Robert Hass: On Whitman's 'Song Of Myself'

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Song of Myself was included in Walt Whitman's major work, Leaves of Grass. Whitman paid for the publication of the first edition himself. (Getty Images)
Song of Myself was included in Walt Whitman's major work, Leaves of Grass. Whitman paid for the publication of the first edition himself. (Getty Images)

Walt Whitman wrote one of his most famous poems, Song of Myself, in 1855, but according to former United States poet laureate Robert Hass, it wasn't until much later that the poem acquired the name by which it's now known.

"In the first edition, it had no name and in the second, he called it 'Walt Whitman' and then I think he called it 'Poem of Walt Whitman, an American' for a while," Hass tells Terry Gross. "And it really wasn't until the end of his life that he called it by the name that all schoolchildren know it by, Song of Myself."

Hass is the editor of the new collection Song of Myself and Other Poems by Walt Whitman. Along with Paul Ebenkamp, he annotated each word of Whitman's epic 52-part poem, one of the first ever to be written in extended free verse. (Read an excerpt from Hass' introduction to the poem.)

Hass notes that Whitman made several changes to the text throughout his lifetime, altering phrases here and there to reflect different phases in his own life. For example, the last phrase in Verse 8, "I mind them or show or resonance of them -- I come and depart" was originally written as "I mind them or show or resonance of them -- I come again and again" in Whitman's first edition.

"He's an older man when he's writing the last version of the poem," Hass says. "So the first version says 'I come again and again' [as if to say] 'I'm here; I'm always here.' There's another line in the poem that says 'urge and urge and urge / always the procreant urge of the world,' [indicating] the continuous presence of the sexual energy of living. And in the last version, he says 'I depart,' which means everything's coming and going. It's more Buddhist."

Hass also points out that Whitman's choice to write the poem in extended free verse instead of a more traditional rhyme scheme was considered radical in the mid-18th century.

"I think people associated free verse with ... the parts of Whitman's 'I Hear America Singing' that sound like 19th century political oratory," says Hass. "So people didn't quite know how to deal with his free verse and basically didn't for 50 years. Then in 1911-12, the young Modernist poets started to experiment with free verse, which they thought of as not an American thing coming out of Whitman but as an avant-garde technique coming out of France. ... It really wasn't until Allen Ginsberg wrote Howl that somebody took what Whitman had done and tried to do something more with it."

Hass received the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his collection Time and Materials. His other collections include Sun Under Wood, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Human Wishes; Praise, for which he received the William Carlos Williams Award. From 1995 to 1997, he served as the poet laureate of the United States.

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