Recently, my mother and I instructed my father to buy Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. We had a specific addition of the book that we wanted. We received the book in the mail and were very please because it was perfect. It has the WPA era illustrations* and that musty, old book smell, with the soft, age worn pages.
We knew which addition we wanted because we had taken it out from the library. My mother read it aloud to me and our friend late one evening, and it was a thrilling experience. It confirmed in me that Walt’s poems must be read aloud.
I want to share with you a bit of information from the preface to this addition of Leaves of Grass. The preface, which was written by Christopher Morley, is excellent, albeit a bit rambling and confusing at times.
Morley says that, when Leaves was published (and still today), people tend to think that Walt was arrogant and narcissistic. They think he was full of himself. In Morley’s opinion, however, this is not true.
Walt Whitman was not writing about himself, Morley says. He was writing about us all. He was a poet for the people, of the people. He wrote poems that were unifying and thrilling, exciting and encouraging. He meant for his poems to be about everyone: every woman, every man, every child, each one of us. It took courage to write poems like that, to take up the voice and the pen and unite us all together.
So, my favorite of Walt’s poems that I’ve read is his Song of the Open Road. It is quite a long poem, and to really feel the intensity and weight of it, you must read it in its entirety. However, I will put here the first and last parts.
Song of the Open Road
* This is the 1940 addition, published by Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc. The illustrations are by Lewis C. Daniel. The text is, of course, by Walt Whitman, the great, courageous poet of the 19th century.