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EPF , 8 By the end of the decade, however, Whitman had undertaken serious self-education in the art of poetry, conducted in a typically unorthodox way—he clipped essays and reviews about leading British and American writers, and as he studied them he began to be a more aggressive reader and a more resistant respondent. His marginalia on these articles demonstrate that he was now committed to write not in the manner of his predecessors but against them.

On July 16, , the publisher, health guru, and social reformer Lorenzo Fowler confirmed Whitman's growing sense of personal capacity when his phrenological analysis of the poet's head led to a flattering—and in some ways quite accurate—description of his character. Whitman at this time believed strongly in phrenology, the reading of the "bumps" on the skull to determine which emotions and qualities were well developed and which needed further work. Fowler was a well-known manipulator of skulls, and often gave examinations and wrote out his "charts of bumps" in his New York office.

On this particular day, he registered his new client as "W. Whitman Age 29 Occupation Printer " Stern , As Fowler felt around the bumps and indentations of Whitman's head, he expressed some amazement at this printer's "large sized brain" and noted how "few men have all the social feelings as strong as you have.

Your Life is Your life: Go all the way - Charles Bukowski

You are in fact most too open at times and have not alway[s] enough restraint in speech. Your sense of justice, of right and wrong is strong and you can see much that is unjust and inhuman in the present condition of society. You are but little inclined to the spiritual or devotional and have but little regard for creeds or ceremonies. You have a good command of language especially if excited.

Stern , It's as if Fowler's phrenological reading gave Whitman certification as a kind of ideal person, large in appetites and yet balanced in temperament, someone with what Fowler called a "grand physical constitution" Stern , and therefore fit to become America's poet.

Chances of a Poetic Life

In addition to bolstering Whitman's confidence, the positive reading of the "bumps" on his skull gave him some key vocabulary for Leaves of Grass. Whitman's association with Lorenzo Fowler and his brother Orson would prove to be of continuing importance well into the s. The Fowler brothers, along with their brother-in-law Samuel R. Wells, ran the firm of Fowler and Wells, which would distribute the first edition of Leaves of Grass , publish the second anonymously, and provide a venue in their firm's magazine for one of Whitman's first self-reviews of his book.

Whitman would later work for Fowler and Wells as a bookseller and as a writer for their Life Illustrated magazine. While he eventually drifted apart from them, the impact of phrenology always stayed with him: late in his life, Whitman admitted that "I probably have not got by the phrenology stage yet" WWC , When he later wrote in "Song of Myself" that "my palms cover continents" LG , 61 , he was still imagining himself as a kind of cosmic phrenologist, reading the mountains and valleys of continents to determine their telltale characteristics just as Fowler read the nooks and crannies of skulls.

Whitman entered Fowler's studio as a "printer," but he left dreaming of larger ambitions. Along with Fowler's description of Whitman as a "printer," we have other evidence about just how Whitman's career was perceived in James J. Brenton, owner of the Long Island Democrat , a newspaper on which Whitman had worked, put together a book in that collected what he called "sketches, essays, and poems by practical printers.

Selected Criticism

He is presented as one of the printers who could also write, and in the contributors' notes we find a short biography of Whitman that describes him as a printer, former schoolteacher, and writer of popular sketches; he is now, we are told, "connected to the press" and is "an ardent politician of the radical democratic school. In , only five years before publishing Leaves of Grass , a book that would forever change American literature, Whitman was still very much seen as just a "practical printer," but a huge transformation was just around the corner.

There has always been a mystery about Whitman at the end of the s and through the early s. Many critics and biographers have tried, but no one has fully explained the speed of his transformation from a newspaperman and "practical printer," and an unoriginal, conventional, and occasional poet, into the author of Leaves of Grass , a radical writer who abruptly abandoned conventional rhyme and meter and, in jottings begun at this time, exploited the odd loveliness of homely imagery, finding beauty in the commonplace but expressing it in an uncommon way, and, once he started, expressing it prolifically.

One of the best places to search for the answer to that mystery is in Whitman's manuscript writings from this period. What is known as Whitman's earliest notebook called "albot Wilson" in the Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts was long thought to date from but is now understood to be from about This extraordinary document contains early articulations of some of Whitman's most compelling ideas.

Famous passages on "Dilation," on "True noble expanding American character," and on the "soul enfolding orbs" are memorable prose statements that express the newly expansive sense of self that Whitman was discovering, and we find him here creating the conditions—setting the tone and articulating the ideas—that would allow for the writing of Leaves of Grass. Late in his life, Whitman looked at this notebook and called it the "ABC" of Leaves , the very primer for the whole book.

A pivotal and empowering change came over Whitman at this time of poetic transformation. His politics—and especially his racial attitudes—underwent a profound alteration. As we have noted, Whitman the journalist spoke to the interests of the day and from a particular class perspective when he advanced the interests of white working men while seeming, at times, unconcerned about the plight of blacks. Perhaps the New Orleans experience had prompted a change in attitude, a change that was intensified by an increasing number of friendships with radical thinkers and writers who led Whitman to rethink his attitudes toward the issue of race.

Whatever the cause, in Whitman's future-oriented poetry blacks become central to his new literary project and central to his understanding of democracy. Notebook passages assert that the poet has the "divine grammar of all tongues, and says indifferently and alike How are you friend? It appears that Whitman's increasing frustration with the Democratic party's compromising approaches to the slavery crisis led him to continue his political efforts through the more subtle and indirect means of experimental poetry, a poetry that he hoped would be read by masses of average Americans and would transform their way of thinking.

In any event, his first notebook lines in the manner of Leaves of Grass focus directly on the fundamental issue dividing the United States. His notebook breaks into free verse for the first time in lines that seek to bind opposed categories, to link black and white, to join master and slave: I am the poet of slaves and of the masters of slaves.

I am the poet of the body And I am the poet of the soul I go with the slaves of the earth equally with the masters And I will stand between the masters and the slaves, Entering into both so that both shall understand me alike. NUPM , The audacity of that final line remains striking. While most people were lining up on one side or another, Whitman placed himself in that space—sometimes violent, sometimes sexual, always volatile— between master and slave.


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His extreme political despair led him to replace what he now named the "scum" of corrupt American politics in the s with his own persona—a shaman, a culture-healer, an all-encompassing "I. The new all-encompassing "I" that emerged in Whitman's early notebook became the main character of Leaves of Grass , the explosive book of 12 poems that he wrote in the early years of the s, and for which he set some of the type, designed the cover, and carefully oversaw all the details.

When Whitman wrote "I, now thirty-six years old, in perfect health, begin," he announced a new identity for himself, and his novitiate came at an age quite advanced for a poet. Keats had died ten years younger; Byron had died at exactly that age; Wordsworth and Coleridge produced Lyrical Ballads while both were in their twenties; Bryant had written "Thanatopsis," his best-known poem, at age 16; and most other great Romantic poets Whitman admired had done their most memorable work early in their adult lives.

Whitman, in contrast, by the time he had reached his mid-thirties, seemed destined, if he were to achieve fame in any field, to do so as a journalist or perhaps as a writer of fiction, but no one could have guessed that this middle-aged writer of sensationalistic fiction and sentimental verse would suddenly begin to produce work that would eventually lead many to view him as America's greatest and most revolutionary poet.

One source of Whitman's influence was his radical reconception of the art of poetry.

Poem About A Second Chance In Life, Troubles Of Life

What we now think of as his "poetry" is actually a new kind of writing, a hybrid form that draws not only on the tones and diction of the Bible and on the traditions of British, European, and American literature, but equally on such things as American newspapers, booming mid-nineteenth-century political oratory, and the lingoes of the emerging urban working classes of which he was a product and a member.

Whitman immersed himself in American culture, and his work resonates through the multiple levels of that culture. It is a writing that reaches deep into the numerous corners of the roiling nineteenth-century society, absorbing the nation's stormy politics, its motley musical and theatrical stages, its athletic contests, and its new technologies including the chemical art of photography and the rapidly developing printing trade.

It is writing remarkably open to the century's scientific discoveries evolutionary, geological, astronomical, archeological, and phrenological , to new discourses about the body medical and sexual , and to advances in understandings about language lexicographical, etymological, and theoretical. Figure 1. Daguerrotype portrait of Whitman , called by Whitman's disciple R. Bucke "the Christ likeness. Whitman's own family taught him that lesson, but it was a lesson he sought to learn again and again in all aspects of his life. He celebrated the self, but not a self that was narrowly and securely defined—rather a self that took the risks of imaginative absorption and creative dispersion.

Whitman's goal was the multitudinous self, a self capacious enough to identify with the vast variety of human types that American democracy was producing: he loved America's "loose drift of character, the inkling through random types" LG , , and Whitman's pun on "ink" and "type" here would become his great metonymic invention—to turn human types into printed type, to ink character on a page, to turn a book into a man.

I must pass with the contact of bodies and souls" LG , This extraordinary conflation of book and identity grew out of Whitman's experience as a printer and a newspaper editor. He was always conscious of the way that different types and different page sizes and different titles altered otherwise identical words: for him, paper and type were more than a vehicle to present poems, they were indeed bodies themselves.

He conceived of the "body of his work" as something more than a dead metaphor. Thus he was always engaged in the act of bookmaking as well as poetry writing. He knew how to set type, and he knew how books were printed and bound. He wanted to have an actual physical involvement in the creation of the physical object of the book, and so he set a few pages of type for the first edition of Leaves and chose the large-paper format to give his long lines room to stretch across the page.

Late in his life, Whitman noted how "I sometimes find myself more interested in book making than in book writing. He never stopped being a printer, and his various editions of Leaves all show the marks of his idiosyncratic printer's eye. The mystery that has intrigued biographers and critics over the years has been about what prompted the transformation: did Whitman undergo some sort of spiritual illumination that opened the floodgates of a radical new kind of poetry, or was this poetry the result of an original and carefully calculated strategy to blend journalism, oratory, popular music, and other cultural forces into an innovative American voice like the one Ralph Waldo Emerson had called for in his essay "The Poet"?

Whitman began writing poetry that seemed, wildly yet systematically, to record every single thing that Emerson called for, and he began his preface to the Leaves by paraphrasing Emerson: "The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem. Was he truly the intoxicated poet Emerson imagined or was he the architect of a poetic persona that cleverly constructed itself according to Emerson's formula?

There is evidence to support both theories. We know very little about the details of Whitman's life in the early s; it is as if he retreated from the public world to receive inspiration, and there are relatively few remaining manuscripts of the poems in the first edition of Leaves , leading many to believe that they emerged in a fury of inspiration. On the other hand, the manuscripts that do remain indicate that Whitman meticulously worked and reworked passages of his poems, heavily revising entire drafts of the poems, and that he issued detailed instructions to the Rome brothers, the printers who were setting his book in type, carefully overseeing every aspect of the production of his book.

The Leaves of Grass , as we have come to know it, consists of 12 poems, all either untitled or headed with the identical title "Leaves of Grass. In the manuscript, he gives most of the 12 poems first-line titles, a practice he would frequently employ during the rest of his career. Whitman's use of these shorthand names allowed him to work out an arrangement of poems.

chances of a poetic life Manual

Only one of the 12 poems had previously been published, and Whitman continued to call it by the same title under which it had originally appeared in the New York Tribune —"Resurgemus. In two cases, Whitman groups pairs of poems: "A young man came to me" is bracketed with "A child went forth," and "Who learns my lesson complete" is bracketed with and joined by an ampersand to "Clear the way there Jonathan.

Figure 2. Whitman's alternative plan for structuring the edition of Leaves of Grass.


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  • Whitman seems, then, to have been both inspired poet and skilled craftsman, at once under the spell of his newly discovered and intoxicating free verse style while also remaining very much in control of it, adjusting and altering and rearranging. For the rest of his life, he would add, delete, fuse, separate, and rearrange poems as he issued six very distinct editions of Leaves of Grass. Emerson once described Whitman's poetry as "a remarkable mixture of the Bhagvat Ghita and the New York Herald " Sanborn , , and that odd joining of the scriptural and the vernacular, the transcendent and the mundane, effectively captures the quality of Whitman's work, work that most readers experience as simultaneously magical and commonplace, sublime and prosaic.

    It was work produced by a poet who was both sage and huckster, who touched the gods with ink-smudged fingers, and who was concerned as much with the sales and reviews of his book as with the state of the human soul. It is striking that, years after the appearance in of Leaves of Grass , we still know almost nothing for certain about its genesis.

    Long after published versions have appeared of all of Whitman's juvenilia, all of his late daybooks with listings of his supper guests and gas bills, all of his postcards and much of his marginalia, his poetry manuscripts have not been collected and edited, and few of them are readily accessible to students and scholars. When the variorum edition of Leaves of Grass was announced in , the poetry manuscripts were promised as a central feature, but when the Textual Variorum LG Var.

    There was speculation that a companion set of volumes dealing with the manuscripts would soon be following, but that has not happened, and Whitman's poetry manuscripts remain largely a mystery. Because so little is known about the manuscript origins of Leaves , we need to take some time to review just what we do know about the book's early composition and then examine a particularly revealing manuscript draft of a section of the long opening poem eventually called "Song of Myself" of the edition.

    This will help us understand the intricate complexity of Whitman's process of revision. Whitman kept a number of small notebooks in which some rough ideas and trial lines of some of the poems in the original Leaves can be found, and versions of those notebooks were included in Edward F. But some of the early notebooks, including the one that contained the most important pre- Leaves notes, were lost when the Library of Congress packed them up and shipped them to a college in the midwestern United States for safekeeping during World War II; some are still missing, but several turned up unexpectedly in The so-called "earliest notebook," containing what are thought to be Whitman's first notes leading to Leaves of Grass , was one of the recovered items, and, while most of it had already been transcribed in NUPM , the physical notebook itself offers evidence of dating unavailable to Grier who made his transcriptions from microfilm and photostats, which had been the only surviving evidence.

    These early notebooks—a number of which contain what could be considered preliminary versions of Leaves poems—have still not been fully examined and evaluated in relation to what they reveal about Whitman's writing process and what they tell us about the development of the Leaves. Because of this lack of knowledge about Whitman's notebooks, critics and biographers have usually portrayed Leaves as an artistic immaculate conception, apparently emerging from nowhere.

    Most biographers, from John Burroughs and Richard Maurice Bucke in the nineteenth century on up to the most recent, have been remarkably vague about Whitman's actual writing of the original Leaves. Since Whitman directly contributed to both Burroughs's and Bucke's books, it is useful to recall just how they present the composition of the first Leaves.