Reading Whitman

“In the best poems appears the human body, well-formed, accepting itself / unaware of shame.”

By Barbara Bair

Portrait of Walt Whitman, from his corrected proof of “The Sleepers” ( 1855 ).

In this month celebrating the work of poets, we can honor Walt Whitman — the poet of democracy and nature, of sexuality and modernity, of globalism, nationalism, and mysticism — as both the people’s poet and the poet’s poet.

The Library of Congress’s recent exhibition, America Reads, underscored the fact that Whitman’s Leaves of Grass has resonated with generations of book lovers. Poets of many different nationalities and persuasions have also mined inspiration for their own art — and artistic lives — from reading Whitman’s published work.

Researchers, teachers, students, Whitmaniacs, and aspiring poets can go beyond the printed page to closely examine Whitman’s behind-the-scenes creative process. The electronic presentations of Walt Whitman manuscript collections that are now available online through the Library of Congress Digital Collections portal provide opportunity for users to see the underpinnings, the fits and starts, the struggle and self-conscious design and partial drafts of Whitman’s poems. Also in evidence are Whitman’s thought process in outlining his ideas for poems, and his fleshing-out of the recurring themes that have provoked discussion and controversy — and sometimes censorship — while inspiring generations of readers and fellow poets.

Walt Whitman, themes in Leaves of Grass notebook

The Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes adapted Whitman’s sweeping cataloguing style and first-person voice in his own poetic exploration of American democracy and racial injustice.

Whitman wrote of the “paving-man . . . the canal-boy . . . the conductor . . . the child . . . the groups of newly-come emigrants . . .” in “Song of Myself” and declared “I am . . . the voter, the politician, / The emigrant and the exile” in “The Sleepers.” Playing on both theme and style in his 1935 poem “Let America be America Again,” Hughes wrote “I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, / I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars / I am the red man driven from the land, / I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek. . . .”

The Jewish-American poet Allen Ginsberg credited reading Leaves of Grass as a young man as pivotal to developing his own counter-cultural work and gay identity. Ginsberg paid homage to Whitman in his 1955 poem “A Supermarket in California,” published in the Beat classic Howl. Beginning with the line “What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman. . . .” Ginsberg’s poet-persona imagines an encounter with a bearded Whitman amidst aisles of lush peaches and pork chops, and lauds Whitman as a “courage-teacher.”

Walt Whitman outlining the structure for “After All, Not to Create Only” (1871).

The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda reported that he was fifteen when he discovered Whitman. Neruda drew strength from Whitman in support of working-class consciousness, justice, and human rights. The recipient of the 1971 Nobel Prize for Literature told audiences that reading Whitman was a “marvelous debt” that he continued to owe, and which indeed, had helped him to live. Neruda’s poem “Ode to Walt Whitman” speaks of the cry of seagulls, of bare feet on grass rich with “the firm dew of Walt Whitman.” He credits Whitman with wisdom about the earth, its grains, high mountains, rivers and harvests — with the poetic ability to see alfalfa or poppy-covered hills. He also found the message of empathy. But not only / soil / was brought to light/ by your spade” wrote Neruda: “you unearthed / man, / and the / slave / who was humiliated / with you, balancing / the black dignity of his / stature, / walked on, conquering / happiness. / To the fireman / below, / in the stoke-hole, / you sent / a little basket / of strawberries.”

What of Whitman’s own inspirations? What evidence did he leave us about the craft and themes of his poetry and prose?

We see among the drafts and fragments, notes and notebooks online in the Charles E. Feinberg Collection of Walt Whitman Papers, and the Thomas Biggs Harned Collection of Walt Whitman Papers various revelations as Whitman gestated content for his newspaper articles, essays, fiction, poems, and autobiographical writings. We find trial lines, the outline of the plot for a novella, or insights about phenomena witnessed and individuals perceived. There are word lists — synonyms and word choices Whitman could turn to while crafting his poetry. In drafts and multiple changes, we see Whitman carefully wordsmithing to achieve desired nuance in meaning, and to apply sound and rhythm to lines. We find directions and notes Whitman wrote to himself about his writing process and intentions. “Put ‘Manhattan’ for New York all through” Whitman reminds himself in a circa 1855–1856 notebook — the same notebook he used to work out lines for what would become his 1856 poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” He embraces an identity as poet-provocateur: “I am the one who indicates, and the one who provokes and tantalizes. . . .” He observes that “In the best poems appears the human body, well-formed, accepting itself / unaware of shame.”

Walt Whitman, Notebook ca. 1855–56, Trial lines “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”

We see Whitman in that same notebook ask himself what he is doing in his poetry, what power there is in techniques of materiality, inference, and transcendence: “Convey what I want to convey by models or illustration of the results I demand” he tells himself. “Convey these by character, selections, incidents, and behaviour. This indirect mode of attack is better than all direct modes of attack. The spirit of the above should pervade all my poems.”

He also speaks to future generations — apt for those scholars and poetry-lovers of the present, who are able to now so readily examine his handwritten musings and contemplate his creative process. On the facing page of the notebook he works on formulating what would become a famous passage in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (alternatively titled “Sun-Down Poem”). It heralds the timeless transcendence of the poet, of the soul, and of poetry itself. Speaking across time to the readers of the future, the poet asks: “What is it now between us? Is it a score of years? Or a hundred years? Or five hundred years? Whatever it is, it avails not . . . distance avails not and place avails not.” In reading thus “from scratch,” from wherever we may access the digital collections from around the world, we are provided a sense of immediacy and intimacy, as if we are sharing the moment when Whitman first put pen or pencil to paper.

Explore the Library’s Digitized Walt Whitman Collections:


Barbara Bair is a historian in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division.