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DIY Poetry Publishing Cooperative

September 21, 2005

Walt Whitman's amazing expanding beard

[Cross posted from my other blog.]

I went to see this on my lunchbreak yesterday, because I am a sucker for manuscripts/handwritten letters/faded photos/ephemera and as a saint of the DIY, WW is a giant in my personal pantheon.

His cursive script is as expansive as his line, and I had to wonder if his training as a printer/typesetter and the 9 x 11 trim size (guestimate, I couldn't measure through the plexicubes) of the first several editions inspired or freed up his charateristic long line--"the longest lines of blank verse ever published to that date," according to the program. He ranged all over the page and very infrequently resorted to indenting a wrapped line--not something he could have done in a smaller book (and he designed most editions of the books himself, and all the frontispieces and title pages, covers, spines, bindings)--a physical consideration I'd not entertained before, but it occured to me immediately when I saw the books.

He never considered anything finished. Retitling. Rewriting. Pasting revised forewords, prefaces and new or rewritten poems right into his own copies of the printed and bound books. Layers and layers of them, pasted sheer sheets in shades of cream and brown. His inkings are sure, and even his penciled documents confidently scribbled. No hesitation in that hand. First words as bold as later crossings out.

His handwriting increased in size and flourish as he grew older. He wrote his mother letters of several pages, filled front and back, with inky meandering, boasting, and stories. Oh how the man could boast and bluster. A truly beautiful thing. And in the portraits how his beard grew and grew and grew.

In Elkton, Maryland, newspaper Whitman ran an ad that falsely claimed he'd been seated next to Abraham Lincoln on the night of the assassination, hoping to drum up a bigger audience for his Lincoln lecture that evening.

Whitman was the first to refer in writing to baseball as "the American sport." He loved the game.

In William D. O'Connor's copy of the 1855 edition, there's a penciled underline on page 29, beneath the line "The scent of these arm-pits is aroma finer than prayer." And in the margin to the left, two penciled exclamation marks: !!

Other attractions include an original edition of Ulysses [comparitively yawny, I've seen the MSS in Texas (of all places wink)], some DH Lawrence MSS on Whitman, a terrific photo of Sylvia Beach & James Joyce once owned by the lady herself. Lowlight: a manic, annoying stage-whispering woman imploring her husband over and over and OVER for a credit card which he refused to relinquish. Walt stared her down from every wall and won.

Go see it.


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