Leaves of Grass

Normally I really hate writing in books.  It’s totally irrational, I know, but for some reason it just feels somewhere in between crass and sacrilegious to me.  Plus, marked-up text badly interrupts the flow of my reading later.  Leaves of Grass is the first book I can ever remember that’s made me want to scribble all over.  I couldn’t even get through the first stanza without wanting to jot half a dozen notes in the margins.

Of course, I didn’t; even if I’d completely overcome my instinctive aversion to writing in books, it’s a library book.  But the experience reminded me of how much I love reading actively, taking things apart and analyzing them.  I don’t usually examine the books I read line by line – it’d take forever, after all – and I don’t usually do it deliberately and consciously as I read.  Right now, though, I’m taking a lot of pleasure in doing it with Leaves of Grass.  I’ve filled eight pages in my little pocket-notebook with thoughts so far, and I haven’t even gotten out of the first section, Inscriptions.  I don’t have a lot of background on Whitman or his time period, so I’m sure I could fill just as many pages with the things I’m missing, but I’m enjoying myself too much to care.

My favorite thing about the book so far is the sense of vitality permeating it.  In the first section, Whitman speaks of a “Life immense in passion, pulse, and power.”  He really seems to believe that the world and people themselves are boundless and wondrous, filled with potential joy and energy.  The feeling resonates with me, so deeply I almost feel as if I can taste it.  I want to sink into the words, drink them in, get drunk on them.

There are disconnects, though.  I think they’re mostly a matter of our respective time periods and history.  Whitman is a big fan of the ideas and of democracy and liberty, which I can’t fault him for, but he conflates them a lot, I feel.  Mind you, I might just be cynical about it because lately neither our democracy nor our liberty have been doing so hot, so it’s harder for me to be quite so optimistic about it as he is.  More problematic for me is that he keeps coming back to this image of a war for liberty.  He seems to mean it more or less metaphorically, as a struggle both individual and national.  But he paints it in the same shining light he does nearly everything else, and that bothers me.  I don’t believe in glorious wars.

In between the moving and the problematic, though, there are parts of the book so far that are just plain fun.  It’s surprisingly self-referential, which I think may just be because the section I’ve been reading is ‘Inscriptions.’  I think this is Whitman’s equivalent of a dedication or foreword.  If so, it’s my favorite I’ve ever read.  But then, I like self-consciousness in books (and other things); I like meta.  (I like postmodernism!)  Beyond that, though, there are times when I just have to laugh at Whitman’s sheer audacity.  Like “To Foreign Lands”:

I heard that you ask’d for something to prove this puzzle the New World,
And to define America, her athletic Democracy,
Therefore I send you my poems that you behold in them what you wanted.

Hey, guys, I heard you just don’t really get this America thing, so here, read my book, it will explicate it for you perfectly.

Or “Shut not your doors”:

Shut not your doors to me proud libraries,
For that which was lacking on all your well-fill’d shelves, yet needed most, I bring…

Libraries, wow, you have so many great things, yet somehow you’re missing the thing you need most – but don’t worry, it’s right here in my book for you!

I don’t know if the rest of the book will continue this way, but I’m pretty sure I’m going to enjoy it.