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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:


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

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

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

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-

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.


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
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.


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
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.


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


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.


Coffee, It’s a Man’s Drink: Esquire’s Vintage Rules for Brewing the Perfect Cup

“No aspect of your cooking skill will bring you greater or more lasting pleasure than the ability to prepare the drink that stimulates wit and digestion.”

We’ve seen how coffee changed the world, inspired Bach cantatas, became 20th-century art, and came to dominate many writers’ daily routines. But how, exactly, does one brew the perfect cup? After George Orwell’s 11 golden rules for the perfect cup of tea, it’s time for a vintage guide to coffee bliss. From a section titled “Coffee: The Cup That Cheers” in Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts: A Time-Honored Guide to the Perfect Party (public library) — the same 1949 time-capsule of the era’s gender stereotypes that gave us this amusingly appalling questionnaire to determine your attractiveness to the opposite sex — comes Esquire’s guide to the art of coffee. The magazine, of course being in the business of selling men their masculinity and assuaging their gender-role dissonance over mastering the domestic sphere of cooking and entertaining, makes no apologies for depicting this as a decidedly man’s art. Imbibe and chuckle.

When coffee was introduced in Europe in the 16th century, people thought that it rendered women frigid and even barren; a law was promptly passed in Constantinople giving husbands the right to prevent the use of coffee by their wives. Maybe that’s why the average woman, to this day, can’t make a good cup of coffee. It must be that, basically, coffee is a man’s drink. When subjected to the economies of drugstore waitresses or the casual inattention of wives, the cup that cheers but does not inebriate is apt to become a mean, thin liquid with almost unlimited capacities for discouraging real coffee lovers.

So know ye this: no aspect of your cooking skill will bring you greater or more lasting pleasure than the ability to prepare the drink that stimulates wit and digestion. Coffee splices all loose ends, greets the cheese gladly, and spreads a mantle of aromatic warmth.

Here are some of the basic rules for making it properly:

  1. Use only freshly roasted, freshly ground coffee.
  2. Start with cold, fresh water — and if it is to be poured over the coffee when boiling be sure to pour it as soon as it boils, lest the oxygen be dispelled and the water be made tasteless by long boiling.
  3. Make sure your equipment is spotlessly clean.
  4. Always measure ingredients carefully and time the brewing-period exactly — so you can be sure to duplicate your method time after time once you have settled on the proper combination of water, coffee and time.

Beyond that, your own taste is boss.

The guide then outlines four types of coffee to play with preparing:

Using one of the following systems, experiment until you’ve reached coffee of the proper strength to match your memory of the best cup of coffee you ever sipped. The proportion usually recommended is 1 tablespoon of coffee to each cup of water, with an extra tablespoon of coffee “for the pot.” With men who ken coffee, 2 tablespoons to 1 cup is a more favored strength. And some, to avoid long perking or simmering and the consequent bitter taste, use even a greater proportion of coffee. But there’s as much variation in the strength of different coffee blends as there is in the tastes of coffee-drinkers, so suit yourself.

Coffee is put into the top part of the drip coffeemaker. Water is brought to a boil separately, then poured over the coffee — to drip through to the bottom part of the coffeemaker. Some fanatics insist that the water be poured over the coffee a mere spoonful at a time; others run the water through the coffee 2 or 3 times for added strength. The only certain rules are: preheat the coffee pot with hot water; use drip-grind coffee; stand pot in a warm place so coffee won’t cool during the drip process.

Water is put into the lower bowl, upper bowl is fitted in, complete with filter or rod, then coffee is placed in the upper bowl. When water is hot, it rises through the tube into the upper bowl. Then as soon as stream comes up through the tube and agitates the mixture, the fire is turned off. Gradually, then, the coffee filters into the lower bowl — from which you serve it. Or — you may prefer to allow the coffee to simmer in the upper bowl for 2 to 5 minutes, for a stronger brew. Or — you may put only an inch or so of the water in the lower bowl (enough to create a vacuum when it boils) and heat the remainder of the required water separately, to be poured over the coffee grounds as for drip coffee. In any case, pulverized coffee is used.

For this method, favored of our forebears, coffee should be coarsely ground. Dry coffee goes into the pot (or ordinary saucepan) first, then cold water. Bring to a boil, simmer 5-8 minutes, then take it off the stove. A dash of cold water will settle the grounds — or an eggshell thrown into the brew at the outset will have the same effect. Even so, you need a strainer for pouring.

Use same proportions as for pot coffee, but use medium-ground coffee — halfway between drip grind and pot grind. Coffee goes into the basket in the percolator, water into the pot; then the water “perks” through the coffee until it is the strength you like: about 8 minutes. With a glass percolator, you can see how you’re doing throughout the process; others have a glass piece on top so you can get a glimpse of the brew as it perks.

Whatever the method used, coffee is best when freshly made. ONce you’ve got your own coffeemaking timed, you’ll know just when to fade from your dinner table in order to have fresh coffee ready by dessert-time or maybe you’ll latch onto an electric coffeemaker that can do its fragrant work right at the table. Ben Jonson said, “as he brews, so shall he drink.” Good drinking!

Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts: A Time-Honored Guide to the Perfect Party goes on to offer a toolkit for entertaining spanning from the fine points of sauces to the art of conversation to after-dinner dirty tricks.


Remoralizing Marriage: Dan Savage in Conversation with Andrew Sullivan at NYPL

How marriage equality is fortifying the “equality” part rather than compromising the “marriage” part.

At a recent event from the terrific LIVE from the NYPL series held at the central branch of New York Public Library, Andrew Sullivan — one of my favorite people on and off the internet — took the stage to have a wide-ranging, funny, poignant, unabashedly honest conversation with celebrated sex columnist and LGBT rights advocate Dan Savage, mastermind of the monumentally heartening It Gets Better Project. (Meanwhile, twenty years ago this month, Andrew authored the seminal essay “The Politics of Homosexuality.”). The event at once a celebration of the release of Savage’s new book, American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics (public library), and a timely response to the height of today’s cultural heat around the antiquated legislature banning marriage equality.

In fact, among the conversation’s finest points is their discussion of what marriage is and stands for, from its dark roots as an institution for the oppression of women — one Susan Sontag famously termed “an institution committed to the dulling of the feelings” — to its aspiration of celebrating the deepest of human bonds, the kind that ultimately warmed Darwin’s rational heart. As Andrew brilliantly puts it, marriage equality, when closely examined, is an effort not to demoralize marriage but to remoralize it, to bring it closer to its ideals of a union of equals and further from its pathologies. Transcribed highlights below.

On how the promise of marriage equality is in fact reexamining and fortifying the “equality” part, ridding it of its historical baggage, rather than compromising the “marriage” part:

AS: What you’re doing, I think, is actually remoralizing — you’re not demoralizing. You’re saying that the morals that these structures have sustained are actually no longer moral, they’re actually forcing people to be cruel to one another, they’re forcing people to be miserable…

DS: …particularly women to be miserable, and to be enslaved. You know, harking back to traditional marriages in Western families, those were lousy times to be the female in the marriage.

On what the case of Andrew’s parents, who divorced after 49 years of marriage, tells us about the toxic and deceptive ideal of “till death do us part”:

DS: If your mother had been hit by a bus on the way to the lawyer [to divorce your father], everyone would have gone, “Oh, 49 years together — they had a successful marriage.” But 49 years and then they part — that’s an “unsuccessful marriage.” Because we define success in marriage as death … doesn’t matter how miserable you were, doesn’t matter whether it was fulfilling, doesn’t matter if it was an abusive relationship or one of sexual deprivation and lifelong misery and resentment and abuse — if somebody’s getting buried and you’re still married, awesome. And I don’t think that’s a workable definition of marriage when people have access to divorce courts and lawyers.

On how the option of divorce actually makes the marriages that do endure richer and more actively loving:

There’s something about realizing that marriage is opt-in — which it is now, marriage is always opt-in, at any moment you can opt out — it’s almost like you have to earn your partner’s presence in your life. … You cannot take them for granted in a way that you could when it was one woman, one man, for life.

In American Savage, which is excellent in its entirety and a necessary tool of contemporary cultural literacy, Savage explores the subject further:

Defenders of “traditional marriage,” circa 1750, not 1950, objected to anyone marrying for something so unstable as a feeling, Stephanie Coontz argues in Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage. Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, no one married for love. You married for property if you were a man; you were married off as property if you were a woman. Couples married to cement alliances. Princes married to unite kingdoms; peasants married to bring small parcels of land together. But marriage wasn’t something you did back then. Marriage was something that was done to you: Young, marriage-age adults (or preadolescents) didn’t have the power or judgment to craft marriage contracts, negotiate alliances, identify the best acreage in the village. Their families — their fathers or eldest male relatives — did that for them.

Much as the advice business is geared toward the needs of women … traditional marriage arrangements were geared toward the needs of men. Historically monogamy wasn’t imposed on or expected from men. Traditionally men (and “traditionally married” men) had concubines; men had multiple wives; men had mistresses; men had access to sex workers. It was only in the middle of the twentieth century— as marriage was redefined from an inherently sexist and oppressive institution to something more egalitarian (i.e., women could own property; they weren’t property)— that monogamous expectations were imposed on men, with often disastrous results. Men aren’t good at it, as anyone who has read a newspaper over the last ten years can attest (Edwards, John; Sanford, Mark; Vitter, David; Petraeus, David, et al.). But rather than extend the same license to women that men have always enjoyed— you can get some on the side, now and then, if you must, but be discreet— we’ve imposed on men the same limitations that women have always endured.

Complement with the wonderful Gay in America project and some heart-warming illustrated marriage equality for kids.


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