I’d like to wish a very happy birthday to father graybeard. He’s an innovator of American free verse, not to mention one of the most significant influences on my writing. Before Whitman, most famous American poets like Emerson, Thoreau, and Poe were emulating the English Romantics with contained, rhymed, metrical verses. Whitman came along and broke open the Romantic verse with long, sprawling, prosaic, unrhymed lines, and an intimately universal voice that’s echoed across America for the past century and a half.
Whitman wrote Leaves of Grass in 1855 to stop the coming Civil War and heal the wounds of a divided country. He republished Leaves of Grass with new poems and sections in 1856 and 1860, then took a hiatus from writing poetry. He became a volunteer nurse for the North when the war started and moved from Brooklyn to DC. His visits with injured soldiers inspired him to write 1865’s Drum Taps, which contains some of his better known poems like “Beat! Beat! Drums!” and “O Captain, My Captain.”
Whitman sacrificed a great deal for the freedom of the press and is one of the most strong-willed self-publishers the literary world has seen to date. He got fired from his desk job at the Department of the Interior in the early 1870s when Secretary James Harlan found out about Leaves of Grass. I don’t think Whitman would have stayed there very long on his own, though, he was a bit too free-spirited for that. Lines like “twenty-eight young men all so friendly,” must have been too much innuendo for the old politicians to handle. It seems like the prudish people of every generation since Whitman’s like to come back to his work and pick out all the sexual references to show us what a dirty old man he was. The way that he wrote about sex integrated it naturally with the rest of human experience, which is the least pornographic way to do it. Sex, play, work, war, love, travel, laughter, and contemplation are all well-cataloged in Whitman’s work. Whitman’s body of work is electric and his pages are pulsing with a kind of courage that was as rare in his time as it is in ours. If you haven’t discovered his work yet, don’t worry. He’s stopped somewhere, waiting for you.