What follows is an unconventional book review of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman.
Poetry sucks. With its flowery language and vague phrasings, you have to study and interpret it just to extract any kind of meaning from it. Then, invariably, some “literary expert” – like my high school English teacher – will tell you that your analysis is wrong, and condescendingly enlighten you as to the “true” meaning of the poem. Who needs that kind of aggravation? Outside of dirty limericks, I have no use for this entire literary genre. Poetry sucks.
As I was drunkenly spouting off this distaste for poetry one night, a friend of mine (a high school English teacher – but he’s a good guy regardless) suggested that I read Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. He thought the underlying themes and the overall tone of this poetry collection would allow me to connect with the poems like I had quite obviously never done before. I didn’t believe him but I decided to do it, mostly so I could later laugh in his face and tell him how wrong he was.
Whitman wrote his poems during a turbulent time in American history, and they have as their backdrop the Civil War, westward expansion, and the rise of industrialization. While these monumental events are transforming society, the poet looks inward and seems to be mainly concerned with how the individual fits in this rapidly changing world. Strung together, the poems take on the form of an epic journey of “one’s self,” a physical and spiritual journey that includes the poet, the reader, and the entire nation. The journey is an attempt to understand the self and the collective spirit of America. Throughout, he sings the praises of democracy and freedom, the beauty of nature, travel and exploration, romantic and sexual love, and he constantly proclaims his acceptance of all people as equals.
For the most part, I did enjoy reading these poems. The subject matter caught my attention, and the language was not as vexing as in many other poems that had previously tortured me. I was able to understand the poet’s message without having to reread each line several times while cursing his mother and pulling out my hair. My only complaint is that some of Whitman’s poems devolve into lists: in one poem he fills half a page listing various professions; in another he uses several stanzas to list the names of rivers. Not being a literary expert, I don’t know if these lists have some deeper artistic or poetical meaning; to me, it was just boring. But again, this is the only thing I didn’t like about the book.
Grudgingly, I had to admit to my friend that Leaves of Grass was not the pile of shit that I had assumed it would be. It was good poetry for my personal tastes, interesting and inspiring. It did not, however, inspire me to read any more poetry, and I still favor the dirty limerick above all other poems. For example:
I was drunk in a bar Sunday night
When two girls got into a fight
I looked on in silence
Amazed at their violence
And strangely aroused by the sight
That one’s an Ely North original. I know, I know. I could be a world-class poet if I wanted to be. There’s just one thing holding me back: poetry sucks!
*If you have any thoughts to share on this book, leave a reply below!