Skip to main content

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

Robert Hass, the former poet laureate of the United States, explores one of Walt Whitman's most iconic poems, Song of Myself — and shares his opinion about why the poem still resonates 155 years after it was written.

26:17

Other segments from the episode on April 29, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 29, 2010: Interview with Sean Hayes; Interview with Robert Hass.

Transcript

*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
..DATE:
20100429
..PGRM:
Fresh Air
..TIME:
12:00-13:00 PM
..NIEL:
N/A
..NTWK:
NPR
..SGMT:
'Will And Grace' Star Sean Hayes Steps To Broadway

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Sean Hayes, who played Jack in "Will & Grace," is making his
Broadway debut in the revival of "Promises, Promises," which opened this
week. The show has songs by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, who we'll talk
with next week. Two of the songs from the show became hits, the title
song, "Promises, Promises," and "I'll Never Fall In Love Again."

The show premiered in 1968 and is based on the movie "The Apartment." In
the revival, Sean Hayes plays Chuck Baxter, an employee in an insurance
company stuck in a low-level job. He has something his boss wants, an
apartment in Manhattan, an apartment the boss can use to cheat on his
wife with his girlfriend. So Baxter gives his key to the boss in return
for the promise of a promotion. The revival also stars Kristin
Chenoweth.

Sean Hayes got his start starring in the independent film "Billy's
Hollywood Screen Kiss," which led to the role that made him famous on
"Will & Grace" as the very extroverted, gay friend Jack. Let's start
with a recording from the revival of "Promises, Promises," featuring
Sean Hayes singing the title song.

(Soundbite of song, "Promises, Promises")

Mr. SEAN HAYES (Actor): (As Chuck Baxter) (Singing) Promises, promises,
I'm all through with promises, promises now. I don't know how I got the
nerve to walk out. If I shout, remember I feel free. Now I can look at
myself and be proud. I'm laughing out loud.

Oh, promises, promises, this is where those promises, promises end. I
won't pretend that what was wrong can be right. Every night I sleep now,
no more lies. Things that I promised myself fell apart, but I found my
heart.

Oh, promises, their kind of promises take all the joy from life. Oh,
promises, those kind of promises can just destroy your life. Oh,
promises, promises, my kind of promises can lead to joy and hope and
love, yes, love.

(Soundbite of applause)

GROSS: Sean Hayes, welcome to FRESH AIR. I really enjoyed your
performance in "Promises, Promises."

Mr. HAYES: Well, thank you.

GROSS: Now, I know you performed in the – Encore's production of "Damn
Yankees," but that wasn't officially Broadway. This is your official
Broadway debut. So, you know, I've heard you sing comedically as Jack in
"Will & Grace," but here you're singing for real and singing well for
real. Did you sing much before this?

Mr. HAYES: No, actually, I think that's one of the reasons I did this,
as well as 50 other reasons, most of which shall remain in my head. But
one of the reasons was to challenge myself and see if I could really
conquer this kind of thing that I've always been toying with, this
singing thing...

And I don't by any means don't pretend to be a singer or label myself a
singer. I'm definitely an actor first, but it's fun to kind of, you
know, push your boundaries and see if you can do things that have scared
you a little bit your whole life.

GROSS: So if singing scares you a little bit, and you're out on a
Broadway stage singing, that's got to be scary with a capital S.

Mr. HAYES: Yeah, that's what life's about, though, isn't it? Isn't it
about getting out of your comfort zone and getting off the couch and
challenging yourself and forcing yourself to do things you wouldn't
other do, otherwise what are you living for?

GROSS: Comfort.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAYES: Well, actually, I'm realizing that now. Comfort never sounded
so great.

GROSS: Now, Burt Bacharach, I think ,is a real stickler for precision in
his orchestras and in his singers. Did he come in and do any of the
coaching? I think he was very active in the original production.

Mr. HAYES: He is. Burt, unfortunately, I don't know too much about that.
Burt was unfortunately not available because he had some medical issues,
I presume with his back and his spine. So the first time he saw the show
was opening night, last Sunday. And it was a pleasure to finally meet
him, and he was, you know, overjoyed, which was a great relief, you
know.

GROSS: Now, did you know some of the more famous songs from the show
like "Promises, Promises," "I'll Never Fall In Love Again," "Knowing
When to Leave," and two other Bacharach-David songs were added to this
production, "I Say A Little Prayer" and "A House is Not a Home." How
familiar were you with those songs?

Mr. HAYES: Well, I knew "Promises," and I knew "Never Fall In Love
Again," only from the radio, from being a kid; and of course, that
"House is Not a Home" and "Say A Little Prayer." I was unfamiliar with
the rest, and to be quite honest, the very, very first listen to those
songs for me was the cast - the original cast recording.

And a lot of them you don't walk away humming, but if you listen to it
even a second time, let alone 100 times like I have, they really do grow
on you, and you kind of gain a certain affection for them, and you
realize why the show was a hit back in the '60s, you know.

There's a couple songs that you don't, you know, go to the urinal during
intermission and hum...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAYES: But they really do stick with you.

GROSS: Now, you do have a music background. You studied music. You
studied piano. You studied conducting, I think.

Mr. HAYES: In college, I did.

GROSS: In college, you played a lot of Mozart. Why classical music?

Mr. HAYES: I think that's just what came more natural to me. As a kid,
that's what I started on, and you know, we were talking about comfort
zones earlier. I think that's where my comfort zone was.

I tried – I was pushed to try to do jazz and other kinds of styles of
piano, and I just didn't really get it. It just didn't really click. It
didn't come as easy to me as the classical did. Plus, probably the fear
of improvising on piano, and you know, with classical music, the notes
are the notes.

You either hit them, or you don't, and they're right there on the page
for you to learn, whereas jazz, it's just here's a chord, or here's kind
of an idea, now go. And I never really learned that technique nor really
had the desire to. I don't know why, probably because I was afraid of
the improvisation.

GROSS: So why did you change from music to acting?

Mr. HAYES: I think that was probably always my destiny, and I fought it
because I grew up in a family of many brothers that won accolades for
their sporting events and everything. And so I thought – I was a little
embarrassed to pursue acting at such a young age, and I thought it
wasn't the macho thing to do. I'm being completely honest.

And so, but, so I always kind of had this passion for it, and I would
always hang out in the theater as much as I could because those people
made me laugh the most.

I mean, I used to watch "Saturday Night Live" as a kid, constantly, and
go, God, they look like they're having so much fun. Why am I not doing
that? And so I think when I got to college, as do a lot of people, you
discover who you are and find yourself more than you did before. You go
yeah, this feels right. This feels right to be amongst funny people and
people who enjoy what they do.

So I kind of pursued both at the same time. I was pursuing music during
the day, and at night I would go hang out with all the theater folks,
watch shows and do improvisational groups and things like that. So I was
on a two-way track.

GROSS: Now, once you decided to act, your first real role was in a film
called "Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss." This is an indie film with a lot
of unknown people in it. Did you have any confidence that it would be
good?

Mr. HAYES: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAYES: You know, at the time, I wasn't working. I had just moved to
Los Angeles, and because if you wanted to do TV or film, that's where
you needed to be. And it was just, I literally just auditioned and got
the job, like, two days later, and my agent was like, do you want to do
this or not? It's no money, it's nothing, and I was like, I'm not doing
anything else. And so I did it and then from that got "Will & Grace."

GROSS: So before we talk more about "Will & Grace," let me play a scene.
One of the things about your character, Jack, is that he always wanted
to have, you know, like a one-man show in which he'd sing, do a little
dancing. And now that you've made your Broadway singing debut, I thought
it would be fun to listen back to Jack singing. And he had this ambition
to do, you know, the show "Jack 2000" and "Jack 2001." So here's a scene
in which he's trying to cheer Grace, who's sick and in bed, he's trying
to cheer her up by singing.

(Soundbite of television program, "Will & Grace")

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAYES: (As Jack McFarland) Anyway, I find that the one thing that
really makes people smile is my music - or my oddly long tongue, your
choice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DEBRA MESSING (Actor): (As Grace Adler) Music.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAYES: (As Jack) Because I finally figured out how to make "Jack
2001" different than "Jack 2000."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MESSING: (As Grace) You're going to get an audience?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAYES: (As Jack) No. I'm going to sing a medley of songs with the
word one in them. So let the healing begin. Hit it.

(Soundbite of snapping)

Mr. HAYES: (As Jack) (Singing) You're still the one I want to talk to in
bed, hey, still the one that turns my head. You're still having fun,
you're still the one singular sensation, every little step she takes.
One thrilling combination, every move that she makes. One less bell to
answer, one less egg to fry, one less man to pick up after. I should be
happy, but all I do is cry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAYES: (As Jack) Oh, Grace, you're crying. Is it because of my song?
I can't believe I made you cry.

Ms. MESSING: (As Grace) It's okay.

Mr. HAYES: (As Jack) Okay, it's great. I did it. I finally moved someone
to tears with my art.

GROSS: Sean Hayes in a scene from "Will & Grace." How was your character
of Jack described in that first script, the one that you used to
audition?

Mr. HAYES: Oh, gosh, I don't remember. But to me, you know, at the
beginning of "Will & Grace," I played Jack as the funny next-door-
neighbor type, as we've seen in the past, and I thought that was my
role.

I didn't really play into the gay part as much, the stereotypical gay
part. And I have to say the critics, for not being that educated about
the gay lifestyle, I think, pegged Jack as the flamboyant, extremely gay
character so – because they didn't know what else to call him. Because
if Will is seemingly straight-acting, oh, then Jack must be very
feminine and very flamboyant. Whereas, I wasn't playing him as feminine,
because I know a lot of gay guys who are extremely feminine, kind of
like Carson Kressley-type from the, what is that, the "Queer Eye for the
Straight Guy," those snapping, kind of girly – that to me was
stereotypical gay, the very feminine gay guy.

But if you didn't label Jack as gay, he would've just been the funny
next-door neighborhood who had a lot of energy, the way Jim Carrey,
Robin Williams, Marty Short, any of these guys did.

GROSS: So you changed your interpretation of the character as time went
on?

Mr. HAYES: Definitely, 100 percent, because I wanted to explore the – I
wanted more distance between the types of gay characters between Jack
and Will.

If you look at the first season, Jack's not – the mannerisms and the –
the dialogue is more towards the stereotypical, flamboyant gay guy, but
a lot of the mannerisms aren't. And then as time went on, I added more
and more and more and more.

GROSS: Now, you've used the word stereotypical. Were you afraid that at
some point you would be playing into a stereotype?

Mr. HAYES: At that point, I didn't really care. I knew what was funny
and what was true to that character - the growth of Jack - to that
character. And so what was true to the growth of that character was to
play him that way. That was so well-written, you know, so well-written.

GROSS: My guest is Sean Hayes. He's starring in the Broadway revival of
"Promises, Promises." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Sean Hayes, and he's now starring on Broadway in
"Promises, Promises," a revival of the Burt Bacharach-Hal David musical
from the late '60s. Right before "Promises, Promises" opened, you did an
interview with The Advocate in which you acknowledged you were gay,
whereas previously you declined to talk about that, saying that the less
people knew about your personal life, the more open-minded they could be
about each role that you played. And I was wondering, like, why now?

Mr. HAYES: So we wouldn't have to talk about it.

GROSS: And so here am I talking about it.

Mr. HAYES: Right.

GROSS: Is that your point?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAYES: Yeah.

GROSS: Okay. So can I just ask you...?

Mr. HAYES: Because it's, you know, it's just – there's nothing relevant
about someone's sexuality to what they do for a living.

GROSS: But what's relevant to me is that you've, your first big roles
both in "Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss" and in "Will & Grace" were as
gay characters. And I think probably for a lot of young gay people in
particular, it's great to have gay characters on screen because, not
until recently were there any, so...

Mr. HAYES: Yeah, well, Billy Crystal in the '70s on "Soap." I mean,
there's tons, tons of examples. But yes, no, I think any positive that
has come out from me playing gay characters in TV or film is amazing and
a wonderful byproduct of, you know, what I've done. And if it's helped
anybody, then my life is complete because that's a wonderful thing.

GROSS: One of the things that you did was a made-for-TV movie about Dean
Martin and Jerry Lewis. You played Jerry Lewis. Jeremy Northam played
Dean Martin. And so you played Jerry Lewis, and you also did, like,
Jerry Lewis bits in it. Did you meet Jerry Lewis while you were putting
this together?

Mr. HAYES: I did not, on purpose. I didn't want to be influenced one way
or the other. I just wanted to stay true to the great script that John
Gray wrote and directed, amazing writer-director.

And John and I viewed countless hours of old "Colgate Hour" video from
the '50s and a bunch of rare, you know, footage of Dean and Jerry
working together. And then I would go home and literally stay up until
two, three, four in the morning, you know, combining the Jerry Lewis
bits while infiltrating some of my own kind of flair to the Jerry Lewis
sensibility.

And some of those scenes we wrote – I came up with the stuff entirely on
my own with Jerry in mind, of how would Jerry do this with Jerry-isms
but new bits. So that was fun, and I got a big round of applause from
Jerry. He called me crying and saying he loved it and couldn't believe
how true it was, and real, for him. So that was great. I loved that job.

GROSS: What did you most pick up on watching hours and hours and hours
of Jerry Lewis?

Mr. HAYES: What did I most pick on? A very similar kind of sense of what
I went through as playing Jack on "Will & Grace," which is how different
the man was offstage than he was playing, as he called, the idiot. Jerry
Lewis – I don't know if a lot of people know this. Jerry Lewis referred
to his on-camera persona, whether in movies or TV, as the idiot. And so
the idiot couldn't be further from who Jerry Lewis was, and I kind of
completely relate to that.

Whereas people recognize me as the idiot Jack, but I don't see myself as
that. I know others do, but I don't. But that's what I picked up most
upon.

GROSS: So why don't we hear a scene with you as Jerry Lewis from the
Jerry Lewis that was made for TV, and in this scene, Dean Martin, played
by Jeremy Northam, is doing his act at a club, and you kind of crash the
act. You come in dressed as a waiter and with a tower of dishes on your
arm that you keep dropping, and they come crashing to the floor as Dean
Martin is doing his act. So here's the scene.

(Soundbite of television movie, "Martin and Lewis")

Mr. JEREMY NORTHAM (Actor): (As Dean Martin) (Singing) And when I look
up at the stars and ask them all what's new, they join me in their
answer, darling it's you...

Mr. HAYES: (As Jerry Lewis) Excuse me, pardon me, coming through, coming
through.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. NORTHAM: (As Martin) Hold it, hold it. What the hell do you think
you're doing?

Mr. HAYES: (As Lewis) I'm very sorry, kind sir. I didn't mean to
interrupt anything.

Mr. NORTHAM: (As Martin) Oh no, no, I was getting kind of tired of that
song anyway.

Mr. HAYES: (As Lewis) So was the audience, but I didn't want to say
nothing.

Mr. NORTHAM: (As Martin) Oh, a wise guy.

Mr. HAYES: (As Lewis) Go ahead, Mr. Singer. Make like I'm not even here.
I'm not here.

Mr. NORTHAM: (As Martin) I wish you'd make like you weren't even here.

GROSS: That's a scene with Sean Hayes as Jerry Lewis and Jeremy Northam
as Dean Martin.

Mr. HAYES: That brings back great memories.

GROSS: Does it?

Mr. HAYES: Yeah, it was really fun to do that.

GROSS: You know, I actually think maybe you didn't draw on what you
learned from that just a little bit for your role in "Promises,
Promises," just like, a little.

Mr. HAYES: Playing Jerry Lewis?

GROSS: Just a little bit of Jerry Lewis in there, yeah.

Mr. HAYES: Yeah, people have said that. It wasn't conscious, but if you
picked up on that, maybe it was subconscious. But that's actually, I
love that scene. That's a really funny story, true story about how they
began working together was Jerry saw that Dean wasn't doing too well
with the audience at that time and wanted to kind of amp it up a bit and
get the audience going. So he came in with plates and just started
dropping them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAYES: I mean, the guy was fearless. I love that. And that's how
that relationship started. It was a beautiful thing.

GROSS: Well, Sean Hayes, thanks so much for talking with us, and good
luck with "Promises, Promises."

Mr. HAYES: Thank you so much.

GROSS: Sean Hayes is starring in the Broadway revival of "Promises,
Promises." Next week, we'll talk with Burt Bacharach and Hal David about
writing the songs for the show, songs like this one. I'm Terry Gross,
and this is FRESH AIR.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
126219932
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
..DATE:
20100429
..PGRM:
Fresh Air
..TIME:
12:00-13:00 PM
..NIEL:
N/A
..NTWK:
NPR
..SGMT:
Robert Hass: On Whitman's 'Song Of Myself'

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross.

The first edition of Walt – (cough) excuse me, I’m sorry - Whitman's
"Leaves of Grass" was published in 1855 in an edition of 795 copies.
Whitman re-titled it "Song of Myself" in 1881.

My guest Robert Hass describes it perhaps the most unprecedented poem in
the English language. Whitman revised the poem through his life. Hass
has edited and written the introduction to the new book "Song of Myself
and other Poems by Walt Whitman." Hass describes "Song of Myself" as a
poem about democracy and imagination, and what to make of life and
death.

Hass was poet laureate from 1995 to '97, and is a two-time winner of the
National Book Critic Circle Award and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize. In
addition to the Whitman book, Hass just published a new collection of
his own poems called "The Apple Trees at Olema."

His new book "Song of Myself" reprints the poem as it appeared in 1885
and as it appeared in the final edition from - 1891 to '92.

Professor ROBERT HASS (Editor, "Songs of Myself"): The first few lines
begin, famously...

(Reading) I celebrate myself and I what I assume, you shall assume for
every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. I loaf and invite my
soul. I lean and loaf at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass.

And in the last edition, he writes...

(Reading) I celebrate myself and sing myself, and what I assume you
shall assume, for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. I
loaf and invite my soul. I lean and loaf at my ease, observing a spear
of summer grass.

So that he just made this really small change. He added the phrase, And
sing myself. In the first edition, it had no name and then in the second
he called it "Walt Whitman." And then I think he called it "Walt
Whitman, an American" for a while. 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."

And I think it was at that point also that he added the phrase, And sing
myself.

GROSS: Why is "Song of Myself" so important in the history of American
poetry?

Prof. HASS: Well, a bunch of reasons but the first one is it's really -
was the first experiment in extended free verse. Nobody had done that
before. The thing that he took from English poetry, I think, was what
the Romantic poets like Wordsworth saying they wanted to write poems in
the language men actually spoke, to get away from what felt like
artificial in the diction of 18th century poetry.

Whitman who, you know, had at 11 dropped out of school in the seventh
grade and got his education as an editor and a typesetter, grew up with
the language of newspapers, and he wanted a new kind of verse for a new
country. And he imagined that that verse would be the rhythms of actual
speech. So that’s one very important thing, that first experiment.

And the second reason it’s important is because it's written at a
particular moment before the Civil War, after the Revolution, of
enormous optimism and hopefulness about the country. Some people have
said Walt Whitman invented the imagery of the New Deal in 1855, by
talking about - this cascade of democratic images of all kinds of
people.

GROSS: Walt Whitman is always considered, like, you know, the
quintessential American poet. And he writes about the American city and
he writes about American diversity. I mean, Whitman was into praising
diversity before our time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. HASS: Yes.

GROSS: Like, diversity is so in now, but Whitman literally used the word
diversity.

Prof. HASS: Almost invented it.

GROSS: Yeah. And I want you to read an example that I think will give a
sense of his love of the city, his sense of diversity, and also his, you
know, free verse - his lack of rhyme.

Prof. HASS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And another thing it gives a sense of is how he'd often just do
lists of things, just like tumbling lists of similar things that he
wanted to talk about. So would you read this section for us that begins
the blab of the pave?

Prof. HASS: Sure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. HASS: Isn’t that wonderful.

GROSS: Pave as in pavement. Blab as in blabber.

Prof. HASS: That was the fun of walking across the campus and think:
What does the dictionary say about blab in 1850? Anyway...

(Reading) The blab of the pave, the tires of carts and slough of boot-
soles and talk of the promenaders. The heavy omnibus, the driver with
his interrogating thumb, the clank of the shod horses on the granite
floor. The carnival of sleighs, the clinking and shouted jokes, and
pelts of snowballs. The hurrahs for popular favorites, the fury of
roused mobs. The flap of the curtained litter, the sick man inside borne
to the hospital. The meeting of enemies, the sudden oath, the blows and
falls. The excited crowd, the policeman with his star quickly working
his passage to the center of the crowd. The impassive stones that
receive and return so many echoes. The souls moving along, are they
invisible, while the least atom of the stone is visible? What groans of
over-fed or half-starved who fall on the flag sun struck or in fits.
What exclamations of women taken suddenly who hurry home and give birth
to babes. What living and buried speech is always vibrating here. What
howls restrained by decorum. Arrests of criminals, slights, adulterous
offers made, acceptances, rejections with convex lips, I mind them or
the resonance of them, I come again and again.

GROSS: There's several phrases that are changed in the final version,
but most dramatically the last phrase of that section you just read. So
would you read the last phrase of the original and the last phrase of
the final edition?

Prof. HASS: Yes. The last phrase of the original is... I come again and
again. And the last phrase of the final is I come and I depart.

GROSS: What does that difference mean to you?

Prof. HASS: My guess is that he’s an older man when he's writing the
last version of the poem, coming and going. And so, he’s – with the
first version says, I come again and again. 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, the continuous presence of the
sexual energy of living. And in the last version I commented, I depart.
It means everything’s coming and going. I come and it’s, you know, it’s
more Buddhist.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It - also and I think he knows he’s nearing mortality. He’s not
going to...

Prof. HASS: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: He’s not going to be coming again and again.

Prof. HASS: Yeah. He was writing one of the last sections of the final
version of the poem there’s a section called “Sands at 70.” And then
another called “Last Annex.” So he was getting near the end and thinking
about it.

GROSS: Now you mentioned in your introduction that Emerson, who was a
champion of Whitman’s early on, got kind of that list-making, that
cataloging that we hear...

Prof. HASS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...in the excerpt that you just read. Why did he get tired of
that?

Prof. HASS: Well, I...

GROSS: And how do you feel about that? How do you feel about that
constant list-making?

Prof. HASS: Well, I think everybody gets tired of it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. HASS: The thing about Whitman is – I think what Emerson said, I
thought he was going to write the great poems of America and he wrote
the catalog, at that time when...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. HASS: ...when they arrived as regularly as they do now. You know,
he overuses the technique. I mean, he celebrates abundance. He’s an
incredibly abundant writer. I think when I began reading him without a
sense of how terrific the most – the best of the poems were, I thought
he was kind of a gas bag, partly because if this endless listing.

When you look at it in the poems, this - like “Songs of Myself” and he’s
at the top of his form, every single image is very wonderful, vivid and
amazing and accurate with the newspaper reporter’s accuracy that he had.
They flash before the eye like those illustrations in 19th century
books, one figure after another, the policeman with his star quickly
works and so on, all of that. Always of getting at the city. But at
certain points he’s listing anything he can think to list then he loses
me. But not in this poem. This poem is a miracle in the way that it
keeps coming back to this sense of the enormous variety and abundance
and diversity and vitality of life.

GROSS: My guest is former poet laureate Robert Hass. He edited and wrote
the introduction to the new book “Song of Myself and Other Poems by Walt
Whitman.”

We’ll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is former poet laureate Robert Hass. He edited and wrote
the introduction to the new book “Song of Myself and Other Poems by Walt
Whitman.”

One of the things about Whitman is that he’s, in his own way, I think
it’s fair to say like a mystic, where everything is embodied in
everyone. Everyone embodies everything.

Prof. HASS: Uh-huh.

GROSS: But he's also like an egotist.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Like, I always find when I read Whitman I never know, like which
part is like is a huge ego and which part is this, like, great mystical
exuberance. What do you think? Do you feel that way too?

Prof. HASS: Yes, I do. But I think that in “Song of Myself,” I think
it’s pure exuberance. And it is a mystical - someone said it’s the only
comic mystical poem because the mystical insight at the core of the poem
is, if you say it, it sounds banal. You know, it’s here I am. And here
we all are and we all can feel our way into each other and everybody is
everybody else. And one response one might have to that is to say, no,
you’re not me. At some point in this period he said - he said about
himself when he was writing these poems, I was simmering, simmering and
Emerson brought me to a boil.

He was reading Emerson’s essays and he had some sense, you know, young
guy from a troubled family. Grew up in making it in the streets of
Brooklyn, which - huge exploding suburb and of Manhattan that he had
this sense that all life is life right now, that everything is alive and
that it’s to be celebrated and the enormity of it is to be celebrated
and the surprise of it is to be celebrated. The shocking thing, he says,
about that at the beginning of the poem is I'm going to tell you in this
poem that death is different from what anybody supposed and luckier,
which is the kind of joke at the core of the poem. All life is eternal
in the imagination if you act like it is.

GROSS: Okay. So I'm going to ask you now to read something that I think
really reflects that mystical streak in Whitman. And this is the section
of “Song of Myself” that starts with: And there is no object so soft.

Prof. HASS: (Reading) There's no object so soft that it makes a hub for
the wheeled universe. And any man or woman shall stand cool and
supercilious before a million universes. And I call to mankind, be not
curious about God, for I who am curious about each am not curious about
God. No array of terms can say how much I’m at peace about God and about
death. I hear and behold God in every object, yet I understand God not
in the least, nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than
myself. Why should I wish to see God better than this day? I see
something of God each hour of the 24 and each moment then, in the faces
of men and women I see God and in my own face in the glass. I find
letters from God dropped in the street and everyone is signed by God’s
name and I leave them where they are, for I know that others will
punctually come forever and ever. And as to you, death, and you bitter
hug of mortality, it is idle to try to alarm me.

GROSS: I just really love that section of “Song of Myself.”

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And it really speaks to that sense of everything being God.

Prof. HASS: That would...

GROSS: How would you define what you know of Whitman’s version of
spirituality?

Prof. HASS: Well, you got it exactly right. His mother was Quaker and
his father was of Dutch background from Long Island. And people
described him as kind of a radical working man rationalist, follower of
Tom Paine. And Whitman’s language is suffused with the language of
Quaker spirituality, which is some idea of The Family of Man. But his
religion at this point is that he sees God in everything.

GROSS: There’s a line I want to quote that I think gives the sense of my
confusion between his egotism and his mysticism.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. HASS: Uh-huh.

GROSS: And also has just a great, really earthy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...earthy phrase in it. He says, divine I am inside and out and I
make holy whatever I touch or am touched from. The scent of these
armpits is aroma finer than prayer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But, you know...

Prof. HASS: And...

GROSS: Yeah, I make holy whatever I touch. I mean, does he see himself
as particular holy or is he speaking for everybody, that everybody is
holy?

Prof. HASS: Yeah. No. He’s speaking for everybody. But he gets the
outrage and the comedy of it. He says, I know no sweeter fat then sticks
to my own bones, he says in another line. But he keeps meaning that it’s
so of everybody. And in fact, there’s nothing very personal in this poem
in that way. It’s not the personal narcissism of the person who says,
you know, and another thing about me. This is a poem about everybody.

GROSS: How hard was it for Walt Whitman to get these kind of radical for
their time poems published?

Prof. HASS: Well, he had no trouble getting them published because he
put up the money and did part of the hand printing himself. The poems
were published in the same year that “The Song of Hiawatha” was
published by Longfellow, by a respectable Boston publisher and it sold
hugely. And the first version of “Leaves of Grass,” according to his
brother, I think he printed 500 copies and managed to distribute five or
six of them.

So, getting it printed wasn’t the problem. Getting himself read and
believed in took some time. But by the end of his life, you know, he was
a figure of some – he was certainly a cult figure and he’s a figure of
some eminence. And there were - writers from all over the world would
come to visit him in Camden, New Jersey, in his last house there to meet
the phenomenon of Walt Whitman. And I think that he made some money by
having a brand of cigars named after him so that his white bearded face
smiling and his slouch hat appears on a box of cigars that I've seen at
the Smithsonian, I think.

GROSS: My guest is former poet laureate Robert Hass. He edited and wrote
the introduction to the new book “Song of Myself and Other Poems by Walt
Whitman.”

We’ll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Robert Hass. He’s a former
poet laureate. He has a new collection of poems called “The Apple Trees
at Olema.” We're talking about his collection of Walt Whitman poems
called “Song of Myself and Other Poems by Walt Whitman” and selected and
introduced by Robert Hass.

You have a lexicon in the middle of the book with words from Whitman’s
time that we wouldn’t understand but our knowledge of these words will
help us appreciate what he was saying.

Prof. HASS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And it’s good you have it there. I mean, like there’s one phrase
in particular...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Where I found it really helpful. He says...

(Reading) Through me the afflatus surging and surging...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And afflatus, it sounds like flatulence. I don’t know whether you
say flatus or afflatus but it sounds like there’s flatulence, flatulence
surging through him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But afflatus of flatus actually means the miraculous
communication of super natural knowledge, which kind of changes the
whole feel of what he’s saying there.

Prof. HASS: Yeah, it’s a word from 19th century theology. It was fun to
look and say, blab of the pave. Does anybody else use the word pave as a
noun? No, is the answer. We looked in every possible source. Another
place he says, the kelson of creation is love. I looked up kelson.
Whitman grew up on Long Island and then in Brooklyn, where there‘s a
shipyard, so he loved watching guys build boats. And the kelson is the
piece of wood that connects the rudder to the frame of the boat.

So it was enormous fun doing the lexicon because it got us a chance to
look at exactly the way he used these words. And over and over again,
they turned out to be terrifically precise. When the young Henry James
reviewed the first - an early version of “Song of Myself,” Whitman would
throw in foreign words and James, with a little bit of fastidious
snobbery said, one must regret Mr. Whitman too extensive acquaintance
with the foreign languages.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. HASS: As though he was putting it down for the - and one example
was he talks about the rushing by in the street the flaps of the
ambulanza. But when we looked it up it turned out that the first army to
develop a service to get wounded soldiers very quickly from the battle
to hospital tents was the Italian army or the Piedmontese(ph) Army
during the Crimean War. And the term for these very fast moving wagons
taking people to the hospital was ambulanza and it was the newest, most
cool word.

So, over and over, when we looked - when I looked up words in the
dictionary, see where Whitman was in 1855, there was always some
surprising interesting accuracy or some area like the word afflatus or
flatus. I don’t know. Since nobody every says it how would we know how
to pronounce it?

GROSS: Here’s something that really baffles me about Whitman, given his
mystical streak, he commissioned a granite mausoleum.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And I guess, why would you want that kind of like physical
monument to your bones if you really believed in the divinity of
everything and the, you know, eternal presence of everything?

Prof. HASS: Yeah. I mean, it turns out he was a Victorian.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. HASS: You know, I mean it was the century of the beautiful
cemetery, when everybody had terrific appetite for these marble
mausoleums. And, you know, it turned out he’s just like everybody else.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. HASS: Yeah. It’s true, it does...

GROSS: Have you ever visited the mausoleums?

Prof. HASS: No, I haven't. And I think for me, you know, the famous end
of “Song of Myself” is...

(Reading) I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love.
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles. You will hardly
know who I am or what I mean. But I shall be good health to you
nevertheless, and filter and fiber your blood. Failing to fetch me at
first keep encouraged, missing me one place, search another. I stop
somewhere waiting for you.

I think that’s his burial place, for me. I don’t really need to go to
the mausoleum. I’d take him at his word. He’s under our boot-soles.

GROSS: Under our boot-soles and on our bookshelves.

Prof. HASS: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Just one more thing, I want you to talk a little bit about the
impact that his free verse had on American poetry and how radical it was
at the time. We take – as you point out in the book, we take it for
granted now.

Prof. HASS: Yeah. Well, the impact was slow. I think people associated
the free verse with the lists, with the catalogs and with the parts of
Whitman's, you know, I hear America singing that sound like 19th
political oratory. So people didn’t quite know how to deal with his free
verse and basically didn’t for 50 years.

Then in 1911, 1912, the young Modernist poets started to experiment with
free verse, which they thought of not as an American thing coming out of
Whitman but as an avant garde technique coming out of France. And Ezra
Pound wrote - who grew up not far Whitman’s country in Philadelphia
suburb wrote a poem called “A Pact.” It begins: I make a pact with you,
Walt Whitman. You roughed it out and now we're going to refine it is
basically what the poem says.

So - and when people worked in free verse in the early 20th century,
except for Carl Sandburg and a little bit Langston Hughes, they were
working out of European models not out of Whitman as a model. And it
really wasn’t until Allen Ginsberg wrote “Howl” that somebody took what
Whitman had done and tried to do something more with it.

GROSS: Robert Hass, thank you so much for talking with us about Whitman
and for reading some of his work. Thank you.

Prof. HASS: Well, you’re welcome. It’s a pleasure.

GROSS: Robert Hass edited and wrote the introduction to the new book
“Song of Myself and Other Poems by Walt Whitman.” You can read the
introduction on our website, freshair.npr.org. Hass also has a new
collection of his own poems called “The Apple Trees at Olema.”

We’ll close with an excerpt of pianist and composer Fred Hersch’s album
“Leaves of Grass,” featuring Kurt Elling singing “Song of Myself.”

(Soundbite of song, “Song of Myself”)

Mr. KURT ELLING (Vocalist): (Singing) I celebrate myself and sing
myself. I celebrate myself and sing myself. And what I assume you shall
assume, for every atom belonging to me is good, belongs to you.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
125789927

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

At your service: A restaurant maître d' tells all in 'Your Table Is Ready'

Michael Cecchi-Azzolina talks about what it's like to be a Maitre D' at the fanciest restaurants in New York City. He has worked in the business for three decades telling wealthy diners, celebrities and even the mafia whether or not they can have the table by the window. His memoir is called Your Table is Ready.

52:30

'Monuments to the Unthinkable' explores how nations can memorialize their atrocities

In How the Word Is Passed, author Clint Smith explored U.S. sites that deal with the legacy of slavery. Now, in The Atlantic, he writes about German memorials to the Holocaust.

42:42

Journalist Maria Ressa explains 'How to Stand Up to a Dictator'

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning journalist faced criminal charges in the Philippines after her news site's reporting angered government officials. How to Stand Up to a Dictator is her new memoir.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue