“The ‘I’ becomes We and I all in one”
Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass offers a transformative experience for many readers. I was first introduced to Whitman’s writing as a teenager in high school and to say that I did not particularly take to it is an understatement. I listened to what the poem said, so I thought, and I wanted nothing to do with it. I thought it was boring, static, it didn’t speak to me. Nearly twenty years later, I was reintroduced to the very same poetry and suddenly the world changed. To say Walt Whitman has bettered my life is not an exaggeration although it may sound ridiculous to some. I thought my transformation was an isolated experience. As an experiment, I searched the internet using the words “Walt Whitman changed my life” to see if I could find others who experienced Whitman in a similar transformative way to mine; and, to my great surprise, I found a number of kindred spirits.
First, I found a kindred Whitman enthusiast in Huffington Post’s reporter, Evan Roskos. Roskos recalls an eerily similar back story to mine: “I didn’t fall in love Walt Whitman as a teenager. I found his summersaulting [sic] sentences and meandering poems too much to get a handle on”. When Rosko observes that he “never could hear what Whitman wanted [him] to hear” Rosko could easily be repeating my very words. Rosko goes on further to say that “perhaps [Whitman] had too much to say and said it too loud for me to absorb. Perhaps I was too gloomy a teenager.” An interesting thing happens with the pronouns here. Rosko’s feelings align so flush with my own so that Rosko’s “I” and “me” echo my own “I” and “me” which also mirrors what Whitman is doing with his “I” and “me” pronouns in “Song of Myself.” This is clear evidence that Whitman’s pronouns are effective and carry on through the readers.
Rosko’s feelings once more match mine when he says, “Like two kids from the same highschool who randomly meet up at a party years later, I began spending time with Whitman and finally connected”. Finding this compatible experience was surprising and thrilling in itself, but I was overwhelmed when I continued my search and still found others in the same vein. Published author and poet Michael Bourne, from the online journal The Millions, posted similar feelings regarding Whitman and his profound influence on life. Bourne begins by saying, “It sounds absurd for me to say that Walt Whitman saved my life, but it is true that at a particularly vulnerable period in my late twenties, my copy of the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass was one of a very small handful of things that kept me from taking a flying leap off the Golden Gate Bridge.”
Bourne speaks of his unstable outlook on life at the time and how he felt completely adrift. He says that he felt as though he were screaming and screaming and no one heard him; no one heard him until he met Whitman. Bourne recalls reading the opening lines of the 1855 edition of “Song of Myself”. Bourne says he “was doing a lot of leaning and loafing that year, but very little inviting of my soul. Like a lot of lost people, I assumed that my soul – ‘ the other I am’, to use Whitman’s term for it – was the problem, and that inviting too openly, too nakedly, would send me right over the side of the Golden Gate Bridge”. While, luckily, I have never quite been to the depths of desperation that Bourne is describing, I have felt myself adrift plenty of times. Bourne puts his finger on some of the “magic of Whitman” when he notes “Here was a poet who seemed on intimate terms with the darkest, most secret side of himself, but who, instead of running from that scarifying Other, embraced it, even celebrated it”.
Authors are not the only ones who experience this inspirational force that is Walt Whitman. Reverend Bill Darlison of Dublin Unitarian Church, who is neither a professional writer nor an American, speaks of the inspiration he has found in Whitman’s poetry. He also shares the transformative element that I experienced with Whitman’s writing. Darlison says he was first introduced to Leaves of Grass for a course he took on American Literature. Darlison observes that his“first encounter with Whitman wasn’t very fruitful” and he “didn’t get past the first ten pages” because “It just didn’t appeal to me” he said. Darlison notes that “it wasn’t until twenty-five years later, after I’d become a Unitarian and noticed that Whitman’s name kept dropping up in Unitarian books and sermons, that I determined to have another go at his poetry. How different was my response this time!”.
Here I found someone of a vastly different background from myself experiencing such a similar transformation through Whitman’s poetry as I experienced (and continue to experience). Darlison says, “the more one reads his work, the more one realizes how inconceivable it would be for this free spirit to sit down in a stuffy church on a Sunday morning and listen to a preacher, Unitarian or orthodox. Walt would have taken spiritual sustenance elsewhere”. Darlison makes this point to say that Whitman’s spirituality is strong regardless of whether or not he attended church. Rev. Darlison says he often uses Whitman quotes in his sermons because Whitman was such a wonderful humanist. Darlison says, “I use the term [humanist] loosely, to mean one who celebrates humanity in all its diversity and richness, high and low, black, white, red and yellow, male and female, young and old”. Darlison’s observations here pin-point what I find most attractive about Whitman’s writing: Whitman’s tolerance and love of everyone.
These are only three brief examples of some of the kindred transformative experiences that run quite parallel to my own when it comes to Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass continues to inspire people when they are ready to stop and listen.
Bourne, Michael. “Embracing the other I Am; Or, How Walt Whitman Saved My Life”. The Millions. Web. 13 March 2013.
Darlison, Bill Rev. “Books That Changed My Thinking (7)”. Oscailt Magazine. Vol 6. May/June 2010. Web. 13 March 2013.
Roskos, Evan. “10 Pieces of Life Advice From Walt Whitman”. Huffington Post. 3 March 2013. Web. 13 March 2013.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass 1855 Edition. Ed. Michael Crowley. Penguin. New York: 1980. Print.