Saturday, July 5, 2008

Birth/Independence Days: Thinking of Whitman & Beginnings

It was my birthday yesterday, the unheralded number 38--after loving the fact that Whitman had begun his song in "Song of Myself" at 37--"I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,/Hoping to cease not till death...."

I'm reading Whitman these days, partly in preparation for a course, and partly because I like to go back to him on beginnings and anniversaries of all sorts--I recall, as a college student, bringing Whitman into a snowy Ryerson Woods on New Year's Day, as a way to welcome the year.

How they are provided for upon the earth, (appearing at intervals;)
How dear and dreadful they are to the earth;
How they inure to themselves as much as to any--
What a paradox appears their age;
How people respond to them, yet know them not;
How there is something relentless in their fate, all times;
How all times mischoose the objects of their adulation and reward,
And how the same inexorable price must still be paid for the same great purchase.

Walt Whitman

Thinking of Whitman writing those poems for his first edition of Leaves of Grass, essentially my age, I was struck by how much Whitman is the poet of the hale, and how remarkable that would have been in time (whether or not he was performing such healthiness!). (And how, again, Dickinson is the ideal counterweight to his magnanimity and brisk optimism, in her exploration of "pain" and its "element of blank.")

How happy I was, then, to find that the first edition of Whitman's Leaves of Grass was published on July 4th, 1855. On yesterday's Writers Almanac, I learned that "On this day in 1855, the first edition of Whitman's Leaves of Grass was printed. It consisted of 12 poems and a preface. The printers were friends of his, and they did not charge Whitman for their work. He helped set some of the type himself. 'Grass' is a printer's term; it refers to a casual job that can be set up between busy times."

(I had promised myself to read the first edition after reading Ron Silliman express his preference for it over the later editions, I'm committed.)

Whitman's excesses are, in small doses, delicious. They invite the grand permission, and even allow for self-conscious skeptics to say, perhaps under their breath: O Me! O Life!

How quickly it all seems to pass by.


So It Shall Be Written said...

Hey Phil -- Happy Belated Birthday! It does pass quickly, making it all the more essential that we relish every moment. I wish you all the best. J. Ross

Unknown said...

Happy Birthday Dr. Phil, a few days late! Don't you think they should make a poster of Whitman with the John Belushi/Animal House "COLLEGE" sweatshirt???

Although maybe that's too commercially mainstream for him/you. I, however, will continue to dream.

Hope you're well!

rodney k said...

Happy B-day, Phil. They're all of 'em landmarks!

Philip Metres said...

Thanks Joseph, C, Jim, Rodney, for the happy happies. Somehow I'm not so upset that I'm "getting older" (see the THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS song for reductio ad absurdum of the thinking in my head)...

mongibeddu said...

The first edition has my favorite version of "Song of Myself"; reading that poem without the interruption of numbers, with one part leading indivisibly into another, is dizzying pleasure. But there is so much that got added later that I love equally well. Calamus, for god's sake! I do wish one could get a printed copy of every edition.

Regarding Whitman and health: there are several really interesting passages about that in With Walt Whitman in Camden, the record of Whitman's last half-decade made by Horace Traubel. Here's one from the first volume (which is available online, by the way):

W. asked me a question in this way: "I have been thinking a good deal about Sands at Seventy today—a good deal. I want to know whether you feel that they will be out of place in Leaves of Grass—not integral—too distinctly different in character to connect with the story? ... I am curious to know what you feel about all that—to have you tell me." I spoke of the "dignity" of the Sands. He caught up the word at once. "Dignity, did you say? Is it dignity? I hope so—yes, I hope so. I remember well how one of my noblest, best friends—one of my wisest, cutest, profoundest, most candid critics—how Mrs. Gilchrist, even to the last, insisted that Leaves of Grass was not the mouthpiece of parlors, refinements—no—but the language of strength, power, passion, intensity, absorption, sincerity—that Leaves of Grass was no book for disease—for smallpox, rheumatism, yellow fever, scrofula—but was eminently and before all a book of health, the open air." ... Then he smiled and clenched his fist and raised his arm from the bed. "You know, boy, we must face all that and more: we must not be afraid of the worst—indeed, we must invite the worst—must bear all, brave all, and, coming to the test, throw or be thrown by it. ... The question has come back to me in fifty different forms as I lie here footing up my accounts with the Almighty!"


Such a dear, Whitman. And funny to be reading that with my mother-in-law in such poor health, hobbled outside the door to the room where I'm typing, asking me if I want some coffee.

Here's to life. Have some more birthday, Phil!

Ben F.

Philip Metres said...

Ben, I really appreciate the comment about Whitman and health--it seems as if he were performing a certain tonic hale-ness in the face of the realities of his time (particularly the diseases of 19th century urban life, which must have been nasty). And how counter-poetic that must have been, to the sickly o'r'd Romantics. Yes, I'm thinking of all the ailing people in my life, too, and how the haleness of Whitman feels both healing and blindness.