These last few days have been highlighted by fascinating rare newspaper excursions that touched on Johnny Appleseed and hot air balloons and genealogy searches and gold ink newspaper editions and even “mourning rules” (a post-worthy ramble in itself). As this week closes, I find myself musing on all things literary.
I recall my first encounter with Walt Whitman’s poetry as being somewhat controversial. Compiling an anthology for a sixth grade project I stumbled across “Song of Myself” and laboriously copied it out onto its own page — carefully fitting text to margins and indents that defined, despite lackluster rhyme or rhythm scheme. Abruptly, I was the focus of adults pontificating on the perils of the modern age and the coming doom symbolized by artists throwing off established norms and strictures. In college, I was perplexed to find that Whitman wrote his grieving “Lilacs” four months after the eloquently detailed sixteen hundred mile funeral procession for Abraham Lincoln. From all the squawking, I had assumed the poet lived in my time, or my parents’ time — not contemporaneously with the sixteenth president. I’m keen on Frost and Dickinson and Oliver and all the greats, but Whitman broke the lingering nursery rhyme cadence of Robert Louis Stevenson with a clear voice of plain-speaking, beauty filled, heartwrenching truth. And so, with ten minutes of unscheduled time this week, I delved into the directories of perhaps the largest Civil War newspaper  collection in the world, to see what we might have within our archives. Three years after Lincoln’s assassination, the popular New York Herald was the first to publish the words “…to all cut off before their time, Possess’d by some great spirit of fire Quenched by an early death.” It is signed in block type, “WALT WHITMAN” . And, yesterday, I held it in my very own 21st century hands, looking at this poem irreverently sandwiched between complaints against Kansas senators and the connection of the Minneapolis/Montreal railroad. In 1888 Walt Whitman’s words were taken at face value, distinct from any of the acclamation or aspersion that would come with the passage of time. Reading them, this way, is a little bit like traveling back two hundred years to look at things from a completely different view. Many of you who call or email or write or browse online in search of particular subjects, dates and people are reaching for the insight from the immediate context of newsprint columns, to hear what was once merely words in print, chronicling the events of the day.
At any rate, no one can live by poetry alone, so next Friday I am honor bound to tell you of one or two colossal mistakes I have made, and balance this week’s ponderous tone with a humorous tale or two. Things around here are often funny and deep — a little bit like those old, modern poets.