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Walt Whitman’s Raunchy Ode to New York City

“Give me the streets of Manhattan!”

New York City is not want for homages and celebrations — the deeply personal, the illustrated, the photographic, the cartographic, even the canine and the feline. But the most beautiful are invariably the poetic.

From the wonderful 1987 collection New York Observed: Artists and Writers Look at the City (public library) — a compendium of lore and perspectives on Gotham dating back to 1650 and featuring such luminaries as Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Henry Miller, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and dozens more, edited by Barbara Cohen, Seymour Chwast and Steven Heller — comes a succulent love letter to the city from 48-year-old Walt Whitman. Penned in 1867, more than a decade after his iconic Leaves of Grass was published, the short poem compresses in a few lines Whitman’s boundless capacity for exaltation and embodies the “expression of primal joy” that defines his writing.

Allen Crawford from ‘Whitman Illuminated.’ Click image for more.

GIVE ME THE SPLENDID SILENT SUN

Keep your splendid silent sun,

Keep your woods, O Nature, and the quiet places by the woods,

Keep your fields of clover and timothy, and your corn-fields and orchards

Keep the blossoming buckwheat fields where the Ninth-month bees hum;

Give me faces and streets — give me these phantoms incessant and endless along the trottoirs!

Give me interminable eyes — give me women — give me comrades and lovers by the thousand!

Let me see new ones every day — let me hold new ones by the hand every day!

Give me such shows — give me the streets of Manhattan!

Complement New York Observed, which is delightful in its entirety, with the best books on Gotham and famous writers’ diary entries about the city, then revisit the wonderful Whitman Illuminated.

BP

Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” Reimagined in Beautiful Illustrations by Artist Allen Crawford

“He exalted the nature around and within us. His work is an expression of primal joy: He celebrated our animal senses, and the pleasures of being alive.”

Visual artists have long been drawn to the literary classics, producing such masterful homages as William Blake’s paintings for Milton’s Paradise Lost and for Dante’s Divine Comedy, Picasso’s drawings for a naughty ancient Greek comedy, Matisse’s etchings for Ulysses, John Vernon Lord’s illustrations for Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and Salvador Dalí’s prolific illustrations for Don Quixote in 1946, the essays of Montaigne in 1947, The Divine Comedy in 1957, Alice in Wonderland in 1969, and Romeo and Juliet in 1975.

In Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself (public library), artist Allen Crawford brings Whitman’s undying text to new life in gorgeous hand-lettering and illustrations, transforming the 60-page poem originally published in 1855 as the centerpiece of Leaves of Grass into a breathtaking 256-page piece of art. His elegant, lyrical play of text size and orientation layers over Whitman’s poem a kind of visual rhythm that not only harmonizes with the original verses but enriches them and gives them uncommon dimension.

Crawford, who lives in the outskirts of Philadelphia where Whitman settled at the end of his life, writes in the foreword:

Whitman wanted to create a new form of verse, one that was indigenous to America. He wanted to break free not only in form but also in content: He sought complete candor, not allegory or symbolism. His sensibility was American: exuberant, rough, and wild. He reveled in the vitality and sublimity of the physical. He exalted the nature around and within us. His work is an expression of primal joy: He celebrated our animal senses, and the pleasures of being alive.

[…]

With this book, I’ve tried to make the vigor of “Song of Myself” tangible. I’ve attempted to liberate the words from their blocks of verse, and allow the lines to flow freely about the page, like a stream or a bustling city crowd. The text and imagery in this book are intended to be in keeping with Whitman’s unfurnished sensibility.

[…]

I found that in order to add anything at all to Whitman’s panorama of people and places, I had to add a dimension of my own. Events in my daily life affected my approach to each spread, and the Philadelphia of today seeped into the Philadelphia of Whitman’s day. Thus, you’ll find a variety of contemporary or near-contemporary images in this book. Not doing so would have been a disservice to Whitman’s work, which attempts to create a new form of verse for The Here and The Now.

Crawford, who lists among his inspirations artist Matt Kish’s illustrations for Moby-Dick and Heart of Darkness, labored over Whitman’s magnum opus in his basement for a year, working well into the night and spending 8–10 hours on each illustrated spread for a total of 2,560 hours by his own rough estimate. On particularly cold winter days, he logged his hours clad in multiple layers of house robes and a Russian fur hat.

Especially enchanting is Crawford’s heavy use of science-inspired imagery in his contemporary version of the illuminated manuscript, a medieval medium of religion.

All 256 pages between the beautifully fabric-bound covers of Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself are imbued with pure magic, the kind that takes you by the soul-strings and plays you like a billowing ballad.

Illustrations courtesy of Tin House Books; photographs my own

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Walt Whitman Reads “America”: The Only Surviving Recording of the Beloved Poet’s Voice

36 seconds of timeliness from a rare wax-cylinder capsule of timelessness.

Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) is celebrated as the father of free verse and revered as one of the most influential voices in American literature. A century after his death, a serendipitous discovery surfaced a tape-recording of what is likely an 1889 or 1890 wax-cylinder recording of Walt Whitman reading his late poem “America,” an 1888 addition to his continuously revised 1855 poetry collection Leaves of Grass (public library; public domain). Though the origin and authenticity of the tape, preserved by The Walt Whitman Archive, has been debated, it is currently believed to be the only surviving recording of the beloved poet’s voice. What makes it all the more special is that the poem itself rings with particularly timely resonance as we celebrate a long overdue step towards equality for all in America. Enjoy:

Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,
A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair’d in the adamant of Time.

Complement with Whitman on democracy and the key to a healthy society, the power of music, his prescient reflections on integrating body and spirit in healthcare, and his abiding advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life. For an extra helping of awe, savor James Earl Jones reading Whitman and this superb homage to the cosmos in a mashup of Whitman and NASA, then revisit the only surviving recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice.

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James Earl Jones Reads from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”

“The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.”

Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) is widely celebrated as the father of free verse, his 1855 poetry collection Leaves of Grass (public library | public domain) enduring as one of the most influential works in the American literary canon. He wrote in the preface to the 1855 edition, which he self-published in a limited edition of about 800 copies and which included the acclaimed fifty-two-section poem “Song of Myself”:

The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.

Illustration from Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself by Allen Crawford

Indeed, it was “Song of Myself” that best encapsulated the heart of Whitman’s poetic vision and his conviction that the poet and the public are inextricably, symbolically linked. In this exquisite reading from New York’s 92Y, the great James Earl Jones brings his formidable dramatic prowess to sections 6, 7, 17, 18, and 19, breathing explosive new life into Whitman’s timeless verses:

6.

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 remembrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may
see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the
vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I
receive them the same.

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 if I had known them I would have loved them,
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon
out of their mothers’ laps,
And here you are the mothers’ laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues,
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for
nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and
women,

And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken
soon out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and chil-
dren?

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,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.

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

7.

Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I
know it.

I pass death with the dying and birth with the new-wash’d babe,
and am not contain’d between my hat and boots,
And peruse manifold objects, no two alike and every one good,
The earth good and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good.

I am not an earth nor an adjunct of an earth,
I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and
fathomless as myself,
(They do not know how immortal, but I know.)

Every kind for itself and its own, for me mine male and female,
For me those that have been boys and that love women,
For me the man that is proud and feels how it stings to be
slighted,
For me the sweet-heart and the old maid, for me mothers and the
mothers of mothers,
For me lips that have smiled, eyes that have shed tears,
For me children and the begetters of children.

Undrape! you are not guilty to me, nor stale nor discarded,
I see through the broadcloth and gingham whether or no,
And am around, tenacious, acquisitive, tireless, and cannot be
shaken away.

17.

These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they
are not original with me,
If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next
to nothing,
If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they are
nothing,
If they are not just as close as they are distant they are nothing.

This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is,
This the common air that bathes the globe.

18.

With music strong I come, with my cornets and my drums,
I play not marches for accepted victors only, I play marches for
conquer’d and slain persons.

Have you heard that it was good to gain the day?
I also say it is good to fall, battles are lost in the same spirit in
which they are won.

I beat and pound for the dead,
I blow through my embouchures my loudest and gayest for them.

Vivas to those who have fail’d!
And to those whose war-vessels sank in the sea!
And to those themselves who sank in the sea!
And to all generals that lost engagements, and all overcome heroes!
And the numberless unknown heroes equal to the greatest heroes
known!

19.

This is the meal equally set, this the meat for natural hunger,
It is for the wicked just the same as the righteous, I make appointments with all,
I will not have a single person slighted or left away,
The kept-woman, sponger, thief, are hereby invited,
The heavy-lipp’d slave is invited, the venerealee is invited;
There shall be no difference between them and the rest.

This is the press of a bashful hand. . . .

Complement Leaves of Grass with this fantastic homage to the cosmos in a mashup of Whitman and NASA.

BP

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