Monday

May 31, 2004

Song of Myself (excerpt)

by Walt Whitman

MONDAY, 31 MAY, 2004
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Poem: from "Song of Myself," by Walt Whitman, from Poetry and Prose (Library of America).

52

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering.
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow'd wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.

I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.

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 fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.


Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is Memorial Day, a day on which we remember the soldiers who died while serving our country. Memorial Day has its origins in the Civil War, when women in the South began placing flowers on the graves of fallen Confederate soldiers in the springtime. The first official Memorial Day was on May 5, 1868. There were ceremonies all over the country, but the biggest one was held at the National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.


It was on this day in 1669 that one of the most famous diaries of all time came to an end: Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary for the last time after keeping it regularly for ten years. He wrote about the details of his personal life, and also about historical events like the British Restoration, the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of 1666. Much of what we know about life in mid-seventeenth-century England comes from his diary.

Pepys ended the diary because he thought he was going blind. He wrote in his final entry: "And thus ends all that I doubt I shall ever be able to do with my own eyes in the keeping of my journal, I being not able to do it any longer, having now so long as to undo my eyes almost everytime that I take a pen in my hand. . . . And so I betake myself to that course which [is] almost as much as to see myself go into my grave—for which, and all the discomforts that will accompany my being blind, the good God prepares me." Pepys's eyesight got better after a few months, and he lived another thirty-three years, but he never wrote in his diary again.


It was on this day in 1790 that Congress enacted the United States copyright law. The law gave authors exclusive rights to publish and sell maps, charts, and books for a period of fourteen years, with a chance to renew the copyright for another fourteen years. There have been many changes to the U.S. copyright law since 1790. In the nineteenth century, copyrights became available for photographs, paintings, drawings and models. In 1909, musical rolls for player pianos became covered by the law. In the last thirty years, copyright law has expanded to include cable TV, computer software, tapes, CDs, DVDs, and, most recently, MP3s.

Copyright terms have also gradually gotten longer. Up until 1998, copyrights lasted for the life of the author plus an additional fifty years before they went into the public domain. But in that year, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act extended the duration of copyrights by twenty years. The act was supported by a group of large corporations, led by Disney. Most of Disney's famous characters were scheduled to enter the public domain between 2000 and 2004, but now other artists and companies won't be able to use them in their books and movies and songs until at least 2019—which means that Disney has another fifteen years of making money off Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, and all the rest.


It's the birthday of poet Walt Whitman, born in West Hills, Long Island, New York (1819). He grew up in Brooklyn, and lived in New York City for most of his life. He began working as a printer's assistant from a very young age, and in the '40s and '50s he worked for a series of newspapers in Brooklyn and Manhattan. He always loved New York. In one editorial, he wrote that New York City was "the great place of the western continent, the heart, the brain, the focus, the main spring, the pinnacle, the extremity, the no more beyond, of the New World."

It was in New York City, in 1855, that Whitman published the first edition of his poetry collection Leaves of Grass. He couldn't find anyone to publish it for him, so he sold a house and used the money to publish it himself. There was no publisher's name or author's name on the cover, just a picture of Whitman himself. He wrote the poems in a new style, a kind of free verse without rhyme or meter. He said in one preface to the book, "Here are the roughs and beards and space and ruggedness and nonchalance that the soul loves."

Leaves of Grass got mostly bad reviews, but Ralph Waldo Emerson called it "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed." Whitman printed Emerson's comment on the second edition of the book, and he wrote an anonymous review of it himself, hoping to spark sales.

Whitman continued to add poems to Leaves of Grass and publish it in different editions throughout his life. It eventually went through nine different editions; Whitman compared the finished book to a cathedral that took years to build, or a tree with visible circles of growth. In the 1880s the Society for the Suppression of Vice called it immoral in a Boston newspaper, and that's when it finally started to sell. Whitman used the money to buy a cottage in Camden, where he spent the rest of his life.

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