Teaching Whitman in High School

The following article was originally published in print by Teachers & Writers Magazine.

by Bill Zavatsky 

My first sustained reading of Whitman took place in the fall of 1965 or the spring of 1966. It was his “Song of Myself,” a good chunk of which I read while sitting in a lobby at the New School for Social Research in New York, waiting for a jazz improvisation class to begin. After three years at a small college in Connecticut, I had “dropped out” and worked for a year. When I resumed my education, I felt myself at a new beginning. Whitman confirmed my adventure—the new life on which I had embarked as well as the stirrings of a real commitment to writing, especially to poetry. That afternoon, at the New School, Whitman’s rolling line forever fused itself to the long-lined solos of the jazz artists that I most admired; and all I had to do was look at the city around me to see that he was one of the great poets of New York. 

But more than this, Whitman’s work touched experiences in me that had long been buried, experiences the nature of which I can only call spiritual. A few years ago, when I started teaching his poems to my tenth and twelfth grade English classes, it was because he was one of those writers who confirmed a sensation that, up through my teens, I had now and again felt: the gift of seeing everything in my range of vision with a startling clarity, as if whatever I turned my gaze toward was bathed in the beam of a powerful searchlight, but not at the expense of surrounding objects, which retained their focus. Concomitant with this heightened sense of vision was the sensation of being connected to all that I saw, joined to it in oneness that both dazzled me and left me with a feeling of inner joy. These states did not last very long, and they were so extraordinary that I was afraid to investigate them, even to mention them. (They seemed qualitatively different from the feelings of piety or devotion or exaltation that I experienced as a Roman Catholic boy.) The manifestation was not linked to creed or dogma but showered down upon me when I least expected it—on a spectacularly clear fall day, or a summer afternoon as I walked down a tree-lined street, heading home from a baseball game. All I knew was that it “happened,” that I was grateful for this visitation, and that I would remember the effect that it had upon me. 

Before my students and I read Whitman’s poems, I introduce them to Whitman by describing these experiences. I have discovered that there is a hunger in young people—”religious” or not—to discuss “heightened” transpersonal experiences. In doing so I never feel that I am forcing a belief system on my students. For example, as I gave my little personal introduction on the first day of our Whitman studies, two female seniors were madly scribbling notes to one another. With a frown, but really out of curiosity, I walked over to read what one had written: “I have these experiences all the time!” Her friend had responded enthusiastically in the affirmative. Indeed, adolescence brings with it the development of the ability to entertain abstract concepts of a sophisticated nature, making Whitman, the self-described “poet of the body and the soul,” a perfect companion. 

There are higher levels of spirituality in poetry than the writings of Whitman—the poems of William Blake or Hindu texts like the Bhagavad-Gita—but at present these seem out of my teaching range despite my absorption in them. What Whitman seemed to have experienced, however, was far more profound than my little moments of transport. What especially appealed to me was Whitman’s directness, the sense that he was speaking from the heart of a great mystery in a language that I could understand. Neither I nor my students need to cut through a lot of cultural differences and symbol-systems to understand Whitman, and this is what I wanted to explore and to communicate to them: an apprehension of spiritual matters that was immediate. Not that everything in his work can be understood; the studies of what Whitman meant in “Song of Myself” are still tumbling off the presses. I simply wanted the excuse at least to touch on spiritual things, and Whitman supplied the occasion. 

Of course, all poetry is spiritual to a greater or lesser extent. Whitman himself wrote: 

Much is said of what is spiritual, and of spirituality, in this, that, or the other—in objects, expressions.—For me, I see no object, no expression, no animal, no tree, no art, no book, but I see, from morning to night, and from night to morning, the spiritual.—Bodies are all spiritual.—All words are spiritual—nothing is more spiritual than words. (An American Primer) 

In Class 

After I had told the story of my youthful “experiences” and read aloud the passages from the “Song of Myself ” quoted in the first item of the following list, my classes and I used the chalkboard to make a grand list of the features that seemed to be characteristic of Whitman’s poems. (My seniors had already read “Song of Myself,” “The Sleepers,” “Faces,” and “I Sing the Body Electric” from the 1855 text of Leaves of Grass; my sophomores read the final edition of the “Song” and “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” Here’s our list: 

1) Spirituality: By which is meant an appeal to or manifestation of transcendence; an understanding that each individual is identical with the One. Everywhere in his work, but most notably in the “Song of Myself,” Whitman refers to the central fact of his life, the spiritual experience which he had some time in the early 1850s, first memorialized in section 5 of the poem: 

I believe in you my soul . . . . the other I am must not abase itself to 
And you must not be abased to the other. 

I mind how we lay in June, such a transparent summer morning; 
You settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned over upon 
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your 
tongue to my barestript heart, 
And reached till you felt my beard, and reached till you held my 

Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and joy and 
knowledge that pass all the art and argument of the earth; 
And I know that the hand of God is the elderhand of my own, 
And I know that the spirit of God is the eldest brother of my own, 
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers …. and the 
women my sisters and lovers, 
And that a kelson of the creation is love; 
And limitless are leaves stiff or drooping in the fields, 
And brown ants in the little wells beneath them, 
And mossy scabs of the wormfence, and heaped stones, and elder 
and mullein and poke-weed. [11. 73-74, 78-89]

And in section 7 he returns to it: 

Has anyone supposed it lucky to be born? 
I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it. 
I pass death with the dying, and birth with the new-washed 
babe…. and am not contained between my hat and boots. 
And peruse manifold objects, no two alike, and every one good, 
The earth good, and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good. 

I am not an earth nor an adjunct of an earth, 
I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and 
fathomless as myself; 
They do not know how immortal, but I know. [11. 122-129]

The erotic language of the first description is perfectly consistent with the narratives of saints and mystics. (One thinks of Saint Theresa’s account of being pierced with a spear by an angel. We examined a picture of Bernini’s famous statue for a better understanding of what Whitman is “about” in this passage.) 

Another technique that Whitman uses to generate the feeling of “eternity” in many of his greatest poems is to keep to the present tense. In the “Song of Myself- one must search far and wide for any use of the past tense. 

2) Emphasis on the physical body: That the body is good, clean, pure, etc. 

3) Celebration/praise: All of creation is good and worthy of praise. In Sleeping on the Wing, Kenneth Koch and Kate Farrell mention that the “Song of Myself” is an “exuberant inventory of the world (and so of Walt Whitman) in which he congratulates and praises all the parts of life in great detail, and all for just existing.” 

4) Love for all things: “Good” or “evil”—a repudiation of duality, which is merely the misreading of a unifying principle, since the unenlightened human mind is incapable of grasping the One. Furthermore, the compassion that we find everywhere expressed in Whitman’s writing may be seen as a form of imagination, allowing us to feel what others are feeling.

5) Equality: Of all humans; also, there is more than a hint in Whitman that the processes of nature exist on a par with human life. See section 32, which begins, “I think I could turn and live awhile with the animals …. they are so placid and self-contained, / I stand and look at them sometimes half the day long.” (11. 684-85)

6) The list or catalog: That Whitman’s lists “level” everything, thus making everything equal. This is to say that finally, in his lists, nothing takes precedence over another thing, and nothing comes first or last. The notion of the democratic—another key idea in Whitman’s work—abides in such a conception.

7) The simultaneity of the list: Chains of events happening at once, which leads to a feeling of timelessness. The poet is thus godlike, standing at the center of time, able to see and feel all things at once. Also, the poet tends to disappear into his enumerations, a technique that increases the feeling of spirituality, of Oneness, the detachment from ego. Simultaneity also creates a sense of movement, often of speed, in the text.

8) Repetition: A phenomenon of the list. It creates an incantatory feeling, as in religious literature, that approaches the rhythms of the prayer or chant, heightening the sense of the spiritual. A discussion of Whitman’s use of rhetorical devices such as anaphora (the repetition of the same word or words at the beginning of a line), epistrophe (the repetition of the same word or words at the end of a line), symploce (the combination of anaphora and epistrophe), and syntactical parallelism can sharpen the students’ understanding of Whitman’s poetic technique. These devices literally “make” his meaning.

9) Highly physical description alternating with abstract spiritual musings: Whitman gains a tremendous power in his work because he continually buttresses his spiritual insights with concrete particulars (observed facts) and vice versa.

10) Sexuality: Whitman does not shy away from expressions of sexuality; this connects several of the above categories in our list—spirituality, equality, democracy, physical description, love, celebration, and, of course, eroticism.

11) Intimacy of address: The voice of Whitman is warm, friendly, encouraging, sometimes even animated by the fearlessness found in face-to-face conversation. He addresses the reader directly, creating a sense of closeness rare in poetry.

12) Individuality: Despite the tendency of catalog poetry to “dissolve” the author’s identity, his or her personality persists by the literary choices made and style adopted. (The students and I were forced to acknowledge a paradoxical element here: to know that one is an individual and at the same time one with the Whole.)

13) Fearless use of the first person pronoun: Whitman never shies away from using the word “I.” The “Song of Myself” begins with it (“I celebrate myself”) and virtually ends with it (“I stop somewhere waiting for you”). The constant use of the “I” is another element that creates the instantaneous intimacy of Whitman’s voice.

14) “And to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier”: This line concludes and summarizes section 6, which begins with the famous opening, “A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands.” (6.1) The realization of an individual death is transcended by the understanding that the soul is immortal.

15) Natural diction spiced with ‘poetic’ diction: Whitman’s sound—his choice of words—is very close to ours, very “modern.” The “everydayness” of his vocabulary reflects the common sights and sounds that he celebrates. Whitman’s language is also highly concrete and sensual as if it could be grabbed and held before the eyes and felt with the hand. At the same time, we note that his use of certain words and expressions (sometimes from the French, especially in the poems after 1855) may be a bit off-putting: “venerealee” for one afflicted with venereal disease; “amies” for “female friends”; “chef-d’oeuvre” for “masterpiece”; “ambulanza” for “ambulance”; “eleves” for “students”; “bussing” for “kissing,” etc.

16) A poet of the city: Whitman was the first great poet to write of New York City, which connects to:

17) The poet as reporter: For many years Whitman worked as a newspaperman. He went out into the streets, using his eyes and ears to gather facts—sights, sounds, smells, textures—that informed his writing. This technique was to lay the foundation for everything that he would write. In short, observation—the merging of one’s sensibility with one’s surroundings—is another way of being-at-one with the “other.” It is a form of meditation, and thus intersects with many of these other categories.

18) The poet as storyteller: There are anecdotes and short narratives throughout Whitman’s long poems, especially in “Song of Myself,” even though this poem is thought of as a non-narrative work. “The subject was so large that anything, it seemed, could be part of it and could be included.” (Koch and Farrell, Sleeping on the Wing, p. 37)

19) The idiosyncratic ellipsis (….): Four suspension periods rather than the usual three. This piece of punctuation is Whitman’s hieroglyph for the drawn breath, the pause for thought, the opening-up of the poem into timelessness, the intrusion of the eternal into consciousness whenever we leave off speaking—that is, when the individual ego is adumbrated. At the end of a poem the ellipsis usually means something like, “I have nothing more to say.” In Whitman it means something quite different: a unit of breath; little stars or planets rolling by…

20: The long line: Whitman’s long lines contain or generate many of the above qualities. His line is a rolling wave, an oceanic motion; a planetary orbit; the process of drawing and exhaling breath—as a focus in meditation. (The long line also testifies to Whitman’s devotion to opera.) 

The origin of Whitman’s line in Biblical literature seems evident. Here is a passage from the Old Testament (which I have arranged into verse lines) that contains the seed of Whitman’s major theme in the “Song of Myself”: 

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. 
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her 
warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she 
hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. 
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, 
Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a 
highway for our God. 
Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be 
made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough 
places plain: 
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it 
together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it. 
The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is 
grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: 
The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the 
Lord bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass. 
The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God 
shall stand for ever. (Isaiah 40:1-8, King James Version) 

The voice of God speaks through the mouth of the prophet, and Whitman himself for a time thought of his book as a “new Bible” for the American masses. Grass recurs as a life-image throughout literature and mythology. The Oglala Sioux holy man Black Elk, at the beginning of his autobiography, says: “So many other men have lived and shall live that story [of an individual life], to be grass upon the hills” (Black Elk Speaks, p. 1). We grow, flourish, and die like blades of grass. Whitman’s title suggests the leaves (pages) of a book, at once eternal and transitory. We can also imagine a book printed on blades of grass, each blade being the page of the book of eternity. In The Geography of the Imagination, Guy Davenport notes that “this one universal plant [is] absent only in the deserts of the poles,” and that “the first paper was leaves of grass, papyrus” (p. 76). Hence Whitman’s description of it as a “uniform hieroglyphic.” Grass, tenacious and ubiquitous, is also a perfect symbol for democracy. (Again note that Whitman’s image is oxymoronic: grass that may need deciphering, but also is universal, accessible to all.)

Naturally, there is much more to be said on all these subjects, and there are plenty of insights attendant on a close reading of Whitman. My students and I arrived at these ideas in a class session of “brainstorming,” and I offer them as points of departure for further discussion. Use them as best suits your purpose. 

Imitating Whitman 

My students wrote imitations of Whitman using our list of twenty characteristics, trying to include in their poems as many of them as possible. If students had experienced “cosmic” moments that my introduction or Whitman’s poetry reminded them of, or that Whitman’s poems revived, I urged them to include these moments in their poems and to be as specific as possible. 

Whitman’s poems give the feeling of being in reality, so I took the students outside to a little community park in our neighborhood where all of us could sit and write. (This exercise proved useful to students who found it difficult to identify with the spiritual aspect of Whitman’s poetry; direct observation gave them images and events to “hang on to.” Thus a “Whitman imitation” can also be a transcription of reality—a meditation on what passes before the eye and ear. These observations could be written down in prose, then later arranged into Whitmanic verse lines. (According to biographer Paul Zweig, Whitman ultimately found his poetic voice through years of writing prose—everything from newspaper articles to journal entries. His early poetry is mediocre, at best.) Here’s a first draft of my foray into the garden: 

Small apartment buildings being built in the air around us. 
I watch the workers in yellow helmets and heavy-soled boots walk 
the rooftops, banging and buzzing away, shouting and 
An airplane flies over. What am I thinking? 
Strands of cassette tape festoon a nearby tree. 
I sit on a bench in the garden planted with dozens of blossoming 
flowers and shrubs, 
alive with immense bees that flash in and out of the Indian summer 
sunlight, strong because of the clearness of the air. 
Small gnats attracted to skinny black trees attack my face as I 
I puff my cheeks and whoosh, they go spinning upwards! 
There is the shadow-work of these little trees to try to get down 
in words, the twisted puppet patterns 
thrown on the white-washed brick sides of adjacent brownstones. 
The shadows remind me of the black ink that unrolls from the tip 
of my black pen, shiny in the sunlight. 
Tiny suns race up and down its barrel like meteorites! 

I look at the students as they write, ranged in odd or formal 
positions around the circular garden, scribbling in our 
and think about making a list of what each of us is doing. 
Are they sneaking looks at me, too, I wonder, as I note this down? 
Alton creeps near some bushes, training his ever-ready camera on a 
black cat that has suddenly appeared. 
Half of us are watching him and madly trying to write it down. 
Alison sits on a rock, crosslegged, staring her eyes down at her 
pad, looking like Buddha. 
My pen is moving along the page—I can’t stop writing!

Other observations—drawn from reality, from memory, or from the imagination can be interspersed with this “on-the-spot writing.” This new material may be of a philosophical or cosmic nature, but should be balanced by the “minute particulars” captured for the pen by the eye and ear. The point is to let abstract ideas be generated and controlled by concrete images, and not the other way around: start with the skinny black tree in the garden that a thousand gnats are whirling around and then speak of the years that fly so quickly at Time’s frozen face. Then move back to another concrete image—the splotchy, neon-like colors on the bow tie of the assistant principal, for example. 

It would also be a good idea to use some of the rhetorical devices employed by Whitman that I mentioned in the eighth item of the list of qualities: anaphora, epistrophe, symploce, and syntactical parallelism. It’s easy to find examples of these techniques in Whitman’s poems. 

If it isn’t convenient to go outdoors, students can rely on remembered images. Writers can start with something that they know well—the trip to school in the morning, for example. They can “borrow” material from magazines and books if there is a danger of running out of steam. (News magazines and the National Geographic are good sources of images.) In fact, if your school has a library, it might be the ideal place to do this kind of writing, as long as students aren’t too distracted by the temptation to do nothing but browse through books and periodicals. 

Once students have achieved a Whitmanic flow in their work, this kind of poem can keep going and going. It can be stocked with anecdotes, little stories, and fleeting descriptions. It can be broken into sections that are more or less self-contained, or ones that spill over into the next section. 

Study the endings of Whitman’s poems and you will note that they often simply trail off, or end rather abruptly, even arbitrarily; many of them might end anywhere. The impressions simply stop coming, or in some way cease, as if the poet decided to step out of the river of being that created the images. This quality, too, is a mark of Whitman’s work, or of the kind of poem that records a stretch of mental time in which anything might happen. Some critics have felt that Whitman’s writing is a sort of stream-of-consciousness or free-association technique. Here too the spiritual is invoked: the feeling that one is centered in one’s body and in no need of heading anywhere. One is, and whatever swims through the mind is registered, then let go of. That is how students might learn to think of this kind of writing: grab the image, get it down, then be ready for the next image. What unifies the perception of these images is the mind—and, in the largest sense, the Mind that watches over the whole universe; which is the universe. 

Additional Writing Ideas 

For academic or research papers, students could explore some of the following ideas: 

  • Whitman and the Spiritual: A good introduction to the mystical tradition can be found in The Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley (New York: Harper & Row, 1970). Cosmic Consciousness by Whitman’s disciple, Dr. R. M. Bucke, was praised by the poet, who claimed that “it thoroughly delineates me.” The psychologist William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: New American Library) was originally published in 1902 and contains a good deal of material on Whitman. The connection between the metaphysics of Hinduism and Whitman can be probed in V. K. Chari’s Whitman in the Light of Vedantic Mysticism—An Interpretation (Lincoln, Neb.: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1964). For a contrast to Whitman’s view of the One in a poem like “Song of Myself,” see “The Eleventh Teaching: The Vision of Krishna’s Totality” in The Bhagavad-Gita: Krishna’s Counsel in Time of War, translated by Barbara Stoler Miller (New York: Bantam Books, 1986), which keeps the verse form of the original. Transcendentalism, the socio-philosophical movement of the nineteenth century that had a powerful impact on Whitman, can be scrutinized in The Transcendentalists: An Anthology, edited by Perry Miller (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1950). Justin Kaplan’s and Gay Wilson Allen’s biographies of Whitman and Allen’s biography of Emerson also look into the relationship between Whitman and Transcendentalist thought. 
  • “Walking Around” Poetry: Whitman is one of a number of poets who have written poems “on foot” (or who created the illusion of doing so). For other masters of this genre, see work by Guillaume Apollinaire (in translations from the French), Charles Reznikoff, and Frank O’Hara. The “walking around” poem is predominantly a city genre, so it is no surprise that all of these poets (and there are others) lived in New York or Paris. 
  • Poems on the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln: Not surprisingly, many poets besides Whitman wrote tributes when Lincoln was murdered. Some of them were collected in Poems of American History, edited by Burton Egbert Stevenson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1922), pp. 537-544. To find this fascinating book, long out of print, you will have to hunt it down in libraries, but the search is worth it.. The assignment could be extended to compare the reaction of poets to John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Of Poetry and Power (New York: Basic Books, 1964). 
  • Emerson and Whitman: For many years the poet and great essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson beat the drum for a new kind of American poetry. Whitman was quite familiar with Emerson’s essays and lectures and with the chief ideas of the Transcendentalist movement “fathered” by Emerson. (When Whitman sent him a copy of Leaves of Grass in 1855, Emerson wrote back to say that Whitman’s book was “the most extraordinary piece of wit & wisdom that America has yet contributed.” Students could read Emerson’s essays “The Transcendentalist” and “The Poet” (see Emerson’s Selected Essays, edited by Larzer Ziff [New York: Penguin Books, 1982]) to search for his ideas about the new American poet, and see how applicable they are to Whitman. 
  • Contemporaries and Followers of Whitman: Older poetry anthologies and histories of American poetry (such as A Short History of American Poetry by Donald Barlow Stauffer [New York: E.P. Dutton, 1974]) contain interesting selections from and commentaries on the poetry of Whitman’s contemporaries. Beginning with Emerson, students could compare and contrast the writings of various poets to those of Whitman: William Gilmore Simms (1806-1870); Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882); John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892); Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849); Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894); Christopher Pearse Cranch (1813-1872), whose use of a long, prosaic line may have influenced Whitman; Jones Very (1813-1880); Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862); Herman Melville and James Russell Lowell (both 1819-1891), born the same year as Whitman, who outlived them by one year; Frederick Goddard Tuckerman (1821-1873); and Bayard Taylor (1825-1878). 
  • Whitman disciples whose work could be examined include Edward Carpenter (1844-1929) and Carl Sandburg (1878-1967). 
  • Whitman’s Poetic Language: In the foreword to An American Primer, Whitman said: “I sometimes think that the Leaves is only a language experiment.” Using An American Primer as a guide, students could put Whitman’s language “under the microscope,” studying what makes it visceral and what gives it its spiritual quality. What are his favorite words? From what sources does he derive his vocabulary? The same could be done for his rhetorical devices—anaphora, epistrophe, etc. 
  • Whitman’s Prose Works: Whitman’s prefaces to his various editions of Leaves of Grass repay close reading. Students will find them collected in Sculley Bradley and Harold W. Blodgett’s edition of Leaves of Grass. An American Primer is a delightful excursion into the American language, and could be updated by students to include current slang and catch-phrases. Students could also write their own Specimen Days

Bill Zavatsky, co-author of The Whole Word Catalogue 2, is a poet and teacher at Trinity School in New York City. His article is adapted from The Teachers & Writers Guide to Walt Whitman.

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