Following Calamus are 11 uncategorized poems that all together comprise more than 100 pages. In this post I’ll try to discuss the first three. So far, Whitman has developed a singular voice and the themes recited in earlier parts of the book continue to shine in the text. If I were reading the book straight through it would probably get boring, as the poems melded together. At this point I’m glad I decided to walk through the book in small stretches. Leaves of Grass is like a four decade conversation with a man from the 19th century. Advancing through it slowly allows for better understanding and appreciation.
I nearly laughed at the title “Salut au Monde”, French for Hello World, since it reminded me of the first computer program I wrote in Basic before I was a decade old. In fact, every language I’ve coded in has stared with programming these words. Whitman could have placed the poem at the front of the book and it would have fit well. Like many of Whitman’s poems, it features lots of repetitive structure as he lists the sounds and sights he imagines in the world. Knowing Whitman’s biography, there’s no way he traveled the whole Earth in real life, though he would have loved to. Instead the poem is more like a vision quest–a dreamlike accounting of all the places he’d visited in books or through lectures. Whitman doesn’t dwell on description; he mentions dozens of places and people, mentions the sounds and sights, and focuses on his sense of connection to them.
The Open Road is a common theme in literature, appealing and relatable. Roads and trails are easier to walk than unimproved bush; each one was blazed by somebody, so there’s presumably a destination worth seeing; there’s the air of mystery–you’ve got to follow the road to it’s end to experience what’s there. Whitman touches on all these themes, along with the feelings of connection he experiences as he meets strangers along the way. Using the French “Allons!” (Let’s go!), he invites the reader, another stranger, to walk the roads with him. He uses the irony of anomie–strangerhood–as a form of comraderie. As if to say “we’re all strangers, and that makes us comrades”.
Crossing Brooklyn Ferry gave me the feeling of walking the length of a boat filled with people, while the boat itself crossed over a river. Whitman again expounds the theme of companionship through shared experiences. As the boat leaves the city he loves behind it, the poet and the boat’s riders cross over the river of history. He talks about his personal feelings of nostalgia, guilt, and loss of good times. He goes on to profess his hope for good things in the future, for both himself and his fellow passengers. He ends by iterating his belief that the shared experiences and shared humanity of everyone are spiritually essential to everyone else. This is a distinct religious belief–Whitman emphasizes that spirituality is a shared experience, not the personal revelation of any individual.
These three pieces were well written and easy to understand, though not the most profound of Whitman’s poems to this point. Section five of Song of the Open Road was the part that stood out most in my mind. It’s excerpted below:
Header image credit: David Brown