We commonly think of Walt Whitman as the great American poet, the gray-bearded bard who captures the democratic music of our country with, as he called it, his "barbaric yawp." And, sure enough, Whitman thought of himself this way. "I hear America singing" he famously wrote in the fourth edition of Leaves of Grass
. What's less commonly know is that Whitman had a very clear idea as to how a poet should create this song. In his preface to the very first edition of Leaves of Grass
, that book he would add to and enhance throughout his life, he describes his vision of the poetic process:
"The sailor and traveler . . . . the anatomist chemist astronomer geologist phrenologist spiritualist mathematician historian and lexicographer are not poets, but they are the lawgivers of poets and their construction underlies the structure of every perfect poem."
For Whitman, it's the craftsmen and scientists who lay down the laws, and the poets must follow them. Now, if your ear got caught in that list on a few odd inclusions--astronomer and geologist make sense, but spiritualist and phrenologist?you're not alone. In her new book, Intended American Dictionary
(Miel Press, 2016), Kate Partridge
not only notices, but also explores some of the more unusual and surprising elements of Whitman's poetry and life, such as the fact that he was fascinated by phrenology, a 19th century pseudoscience that was very popular in his moment. Phrenologists claimed to be able to describe a person's nature from the bumps on the skull. In fact, that first edition of Leaves of Grass
, that book Whitman would rewrite all his life, it was published by two famous phrenologists named Fowler and Wells. It's this Whitman that Partridge sings and celebrates in her engaging, intimate, and keenly humorous new book.