“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked” The opening line of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1955) is perhaps the most famous opening line in 20th century American poetry. Ginsberg’s evocation of a world dominated by fear and madness as well as longing and a yearning for life was very revolutionary at the time of its first publication, but in his poetry he was following much of the beaten track laid down a century before him by Walt Whitman. His Leaves of Grass was not only the precursor of Howl, it is also its vital and visionary equal.
Despite the hundred year gap between these two pillars in modern American literature, there are many similarities, both in thematic as well as in a literary sense. In the depiction of their respective Americas, Whitman and Ginsberg use a lot of the same literary techniques. In this essay I want to show how both writers cross borders to achieve their means of depicting a world where they keep looking for hope despite all alienation and madness. Leaves of Grass ” I celebrate myself, and sing myself, And what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
” (Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, line 1/3). Song of Myself is the longest poem in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. The first lines are the embryonic words that permeate through the rest of the poem. Wherever the poet goes, whichever track he follows, in the end everything comes down to the poet himself. But it is not a matter of megalomania. For Whitman the self is in a continuous interaction with the world around him. It is as if he is trying to say that he is the world and the world is him. “Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. ” This feeling is not restricted to the earth, but to the whole universe.
“Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son, Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding, No sentimentalist, no stander above men and women or apart from them, No more modest than immodest. ” (Song of Myself, line 492/495). The role of nature is very important in Song of Myself. Whitman stresses the importance of all its elements; he sees as much relevance in a leaf of grass as in himself or the universe. As such he does not fear death. Death is just another transformation of nature. Through death, Whitman feels more connected with nature, the world and all the people around him.
Every activity creates another one, and so forth. In this way everything and everyone is interconnected. “And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier”, he says in line 130. But there are more borders to be crossed. Whitman also finds consolation in time and space. Notice how he crosses the borders of time, space and even spirituality in the following lines: “And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own, And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own, And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers” (Song of Myself, line 92/94).
It all becomes part of the all-encompassing world around him. Because of the important role he gives nature in this poem, his images are tinted in friendly, natural and positive colours. “Seas of bright juice suffuse heaven” (Song of Myself, 550). New York is the centre of everything and for Whitman it is the best place to be. In the mid-19th century, the city had around a million inhabitants. “A million people – manners free and superb – open voices – hospitality – the most courageous and friendly young men, City of hurried and sparkling waters! city of spires and masts! City nested in bays! my city! ” (Manhatta, lines 18/20).