final is I come and I depart.

GROSS: What does that difference mean to you?

Prof. HASS: My guess is that hes an older man when he's writing the last version of the poem, coming and going. And so, hes with the first version says, I come again and again. I'm here. I'm always here. Theres another line in the poem that says, urge and urge and urge, always the procreant urge of the world, the continuous presence of the sexual energy of living. And in the last version I commented, I depart. It means everythings coming and going. I come and its, you know, its more Buddhist.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It - also and I think he knows hes nearing mortality. Hes not going to...

Prof. HASS: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: Hes not going to be coming again and again.

Prof. HASS: Yeah. He was writing one of the last sections of the final version of the poem theres a section called Sands at 70. And then another called Last Annex. So he was getting near the end and thinking about it.

GROSS: Now you mentioned in your introduction that Emerson, who was a champion of Whitmans early on, got kind of that list-making, that cataloging that we hear...

Prof. HASS: Yeah.

GROSS: the excerpt that you just read. Why did he get tired of that?

Prof. HASS: Well, I...

GROSS: And how do you feel about that? How do you feel about that constant list-making?

Prof. HASS: Well, I think everybody gets tired of it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. HASS: The thing about Whitman is I think what Emerson said, I thought he was going to write the great poems of America and he wrote the catalog, at that time when...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. HASS: ...when they arrived as regularly as they do now. You know, he overuses the technique. I mean, he celebrates abundance. Hes an incredibly abundant writer. I think when I began reading him without a sense of how terrific the most the best of the poems were, I thought he was kind of a gas bag, partly because if this endless listing.

When you look at it in the poems, this - like Songs of Myself and hes at the top of his form, every single image is very wonderful, vivid and amazing and accurate with the newspaper reporters accuracy that he had. They flash before the eye like those illustrations in 19th century books, one figure after another, the policeman with his star quickly works and so on, all of that. Always of getting at the city. But at certain points hes listing anything he can think to list then he loses me. But not in this poem. This poem is a miracle in the way that it keeps coming back to this sense of the enormous variety and abundance and diversity and vitality of life.

GROSS: My guest is former poet laureate Robert Hass. He edited and wrote the introduction to the new book Song of Myself and Other Poems by Walt Whitman.

Well talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is former poet laureate Robert Hass. He edited and wrote the introduction to the new book Song of Myself and Other Poems by Walt Whitman.

One of the things about Whitman is that hes, in his own way, I think its fair to say like a mystic, where everything is embodied in everyone. Everyone embodies everything.

Prof. HASS: Uh-huh.

GROSS: But he's also like an egotist.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Like, I always find when I read Whitman I never know, like which part is like is a huge ego and which part is this, like, great mystical exuberance. What do you think? Do you feel that way too?

Prof. HASS: Yes, I do. But I think that in Song of Myself, I think its pure exuberance. And it is a mystical - someone said its the only comic mystical poem because the mystical insight at the core of the poem is, if you say it, it sounds banal. You know, its here I am. And here we all are and we all can feel our way into each other and everybody is everybody else. And one response one might have to that is to say, no, youre not me. At some point in this period he said - he said about himself when he was writing these poems, I was simmering, simmering and Emerson brought me to a boil.

He was reading Emersons essays and he had some sense, you know, young guy from a troubled family. Grew up in making it in the streets of Brooklyn, which - huge exploding suburb and of Manhattan that he had this sense that all life is life right now, that everything is alive and that its to be celebrated and the enormity of it is to be celebrated and the surprise of it is to be celebrated. The shocking thing, he says, about that at the beginning of the poem is I'm going to tell you in this poem that death is different from what anybody supposed and luckier, which is the kind of joke at the core of the poem. All life is eternal in the imagination if you act like it is.

GROSS: Okay. So I'm going to ask you now to read something that I think really reflects that mystical streak in Whitman. And this is the section of Song of Myself that starts with: And there is no object so soft.

Prof. HASS: (Reading) There's no object so soft that it makes a hub for the wheeled universe. And any man or woman shall stand cool and supercilious before a million universes. And I call to mankind, be not curious about God, for I who am curious about each am not curious about God. No array of terms can say how much Im at peace about God and about death. I hear and behold God in every object, yet I understand God not in the least, nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself. Why should I wish to see God better than this day? I see something of God each hour of the 24 and each moment then, in the faces of men and women I see God and in my own face in the glass. I find letters from God dropped in the street and everyone is signed by Gods name and I leave them where they are, for I know that others will punctually come forever and ever. And as to you, death, and you bitter hug of mortality, it is idle to try to alarm me.

GROSS: I just really love that section of Song of Myself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And it really speaks to that sense of everything being God.

Prof. HASS: That would...

GROSS: How would you define what you know of Whitmans version of spirituality?

Prof. HASS: Well, you got it exactly right. His mother was Quaker and his father was of Dutch background from Long Island. And people described him as kind of a radical working man rationalist, follower of Tom Paine. And Whitmans language is suffused with the language of Quaker spirituality, which is some idea of The Family of Man. But his religion at this point is that he sees God in everything.

GROSS: Theres a line I want to quote that I think gives the sense of my confusion between his egotism and his mysticism.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. HASS: Uh-huh.

GROSS: And also has just a great, really earthy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...earthy phrase in it. He says, divine I am inside and out and I make holy whatever I touch or am touched from. The scent of these armpits is aroma finer than prayer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But, you know...

Prof. HASS: And...

GROSS: Yeah, I make holy whatever I touch. I mean, does he see himself as particular holy or is he speaking for everybody, that everybody is holy?

Prof. HASS: Yeah. No. Hes speaking for everybody. But he gets the outrage and the comedy of it. He says, I know no sweeter fat then sticks to my own bones, he says in another line. But he keeps meaning that its so of everybody. And in fact, theres nothing very personal in this poem in that way. Its not the personal narcissism of the person who says, you know, and another thing about me. This is a poem about everybody.

GROSS: How hard was it for Walt Whitman to get these kind of radical for their time poems published?

Prof. HASS: Well, he had no trouble getting them published because he put up the money and did part of the hand printing himself. The poems were published in the same year that The Song of Hiawatha was published by Longfellow, by a respectable Boston publisher and it sold hugely. And the first version of Leaves of Grass, according to his brother, I think he printed 500 copies and managed to distribute five or six of them.

So, getting it printed wasnt the problem. Getting himself read and believed in took some time. But by the end of his life, you know, he was a figure of some he was certainly a cult figure and hes a figure of some eminence. And there were - writers from all over the world would come to visit him in Camden, New Jersey, in his last house there to meet the phenomenon of Walt Whitman. And I think that he made some money by having a brand of cigars named after him so that his white bearded face smiling and his slouch hat appears on a box of cigars that I've seen at the Smithsonian, I think.

GROSS: My guest is former poet laureate Robert Hass. He edited and wrote the introduction to the new book Song of Myself and Other Poems by Walt Whitman.

Well talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If youre just joining us, my guest is Robert Hass. Hes a former poet laureate. He has a new collection of poems called The Apple Trees at Olema. We're talking about his collection of Walt Whitman poems called Song of Myself and Other Poems by Walt Whitman and selected and introduced by Robert Hass.

You have a lexicon in the middle of the book with words from Whitmans time that we wouldnt understand but our knowledge of these words will help us appreciate what he was saying.

Prof. HASS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And its good you have it there. I mean, like theres one phrase in particular...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Where I found it really helpful. He says...

(Reading) Through me the afflatus surging and surging...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And afflatus, it sounds like flatulence. I dont know whether you say flatus or afflatus but it sounds like theres flatulence, flatulence surging through him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But afflatus of flatus actually means the miraculous communication of super natural knowledge, which kind of changes the whole feel of what hes saying there.

Prof. HASS: Yeah, its a word from 19th century theology. It was fun to look and say, blab of the pave. Does anybody else use the word pave as a noun? No, is the answer. We looked in every possible source. Another place he says, the kelson of creation is love. I looked up kelson. Whitman grew up on Long Island and then in Brooklyn, where theres a shipyard, so he loved watching guys build boats. And the kelson is the piece of wood that connects the rudder to the frame of the boat.

So it was enormous fun doing the lexicon because it got us a chance to look at exactly the way he used these words. And over and over again, they turned out to be terrifically precise. When the young Henry James reviewed the first - an early version of Song of Myself, Whitman would throw in foreign words and James, with a little bit of fastidious snobbery said, one must regret Mr. Whitman too extensive acquaintance with the foreign languages.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. HASS: As though he was putting it down for the - and one example was he talks about the rushing by in the street the flaps of the ambulanza. But when we looked it up it turned out that the first army to develop a service to get wounded soldiers very quickly from the battle to hospital tents was the Italian army or the Piedmontese(ph) Army during the Crimean War. And the term for these very fast moving wagons taking people to the hospital was ambulanza and it was the newest, most cool word.

So, over and over, when we looked - when I looked up words in the dictionary, see where Whitman was in 1855, there was always some surprising interesting accuracy or some area like the word afflatus or flatus. I dont know. Since nobody every says it how would we know how to pronounce it?

GROSS: Heres something that really baffles me about Whitman, given his mystical streak, he commissioned a granite mausoleum.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And I guess, why would you want that kind of like physical monument to your bones if you really believed in the divinity of everything and the, you know, eternal presence of everything?

Prof. HASS: Yeah. I mean, it turns out he was a Victorian.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. HASS: You know, I mean it was the century of the beautiful cemetery, when everybody had terrific appetite for these marble mausoleums. And, you know, it turned out hes just like everybody else.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. HASS: Yeah. Its true, it does...

GROSS: Have you ever visited the mausoleums?

Prof. HASS: No, I haven't. And I think for me, you know, the famous end of Song of Myself is...

(Reading) 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 fiber your blood. Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, missing me one place, search another. I stop somewhere waiting for you.

I think thats his burial place, for me. I dont really need to go to the mausoleum. Id take him at his word. Hes under our boot-soles.

GROSS: Under our boot-soles and on our bookshelves.

Prof. HASS: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Just one more thing, I want you to talk a little bit about the impact that his free verse had on American poetry and how radical it was at the time. We take as you point out in the book, we take it for granted now.

Prof. HASS: Yeah. Well, the impact was slow. I think people associated the free verse with the lists, with the catalogs and with the parts of Whitman's, you know, I hear America singing that sound like 19th political oratory. So people didnt quite know how to deal with his free verse and basically didnt for 50 years.

Then in 1911, 1912, the young Modernist poets started to experiment with free verse, which they thought of not as an American thing coming out of Whitman but as an avant garde technique coming out of France. And Ezra Pound wrote - who grew up not far Whitmans country in Philadelphia suburb wrote a poem called A Pact. It begins: I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman. You roughed it out and now we're going to refine it is basically what the poem says.

So - and when people worked in free verse in the early 20th century, except for Carl Sandburg and a little bit Langston Hughes, they were working out of European models not out of Whitman as a model. And it really wasnt until Allen Ginsberg wrote Howl that somebody took what Whitman had done and tried to do something more with it.

GROSS: Robert Hass, thank you so much for talking with us about Whitman and for reading some of his work. Thank you.

Prof. HASS: Well, youre welcome. Its a pleasure.

GROSS: Robert Hass edited and wrote the introduction to the new book Song of Myself and Other Poems by Walt Whitman. You can read the introduction on our website, Hass also has a new collection of his own poems called The Apple Trees at Olema.

Well close with an excerpt of pianist and composer Fred Herschs album Leaves of Grass, featuring Kurt Elling singing Song of Myself.

(Soundbite of song, Song of Myself)

Mr. KURT ELLING (Vocalist): (Singing) I celebrate myself and sing myself. I celebrate myself and sing myself. And what I assume you shall assume, for every atom belonging to me is good, belongs to you.

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