I recently watched a wonderful biography of Walt Whitman (American Masters). I knew beforehand about the significance of his lifelong work, Leaves of Grass, but I didn’t know anything about Whitman outside of what he presented through his poetry. He is the inspirational icon we all need, and this is why.
He came from a lower middleclass background, with little to inspire hope for something more. His father had big dreams, but became more and more bitter and unbalanced as he continually failed to fulfil them. He wasn’t a good example of perseverance and grace in the face of setbacks. But it didn’t discourage Walt. He maintained his own visions of success, incredibly lofty ones.
As a young man, he marched into the middle of New York with the idea of changing the world through his poetry. What? Really? Who the hell thinks they have the ability, much less the opportunity, to change the world through verse? Walt did. And though it took a lot longer than he had hoped, he did end up making a huge impact. Perhaps not world-changing, but certainly inspiring and thought provoking and incredibly forward thinking.
His first edition of Leaves of Grass was a small collection of poems, self published, with an irreverent full body sketch of Whitman in plain clothes and an almost cocky stance as the first visual. It was a “here I am” presentation that went directly opposite of the usual portraits of poets in their best clothes, and looking dignified in a cameo sort of way. It was a proper warning for what the reader could expect.
His poems gave the same full exposure to the workings of the human animal, mind, body, and spirit. There especially was a great focus on the body, the beauty of its functions, and how cleverly bodies fit together to precisely express what it is to be emotional, sensual, physical. And he didn’t hold back on claiming the same sensations, the same achievements of physical fulfilment between a man and a man. Whoa. In 1855, that took some great big balls. But if anyone was packing, it was the poet of the people, Walt Whitman.
The sheer force of the sensual experiences that he put forth – sensual in every possible connotation – brought tears to my eyes. Because how does a person live so boldly, so all-embracing, so fully engaged with the world? It would tear me apart to attempt such a thing. But his full-on embrace was the driving force behind his belief that he could be the Great American Poet, that he could put an end to the ills of mankind, including slavery, through his words. That he could so beautifully express love in all its varieties, and the sensuality of the grass beneath our feet, and the sky above our heads, and how fortunate we are to be surrounded by innumerable opportunities to engage our senses.
If that isn’t the world-changing model of how we should grab on and experience life – not just as observers, but as wholly committed participants… why finish that thought? It unequivocally is.