Book Review: Leaves of Grass

04Feb14

stiffI first posted this review at my Goodreads account over here.

When I decided to read a poetry book to review, I decided to go for a book that I’ve been meaning to read but was pretty sure that, absent external incentive, I never would never actually get around do: Walt Whitman’s epic* Leaves of Grass. Two friends of mine set one of Whitman’s poems to music years ago, and I’ve picked up little tidbits about him here and there, all of which increased my level of interest in the man. So–onward into the world of epic prose-poetry!

A word about me and the books I like: I’m a pretty impatient person, and when I’m reading a book or watching a movie or a TV show, I definitely tend towards works that are direct and straightforward. I get bored with a piece fairly quickly if I don’t feel like I know where the story is going (this works to my disadvantage: I almost put down Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn the first time I read it, though I’m so glad that I didn’t). I don’t like stories that are predictable, but I want the characters’ goals to be clearly defined. As you might guess, I do not read a lot of poetry.

I decided to listen to the audiobook, because it helps if I can listen to something and do stuff at the same time, and because I knew if I tried to read the book on paper it would take me at least a month to get through. I resigned myself to the fact that my attention was going to drift sometimes. Because of that, my ability to assess this work critically is fairly limited (and even if I’d taken in every word, it probably still would be: Leaves of Grass is the sort of thing that English professors spend entire careers breaking down and analyzing). But I enjoyed it. Even when I wasn’t consciously taking in the meaning of all the words, the rhythm of the text (performed by Noah Waterman) was like listening to a lullaby, or sitting next to a river. It was comforting even when it was a more or less meaningless hum in my head.

Leaves of Grass, taken as a whole, is a lot of things. And I can’t think of anything like it in all of English literature. It’s not strictly a collection of poems.** It’s not a single story. It’s part travelogue, part autobiography, part philosophical treatise, part love story (to humanity, to America, to individual people). It’s completely overwhelming and staggering. Walt Whitman, how did you do this. (I mean, I know he did it over the course of forty years, but even so…). If I was going on an around-the-world trip that was going to take me six months and I could only bring one book, this is definitely in the running as one of the books. Because you can read it over and over and never get everything out of it that’s in there.

There are two parts that stood out to me (and neither of them are the sexy poems that always get everyone else’s attention): one part is a sort of tour of America, which takes a perspective that is both broad and global and utterly specific to such small individuals. It’s a mural, really. A painting with words. The other part was his recounting of his days as a volunteer nurse during the Civil War. I know that his poem “O Captain My Captain” is the one we all read in high school, but “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night,” “The Centenarian’s Story,” about the young men who march off to war and the people they leave behind, and “The Wound-Dresser,”*** told from the point of view of an Army nurse trying to soothe fallen soldiers, are as haunting and as timeless as anything else ever written about war.

The deeper I got into Leaves of Grass, the more I wish I could’ve known Walt Whitman, or just followed him around for a few days. I have no idea what sort of outward person he was like–if he was grouchy and crotchety, if he was friendly, if he was talkative and outgoing or a silent observer. But I don’t think you can spend 40+ years on a work of art and not put yourself in the pages. And Whitman seemed to be, to the end, a man who believed in the fundamental goodness of humanity. A person who was interested in meeting people and telling their stories, and fitting them into this tapestry of America that he’d woven in his head. He reminded me of Mark Twain in some ways, who I’ve always thought of as a cynical optimist (though Whitman is less funny than Twain).

So yeah. Especially if you find yourself ever faced with a long road trip, or you’re the sort that goes on extended backpacking trips through the backcountry. This is most definitely a road trip sort of book. Possibly an existential crisis sort of book. My friend Eleanor, who got lost in the Mexican mountains for two weeks with no food or water, had this book with her. She said it was one of the things that kept her sane. So yes, this book can also save your life.

*Epic here meant in the “WHOOAAAAAA” sense, not in the “epic poetry like Homer’s Odyssey” sense.
**Wikipedia refers to it as a collection, but because the individual poems don’t have titles, and because I listened to it on audiobook, I definitely experienced it as one long work. It doesn’t tell a continuous narrative by any means, but it is cohesive. If something can be cohesive without being continuous.
***I looked these titles up in a book edition after listening to the audio.

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