David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: Whitman Notebook: Summer Grass


Sometimes I think I will never leave Walt Whitman’s “spear of summer grass”—that eternity of blade and spike, collar and sheath.

The taste of it is intimate as any coming evening.

I imagine… I’m standing waiting for the sky to fall and the darkness to rise above the library behind our house next to the white roses. The autumn petals fold into the infinite rhythm of traveling without interruptions, without tremor or clamor, as if to nations not yet known where I might “loafe and invite my soul.” It’s like I am no longer awake, but comforted in the dark. I am standing under the sky like a visitor, at ease. The black words of the night are real as wishes fulfilled. I need not even ask, Is this is how all journeys of reading ought to be?


I once thought one had to be dead to make a journey like that, where nothing tells you what your days are marked for under the cold stars, where nothing tells you what joy is. It’s a kind of joy buzzing like wasps in late spring. The mornings dark with early tulips that shine like apples after rain. The black stems silent to the wind.


What is there left to say about “Song of Myself” anyway, published July 4, 1855?


In an abandoned pamphlet Whitman wrote, but did not publish, from earlier in the 1850s:

To editors of the independent press, and to rich persons. Circulate and reprint this Voice of mine for the workingman’s sake. I hereby permit and invite any rich person, anywhere, to stereotype it, or re-produce it in any form, to deluge the cities of The States with it, North, South, East and West. It is those millions of mechanics you want; the writers, thinkers, learned and benevolent persons, merchants, are already secured about to a man. But the great masses of the mechanics, and a large portion of the farmers, are unsettled, hardly know whom to vote for, or whom to believe. I am not afraid to say that among them I seek to initiate my name, Walt Whitman, and that I shall in future have much to say to them.


Tonight, during one of those daydreaming, “summer grass” moments, feeling intent on the celebration of daydreaming—“what I assume you shall assume / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”—I felt lacking in purpose. I felt free in the words of “myself” as if free of the high firs and spruce across Stark Street in this Sunnyside neighborhood of the Rose City. Or free of the opened windows of the brick apartment building and the tenants frying potatoes in the kitchen. Or the TV on with the news coming from another window. Or from another, the shattering rhythms of Ozzy Osborne.

And from another window, middle Dylan. “Brownsville Girl.” With her Brownsville curls. Teeth like pearls. Shining like the moon above.


The pots of late white cosmos ache for warmth.

Whatever is undiscovered in “Song of Myself” is in the soil. No wind. Not even the littlest breeze. Complete stillness.

And silence.

“Observing a spear of summer grass”—I have the absolute sense of traveling, but I am standing still. There is not the least resistance from the air. Time hasn’t stopped, the way we say, “Time stopped,” but has sped up beyond the meaning of speed. Up ahead—where a “bard is to be commensurate with the people”—is beyond motion.

A stillness like celerity.


“Dear Sir—“ writes Ralph Waldo Emerson, July 21, 1855—

I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of Leaves of Grass. I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. It meets the demand I am always making of what seemed the sterile & stingy Nature, as if too much handiwork, or too much lymph in the temperament, were making our Western wits fat and mean. I give you joy of your free and brave thought. I have great joy in it. I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of treatment which so delights us, & which large perception only can inspire.

“I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little, to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely, of fortifying & encouraging.

“I did not know until I, last night, saw the book advertised in a newspaper, that I could trust the name real & available for a post-office. I wish to see my benefactor, & have felt much like striking my tasks, & visiting New York to pay my respects.


“And what I assume you shall assume…” Whitman thinks to himself, walking downtown on Broadway. Taking in an opera. Writing with a soft pencil onto scraps of paper, scribbled cursive, “commensurate with the people.” Then a conversion. The words of the poem scraped over the paper like paint with a palette knife. A Gerhard Richter kind of word-scraping. Action. Emergence. Without expectation.

Bleeding through the poem the discovery of a new mind of America—

“I celebrate myself.”


Rumpus original logo art by Genevieve Tyrrell.


In celebration of the two-hundredth anniversary of Walt Whitman’s birth in 1819, Poetry Wire will post David Biespiel’s serialized Whitman Notebook, his journal of reading the 1855 edition of “Song of Myself.”

David Biespiel is a poet, literary critic, memoirist, and contributing writer at American Poetry Review, New Republic, New York Times, Poetry, Politico, The Rumpus, and Slate, among other publications. He is the author of numerous books, most recently The Education of a Young Poet, which was selected a Best Books for Writers by Poets & Writers, A Long High Whistle, which received the 2016 Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction, and The Book of Men and Women, which was chosen for Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the 2011 Oregon Book Award for Poetry. More from this author →