Originally published October 23rd, 2015
It’s not an option on Goodreads, but I actually read the Project Gutenberg e-book edition of this book. Now, my e-reader is pretty tiny and I find with poetry it can be difficult to get the true feel of the poem because the line breaks don’t show up on the screen the way the author intended them. My work-around has been to pay a lot of attention to capital letters (because a new line almost always starts out with a capital, at least in older poems like these), and to make the font as small as possible so that the longer lines are more likely to populate correctly. I can’t tell you exactly what font size I used for Leaves of Grass because my e-reader doesn’t give me that option, but it was tiny. Maybe six point font? Even so, the book ran to 345 pages. It took me absolutely forever to get to the end. I cheered a little inside every time I read an especially short poem because it meant I got a little further ahead (short poems usually got a page to themselves) with less effort. I don’t think that’s the way you’re supposed to view poetry. Whitman has some brilliant pieces, lines and stanzas that are wonderfully evocative. But I found the great majority of his poems to just be tedious, “Rah Rah America” back-patting. There’s nothing wrong with a little healthy patriotism, but it’s certainly more difficult to relate to when you’re not actually from that country. Or when it goes on for a couple hundred pages. To be fair, Whitman did write many of the poems eventually included in Leaves of Grass during the Civil War, during which he volunteered as a nurse. Death and war occur regularly as themes in many of his poems. It’s my understanding that his patriotism generally reflected the attitudes of the times, I only mention it because it’s something I had trouble relating to, and in general found it distanced me from the poems. As always, Your Mileage May Vary. Big-time patriot? You’ll love Whitman.
I should also mention that while in general he is race-positive, he still subscribes to many of the prejudicial attitudes of the time. If this is something you are sensitive to, you may find yourself periodically cringing.
One last tiny tidbit. I watched Dead Poets Society many years ago and of course the culmination of the film stayed with me: the student atop his desk proclaiming Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” as Keating is lead away. Having finally read that poem really changed my interpretation of that scene, it’s much darker. There’s no chance that Keating will return to guide his students on their voyages in the future, because everything is over now. Apparently I spun it mentally to make the ending slightly more hopeful. Being aware of the true nature of the poem made that impossible.