Leaves of Grass

Thursday, November 2nd, 2017

I find it fitting that on this Dia de los Muertos, or All Souls Day, I’m reminded of having recently picked up and re-read Walt Whitman’s seminal book of poetry, Leaves of Grass. The poetry book that arguably is at once the first truly modern book of poetry and certainly the first truly American book of poetry. My answer to friends when they ask me, Why Whitman? Why Leaves of Grass,  my response is far from coy, Who else is there? Finally, the rough and rugged country of America found its voice and it was Whitman.

The curious volume of poetry, originally published as twelve untitled poems, went mostly unnoticed, though the great American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote Whitman an encouraging note. Though Emerson would distance himself latter from the poet due to his controversial views on sexuality and the use of often erotic imagery, he wrote to him in 1855:  “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” How true he turned out to be! Leaves of Grass would end up being a lifelong project for Whitman, at the time of his death the volume had swelled to over four hundred poems.

There is much to love in his poetry but for me, and perhaps for us faithful and curious Catholics, it is his vastness—his scale—that boggles us. Whitman uses the word “I” in a similar way that the Gospel writer John uses “The Word.” Whitman gives us a journey of the soul that is always moving, reflecting and changing. Like the Holy Spirit itself it seems to transform and be still, rush and embody seemingly inanimate objects.  Whitman’s voice can go from the quizzical to the downright cosmic.

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it
is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful
green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we
may see and remark, and say Whose?

Whitman reminds us Catholics who believe in eternal journeys through the cosmos, heaven and purgatory that we are all connected even after death. As the historian Peter Quinn has remarked, “It is admittedly hard not to cry when you read Crossing Brooklyn Ferry thinking of saints, friends and family members no longer with us.

It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,

I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,

Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,

Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,

Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,

Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried,

Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-stemm’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.

These and all else were to me the same as they are to you,

I loved well those cities, loved well the stately and rapid river,

The men and women I saw were all near to me,

Others the same—others who look back on me because I look’d forward to them,

(The time will come, though I stop here to-day and to-night.)

This evening at our All Souls’ Mass I will close my eyes and try to touch that great elsewhere. A place somewhere between the vastness of eternity and now, simultaneously immediate and eternally opaque, and I have Walt Whitman’s poetry to guide me there.

I’ll be seeing you,


Event Signup Forms
View Signup Forms