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On July 4, A Celebration Of Walt Whitman's Irreverent Hymnal

Instead of you throwing a curve here instead is a fastball, high and hard.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the granddaddy of American poetry; the gray ghost; the big thumper; the barbarian's text with its barbaric yawp; the nation's first truly great mega biblion; the Kosmos; the Civil War witness; the seaside songbook; the irreverent hymnal; the book of the lover; the book of the loafer; the peacemaker; Leaves of Grass.

"To have great poets, there must be great audiences," Whitman said. And more than ever, we are the audience Leaves of Grass has waited for. The beauty of this book of poems lies both in its music and its basic understanding that the borders between our private and public lives are in fact misunderstood.

Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!

When we celebrate American independence we are celebrating the best sense of an idea, a process in process. In this sense, we are beautifully, frustratingly imperfect: as is Leaves of Grass. It grew from an original 12 untitled poems first published in 1855, to versions in 1856, 1860, 1867, 1871-72, 1881-82, and its final magnificent version of 1891-92, commonly referred to as the deathbed edition.

And I recommend this book to you now not because you may not know it, but precisely because you think you know it. Visit it again and start anywhere, read it with the liberty that its free verse and insistent theme of personal freedom ask you to embrace. It's perfect in portions and every portion symbolizes the best sense of the whole. Our country (and your vacation) should be so.

In short, choose your own adventure. What you'll find is that the great sensations behind the book order themselves around you, like planets around the sun. You will be hard pressed to read another book that understands you as well as Leaves of Grass does. It was made for you in the way that the constellations were made for you. It understands and makes space for your doubts, your love, the guilt and passions of your life and waits for you. You'll struggle to find a moment of empathy in a book as touching, grand and unapologetic as the last line of "Song of Myself":

Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

Catch up to it.

Rowan Ricardo Phillips is the author of The Ground: Poems.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Every Friday, we bring you book recommendations based on the news. And since today's installment falls on our nation's birthday, poet Rowan Ricardo Phillips was inspired by the man who heard America singing.

ROWAN RICARDO PHILLIPS: Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the granddaddy of American poetry - the gray ghost, the big thumper - the nation's first truly great mega Biblion - the Civil War witness - the seaside songbook - the irreverent hymnal - the book of the lover - the book of the loafer - the peacemaker - Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." To have great poets, there must be great audiences, Whitman said. And more than ever, we are the audience "Leaves of Grass" has waited for. Unscrew the locks from the doors. Unscrew the doors themselves from their jams, Whitman tells us. When we celebrate American independence, we're celebrating the best sense of an idea - a process in process. This nation is beautifully, frustratingly imperfect and so was "Leaves of Grass." It began as 12 poems first published in 1855, but then, for almost 40 years, it grew. Its final magnificent version is known as the Deathbed edition. I recommend this book to you now, not because you may not know it, but, precisely, because you might think you know it. Visit it again and start anywhere. Read it with liberty. Embrace it with its themes of personal freedom and its form of free verse. It's perfect in portions. Each one symbolizes the best sense of the whole. What you'll find is that the great sensations behind this book order themselves around you like planets around the sun. You won't find another book that understands you as well as "Leaves of Grass" does. It was made for you in the way that the constellations were made for you. It makes space for your doubts, your love, the guilt and passions of your life. There's no moment of empathy in a book as touching and as grand as this one. Missing me one place, search another, Whitman said. I stop somewhere waiting for you.

SIEGEL: Poet Rowan Ricardo Phillips recommending Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." One of the most famous poems in the collection is "I hear America singing." We're now going to hear the ALL THINGS CONSIDERED holiday staff reading the Whitman poem. (Reading) I hear America singing the varied carols I hear.

UNIDENTIFIED STAFF 1: (Reading) Those of mechanics - each one singing his as it should be, blithe and strong.

UNIDENTIFIED STAFF 2: The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam.

UNIDENTIFIED STAFF 3: The mason singing his as he makes ready for work or leaves off work.

UNIDENTIFIED STAFF 4: The boatman singing what belongs to him and his boat.

UNIDENTIFIED STAFF 5: The deckhand singing on the steamboat deck.

UNIDENTIFIED STAFF 6: The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench.

UNIDENTIFIED STAFF 7: The hatter singing as he singing as he stands.

UNIDENTIFIED STAFF 8: The woodcutter song - the plow boys on his way in the morning or at noon intermission or at sundown.

UNIDENTIFIED STAFF 9: The delicious singing of the mother.

UNIDENTIFIED STAFF 10: Or of the young wife at work or of the young girl sewing or washing.

UNIDENTIFIED STAFF 11: Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else.

UNIDENTIFIED STAFF 12: The day - what belongs to the day?

SIEGEL: At night, the party of young fellows, robust, friendly, singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs. "I Hear America Singing" read by our Fourth of July staff here on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR news. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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