Self-proclaimed bibliophile, culture nut and nerdfighter. English lit. and linguistics geek. Future career in publishing.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up -- for you the flag is flung -- for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon'd wreaths -- for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
- Walt Whitman
Excerpt from Memories of President Lincoln
"O Captain! My Captain!", stanza 2
I don't think I need to summarize what Leaves of Grass is about; after all, Whitman is the quintessential American poet, is he not?
There is a large amount of love for North America in this collection. Whitman's descriptions of the scenery is so breathtaking it's almost as if we are on a cross-country trip and get to experience these sights ourselves first-hand. His diction is precise and reflective of his feelings towards these places, and Whitman really knows how to make a heart beat patriotic.
However (and here comes the criticizing bit), I found much of the poetry to be dry and difficult to get through. I don't mean difficult to get through in the sense that Whitman is very clever and has many allusions and metaphors that I need to sit down and draw out like I'm used to doing in English lit. classes and when reading Renaissance/Early Modern poetry (my focus) -- Whitman is no John Donne (although, we can admit that Donne did a lot of biblical allusions, so it's not that hard to figure out). I mean difficult to get through in that Whitman stylistically is very boring sometimes. There are some poems in this volume that are so repetitious I think I lapsed into a short coma. There are also lots of poems that just have lists of the beautiful states of 1855 and Canada, and then there's a bit about why they're so beautiful. I like geographical praise and worship as much as the next girl, but let's not pretend that isn't dull after the first poem like it. And that's why it took me about two years (or over, I'm not sure exactly when I started reading it) of on-and-off reading to finish this collection of poetry. It doesn't really keep you awake.
While these criticisms make it seem like I dislike the collection as a whole, that is entirely untrue. I think Whitman has a certain charisma in his writing that entices you, despite the hard truth that he can be a bit dull. He has some wonderful sections within Leaves of Grass that are very memorable and actually do make you want to read more. Honestly, though, if you're reading Whitman just to say that you've read Whitman but really have no interest in poetry, his time period or many of the topics he writes about, then just read the very famous ones, like "Song of Myself", the"Memories of President Lincoln" section, and "I Sing the Body Electric". Those aren't by all means the only good ones in his collection, but they are among the greatest. I can't be bothered to go and list out the best of his poetry; that's why Google is your friend.
Leaves of Grass is a document, depicting North America prior to all the skyscrapers we have now that are dominating our skylines. It shows a way of life before television, before celebrity worship (sort of. President Lincoln gets a kowtowing to, though) and before everyone decided they wanted to work in Manhattan. But above all, this collection is a love letter to America, and you know what? It's beautiful.