An Audience of One: Mary Oliver on ‘Leaves of Grass’ by Walt Whitman

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

Walt Whitman (1831-1892) published Leaves of Grass in 1855, 12 poems and a prologue which unite into a single work. For the rest of his writing life, Whitman wrote no other verse, but fed it into that ever-expanding book. He took up no new subjects, nor altered the rhapsodic tenor of his voice, not denied any effort of catalog, rhetoric, eroticism, nor trimmed his cadence, nor muted his thunder or his sweetness. His message was clear from the first and never changed: that a better, richer life is available to us, and with all the force, he advocated it both for the good of each individual soul and for the good of the universe.

Leaves of Grass is a sermon, a manifesto, an invitation, to each of us, to change. All through the poem, we feel Whitman’s persuading force, which is his sincerity, and we feel what the poet tries continually to be – the replication of a miracle.

The 12 poems of the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass consist of one huge and gleaming Alp followed by a relaxed undulation of easily surmountable descending foothills. The initial poem, “Song of Myself” (62 pages), is the longest and the most critical. It is the Alp. If the reader can “stay with” this extended passage, he has made a passage indeed. The major demands of the poem are here established in the first half-dozen lines:

I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume.
For every atom belonging to me as good
belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease … observing a spear
of summer grass.
(p. 27)

In these lines, the great work is begun, and the secret of success has been given: out-circling interest, sympathy, empathy, transference of focus from the self to all else; the merging of the lonely single self with the wondrous, never-lonely entirety. This is all. The rest are words, examples, metaphors, narratives, lyricism, sweetness, persuasion, the stress of rhetoric, the weight of catalog. The detail, the pace, the elaborations are both necessary and augmentative; this is a long poem and it is not an argument but a thousand examples. Brevity would have made thing ineffectual, for what Whitman is after is felt experience. The reader in this first section is a major player, and is invited into this “theatre of feeling” tenderly.

Logic and sermons never convince,
The damp of the night drives deeper into
my soul
(p. 56)

 “Song of Myself” is sprinkled with questions; toward the end of the poem they come thick and fast, their profusion, their slantness, their unanswerability, helping the reader to rise out familiar territory and into this soul-waking and world-shifting experience:

Have you reckoned a thousand acres much? Have you recokoned with the earth much?
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
Who need be afraid of the merge?
The souls moving along … are they invisible while the least atom of the stones is visible?
Oxen that rattle the yoke or halt in the shade, what is that you express in your eyes?
What is a man anyhow? What am I? and what are you?
Shall I pray? Shall I venerate and be ceremonious?

And on and on. More than sixty questions in all, and not one of them easily answerable. Nor, indeed, are they presented for answers, but to force open the soul:

Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jamps!
(p. 50)

Most writing implies a distant, possible, even probable audience of a few or of many. Leaves of Grass assumes an intimate audience of one – one who listens closely to the solitary speaker. To each reader, the poem reaches out personally. It is mentoring, it is concerned, it is intimate. It contains the voice of the teacher and the preacher too. But it extends beyond their range.

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

Extracted with minor edits from ‘Some Thoughts on Whitman’, an essay by the poet Mary Oliver, published in her 2016 collection of essays, Upstream (Penguin Books).

Leave a Reply