In the Words of Walt Whitman offers 133 pages of poetry and prose, all created out of Whitman’s own verses and sentences. Each page is devoted to a particular theme or topic. The anthology offers a guide to the most important ideas woven through Whitman’s work, arranging his words in a logical order, both within each page and among the pages.
We already have good prose summaries of Whitman’s main ideas. I have created this anthology largely in verse form, using Whitman’s own words to create poetry and poetic prose that encapsulate his ideas, because I hope to communicate not only the intellectual depth of his words but also something of their aesthetic and emotional power.
Whitman intended his writings to be more than just works of literary art. No one will get at my verses who insists upon viewing them as a literary performance, or attempt at such performance, or as aiming mainly toward art or ӕstheticism, the poet wrote near the end of his life. Literature that “looks upon itself as an end—as a fact to be finally worshipped, adored—to me that’s all a horrible blasphemy,” his friend Horace Traubel recalled him saying. Rather, literature should be “an instrument, in the service of something larger than itself.”
In fact, Whitman intended to write words that would change people’s lives—indeed, the life of all humanity—for the better. He wanted to help us recognize that we are each unique, independent selves, but we are always already connected with all the people, places, and things of the universe. He wanted to help us learn to appreciate and deepen that connection—to make it a loving connection—and to make that experience of being an independent yet lovingly connected person the basis of our worldview and values, as individuals and as a society.
The deep purpose of my poems, Whitman asserted, has been the religious purpose—to drop in the earth the germs of a greater religion. The philosopher George Santayana said that religion gives us “another world to live in.” In that sense Whitman did fulfill his stated aim of giving us a new religion. His words give us a dense, beautifully articulated, imaginary vision of another world, in which all is (at least most of the time) order, perfection, love, and happiness. This imaginary world is marked by moments of deep distress, to be sure. But they can always be transcended; the final word is joy. It is a world that can intersect with our ordinary, everyday world at every moment—if we let it. This anthology offers one way to help readers enter and explore that world.
Reading this anthology is certainly no substitute for reading the original poems and prose, which are so much richer. My fondest hope is that my work will encourage readers to read, or re-read, Whitman’s own writings in their original form. Readers who are not yet familiar with Whitman’s poetry and prose may find this anthology a helpful guide through his rather unsystematic words, making them more accessible and enjoyable. Those who already know Whitman’s original writings may find new meanings and new pleasure in them, and be reminded anew that both the meanings and the pleasure are inexhaustible.