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PEOPLE IN AMERICA - November 17, 2002: Walt Whitman, Part 1 - 2002-11-15


This is Shirley Griffith.


And this is Rich Kleinfeldt with the VOA Special English program, People in America. Today we tell about the well-known American poet, Walt Whitman.



Walt Whitman was born in eighteen-nineteen when the United States was about thirty years old. During his long lifetime, he watched his country grow from an undeveloped, new nation to the great industrial power it became.

Whitman did not celebrate this growth although other writers did. Instead, he wrote about the people and the spirit that produced American democracy. Whitman celebrated the common American. The person whose hands cut the trees and built the factories of industrial America.


"I celebrate myself, and sing myself," he wrote,

"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."


Whitman celebrated all men and women, the working people, but also criminals, the weak, and the hated. To Whitman, democracy was more than a political system or idea. It was a law of nature. It was the natural form of government sought by healthy, happy, free human beings. Democracy, Whitman believed, honors the rights of every person and the equality of all people.


"I am the poet of the body and I am the poet of the soul,

"I am the poet of the woman the same as the man. "


As a boy, Whitman could visit the port in Brooklyn, New York. Across the Hudson River was New York City. He could watch the ships and the men who sailed the oceans of the world.

The life of the growing port city never failed to interest him. All this became the subject of the poems he wrote later.

Yet no one understands how Whitman developed into a poet. He left school at eleven and worked in the office of a group of lawyers. Then he worked for a doctor. By the age of twelve, Whitman was working in the printing office of a newspaper and doing some writing. When Whitman was fifteen, his family moved farther from New York. Whitman stayed.

He often took the boat from Brooklyn, where he lived, to New York City. By the age of sixteen, he was working as a printer in New York. One year later he rejoined his family and became a teacher.

He made his father angry by refusing to do farm work. And the fathers and mothers of the children he taught thought him unwilling to work hard enough. By eighteen-forty, when he was twenty-one, he had started a series of newspaper reports called "sun-down papers from the desk of a schoolmaster. "

He went back to New York City and began to work for a series of newspapers. Dismissed from one newspaper, he would find work with another. In one job, he was required to read the best-known writers of the time and to write about their books. He even wrote a bad novel himself about the evils of drinking.

He was thirty-six and had never known much success. Then he paid to have his first book of poetry published. It was called "Leaves of Grass."

It was a thin book that contained twelve poems, written in free verse. Free verse means that the lines do not follow any set form. Some lines are short, some long. Also, the words at the end of each line do not have a similar sound. They do not rhyme.

The first poem in "Leaves of Grass" was a long one. When the book was first published that poem had no name. Whitman later called it "Song of Myself."

Throughout the poem, Whitman writes about how grass covers the world and feeds us. He writes about grass as a sign of everlasting life. Grass links all living things in body and spirit, he says. We Make our bread from grass. And, we become grass when we die.


"A child said, what is the grass. Fetching it to me with full hands;

"How could I answer the child. I do not know what it is any more than he.

"I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

"Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,

"A scented gift and rememberancer designedly dropped,

"Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say whose. ...

"And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

"Tenderly will I use you curling grass.

"It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men ...

"It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon out of their mother's laps ...

"What do you think has become of the young and old men.

"And what do you think has become of the women and children.

"They are alive and well somewhere, the smallest sprout shows there is really no death, and if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it ...

"All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, and to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier."


Whitman sent out copies of his book to other writers. He hoped for their praise and support.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of best-known American thinkers and writers, immediately recognized the importance of the book. He wrote to Whitman, "I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I have great joy in it. "

Most other poets and writers, however, remained silent about "Leaves of Grass." Some were shocked by Whitman's praise of the human body and sexual love. One newspaper critic wrote that the book was a "mass of stupid filth."

Some people disliked Whitman's thoughts about society. He rejected the search for money and power. He denounced those who believed they were better than others in the eyes of God. He speaks these ideas in "Song of Myself."


"I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contained, I stand and look at them long and long.

"They do not sweat and whine about their condition,

"They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,

"They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,

"Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,

"Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,

"Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth."


Whitman's ideas of religion and god were unusual. So were his ideas about beauty and the worth of the human body.

Some of these ideas were from nineteenth century spiritual thinkers. But no one had ever declared them so clearly. Some critics consider this part of "Song of Myself" one of Whitman's most beautiful pieces of writing:


"I have said that the soul is not more than the body.

"And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,

"And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one's self is. ...

"And I say to any man or woman, let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.

"And I say 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 I am at peace about God and about death.)

"I hear and behold God in every object, yet 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 twenty-four, and each moment then,

"In the face of men and women I see God, and my own face in the glass.

"I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one is signed by God's name,

"And I leave them where they are, for I know that wheresoever I go,

"Others will punctually come for ever and ever."


Leaves of grass was a living, growing work. Whitman re-published it every few years for the rest of his life. Each time, he added new poems. And he changed many lines of the old ones.

The last version of the book contained more than four-hundred poems. By then Whitman's fame had spread around the world.

Next week we will tell more about Walt Whitman's life and poetry.



This Special English program, People in America, was written by Richard Thorman and produced by Lawan Davis. Rich Kleinfeldt read the poems. I'm Shirley Griffith.