Whitman’s Long Lines
Open Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Some of the poems are short, others long, but they all have long lines.
Long lines are oceanic. They wash over you like waves, one after another, each of them full of shells and sand and fish and surfboards, sometimes pieces of wrecks and the bodies of sailors. The long line is more conclusive and inclusive than the partial, subdivided short line. If short lines are like quick pants, long lines resemble great, deep breathes.
That’s how I present long lines to students at first, as units of breath. I tell them, “Take a deep breath, then as you exhale, make up your line. When you take a new breathe, start a new line.” sometimes the long line will resemble a long sentence; other times it will look like a short paragraph. I try to demonstrate extemporaneously: I take a dramatic deep breath, then try to exhale some words that sound like poetry: “Outside it’s raining and I suspect that the roof is leaking. Oh no! It’s falling on that boy’s head! Quick, get a towel!” I show by my voice and gesture that I’ve run out of breath, so I take a great new breath and resume. “There, that’s better. Lightning and thunder! The chalkboard is a cradle for a whale and all the different pairs of shoes have lost their feet and are smearing the desks with mud.” It’s just an example to demonstrate the procedure.
Then I have the students make up a few of their own and write them down, since they may be too shy to compose them spontaneously out loud. But I do want them to read the lines aloud. I make it a kind of game to see who can make up the longest line that can be read in a single breath.
Sometimes students need to be shown how to arrange long lines on the page. Since each line of the poem will very likely go behind the physical line of the paper, the student should continue his or her poetic line of the next physical line by leaving a small indentation. This will show that it’s still the same line begin continued. The next new poetic line will begin at the margin again. It helps to illustrate this on the chalkboard.
Teaching long-line poems doesn’t require the detailed examination of the form that teaching short-line poems does, at least at the introductory level. Writing a poem with long lines takes a bit more patience and endurance, and requires more than just the inspiration to crystalize an instant: the writer has to have something to write about. So what I stress in long-line poems—after the breath unit—is the subject matter or genre. The two board types that seem to fit best with long-line poems are the narrative and the catalog.
Whitman gave the catalog poem its modern cast. The catalog poem is basically a list—but a list with personality, with life. One type of catalogue poem focuses on a particular object—a friend, a car, an animal, for instance—and tells everything the poet knows, sees, feels about that thing. One of the great poems of this sort is Christopher Smart’s “Jubilate Agno,” which shows wonderful perceptiveness and love for his cat Jeoffrey, but then expands from the details of his cat’s life to a sense of God’s presence in the world. Here is a short excerpt:
For he will not do destruction if he is well fed, neither will be spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he’s a good cat.
For he is an instrument for children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incompleat without him & a blessing is lacking in the spirit.
For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt.
For every family had one cat at least in the bag.
For the English cats are the best in Europe.
For younger kids the language of Smart’s poem is hard, but you can probably find a short passage that will make the point. Other good catalog poems are African praise poems. This is a good type of poem to do as a group, in which each student can contribute a line. Also, when each student contributes a line (or two or three), you don’t have to deal with writer’s cramp, a problem with younger students writing at length in a single sitting.
Another possibility of the catalog poem is to be more universal and lists lots of things Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is a good example. His narrator is a kind of supernatural being who sees everything, both outside and inside —“tenacious, acquisitive, tireless … and can never be shaken away.” His powers of observation are infinite, and so is his power of sympathy He not only sees, but emotionally enters what he sees.
For younger students, just a few lines from Leaves of Grass, preferably written on the board, will serve as an example. Older students can digest a longer excerpt. Here are some lines from section 8 of “Song of Myself”:
The little one sleeps in its cradle,
I lift the gauze and look a long time, and silently brush away flies with my hand.
The youngster and the redfaced girl turn aside up the bushy hill,
I peeringly view them from the top.
The suicide sprawls on the bloody floor of the bedroom,
It is so … I witnessed the corpse … there the pistol had fallen.
And so on. With older students, I recommend that you go over the entire passage. You can point out the variety and contrast in the things Whitman sees, and how he moves so quickly among them, like a movie camera or a ghost; how he tried to include a whole society in his poem, just giving a line or two for each thing, but how there’s action in every line; and how he makes you see and hear every event. He says something particular about each thing. The expansiveness of his vision beautifully offset by the minuteness of his details.
Here are two examples of students' work:
Birds—free and spiritual, swooping down, going to the bathroom on your head.
Or a camel—slow spitting on the ground; ignorant and lazy, an annoying movement.
Cats—constantly meowing and purring; graceful and with poise—they move like ballerinas.
These tigers seem to be laughing at you—Ha Ha—I may eat you up—They’re truly crazy!
I love the giraffe—he’s kind of towering over us—keeping an eye on the trees.
Oh, God, not the cow! What a pitiful sound—Moooooooo! Can’t you think of anything better to say?
I think I’m paranoid! Ticks! Ticks! Ticks!
Don’t come near me! I hate you!
What a cunning animal—that kangaroo! So close to its baby—always hopping around. Doesn’t it ever get tired? Not
Rhinoceros—fat and slobbering—dragging its huge putrid body from place to place.
Ah! The adorable little prairie dog—I’m sure all little children would love to have on.
Don’t fly away! You idiotic pigeon—can’t you see that I’m going to feed you?
You darling monkey! How do you swing on the trees so easily? Your body seems to be made of rubber bands.
You sweet puppy! Flopping ears and wet nose—so loyal and faithful you are!
Ooh! What a gory feline—this flesh-eating, prey-talking panther—a regular threat to the human race!
And Fish How innocent and gentle you are! Swimming around lazily all day …
—Nicole, age 12
Annoying people comb their hair when it already looks good.
They drive their cars with jerks and short stops and purposely avoid bumps.
They go around singing off-key.
They crack their gum during tests.
They always have ink marks on their faces.
Annoying people wear the wrong color lipstick.
They place louder than anyone else in the orchestra and play the wrong notes.
They complain all the time and their sneakers stay perfectly white for about two years.
Their clothes never match and their clothes always match.
Annoying people wear too much perfume and don’t shave their legs.
They talk too much in class and suck up to teachers.
They always get high grades on tests and they say that it’s not very good.
Annoying people’s glasses always fall to the tip of their noses and they don’t push them back up.
They waddle when they walk and they never mind their own business.
They wear too much blush.
Annoying people pretend they know how to smoke and don’t inhale.
They button up their shirt to the top and then put up their collars. They wear bell bottoms and high heels.
Annoying people swim badly and recite TV commercial.
They stretch out the elastic in their socks.
Annoying people leave a light on when they go to sleep and call during dinner all the time.
Annoying people don’t really know their ass from their elbow about a certain subject and then try to tell you what to do.
They speak slowly and whine.
Annoying people tell really bad jokes and then laugh at them … alone.
—Samantha, age 15