More than a decade of what Whitman called "simmering" followed, as he broadened his knowledge and experience, and thought about what this new American poetry should be. He spent a brief time in New Orleans, where he witnessed the slave trade. Back in the Northeast, he read books on religion and history and Darwin's new theory of evolution. He delved into phrenology, the "science" of reading the bumps on people's heads. He frequented Dr. Henry Abbott's museum on Broadway, where he viewed Egyptian artifacts and was taken with the myth of Osiris, the god whose fragmented body sprouted leaves and grass from the earth.
He carried a green notebook for jotting down ideas: "Make it plain. Lumber the writing with nothing--let it go as lightly as a bird flies in the air--or a fish swims in the sea." By 1853 he was finally ready to write, and amazingly, wondrously, he did what he set out to do. The slender volume that he published anonymously in 1855--the first edition of Leaves of Grass--set poetry on a new course with its long, chanting lines and its lack of rhyme. But technical innovation was not enough to secure Whitman's place in literature and in our hearts. He composed verses of profound grace, paradoxically pouring everything he had into his poems while exercising restraint. For the first time, readers encountered the sprawling, exuberant "Song of Myself," in which the poet links himself with all humanity, and human beings with every other life form, from tortoises, ganders, and prairie dogs to the grass, which is "the beautiful uncut hair of graves." Some readers blinked more than once at the poem we know as "I Sing the Body Electric," and its unashamed celebration of "The womb, the teats, nipples, breast-milk, tears, laughter, weeping...." Who else in the Victorian era had dared to mention body parts in anything louder than a whisper? "The scent of these arm-pits" Whitman called "an aroma finer than prayer."
For the rest of his life, Whitman added poems to Leaves of Grass. Later editions included a favorite of mine, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," in which he speaks across time to people yet unborn:
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look at the river and sky, so I felt...
Later editions also featured the moving poems that chronicle Whitman's life as a soldiers' nurse in Civil War Washington and his great poem of mourning for Abraham Lincoln, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." Whitman inspired and influenced so many poets who followed him: Langston Hughes, Pablo Neruda, Allen Ginsberg.
I am as touched now by the beauty of Whitman's lines as I was when I first read them long decades ago. I know his story well, yet it still holds me in awe. How did a man who had barely written a line of verse, who had demonstrated no special ability in any area, create this body of work? I couldn't begin to guess. But the fact that he did--doesn't it cheer your soul?