Walt Whitman comes to mind when I think of Guys We Love. On May 31, America celebrated the 191st anniversary of his birth. On another birthday, my son Christopher’s, I took the occasion to introduce him to the Bard:
The magical thing about poets and poems is that they come into our lives at just the moment we need them most. The reason, of course, is that poets – the good and enduring ones – write out of the same joy & heartache, fear & triumph, and awe & existential angst that all humans enjoy and endure. Their words reach across the centuries and appear on the page patiently waiting to be read, waiting to be discovered to help us locate ourselves in the world.
On the eve of your 21st birthday, I want to tell you about Walt Whitman, who – writing in his 36th year – might curiously speak to you, a young man on the threshold of manhood a century and a half later.
Whitman published his first collection of poems, Leaves of Grass, in 1855. It its founding poem, "Song of Myself", he wrote to hail and challenge his young country, but mostly he wrote to praise the perfection of nature and the divinity in us all. With his free verse, Whitman revolutionized poetry by rejecting those stuffy Brits, flinging their poetic tradition overboard, favoring his own rhythm.
But—and here's where you come in—Whitman did more than invent a new poetic form: he invented himself. It's a really neat story:
After fits and starts at a “mulligan stew of jobs” – carpenter, teacher, printer, journalist – Whitman was debating still more career choices when he read an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson calling for a new kind of poet for America. Whitman decided to become that very poet, and soon afterward wrote and self-published Leaves of Grass. Of that time he said, "I was simmering, simmering, simmering, and Emerson brought me to a boil."
Not content to wait for an audience to find him, Whitman declared himself to be “America’s bard”, and wrote and published three glowing reviews (all unsigned) of Leaves. Then he inaugurated a tradition followed by every author since: he sent copies of his book to the literary establishment. Most notably, Whitman sent Leaves to Emerson, who responded by writing Whitman a letter for the ages—the best letter a writer has ever received—in which Emerson said, "I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start."
Whitman took that letter and invented what we know of today as the Book Blurb. He reprinted Emerson's letter on the back cover of the second edition of Leaves.
All this, my darling son, is to say that you, too, can invent yourself. You, too, can create a life that will nourish your soul and that will bring you into harmony with the rest of creation—even if, especially if, it takes some "simmering."
As you continue your studies, think of them as your "foreground"—preparation for your life choices. And along the way, remember to do as Whitman modeled: "I loafe and invite my soul."
The following passage from Whitman’s preface to Leaves contains most of what your Dad ad I ever wished of and for you on your birth-day—and always.
From Whitman’s preface to Leaves of Grass:
“This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”
Kitty Bayh lives on the Eastern Shore with her husband, Birch, working as an editor, writer, teacher of poetry, and church volunteer. Besides Walt Whitman, she most loves the poetry of Emily Dickinson, Rilke, Mary Oliver and the Bible.