Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass just might be the seminal collection of American literary verse (if we even want to limit ourselves with such bold categorizations!). He celebrates our country’s bountiful nature, revels in our beautiful bodies, catalogues our careers and our diversity. And he loves togetherness:
I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I always get a thrill and a chill when I read those opening lines of Leaves of Grass. On the one hand, I crave that feeling of spiritual unity; on the other, who does he think he is, assuming that I will assume what he assumes? That’s a little presumptuous!
Piqued or not by his tremendous poetic ego, scholars have long agreed that Whitman revolutionized American poetry. Until the mid-nineteenth century, U.S. verse was rhymed and metered. Whitman introduced the long, sprawling line and free verse. It was a radical new look for the page (lines crawling dangerously near the margin’s edge) and a new music for the nation.
Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman
So it’s truly exciting that pianist and composer Fred Hersch has written a jazz arrangement of Whitman’s epic collection. An American musical form meets American poetry.
Hersch’s voluptuous melodies pair with Whitman’s lush poetry-turned-lyrics to create an aural sensuality that Whitman surely would have celebrated. His poetry was, in fact, risqué for its time. He loved the body in all of its tactile, germy, and erotic glory.
I mind how we once lay a transparent summer morning,
How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart,
And reach’d till you felt my beard, and reach’d till you held my feet.
Whitman sings the body in “Song of Myself” – the mainstay poem of Leaves of Grass – from head to toe, hair to skin, clothed and nude. And now Hersch and his musicians sing Whitman. (For a terrific sample, see NPR’s recording of Hersch’s New York premiere.)
Ralph Waldo Emerson (Whitman’s famous transcendental contemporary who both lauded and challenged him) would likely have disapproved. Like Whitman, Emerson sought transcendence, but certainly not by singing the body erotic. In fact, his notion of the “transparent eyeball” makes quite clear that sensuality has no place in American philosophy and music. Renowned cartoonist Christopher Cranch brought Emerson’s prudishness to life with this famous cartoon:
Transparent Eyeball, Christopher Cranch
As you can see, there will be no tongues plunging to bare-stript hearts in Emerson’s vision of the human body. In fact, if Cranch is right, Emerson’s humanity looks something like a Teletubby crossed with a Toy Story alien that’s been incubated on Mars.
But Whitman’s transcendentalism celebrates the tactile body, and Hersch’s jazz arrangement revivifies it in the no-less-sensual dimension of aurality. In some ways, Hersch’s re-working of Whitman’s poetry follows in a long train of Whitman’s own revisions to his work. He published at least six distinct editions of Leaves of Grass starting in 1855 and going all the way through 1892. Poems changed, appeared, disappeared – his book was as alive and mutable as the human body itself. Literary critics have long debated alterations as minute as a change in punctuation. The 1856 “Song of Myself,” for example, ended, as we might expect, with the finality of a period:
Failing to fetch me a first, keep encouraged,
Missing me one place, search another,
I stop some where waiting for you.
But this was distinctly different from the 1855 edition which conspicuously lacks that final period:
Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman
Was this a typographical error? The poet’s statement of unfinished action? Something else? We don’t know for certain, and maybe it’s time for a new kind of scholar to answer this question – a musician and composer whose crescendos and tempos offer a musical interpretation of Whitman’s literary line.
So for now, instead of searching for the infinitude of that final punctuation mark (or lack thereof), let’s listen to the beautiful ebb and flow of Hersch’s Whitmanian music.
210: Sun, Oct. 21 6:00 - 7:00 PM
Tags: Fred Hersch, jazz, jazz pianist, Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, American poet, American poetry, pianist, composer, Song of Myself, NPR, Ralph Waldo Emerson, transparent eyeball, cartoonist Christopher Cranch, jazz arrangement