I swear I begin to see the meaning of these things,
It is not the earth, it is not America who is so great,
It is I who am great or to be great, it is You up there, or any one,
It is to walk rapidly through civilizations, governments, theories,
Through poems, pageants, shows, to form individuals.
— Walt Whitman
“One’s-Self I sing, a simple separate person, / Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.” The opening lines of Leaves of Grass establish at once the poem’s grand and particular focus, its embrace of bodies, sensibilities, and aspirations that extend beyond daily horizons and yet also form exactly such a view — what lies before you. As Walt Whitman sings, his body electric inspires and provokes, poses questions that to this day remain unanswered and relevant — some 153 years after its first publication.
Mark Zwonitzer’s film, Walt Whitman, airing this week as part of the PBS’ American Experience, is a similarly grand and particular text. Reverent and lyrical, it tells Whitman’s life story in spurts, less a primary project than a way to suggest his ambition and legacy. It is hardly comprehensive or definitive, but it is expansive. Working with archival stills — photos of the artist with the camera roving over them, images of the New York he knew, memories that belong to someone long gone — the film incorporates as well contemporary shots of today’s city sidewalks and pulsing streams and green-budding branches, suggesting not only that Whitman’s energy and desire continue to inform the world as you know it, that his vision was far-reaching or prescient, but also that it is timeless.
Surely, this notion of Whitman is persuasive. Perhaps more seductive is his seeming sense of legacy, his address to readers, contemporary and future, who might ponder him, his words, and his possibilities. He writes, “I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping, turns a casual look upon you and then averts his face, / Leaving it to you to prove and define it, / Expecting the main things from you.”
And so the film digs in. As narrator J.K. Simmons asserts, Whitman was a man of large self-image and appetites, bold but also unsure of himself, open to feelings of all sorts. But if he seems fully formed, as if sprung from his own forehead, Whitman did come from somewhere, as the film traces, briefly. Born in 1819 on Long Island, he was raised by his mother Louisa and his father Louis, a farmer and house builder. In 1823, the family — including Walt’s seven siblings — moved to Brooklyn, where Louis failed in real estate ventures and turned to drinking, taking Walt out of school at 11, in order that he could help support the family. At 21, Whitman struck out on his own, determined to leave behind his father’s “dark shadow.” As he writes, “I stand for the sunny point of view, the joyful conclusion.”
This “conclusion” was hardly final, as the film shows his vigorous engagement with what he perceived as his community, from the streets of New York to New Orleans, from his youthful adventures to his commitment to caring for soldiers wounded during the Civil War, in Washington DC. The lively street life of New York moved him, as he observed and described the crowds on the street and the gatherings in public places. His decision to write Leaves of Grass, which he would revise until 1891, had to do with his hope to save the “nation.” It was as if, Simmons, says, Whitman imagined a job posting, “‘Wanted: National Poet,’ and he was innocent enough to believe that there was such a job.” Simmons says, “He searched for a poetic voice that would rise above despair and cynicism, to sing the vast promises of the country.”
Betsy Erkkila, literature professor at Northwestern University, describes Whitman as “sensitive, and even overly sensitive, to what was going on around him, both in terms of people but also a very sensuous interaction with the world, and from a very early age, he felt himself called to do something with this.” Though he tried at first to write professionally, for a series of New York newspapers and journals like the Tattler, the Statesman, the Mirror, and the Star, he was at last convinced that he must express himself and, as he saw it, express the national identity, in a more declarative fashion. “I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,” he asserts in Leaves of Grass, then extols the many American laborers, from carpenters to boatmen to mothers, “Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else, / The day what belongs to the day — at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.”
As Whitman absorbs and voices these songs, Leaves seems as vast as its creator deems it. Though the film, perhaps inevitably, reduces that enormity by assigning the words specific visual concordances and occasionally overstated music soundtrack, it also invites you to contemplate the achievement, the beauty of the syllables, the inventiveness of the imagery. In part this contemplation is effected by the reading of some passages by poets Yusef Komunyakaa, Martin Espada, and Billy Collins (in shadowy frames, sober and impressive). And in part the shots of birds on limbs or citizens striding to work help to color the lines. But most effectively, the language does its own work, and the film is most moving when it allows the words to speak.
The film notes the several additions and expansions to Leaves, including the “Calamus Cluster,” inspired by the love of his life, Fred Vaughan, and “Drum Taps,” by his work with Civil War soldiers and his profound admiration for Abraham Lincoln. These poems speak most poignantly to present-day concerns, their focus on bodies, broken, burned, and bloodied, frankly exquisite. “From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand,” reads Espada,
I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood,
Back on his pillow the soldier bends with curv’d neck and side-falling head,
His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the bloody stump,
And has not yet look’d on it.
Walt Whitman, alternately meditative and probing, observant and didactic, recalls the poet’s insistence that we all look, in order to empathize with others and comprehend ourselves.