To Walt Whitman, On His 200th Birthday

Although Edgar Allan Poe may have written the most famous American poem, “The Raven,” it’s Walt Whitman, The Father of Free Verse and The Good Gray Poet, who claims the top spot as our most important poet. Born on May 31, 1819, he became a national treasure by the time of his death, though criticism of his book of poetry, Leaves of Grass, remained mixed.  Thirty years after first publishing the book, Whitman, in fact, wrote that its reception remained “worse than a failure.”  But that’s expected for trailblazers and revolutionaries, and naturally, many of this ilk don’t receive their due until after they’re dead.  It took the world time to appreciate Whitman, but here we are, and to celebrate his 200th birthday, I offer some places where Whitman continues to speak to us.

Pen Drawing of Walt Whitman by Kerr Eby

For an English teacher like me, the 1989 film Dead Poets Society earns one of the top spots. My favorite scene is when Mr. Keating, the teacher played by Robin Williams, makes Todd Anderson yawp in front of the class.  For those of you who haven’t seen the film, Ethan Hawke’s character, Todd, is supposed to write a poem for English, but comes to class empty handed, and instead of simply moving on to another student, Mr. Keating rallies him, running to the chalkboard to write, “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”  It’s one of my favorite lines by Whitman, coming at the end of his epic poem “Song of Myself” and only after about seventy-five pages of poetry.  It’s only fitting that this line earned a prominent role in the film.  The scene continues, when Mr. Keating calls Todd to the front of the class to “yawp,” goading him until he finally barks out a good one. Eventually, Todd improvises a poem in front of the class, under the tutelage of the teacher, and completes the assignment to much applause from his peers.  Sure, it might be a bit contrived, but for any English teacher, it’s also a bit of wish fulfillment.

Like Mr. Keating, Levi Strauss & Company has also paid their respects to Whitman.  It’s interesting, too, that Levi’s jeans and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass were contemporaries, their birthdays dating back to 1853 and 1855, respectively.  No wonder then, that the company, chose an advertising campaign, led by Wieden + Kennedy, who has done ad work for Nike too, that paired a recording of Walt Whitman, supposedly from the 1890s, with their jeans.  Even though many scholars believe the recording to be a hoax, the result, directed by Cary Fukunaga and first aired in July 2009, is a beautiful piece of cinematography where the advertising and the product for that matter, fade into the background to allow Whitman’s poetry—the theme of American democracy—to take front and center. 

Furthermore, in a moment of genius, Fukunaga even accounted for the hiss and scratchiness heard in this antique recording by repurposing the noise as a burning fuse to an explosion, or better yet, a firework. I’ve read in at least one source that the ad premiered on July 4th, making this detail even more befitting to the topic. And the bonus, Levi’s advertising campaign distributed Whitman’s voice to a mass audience that probably would have never bothered to listen to this recording.  And even if it’s not truly an authentic recording, the words remain Whitman’s.  The voice, too, sounds to me like Whitman’s should, which is perhaps why it may not actually be authentic.  Nevertheless, it’s something I show my students every year, and the poem’s imagery and style serves as an interesting contrast to many other poems by Whitman.

Finally, it’s hard to write about Whitman without mentioning another one of my favorite teacher dramas, Breaking Bad. Indeed, the AMC series about a chemistry teacher mixing up the best methamphetamine is all about breaking the rules much like Whitman’s poetry. By far, I think this is my favorite TV drama, better than The Wire, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and Dexter—many series that I devoted so much time to watching. Maybe it’s because Walt Whitman and  Leaves of Grass take on a role in the show.  Even the name of the show’s main character, Walter White, is eerily reminiscent of Walt Whitman, so much so, that I have often wondered if the writers had the plot worked out so far down the line to include that connection four seasons later to that infamous copy of Leaves of Grass, gifted to Walter White by his diligent assistant, Gale.  Even “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” which was referenced directly in Breaking Bad’s plot, recounts a narrator walking away from a classroom to reap the benefits of firsthand experience.  It’s just so wonderful, so apropos, to the series that I can’t help but “look up in perfect silence” while watching the storyline unfold.  

So there you have it, some of the places where Whitman persists, despite calling his book a failed experiment. It’s been interesting, at least to me, to research many of the details that I often discuss with my students, but haven’t completely fact checked over the years.  Of course, an article of this nature requires a proper conclusion, so I’ll leave you with one more detail from my research. For many years, I’ve had the hint, the remembrance, of a directive given by Walt Whitman about reading his poetry.  In writing this article, I discovered that directive in the Preface to the 1855 Edition of Leaves of Grass, which is a kind of manifesto on poetry.  In later editions, the Preface was cut from the book, but in the first edition, Whitman advises us “to read these leaves in the open air in every season of every year.”  I like it, that advice, because poetry is sometimes sterile, confined to the pages of a book, the walls of a classroom, and if lucky, maybe the audience at a coffee house.  How wonderful to think of it, instead, mingling with nature, the clouds floating overhead and the green grass under our feet.  No, I’ve never done it, but perhaps this year, I’ll finally take my copy of Leaves outside, read a few poems aloud, and celebrate Whitman’s birthday.

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