[Editor’s note: Walt Whitman — a cosmos, of Mannahatta the son — was the first poet that got through to me. Back in the day, when I was a young Philistine with no sense of art and the sophomoric sense of superiority characteristic of a certain age, I came across Leaves of Grass, picked it up and started browsing (no pun intended) through this curious and unique work, with its stilted yet proletarian language, its blend of reverence and unabashed physical exuberance. I was soon hooked. I remember well, shortly afterwards, walking along the autumnal brick paths of the University in Chapel Hill, strewn with sweetgum pods, surrounded by the bodies electric of which the Bard sung, and feeling that I had discovered the door to a new world. Here I offer a sample from an anthemic poem by the original Natural Patriot.]
A song of the rolling earth (Excerpt)
[from Leaves of Grass)
I swear the earth shall be complete to him or her who shall be complete,
The earth remains jagged and broken only to him or her who remains jagged and broken.
I swear there is no greatness or power that does not emulate those of the earth,
There can be no theory of any account unless it corroborate the theory of the earth,
No politics, song, religion, behavior, or what not, is of account, unless it compare with the amplitude of the earth,
Unless it face the exactness, vitality, impartiality, rectitude of the earth.
I swear I begin to see love with sweeter spasms than that which responds love,
It is that which contains itself, which never invites and never refuses.
I swear I begin to see little or nothing in audible words,
All merges toward the presentation of the unspoken meanings of the earth,
Toward him who sings the songs of the body and of the truths of the earth,
Toward him who makes the dictionaries of words that print cannot touch.
[Painting by Thomas Cole, “In the Catskills”, 1837, Metropolitan Museum]