by John Colgan-Davis
As a kid, I loved reading, and I loved reading all sorts of things. My mother used to ban having cereal boxes on the kitchen table during breakfast because I would be reading the boxes and not paying attention to the other members of the family gathered at the table.
But mom loved that I loved reading, and she supported it. We had encyclopedias mom provided, and she would regularly ask what I had read in them that day and to read things to her from them.
We also had a young person’s mini encyclopedia called “Childcraft” that included volumes on science, geography, folklore, literature and more.
I devoured them, particularly the literature volumes. They were my entry into the worlds of mythology, fiction, drama and poetry. Their influence has stayed with me my entire life.
I think of that now because this year the nation is celebrating the 200th birthday of Walt Whitman, a man many consider to be to father of a truly American poetry.
Whitman wasn’t in my Childcraft books, as I recall, but those books made me ready for him. I had memorized several poems in the Childcraft volumes, especially Henry Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride” and “Hiawatha” and Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman.”
I loved the rhyme patterns and descriptive language in these poems. “The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas” from “The Highwayman” is still one of my favorite lines of poetry.
These opened me up to the power and magic of words and some of the ways they could be used. So when, in my high school years, I was encountering new friends in Rittenhouse Square and the coffeehouses to which my music was taking me, I was also ready to encounter new approaches to poetry.
I heard and read the Beats, including Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Le Roi Jones (later Amiri Baraka), Denise Levertov and William Carlos Williams.
I also encountered historically, spiritually and politically centered poets and modern and surreal poets, including Gwendolyn Brooks, Charles Olson, Ishmael Reed, Kenneth Patchen, Diane di Prima, Audre Lorde and many, many more.
The same Philadelphia Free Libraries that fed my insatiable curiosity for music at the time also fed my appetite for poetry and poets. And as I read more about my favorite poets and their influences, most of them made regular and strong references to the importance of Walt Whitman and especially “Leaves of Grass.”
In reading, studying about and loving the works of all the aforementioned poets, I came over time to better understand Whitman and what he gave to American thought and verse. The directness those poets feature owe a lot to his unflinching looking at himself, the places and people around him and what they not only were but also what they could mean and be.
Whitman was among the first poets to intentionally write in free, unrhymed verse, and I came to see that not rhyming or having a repeated rhythmic pattern in a poem could allow a writer to do and say things in ways that were more direct and meaningful.
He also delighted in the specialness of the commonplace and ordinary. He made it clear that if we open a bit and expand our vision and awareness, simple things such as a leaf of grass could “be links to much bigger and larger concepts and … contain multitudes.”
He also saw, named and gave space for the role so many emotional and sensual things have in our lives, no matter how we might want to downplay, disguise or ignore them. He saw that looking at ourselves and our world honestly could have immense value. And he wrote in a way that forced us, sometimes lovingly and intensely, to do just that.
I have read “Leaves of Grass” several times, and I will read it again this year. It is one of those works that caught me at the same time it mystified and infuriated me. It is a powerful work: one that always intrigues, arouses, confuses, angers and calls to me.
Each time I read it, whether I’m in my 20s, 30s, 40s or 50s, it rewarded me in ways I did not expect and could not have imagined at the time. I expect it will do so again.
So happy 200th birthday, Walt. Thank you for giving me the gift of looking at yourself as one of the guides helping me to look at myself and my world. My enduring thanks to thee and to your many and continuous offspring.
John Colgan-Davis, a longtime Mt. Airy resident, is a retired public school teacher and the harmonica player for the blues band Dukes of Destiny, which will be playing next this Saturday, July 20, at World Café Live, 3025 Walnut St.