‘My Friend Walt Whitman’ by Mary Oliver

Walt Whitman (1855-1891), along with Emily Dickinson, is regarded as one of America’s finest 19th-century poets. Whitman was famously known for his self-published Leaves of Grass, a monumental work inspired in part by his travels through the American frontier and by his admiration for Ralph Waldo Emerson. This important publication celebrated democracy, nature, love, and friendship and  underwent 8 subsequent editions during his lifetime as Whitman expanded and revised the poetry and added more to the original collection of 12 poems. Emerson himself declared the first edition was “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.” The influence of Whitman is evident from the following beautiful essay by the contemporary American poet Mary Oliver, entitled, ‘My Friend Walt Whitman’, extracted from her 2019 book, Upstream: Selected Essays.

My Friend Walt Whitman by Mary Oliver

In Ohio, in the 1950s, I had a few friends who kept me sane, alert, and loyal to my own best and wildest inclinations. I never met any of my friends – they were strangers, and lived only in their writings. But if they were only shadow companions, still they were constant, and powerful, and amazing. That is, they said amazing things, and for me it changed the world.

This hour I tell things in confidence,
I might not tell everybody, but I will tell you.

Whitman was the brother I did not have. I did have an uncle, whom I loved, but he killed one rainy fall day; Whitman remained, perhaps more avuncular for the loss of the other. He was the gypsy boy my sister and I went off with into the far fields beyond the town, with our pony, to gather strawberries. Whitman shone on in the twilight of my room, which was growing busy with books, and notebooks, and muddy boots, and my grandfather’s old Underwood typewriter.

My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach,
With the twirl of my tongue I encompasses worlds
and volumes of worlds.

When the high school I went to experienced a crisis of delinquent student behavior, my response was to start out for school every morning but to turn most mornings into the woods instead, with a knapsack of books. Always, Whitman’s was among them. My truancy was extreme, and my parents were warned that I might not graduate. For whatever reason, they let me continue to go my own way. It was an odd blessing, but a blessing all the same. Down by the creek, or in the wide pastures I could still find on the other side of the deep woods, I spent my time with my friends, my brother, my uncle, my best teacher.

The moth and the fisheffs are in their place
The suns I see and the suns I cannot see are in their place.
The palpable is in its place and the impalpable is
in its place.

Thus Whitman’s poems stood before me like a model of delivery when I began to write poems myself: I mean the oceanic power and rumble that travels through a Whitman poem – the incantatory syntax, the boundless affirmation. Whitman kept me from the swamps of a worse uncertainty, and I lived many hours within the lit circle of his certainty, and his bravado. I reveled in the specificity of his words. And his faith kept my spirit buoyant surely, though his faith was without a name.

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