Walt Whitman Would Have Liked Social Media

whitman 1854
Whitman at age 35, image used as the frontispiece to Leaves of Grass – a steel engraving by Samuel Hollyer from a lost daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison

The daily Writer’s Almanac reminded me that today is the birthday of the poet Walt Whitman. He was born in West Hills, Long Island, New York (1819) and he lived in many places but he lived out the last part of his life in Camden, New Jersey until his death in 1892.

My first memory of Whitman was reading his short poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” which was in the high school sophomore anthology we used in English class.

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

That poem resonated with me. That person in the astronomer’s lecture who gets bored and going outside and seeing the stars of that lecture and is much more pleased and in awe, reminded me of me. At first, I identified as a high school student and later as a college student in a classroom bored with theories and wanting practices. I also began to understand that people interpreting poems, literature, songs, art, films, and the natural wonders of Earth and the universe were far less interesting than the things they were interpreting.

I will admit that I didn’t love Whitman’s much more famous Leaves of Grass which is often mistakenly thought of as a single poem but is a collection of poems that are loosely connected. It is considered an American classic.

Walt was really into self-promotion with Leaves of Grass. In 1842, Charles Dickens came to America for a tour and is sometimes credited for started the book tour. He could reasonably have been billed as the most famous writer in the world after Oliver Twist and The Pickwick Papers. Perhaps, Walt had that in mind when he published the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855.

Though self-publishing your writing once had a bad name (still does, sometimes) Whitman did so with the collection. He even did most of the typesetting for the book himself. He wanted the book to be small enough to fit in a pocket. He paid for the publication of 795 copies. He was 37.

It might surprise a 2020 reader that some of those poems were criticized for being openly erotic. Reviewers at the time said it was “a mass of stupid filth” that promoted “that horrible sin [homosexuality] not to be mentioned among Christians” and that it was “full of indecent passages” and that Whitman himself was a “very bad man” and a “free lover.”

Henry Thoreau, not a fan, wrote, “It is as if the beasts spoke” but his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson said the collection was “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed.”

Whitman was always revising. He added 146 poems to his third edition. He spent those New Jersey years revising and expanding the collection until the 1891 eighth and final edition.

Walt had no social media for self-promotion but he had a journalism background.  In 1855, he got at least three anonymous positive self-reviews of the first edition of Leaves of Grass in the United States Review, the American Phrenological Journal, and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. The one gain with an overly confident statement that we have  “An American bard at last!”

What Walt did is no secret. He was discovered early on. In 1856 Leaves, a reviewer in the New York Times identified Walt as the author of the three anonymous reviews. Whitman reprinted the “exposé” with the original self-reviews in a publicity pack along with the 1860 edition.

modernized Walt
A slightly updated image of Walt by Courtney Nicholas

Whitman was open about those reviews and his self-promotion and viewed it as he did the initial self-publication – a necessary way to get his work out to the public.

I think if Walt had been writing in the 21st century, he would be on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, posting videos on YouTube and offering his book’s first edition as an Amazon Original. Walt would have loved the self-promotion of social media.

And today he might be an openly gay author but when he was asked about his sexuality even at the end of his life, he declined to answer. At the end of his life he said that sex was “the thing in my work which has been most misunderstood — that has excited the roundest opposition, the sharpest venom, the unintermitted slander, of the people who regard themselves as the custodians of the morals of the world.”

He was unorthodox in his life, his writing and his way of creating the image of the “The Gray Poet” not unlike a modern-day Bob Dylan or any celebrity artist who has created a persona that mixes reality and fiction.

In the film Dead Poets Society, Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) alludes to Whitman’s poem “O Captain! My Captain!” and other passages from Leaves of Grass. When Keating is fired from the school because his unorthodox teaching, his students use the poem to salute him.

I rediscovered some of the Whitman poems individually through other sources. “I Sing the Body Electric” came back to me through Ray Bradbury using it as the title of a short story and the title of his story collection. Earlier it had been the title of a Bradbury episode written for The Twilight Zone in 1962. Of course, I went back to the poem and though it had not changed, I had and so did my appreciation of the poem.

That poem is a good example of the versions of the poems in the collection. Originally, like the other poems in Leaves of Grass, it did not have a title and it didn’t have the line “I sing the body electric” until the 1867 edition because “electric” was not a commonly used term in 1855.

Last summer was the 200th birthday of Whitman. I went to an exhibit at The Morgan Library and Museum in New York, “Walt Whitman: Bard of Democracy,” much of which was about Leaves of Grass.

About 20 years ago, I visited Whitman’s New Jersey home in Camden which is now maintained by the state. Touring the modest home wasn’t inspiring. Unlike some other author’s homes I have visited, I didn’t feel Walt’s energy there. I’m reading poet Mark Doty’s new book,
What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life, which begins with Mark’s visit to the home. It’s about the connections he has made personally with the poet and Leaves of Grass. His visit also seemed to be less inspiring than expected, but he works his way through the poems and Walt’s life and looks for how it has influenced his own life and work. It’s an interesting journey.

A Poet’s Guide to Manly Health

Browsing the poetry shelves you will come across numerous editions of the prose and poetry of Walt Whitman. His Leaves of Grass is probably the best-selling title today. Thanks to technology, you can buy his complete works with that book, patriotic poems, prose, The Wound Dresser and even his letters in a Kindle Edition for a mere 99 cents.

One piece of his writing you won’t get in that digital archive is a curious collection he wrote in 1858 under the pseudonym Mose Velsor. Walt wrote an advice column in the New York Atlas newspaper for “manly men.” The topics included diet, exercise, and grooming.

I suppose it was a Men’s Journal or Esquire column for the time, though it seems out of character for the man I have mentally archived as “the good gray poet.”

That is until someone uncovered the 13-part newspaper series from 150 years ago.

It has been published in at least two versions I could find. Manly Health and Training: To Teach the Science of a Sound and Beautiful Body is the series.

Walt Whitman’s Guide to Manly Health and Training is 75 manly chunks of advice.

It was also published in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review.

Some of the columns headlines are pretty funny:  “The great american evil—indigestion” and “Could there be an entire nation of vigorous and beautiful men?”


So how well does 19th century Walt Whitman‘s advice hold up for 21st century men?

Let’s start the day like Walt…

The man rises at day-break, or soon after—if in winter, rather before. In most cases the best thing he can commence the day with is a rapid wash of the whole body in cold water, using a sponge, or the hands rubbing the water over the body—and then coarse towels to rub dry with; after which, the hair gloves, the flesh-brush, or any thing handy, may be used, for friction, and to put the skin in a red glow all over . . . as soon as the glow is attained, the window, unless the weather is very bad, should be opened, and the door also, so that the room may become filled with good fresh air—for the play of the respiratory organs will be increased by the performances just mentioned, and it is at such times that good air tells best.

How about some breakfast? Walt was much the carnivore.  “Let the main part of the diet be meat, to the exclusion of all else.”

Usually the breakfast, for a hearty man, might consist in a plate of fresh rare lean meat, without fat or gravy, a slice or chunk of bread, and, if desired, a cup of tea, which must be left till the last. If there be boiled potatoes, and one of them is desired, it may be permitted.

Let’s get groomed and dressed for the day.

The beard is a great sanitary protection to the throat—for purposes of health it should always be worn, just as much as the hair of the head should be. Think what would be the result if the hair of the head should be carefully scraped off three or four times a week with the razor! Of course, the additional aches, neuralgias, colds, etc., would be immense. Well, it is just as bad with removing the natural protection of the neck; for nature indicates the necessity of that covering there, for full and sufficient reasons.
Most of the usual fashionable boots and shoes, which neither favor comfort, nor health, nor the ease of walking, are to be discarded.”

Okay, we are ready to get on with the day!

Habituate yourself to the brisk walk in the fresh air—to the exercise of pulling the oar—and to the loud declamation upon the hills, or along the shore. Such are the means by which you can seize with treble grip upon all the puzzles and difficulties of your student life—whatever problems are presented to you in your books, or by your professors.

That walking gives me an appetite!

Lunch should consist of a good plate of fresh meat, (rare lean beef, broiled or roast, is best) with as few outside condiments as possible.

Maybe I should have saved that walk for after lunch. All this meat is making me a bit sleepy, but I must do some work!

A steady and agreeable occupation is one of the most potent adjuncts and favorers of health and long life. The idler, without object, without definite direction, is very apt to brood himself into some moral or physical fever—and one is about as bad as the other.

Well, I managed to work on a poem and a blog post and didn’t doze off (not completely anyway). The sun is low in the sky. It must be time for supper. I hope it is not meat again.

The supper, which must not be at a late hour, we would recommend always to be light—occasionally making this meal to consist of fruit, either fresh, during the middle and latter part of the summer—and of stewed fruit during the winter and spring.

It is easy for even the manly man to become a bit depressed after dinner. But don’t fear – Walt has advice for “the horrors” too.

If the victim of ‘the horrors’ could but pluck up energy enough to strip off all his clothes and gives his whole body a stinging rubdown with a flesh-brush till the skin becomes all red and aglow, he would be thoroughly cured of his depression, by this alone.

Is it 10 pm already?  Then it is time to go to sleep.

Ten o’clock at night ought to find a man in bed—for that will not afford him the time requisite for rest, if he rise betimes in the morning. The bedroom must not be small and close—that would go far toward spoiling all other observances and cares for health. It is important that the system should be clarified, through the inspiration and respiration, with a plentiful supply of good air, during the six, seven, or eight hours that are spent in sleep. During most of the year, the window must be kept partly open for this purpose.

Well, we quite a full day. Perhaps, we should do a bit of reading in bed to close out the day. We could read some poems.  But we also have another “new” Whitman book we might read. Zachary Turpin, a grad student at the University of Houston, is the person who rediscovered the columns on microfilm last year. He also discovered a long-lost novel of Whitman’s titled Life and Adventures of Jack Engle. It has one of those 19th century subtitles with a colon and a semi-colon. Wow.  “An Auto-Biography; A Story of New York at the Present Time in which the Reader Will Find Some Familiar Characters”

Back in 1852, Walt Whitman was a sweet 33 years old and not doing very well as a housebuilder in Brooklyn. He was writing. He was working on a free-verse book-length poem that would be published as Leaves of Grass and clinch his place in American literature.

He was also working on a novel. It would be published under a pseudonym and it did get serialized in a newspaper. And then it was forgotten, until Turpin rediscovered it after some clues led him to the Library of Congress. It seems that the LoC had the only surviving copy of Jack Engle. has lain waiting for generations.

The novel was also published in the WW Quarterly Review. Here’s how chapter one opens.

Punctually at half past 12, the noon-day sun shining flat on the pavement of Wall street, a youth with the pious name of Nathaniel, clapt upon his closely cropt head, a straw hat, for which he had that very morning given the sum of twenty-five cents, and announced his intention of going to his dinner.

Attorney at Law”

stared into the room (it was a down-town law-office) from the door which was opened wide and fastened back, for coolness; and the real Covert, at that moment, looked up from his cloth-covered table, in an inner apartment, whose carpet, book-cases, musty smell, big chair, with leather cushions, and the panels of only one window out of three being opened, and they but partially so, announced it as the sanctum of the sovereign master there. That gentleman’s garb marked him as one of the sect of Friends, or Quakers. He was a tallish man, considerably round-shouldered, with a pale, square, closely shaven face; and one who possessed any expertness as a physiognomist, could not mistake a certain sanctimonious satanic look out of the eyes. From some suspicion that he didn’t appear well in that part of his countenance, Mr. Covert had a practice of casting down his visual organs. On this occasion, however, they lighted on his errand-boy.
“Yes, go to thy dinner; both can go,” said he, “for I want to be alone.”
And Wigglesworth, the clerk, a tobacco-scented old man—he smoked and chewed incessantly—left his high stool in the corner where he had been slowly copying some document.

Ah, nothing like a 19th century novel to lull you to sleep. And I really need a good 8 hours in order to wake up early, take another cold shower, eat some breakfast meat and start another manly day!

Desperate Hope


“I think there’s a kind of desperate hope built into poetry now that one really wants, hopelessly, to save the world. One is trying to say everything that can be said for the things that one loves while there’s still time.

We try to save what is passing, if only by describing it, telling it, knowing all the time that we can’t do any of these things. The urge to tell it, and the knowledge of the impossibility. Isn’t that one reason we write?”

I’m just reading some Merwin poetry tonight with my after-dinner cup of tea on the deck on an unusually warm November evening in Paradelle.

American poet, translator, and environmental activist W.S. (William Stanley) Merwin was born in New York City and lived for a time in Union City, New Jersey, then to Scranton, Pennsylvania, when he was a small boy. His father was a Presbyterian minister.

In Pennsylvania, William connected with nature. I’ve read that as a boy he talked to the backyard trees, liked creating stories for them and also wrote hymns for his father’s church.  All good writer and poet training. Once, when some men came to trim the trees in his backyard, he was so angered that he attacked the men.

In 1948, after graduating from Princeton University, Merwin did a lot of traveling while he studied: across Europe, in Portugal (tutoring the children of the Portuguese royal family) to Spain, where he met poet and translator Robert Graves (he tutored Graves’ kids too), and to London, where he befriended poets T.S. Eliot, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.

His first collection of poetry was A Mask for Janus and it won the 1952 Yale Younger Prize, judged by W.H. Auden. They became friends but had a falling out in 1971, when Merwin refused the Pulitzer Prize for his collection The Carrier of Ladders.

Merwin was an anti-war activist and with the Vietnam War peaking (a time I recall, as I was headed to college and in the last class that could be drafted), Merwin declined the prize money. Auden saw this as an “ill-judged… publicity-stunt.” I remember that and saw it as admirable.

Merwin wrote in a public letter: “After years of the news from Southeast Asia, and the commentary from Washington, I am too conscious of being an American to accept public congratulation with good grace, or to welcome it except as an occasion for expressing openly a shame which many Americans feel, day after day, helplessly and in silence.”

The committee must have been okay with his decision too. Merwin won a second Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for The Shadow of Sirius.

Merwin moved to Hawaii where he decided to take a former pineapple plantation on Maui and restore it to its original rainforest state. His poetry has always connected to nature and ecology.

I think I agree with and try to follow his writing precept of regular practice.

“I’ve found that the best thing for me is to insist that some part of the day — and for me, it’s the morning until about two in the afternoon — be dedicated to writing. I go into my room and shut the door, and that’s that. You have to make exceptions, of course, but you just stick to it, and then it becomes a habit, and I think it’s a valuable one. If you’re waiting for lightning to strike a stump, you’re going to sit there for the rest of your life.”

I have that quote from his poem “Place” that is at the top of this post pinned near my writing desk as a line of hope in a desperate time.

Advice from Jane


Paging through Jane Kenyon’s A Hundred White Daffodils, a collection of essays and assorted writing that was published posthumously, I found the one poem that concludes the book.  “Woman, Why Are You Weeping?” is a long poem about religious faith, the Third-World crisis and race – not topics I associate with Kenyon.

Jane Kenyon died in April 1995 from leukemia. I like to remember her writing about tending her New England flower garden. Maybe the daffodils were showing themselves that April.

at Waterloo Village

I had the chance to walk with her briefly at a Dodge Poetry Festival more than 20 years ago. She needed directions to the church where she was set to read with her husband, Donald Hall. I was going to the reading and walked with her from the sawmill and along the Musconetcong River. It was early autumn and we talked a bit about New Jersey and she asked me if I knew what some wildflowers were that grew along the river edge. I really wish I had known. She asked me if I wrote. I said I did. She said she hoped I had someone I could share my writing with.

Kenyon and Hall read poems and talked about their life together. The conversation later appeared in several Bill Moyers specials.

One poem she read that day was “Let Evening Come” from her collection of the same name. The poem fit very well into that afternoon.

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.

The blog, Brain Pickings has been collecting advice about writing and excerpted some of Jane’s advice from the book.  Lots of writers give advice. You can try Zadie Smith’s 10 Rules or Dani Shapiro‘s book of advice Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. Shapiro mentions that she keeps a short list from Kenyon over her desk.

I don’t think Jane’s advice is just for poets or even just for writers. Here’s her brief list that you can post over your desk.

Be a good steward of your gifts.
Protect your time.
Feed your inner life.
Avoid too much noise.
Read good books, have good sentences in your ears.
Be by yourself as often as you can.
Take the phone off the hook.
Work regular hours.

Collected Poems

Walking With Keats

John Keats by William Hilton – Public Domain

In the summer of 1818,  poet John Keats went on a six-week walking tour through northern England, Scotland, and Ireland. Keats and his friend Charles Brown set off in June and walked 600 miles before sailing back to London.

Keats was not an outdoorsman and had spent almost all of his life in London never having been out of southern England. He was 22 and had never seen a mountain.

They set off with very little in their knapsack – shirt, stockings, nightcap, towels, a brush and comb, snuff, and one book: a translation of Dante.

They started from Lancaster and headed for the Lake District. Keats’ brother George and his wife Georgina accompanied them as far as Lancaster and then continued to Liverpool, from where the couple emigrated to America.

This was not a poetry tour but he stopped at William Wordsworth’s home. Wordsworth was not at  home.

Keats did not write his first poem until age 18. He was encouraged by a literary circle of friends in London, though he worked at a hospital to make his living. Keats’ first book, Poems, appeared in 1817 and after that, he devoted himself entirely to poetry.

Keats wrote that as the walk continued he found himself more moved by the people they met than by the landscape. he thought much of the mountains and moors seemed bleak.

He recorded that on June 29, they set off at 4 a.m. up the mountain Skiddaw. It offered a  to the Irish Sea and Scotland.

In the town of Ireby, that watched a performance of traditional dancing and Keats wrote: “I never felt so near the glory of patriotism, the glory of making, by any means, a country happier. This is what I like better than scenery.”

Keats was not pleased with the food on the trip either. In a letter, he writes: “We dined yesterday on dirty bacon dirtier eggs and dirtiest Potatoes with a slice of Salmon.” In Scotland, they seem to have survived on oatcakes and whiskey. He hated the oatcakes but enjoyed the whiskey.

Another poetry stop was to Alloway, the birthplace of the Robert Burns in Scotland. He was happier with this area. He said that the River Doon was “the sweetest river I ever saw” and he enjoyed a large pinch of snuff while standing on the Brig o’ Doon, a bridge Burns wrote about in his poems.

Keats and Brown continued through Scotland and made a short trip into Northern Ireland averaging 10-20 miles a day. By August 2, they had made it to the top of Ben Nevis, the tallest peak in the British Isles.

Keats’s health had actually not been very good before the trip, but developed a bad cold at this point and was advised by a doctor to quit the walking tour. He headed back to London, but Brown continued and walked another 1,200 miles.

1818 was not a good year for John and his family. He had financial difficulties. His brother Tom was battling tuberculosis. George and his wife made a poor investment in America and was left penniless in Kentucky.

The one happy thing in his life was his fiancée, Fanny Brawne.

1819 was a very productive year. By September, he had written a book’s worth of poems including “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” “Hyperion,” “The Eve of St. Agnes,” “To Autumn,” and “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.”

John Keats Tombstone in Rome 01.jpg
“John Keats Tombstone in Rome” by Piero Montesacro – Wikimedia Commons

John developed tuberculosis (for which there would be no cure until the next century),  possibly from caring for his brother. Early in 1820, the disease worsened and he was advised to move to a warmer climate.

In September 1820, Keats left for Rome knowing he would probably never see Brawne again. After leaving he felt unable to write to her or read her letters.

Keats wrote his last letter to his walking partner Charles Brown on November 30, 1820: “Tis the most difficult thing in the world to me to write a letter. My stomach continues so bad, that I feel it worse on opening any book – yet I am much better than I was in Quarantine. Then I am afraid to encounter the proing and conning of any thing interesting to me in England. I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence”.

He died in Rome on February 23, 1821 and is buried there. He was only 25 years old.

He wanted a tombstone without name or date, only the words, “Here lies One whose Name was writ in Water.” Charles Brown and another friend had the stone place but added a lyre with broken strings and this epitaph which lies some blame on critics who were harsh with Keats’ poetry.

“This Grave / contains all that was Mortal / of a / Young English Poet / Who / on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his Heart / at the Malicious Power of his Enemies / Desired / these Words to be / engraven on his Tomb Stone: / Here lies One / Whose Name was writ in Water. 24 February 1821”

Bright Star: Love Letters and Poems of John Keats to Fanny Brawne

John Keats (a biography)

Yeats, Poet and Potential Magus

I wrote earlier here about Isaac Newton’s intense interest in the occult. He sought the Philosopher’s Stone, (It’s not just something from a Harry Potter book), studied alchemy, and believed that a Diana’s Tree was evidence that metals “possessed a sort of life.” Newton lived in a time when the distinctions between science, superstition, and pseudoscience were still being formulated.

I find it fascinating how many serious scientists and artists cross over into studies that are considered the occult or at least at the fringe.


Today is the birth day of the poet William Butler Yeats. In his teens, his aunt gave him a book called Esoteric Buddhism that was popular at that time. It is about Eastern mystical philosophy and Yeats really picked up on the idea that the world of matter was an illusion.

At age 20, he formed the Dublin Hermetic Society with some friends and they conducted “experiments” into the nature of ghosts and psychic powers. He also got involved in the London Theosophical Society. Theosophy (religious philosophy or speculation about the nature of the soul based on mystical insight into the nature of God) led him to Hermeticism (the study and practice of occult philosophy and magic, associated with writings attributed to the god Hermes). He attended séances and tarot card readings and being in sessions with mediums and learning about reincarnation inspired him to study Celtic myths and folklore.

At 24, he met Maud Gonne, a beautiful actress who had become an activist and who spoke out for Irish independence. Although he considered her to be the love of his life, she refused his proposal of marriage. She claimed that they were “spiritually married” and believed they could communicate telepathically. She also believed they had been brother and sister in a past life.

Yeats joined the Golden Dawn, a secret society that practiced ritual magic. Their society initiation was a series of ten levels. The three highest levels could only be attained by magi (who were thought to possess the secrets of supernatural wisdom and enjoy magically extended lives) and he became fascinated with becoming a magus.

Though it might not be obvious in his poetry, he was convinced that the mind was capable of perceiving past the limits of materialistic rationalism.

This was no fad for Yeats. He was an active member of the Golden Dawn for 32 years. He achieved the coveted sixth grade of membership in 1914, which was the same year that his future wife, Georgiana Hyde-Lees, also joined the society.

Yeats’s wrote an essay titled  “Magic” that gave his philosophy and expanded on that magic philosophy in A Vision (1925):

I believe in the practice and philosophy of what we have agreed to call magic, in what I must call the evocation of spirits, though I do not know what they are, in the power of creating magical illusions, in the visions of truth in the depths of the mind when the eyes are closed; and I believe in three doctrines, which have, as I think, been handed down from early times, and been the foundations of nearly all magical practices. These doctrines are —

(1) That the borders of our minds are ever shifting, and that many minds can flow into one another, as it were, and create or reveal a single mind, a single energy.

(2) That the borders of our memories are as shifting, and that our memories are a part of one great memory, the memory of Nature herself.

(3) That this great mind and great memory can be evoked by symbols.