Walt Whitman, a Talk Show Guy


Whitman is always talking about America and its democracy as if it were a poem. He says America is the greatest poem there ever was.

John Hollander

My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach,

With the twirl of my tongue I encompass worlds and volumes of worlds…

Speech is the twin of my vision….it is unequal to measure itself.

Song of Myself [25]

On my ecstatic weekend rereading of “Song of Myself,” it’s unmistakable that Walt Whitman was an Open Source kinda radio dude. Listen, brother and sisters all:

I hear the sound of the human voice….a sound I love,

I hear all sounds as they are tuned to their uses….

sounds of the city and sounds out of the city….

sounds of the day and night;

Talkative young ones to those that like them….the

recitative of fish-pedlars and fruit-pedlars….the

loud laugh of workpeople at their meals,

The angry base of disjointed friendship….the faint

tones of the sick,

The judge with hands tight to the desk, his shaky lips

pronouncing a death sentence,

The heave’e’yo of stevedores unlading ships by the

wharves….the refrain of the anchor-lifters; ….

I hear the trained soprano….she convulses me like the

climax of my love-grip; ….

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself [26]

So how shall we read, share, celebrate, and find fresh wisdom in the great Whitman, on this 150th anniversary summer of his “Leaves of Grass”? “If you want me again,” he wrote, “look for me under your bootsoles.” Who wants to instruct us about finding and “getting” him? Who wants to read favorite excerpts on the air?

John Hollander

John Hollander has written several volumes of poetry including Picture Window A former Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets, he is currently the Sterling Professor of English at Yale.

[In a studio in New Haven, CT.]

Robert Pinsky

Robert Pinsky has published several books of poetry including Jersey Rain . Pinsky teaches in the graduate writing program at Boston University, and in 1997 was named the United States Poet Laureate and Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. He lives in Massachusetts.

[In Studio , WGBH]

Rosanna Warren

Rosanna Warren has won a number of awards, most recently, the Award of Merit in Poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (2004). Rosanna Warren’s most recent book of poems is Departure. She teaches Comparative Literature at Boston University.

[by phone from the woods of Vermont]


Original Recordings: hear passages from Leaves of Grass read by Studs Terkel, and Stanley Kunitz. Listen live on the show and in extended form on our site post-broadcast.

Studs Terkel reads “Song Of Myself,” section 21

Stanley Kunitz reads “Song Of Myself,” section 7

Studs Terkel on Walt Whitman

Related Content

  • I am no expert on Walt Whitman, or poetry, but back in February I did construct an argument that he may have been the primogenial blogger. I was just trying to understand the exhilerating feeling people were communicating when they were blogging for the first time (which I went through ten years ago, when I first self-published on the Internet). We may quite have a nation of “singers” now that Whitman had yearned for.

    Naturally, I emailed some of Walt Whitman scholars on this; they thought it was a curious connection, but as far as I know, didn’t pursue it anymore.

  • Hey, what the hell, I’ll volunteer to read some Leaves of Grass on air…

    I would like to do part of the ‘Salut au monde’ section:

    “I see the cities of the earth, and make myself a

    part of them,

    I am a real Londoner, Parisian, Viennese,

    I am a habitan of St. Petersburgh, Berlin, Constantinople,

    I am of Adelaide, Sidney, Melbourne,

    I am of Manchester, Bristol, Edinburgh, Limerick,

    “I am of Madrid, Cadiz, Barcelona, Oporto, Lyons,

    Brussels, Berne, Frankfort, Stuttgart, Turin,


    I belong in Moscow, Cracow, Warsaw — or north-

    ward in Christiana or Stockholm — or in

    some street in Iceland,

    I descend upon all those cities, and rise from them


    It has resonance for me in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks…

  • plaintext

    CL just popped the cork off another bottle of Pierian Spring…

    “In cabin’d ships at sea,

    The boundless blue on every side expanding,

    With whistling winds and music of the waves, the large imperious waves,

    Or some lone bark buoy’d on the dense marine,

    Where joyous full of faith, spreading white sails,

    She cleaves the ether mid the sparkle and the foam of day, or under

    many a star at night,

    By sailors young and old haply will I, a reminiscence of the land, be read,

    In full rapport at last.”

  • Ben Sen Dan Foley

    Seeing Walt

    The great whobbling goose flies through the skies of Brooklyn

    see, he mends the sick in body and mind, see, he hears

    voices when before him they only threw mud, see, he

    channels the non-combatant members of the unseen classes,

    see, he speaks for the nameless, the lost, the ones who pull legs

    under the bridges, who suffer with loneliness because of gods

    misunderstood by legions of hell breathing human demons who never

    saw God is love and suffering is not devine. See somebody had to

    say it. See his name was Walt Whitman. See see see

  • evan

    I’d be happy to read.

    And my take on “getting Whitman?” How about trying to place himself as the man between the phenomenal and noumenal? Some artists exist as bridges between the everday and the transcendental, where they attempt to fashion something for the reader’s feet to “walk upon,” and if you try and cover all the bases — if you say, here’s every road you can possibly travel that you are a part of, then you cross over into that eerie Schopenhauerian realization of man being connected to something greater than himself. In one small part, it’s a secular search to placate existential anxiety.

  • evan

    And, maybe as an in-studio scholar: check out Helen Vendler: she gave a great lecture over at Princeton on Whitman, but for the life of me, I can’t remember on what.

    But the man should be fairly fresh in her mind, since she her most recent book — Poets Thinking: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats — was just published last year.

  • davidgura

    Vendler is inarguably authoritative and good. Alternatively, try Prof. Debra Fried from Cornell’s English Dept. I’ve heard few speak on Whitman as intelligently and eloquently….

  • davidgura
  • Chris

    Picking up the Jon Garfunkel thread on Whitman the Proto-Blogger in a nation of singers:

    Yes, abolutely: he is our great champion of democratic vistas and voices.

    ls there a more crystalline one-sentence definition of Blogger Nation than this:

    “Whitman’s ideal America is a country held together not by law or custom but by a network of imaginative filaments thrown out by autonomous individuals who want to include as many people as they can in their own acts of self-definiton.”

    From the poet Carl Dennis’ book “Poetry as Persuasion,” University of Georgia Press, 2001.

    Whitman the visionary was also, as it happens, a terrific poet.

  • evan

    If that was Whitman’s ideal: would there be any other Proto-Bloggers, then, and who would they’ve been? Lecturers who went from Lyceum to Lyceum (Emerson)?

  • Chris

    Yo, Evan. Those New England Transcendentalists — the “Concord Circle� around Ralph Waldo Emerson — all had the essential blog spirit about them, I sense. Another of the definitive Proto-Bloggers, I realize now, was the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Every week without fail from 1829 to the end of the Civil War in 1865, Garrison wrote and published The Liberator. As in: “I will not equivocate. I will not excuse. I will not retreat a single inch. And I will be heard!� What is that but the voice of a blogger? It sustained a vision and a community through a horrific war and a radical redirection of American history.

    Emerson was an essential blogger in his writing and lecturing, as you say, and in his publication with Margaret Fuller of what they called a magazine — what I would call a group blog — titled “The Dial� in the early 1840s. Still more profoundly Emerson in “Self-Reliance� and elsewhere invented the all-American idea of expressive individuality in an egalitarian democracy. Which is why I have held him up for some time now as A God for Bloggers. Please check it out. It was Emerson of course who blurbed Whitman’s first “Leaves of Grass� in 1855 [�I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit & wisdom that America has yet contributed…] And it was Emerson who got Whitman’s special gratitude: “�I was simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil. …�

    So there are a lot of family connections here.

  • Jacob Rakovan

    Whitman is interesting as an exemplar of the American ideal, of the democritization of literature. As the open source movement attempts to create a collective, home-brewed world, it would do well to look at the example of Whitman and the impact of his self published book. We at booksxyz.com are attempting to create an open marketplace ( listing self-published authors on equal parity with the big names, listing titles that we do not even sell so as to provide access, etc) We do all of this in the service of education, giving all of our profits to schools around the country for innovative educational programs, in the hopes of fostering that sense of wonder and rapture that we get from whitman, and in the belief that the vertical hierarcies of our culture are changing, evolving towards a more collaboritive, democratic and free culture of ideas. We would love to be involved in the whitman show in some capacity, showing that the legacy of self publishing, independant writing and promotion are alive and well in america, and attempting to contribute to the culture in a lasting way

  • plaintext

    I found this interesting recording of Walt Whitman: http://www.whitmanarchive.org/audio/

  • loki

    A belated thought! Read Whitman’s song of myself with Thich Nhat Hahn’s “Call me by My True Names.” Both write against the baxkground of war;both seek for beauty.

    Kurt Elling’s Jazz singing of “song of Myself” is worth hearing.

  • plaintext

    Here is the text used in the recording above (the last two lines are not spoken):


    Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,

    All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,

    Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,

    Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,

    A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,

    Chair’d in the adamant of Time.

  • Hi,

    I just got a message from the make-up man Skeet from our independent film Hymns of You about this program.

    I am not sure if it has already aired – or how you get content (This is the first page like this I have been on)

    My friend Michael did a beautiful song for our film using Whitman’s own words –

    mostly from the poem “To You”. Our independent film’s site is

    http://www.sailforth.com – Whitman is a character.

    The film is about how a pastor taking a leave of absence from the church finds a more earthy spirituality though Whitman. This is a semi-autobiographical film in that my co-writer/director was a pastor, did leave the church, and indeed found Whitman to be a guiding light to balance the rigid dogma of some churches he had known. I find the words from “To You” to be amazing:

    “…I will leave all, and come and make the hymns of you;

    None have understood you, but I understand you;

    None have done justice to you—you have not done justice to yourself;

    …There is no endowment in man or woman that is not tallied in you;

    There is no virtue, no beauty, in man or woman, but as good is in you;

    ..No pleasure waiting for others, but an equal pleasure waits for you…

    I sing the songs of the glory of none, not God, sooner than I sing the songs of the glory of you. “

  • LeeJudt

    “Yo, Evan. Those New England Transcendentalists — the “Concord Circleâ€? around Ralph Waldo Emerson — all had the essential blog spirit about them, I sense. Another of the definitive Proto-Bloggers, I realize now, was the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Every week without fail from 1829 to the end of the Civil War in 1865, Garrison wrote and published The Liberator. As in: “I will not equivocate. I will not excuse. I will not retreat a single inch. And I will be heard!â€? What is that but the voice of a blogger? It sustained a vision and a community through a horrific war and a radical redirection of American history.”

    Chris you are stretching a point.

    Emerson and Whitman bloggers? Dont think so.

    First, these were professional writers in as much as they cared about their published work. Whitman wrote and rewrote Leaves of Grass all of his life.

    Second, they weren’t responding in their work to other people’s comments but to a life time of reading.

    No one who has read Emerson polished essays, like the one on Montaigne, would mistake him for a blogger.

    Blogging has its own distinctive features which include spontaneity and timeliness while tradional writing’s distincitve features are thoughtfulness and revision.

  • Lee– correct, if you read my essay, you’ll find that I note a few distinctions that separate Whitman from mere bloggers. Yes, I did not that Whitman regularly revised Leaves; whereas the blogger impulse is to write and moveon.

    Robert Pinsky added another distinction this evening: the Internet is lacking a body, a spirit. That’s what the poetry has.

  • LeeJudt

    “Robert Pinsky added another distinction this evening: the Internet is lacking a body, a spirit. That’s what the poetry has.”

    I like this, thank you.

  • Galina

    Does anyone know the name of the poem that was first read on the show.? It had to do with being a lover…

  • Galina

    To be clearer…Does anyone remember the name of the first poem read on the Walt Whitman show last night? Thanks.

  • edit

    The very first excerpt was Studs Terkel reading the first section from Song of Occupations.

  • Chris

    I think the love poem that Galina refers to is Stanza 5 of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” which the poet Rosanna Warren read and commented on. Here it is:

    I believe in you, my Soul—the other I am must not abase itself to you;

    And you must not be abased to the other.

    Loafe with me on the grass—loose the stop from your throat;

    Not words, not music or rhyme I want—not custom or lecture, not even the best;

    Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice.

    I mind how once we lay, such a transparent summer morning;

    How you settled your head athwart my hips, and gently turn’d 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.

    Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth;

    And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,

    And I know that the spirit of God is the 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 worm fence, and heap’d stones, elder, mullen and poke-weed.

  • Potter

    This is a handwritten quote I tucked into my volume of Walt Whitman a number of years ago. I don’t know where it comes from.

    “This is what you shall do:

    Love this earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown”……..Walt Whitman

  • Potter

    Oh- here’s more of it ( bless google- it’s from the 1855 Preface to Leaves of Grass)

    ….or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body… – Walt Whitman

  • edit

    The following came in via email from Rosanna Warren:

    “Since inequality of income is greater now in the U.S. than at any time since the ferocious 1890’s; since the executive branch is arrogating more and more powers to

    it muster the forces to aid the victims of natural disaster in our own country, having so squandered our resources else where and for lies, it seems

    appropriate to quote these lines from Whitman’s DEMOCRATIC VISTAS, published in 1871:

    ‘I would alarm and caution even the political and business reader, and to the utmost extent, against the prevailing delusion that the establishment of free political institutions, and plentiful intellectual smartness, with general good order, physical plenty, industry, etc….do,of themselves, determine and yield to our experiment of democracy the fruitage of success…Society, in these States, is canker’d,crude, superstitious and rotten. In any vigor, the element of the moral conscience, the most important, the verteber to State or man, seems to me either entirely lacking or seriously enfeebled or ungrown.

    I say we had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease. Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness of heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us.

    The underlying principles of the States are not honestly believ’d in (for all this hectic glow, and these melodramatic screamings), nor is humanity itself believ’d in. What penetrating eye does not everywhere see through the mask? The spectacle is appalling. We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout. …A scornful superciliousness rules in literature. The aim of all the littérateurs is to find something to make fun of. A lot of churches, sects, etc., the most dismal phantasms I know, usurp the name of religion. Conversation is a mass of badinage…The depravity of the business classes of our country is not less than has been supposed, but infinitely greater. The official services of America, national, state and

    municipal, in all their branches and departments except the judiciary, are saturated in corruption, bribery, falsehood, maladministration; and the judiciary is tainted. The great cities reek with respectable as much as non-respectable robbery and scoundrelism. In fashonable life, flippancy, tepid amours, weak infidelism, small aims , or no aims at

    all, kill time. In business (this all-devouring modern word business) , the one sole object is, by any means, pecuniary gain. The magician’s serpent in the fable ate up all the other serpents; and money-making is our magician’s serpent, remaining today sole master of the

    field. The best class we show, is but a mob of fashionably dress’d speculators and vulagarians…’

    Whitman knew what he was talking about. He worked in government offices in Washing D.C. from 1865 until he was incapacitated by a stroke in 1873. Maybe it’s time we took a good look at ourselves.”

    Rosanna Warren

  • ismael

    Hey I’m listening to the New Orleans show in place of the Walt Whitman’s one (but it’s entitled “Walt Whitman: a atalk show guy”. What’s wrong?

  • edit

    We’ll look into this.

    Thanks for pointing out this defect!