Walt Whitman, Primogenial Blogger?

Language/Structure | Culture
I have a case for Walt Whitman being some sort of early blogger. It is the 150th anniversary of the first publication of Leaves of Grass, so no doubt he will be discussed in every school in this country this year. When researching “singer” as one of the main archetypes of today’s bloggers, I came up with that term as I remembered that Whitman was fond of singing as a metaphor for celebrating oneself.

Now before I go ahead I must state two things. I’m the last person one can accuse of peddling blog triumphalism; I keep a linklog of blog bunk logging the mythic claims made about blogs. Furthermore, in my fool disclosure I wrote that I don’t really know anything about what I write about. That was mostly facetious, except for this case. It is embarassing what I don’t know about poetry. (Though that didn’t stop me from writing A poem of Thanksgiving where prose failed me, and also from writing a a sonnet instead of long-winded post recently). So I bought Leaves of Grass for $5.95 to study up.

I do expect more serious scholars can address this over the coming year. And I hope less-than-serious scholars as well. If I were ten years younger, and still in high school, and blogging away, I might be suckered into a class which talked about just that. Now I’m old and busy and more of a stringer, but I still wish to understand what makes people sing their bodies electric.

Whitman: Life and Legend

Let’s do the easy stuff, right out of the introduction:

  • Whitman self-published “Leaves of Grass” in 1855, at his own expense.
  • He would keep adding to it (re-publishing it) until his death in 1892– nine different editions.
  • Whitman reacted to current events, in ways more memorable than the newspapers: “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” and “O Captain, My Captain” upon Lincoln’s death.
  • Years before he began Leaves of Grass, he was a journalist; he left the Brooklyn Daily Eagle over political differences.
  • He was fired from his job in the Interior Department once the Secretary discovered his writings.
  • One reviewer called it “a stupid mass of filth”; this is prefigures the “Boring Load Of Garbage” definition once given (and now redacted) for “blog” on the urban dictionary.
  • The most favorable early reviewer was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who sent Whitman a glowing note. Whitman leaked it to the mainstream media, the New York Tribune, and Emerson was quite annoyed by that.
  • Just to tip the scales a little more, Whitman often wrote anonymous and pseudonymous reviews favorable to his book.
  • Feb 28, 1997: Leaves of Grass is the gift that the President of the United States gives to an intern who used to be on his staff. The month of March goes in like a lamb and out like a lion. I only remember the end of the month because there was a snowstorm at midnight before April Fool’s Day, when Dave Spitz, Roben Farzad, and I has our first legal drinks for our 21st birthday. That day, Dave Winer begins Scripting News— one of the first blogs since reconstruction.
  • Whitman’s poetry is addictive, topic-jumping, inventive, earthy. I’m not sure if blogs are, but it’s the thought that counts.

In Song


Whitman’s Song of Myself sets the tone for his entire work:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

The third line of this is cited by Loren Webster, in his note about why he blogs. Coincidentally, atom is the name of one of the syndication standards for sharing blog content.

There was a blog anthology published in 2004 entitled Never Threaten to Eat your Coworkers, which included an introduction by blog evangelist Doc Searls. His introduction (while meandering through some blog bunk about the old media) includes this quote from the poem:

You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through
the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

Searls actually writes the last phrase as “filter them for your self,” which makes it sound like contemporary media criticism, but never mind.

Also, this part is quite fitting:

My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach,
With the twirl of my tongue I encompass worlds and volumes of worlds.

Speech is the twin of my vision, it is unequal to measure itself,
It provokes me forever, it says sarcastically,
Walt you contain enough, why don’t you let it out then?

And even if you’ve forgotten all of Song of Myself, but did see the film Dead Poets Society, you know how the poem winds down:

I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

Truth and Lies

In All Is Truth, Whitman foreshadows the embrace of multiple perspectives of today’s blogging singers. This the second half of the poem:

Meditating among liars and retreating sternly into myself, I see
that there are really no liars or lies after all,
And that nothing fails its perfect return, and that what are called
lies are perfect returns,
And that each thing exactly represents itself and what has preceded it,
And that the truth includes all, and is compact just as much as
space is compact,
And that there is no flaw or vacuum in the amount of the truth–but
that all is truth without exception;
And henceforth I will go celebrate any thing I see or am,
And sing and laugh and deny nothing.


The relationship with the old media institutions is what drives many bloggers. In I Hear It Was Charged Against Me, Whitman does a little dance around this:

I hear it was charged against me that I sought to destroy institutions,
But really I am neither for nor against institutions,
(What indeed have I in common with them? or what with the
destruction of them?)
Only I will establish in the Mannahatta and in every city of these
States inland and seaboard,
And in the fields and woods, and above every keel little or large
that dents the water,
Without edifices or rules or trustees or any argument,
The institution of the dear love of comrades.

Not Quite

Now, there’s obviously some places where the comparisons fall short. For one, it wasn’t like Leaves of Grass started a culture movement of millions around the world. He was hardly appreciated in his own time. Whitman didn’t write about everything he did or he spoke to. While he kept adding to Leaves of Grass, he also removed and revised.

Were we to compare blogs to Whitman on the other hand… very few blogs even remotely approach Whitman for being able to blanket the reader in comfort. (Rebecca’s comes close) One reason is because you didn’t see Whitman write in every third poem, “Hey, the mainstream poets aren’t writing this stuff!” He’s very at ease, and it sets the reader at ease.

Others may point out that the lack of hyperlinks means that Whitman’s poetry is by definition not weblogging. How pedantic. Have a look at Salut Au Monde, which begins:

O TAKE my hand Walt Whitman!
Such gliding wonders! such sights and sounds!
Such join’d unended links, each hook’d to the next,
Each answering all, each sharing the earth with all.

And Whitman travels the world, winging it all the way (“You Chinaman and Chinawoman of China! You Tartar or Tartary!”), but to someone living a hundred and fifty years ago, these were pretty good hyperlinks.

Today there are more reasons not to read poetry than to read it. But I discovered an important one… and I can’t really say it in prose. Let me try this instead:

In spite of worlds crisscross’d with copper and glass
and letters without end, never too fast,
just trust what not moves and sits still on the page:
Walt Whitman, your companion, your friend! In your own age!

Update, September 5th, 2005: A month ago, Christopher Lydon picked up this idea to mark the occasion of the 150th Anniversary of Blades of Grass— though he titled the show Walt Whitman, a Talk Show Guy. He was able to book Whitman experts John Hollander and Robert Pinsky for the show, and it was eventually broadcast last Thursday, September 1st. I learned a lot more about Whitman’s literary style listening to the program, and called up (41 minutes into the broadcast). “It’s a good thought!” Chris responded, and then quoted a line from the poet Carl Dennis: “Whitman’s ideal America is a country held together not by law or custom, but by a network of imaginative filaments thrown out by autonomous individuals who want to include as many people as they can in their own acts of self-definition.” (Lydon had noted this back in 2003.) He asked Pinsky for this thoughts, who responded, “It does make a lot of sense, the only thing it leaves out, is the same thing I find is left out of the web… and that is the opera, the human body.” This was a bit opaque to me, but Pinsky gave a more earthy comparison about the difference between people interacting in the grocery line and interacting in their cars. If only we had the Internet minus the road rage. “I want art!” exclaimed Pinsky. He then urged me to “keep up the good work”– but by then the Radio Open Source producers had cut my phone line.
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    whitman as blogger loren Feb 15 ’05 7:29PM