Posted by: Bruce Proctor | May 11, 2008

The Essential Whitman- Galway Kinnell, ed.

I love small books like this for travelling. You can read a line or two–any one or two– of this book and be enriched, enlivened, and surprised. I’ve had a couple paperbacks of this volume, but they get chewed up. The hardcover makes all the difference in my backpack– tidy and compact.

Walt Whitman, as recognized as he is, is still under-rated. His poetry is the pivot between the traditional and the modern in Western literature. He not only defined it; he is its type exemplar. He is colloquial, expansive, often astonishing, filled with surprising truths. His generous sympathies extend to all human experience. Even now, after 150 years, his language is fresh, easy, and familiar.

The received classroom wisdom is that his “everyman” perspective is a personna. I disagree. His voice everywhere testifies to me of a spiritual awakening (though later in his life he loses his edge). Every line rings of inner truth in its exuberance, spontaneity, and huge confidence. A spirit in its glorious, unchecked power. In addition, in Western literary tradition he is the first– that I’m aware of, anyway– to recognize the body as equal to the mind, and to celebrate its natural, joyful expression.

Galway Kinnell makes the convincing case for choosing the best of Whitman’s notoriously uneven revisions. While I miss some of my favorite lines in this version, the overall effect of Kinnell’s choices is excellent. Whitman’s at times marvelously peculiar language is given full play. For the best of Whitman, this is the volume. (The alternative is the original 1855 edition, for its bolt-out-the-blue amazingness.)


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