Friday, March 9, 2012

33 New Things: Read 'Leaves of Grass'

Every year on my birthday, I make a list of new things I want to try. Some things are difficult and scary, others are surprisingly boring. You can check out previous adventures here.


Despite two language-related degrees, there are many, many Very Important Books that I've never read.  Crime and Punishment?  Nope.  The Sound And The Fury?  Nuh-uh.  Mill On The Floss?  Yes, but I wish I hadn't.  And until pretty recently, Leaves Of Grass was on my 'I Probably Should Read That If I'm Going To Call Myself A Writer' list.

In the event that you don't know, Leaves of Grass is a collection of poetry written by Walt Whitman.  It was first published in 1855 with just 95 pages.  But Walt continued to revise and add to it and there are now nine different editions of the book.  The 'Deathbed edition' boasts almost 400 poems - be ye not so stupid as me.  DO NOT GET THE DEATHBED EDITION.  THAT BUSINESS IS TL; DR.

Leaves of Grass is famous for being significantly more accessible than other poetry of that era - and even a bit shocking.  Our boy Walt enjoys The Sex and enjoys talking about it.  He also enjoys talking about his armpits and pubic hair and general man parts.  At various points while reading this, I literally clucked aloud and said "Walt!  You!  Gosh!"

The philosophy behind Leaves of Grass is, to me, a lovely one.  It's a celebration of the human body, the magic of being alive, all the tiny, wonderful details of daily life.  Though it's not a religious book, it somehow seems spiritual.

Here are my favorite snippets. 

I wear my hat as I please, indoors or out.

...

I am not the poet of goodness only, I do not decline to be the poet of wickedness also.

....

Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch'd from,
The scent of these armpits finer than prayer,
This head more than churches, bibles and all the creeds.

....

We found our own O my soul in the calm and cool of the day-break.

...

I merely stir, press, feel with my fingers, and am happy,
To touch my person to someone else's is about as much
as I can stand.

....

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so
placid and self-contain'd,
I stand and look at them long and long.


They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
No one is dissatisfied, no one is demented with the
mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands
of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

Have you read Leaves of Grass?  Did you like it?  What other 'classic literature' do you like?

13 comments

  1. The book, Les Misérables, is well worth reading. It's very good with many intertwining plots.

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  2. haven't read this yet! not a huge poetry fan but i'd give it a try :)

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  3. Leaves of Grass is just SO dense, it makes me feel like my brain is made of scrambled eggs after I read it! I have a BA in English Lit, and even I haven't read a lot of "classics." Crime and Punishment, War and Peace, Anna Karenina...I somehow managed to take classes from professors interested in modern "ethnic" literature, so I've read a lot of Toni Morrison (good!) and Sherman Alexie (not so good.) I really want to get a MA in Lit so I can get into British Romantic Lit (Mill on the Floss type stuff - some of us enjoy it!)

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  4. Read Leaves of Glass last semester, wasn't my favourite, but Walt's an unusual writer -he's very free. It's worth a read but it also needs an editor... As far as classics go, you should check out The Devils by Dostoevsky. Long but great!

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  5. Great post! My 'must read' list includes Anna Karenina, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and A Room With a View (I'm embarrassed by how many classics I've never read)! Oh well, there's still lots of winter left before it's time to switch to light summer reading.

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  6. I had a "Classics Only" book club...we lasted through precisely one book - Wuthering Heights. That book broke us, but it certainly sticks with you. Crime and Punishment will always be one of my faves. Also, I don't know if it qualifies as classic, but "Love in the Time of Cholera" is fantastic.

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  7. I have foregone most classics after a depressive bout with Russian/soviet authors. There are only so much of gulag and moldy bread that you can do before you whimp out.
    Recently I've read the full edition of Alice in Wonderland (in English). Also took on Once and Future King. Loved the language in both. Not being a native English speaker, and having a flurry of classical books in my first language, it's always nice to hit the original text. Sometimes things do, as they say, get lost in translation.

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  8. Oh and I've read Dantes inferno, which is truly inferno-ish. You should read that one a section or so at time or you'll stop somewhere mid-through.

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  9. I'm also a dual-language degree holder with a long and shameful "Unread Classics" list: "War and Peace", "Moby Dick", "Wuthering Heights", anything by Mark Twain (I KNOW). The one book that I am OK with never, ever, never reading all the way through is "Ulysses". I have tried so many times and just can't slog through it to save my life. I even took a class that was specifically for reading the book; I was the only native English speaker in the class and was the only one who didn't get it. (Or at least, the only one who would admit it.)
    But anything by Steinbeck? Read it, own it, and will probably re-read it.

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  10. Haha, Mill on the Floss?! I SO hear you. It was one of my A-level (exams lots of people do in the UK aged 16-18) English texts, and was so dull I couldn't even get through the abridged study notes. Somehow, I still passed the exam (probably because the other texts were brilliant, things like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Measure for Measure, which I read more than once), but George Eliot shouldn't be inflicted on anyone...

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  11. I have a BA in English too, and like many other commenters, the list of classics I haven't read is long. Since I'm going to be teaching English, I kinda feel bad about it, especially since there are a few books that were assigned reading, but I kinda didn't manage to make my way through the book.

    Let's look instead at the list of books we have read! There are just so many books out there.

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  12. I LOVE leaves of grass! I took two Whitman-centric classes in grad school and just fell in love. I actually have the third line of Song of Myself tattooed on my wrist (http://momyawp.blogspot.com/2011/11/in-which-i-share-my-tattoos-with-you.html)
    Despite being an English major (undergrad and grad school) I too neglected the classics in favor of the more...recent. I did just read Tristan and Iseult and thought it was pretty fascinating!

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  13. Hhahaha. TL;DR cracks me up!

    Do we have any Richard Brautigan fans in the house? Not strictly 'classics', but amazing books I love to get lost in.

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