Meditation On Leaves Of Grass At 150

Jim Cohn

Leaves of Grass is the best book of poetry ever produced in the United States. It is the holy individualized commentary on the inner meaning of democracy. It remains the authoritative subjective exegesis of the Constitution. As time passes, it is no mere work of poetics, but the soul of what it is America could be. It wound-dressed and outlived the intuitive Lincoln at the center of a hemorrhaging nation’s War Between the States, and 150 years later provides a profound counter-cultural treatment to the curmudgeon-President George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror.

It’s common knowledge that the slim, indy publication by Walt Whitman, published on the Fourth of July in 1855 could just as well have ended up in the garbage pile of forgotten poesy. Nobody in Great Gotham was interested in a self-educated slacker looking at a blade of grass. But what Whitman did, said, and thought is so much at one with the American Creative Record that it is recreated at every moment, measuring and countering all that comes after it. Every line and every poem of The First Edition, which Whitman would expand upon over the course of his life in grander, reworked volumes, became not simply the poetic measure of all future emanations of democracy. Leaves of Grass is the deposited essence of the march of Freedom––which does not know what it gives or thinks that it is giving––recorded in the memory of the United States and the wide atmosphere above around and within us.

My first real acquaintance with Leaves of Grass and Walt Whitman, for the two are the same in my mind––a perfection of poet and poem, the Unionized Antecedent––occurred in the early 70’s. Leaving the northeast, I hitchhiked cross country, keeping a copy of Leaves in my backpack and reading it as an American meditation across Midwest snowstorms, over the Rockies in the dead of winter, down along the Mexico border, walking through the Phoenix night the day Nixon announced the end of the Vietnam War, and up the West Coast where I would meet with wild psychedelic adventures. Wherever I was, Whitman and Leaves was there, outside the battlefields of media and the arguments of literature, offering mystical direction in a surreal world of truck stop all-night coffee shops and cars pumped with gasoline and sex and music and talk, police and hippies trolling the shoulders of liberty, witches and vets, cowboys and low-riders living by a whole other set of laws, men and women from all walks of life––desperate, exuberant, on business, on vacation, on the run, en route to a funeral, a wedding, a birth, impoverished bums of the street-chant anonymous prayer, and great wilds of desert and forest, canyon and sea, mountain and river at the end of those rides that transmitted to me firsthand the Whitmanic vision.

I had little idea where I was going, what I was going to do, where if anywhere poetry would take me, what if anything I would make of myself. Many a night I read from Leaves. Sometimes in my simple bedroll in a ditch on the side of the road, deep in a cornfield under the field of stars, in a wooded grove, under an interstate bridge. Other times, under the eaves of some kind stranger. One night, at the end of the decade, I was staying at the Youth Hostel in Nederland, Colorado, and there, I met a young man no more than twenty-years old. He was a hairdresser from Florida. He told me that he knew no poetry, nothing at all, except for all of Leaves of Grass, which he could recite in its entirety by heart. He’d learned about Whitman from a woman that ran the salon where he worked. This boy was part of a little known group of people that sees Whitman as a cosmic consciousness on par with Buddha, Krishna, Abraham, Jesus, and Mohammed. That night, he recited “On Blue Ontario’s Shores” to me. I became overwhelmed by the poem, how directly it spoke to me, how time seemed to stop and eternity crack open in these words pouring into my ears from a young stranger I would never see again.

In the 1980’s, I was reacquainted with Whitman again; this time as a result of a Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics teaching assistantship with Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg, whose own poem “Howl” was first given public performance at the catalytic Six Galleries reading one hundred years after the publication of Leaves, had so utterly absorbed Whitman that he made Whitmanic candor––speaking one’s secret mind as a means of connecting to mass suffering––a foundational tradition of the Beat and post-Beat eras. “A Supermarket in California (1955),” composed by Ginsberg in conscious celebration of the centennial year of Leaves and in tribute to Whitman’s profound influence, began with the famous phrase, “What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman….” Whitmanic poetic practice, as begun in The First Edition, is at the heart of the experimental, emotional, political, sexual, erotic, spiritual and diversity strands that comprise the Beat lineage of Whitman’s American Roots poetics.

In the 90’s, I encountered Whitman again. This time while traveling in Chile to pay homage to the poet, Pablo Neruda. In Valparaiso, I visited Neruda’s home high on the steep hillside with its narrow impossible streets overlooking the city and the sea. I was struck that a poet’s home could offer such solace to people from around the world. It had a magnetism all its own. In that sense, I had a sudden feeling that I’d felt only once before––at Whitman’s cabin. Walking through Neruda’s home, one slowly takes in the rooms and artifacts. Arriving in Neruda’s study, I was knocked out to see a large photograph of Whitman in pinstripes. Standing there, gazing on the rock star-sized image of Whitman dressed to the nines across from Neruda’s writing desk, I felt the great lonesome heart of the eloquent postcolonial ghost calling upon the strident ghost of American colossal nationalism and universal liberation. Whitman’s image in Neruda’s study was not accidental. In a piece by Neruda published in the 14 April 1972 New York Times, “We Live in a Whitmanesque Age (A Speech to P.E.N.),” he declared:

For my part, I, who am now nearing seventy, discovered Walt Whitman when I was just fifteen, and I hold him to be my greatest creditor. I stand before you feeling that I bear with me always this great and wonderful debt which has helped me to exist.

When only recently, midway through the Ought-Ought Decade, I gazed upon the Washington Monument evacuated due to yet another post-9/11 terrorist threat, its grandiose stone base circled with flags but peopleless, I had a vision of the power of creation overwhelming the most brilliant countries across time, built on the suffering of those it confined to their margins and reaching the last of the luckless after centuries of silence. I thought of Ezra Pound, the most candidly scandalous of American poets, imprisoned across the river in St. Elizabeths Hospital for his Second World War anti-American radio broadcasts, writing in “A Pact“ (1915), “I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman––“ in stubborn recognition of Whitman’s unflinching disregard of the safety and enclosure codified as the “American way of life.” I thought of Alicia Ostriker’s suggestion in “Loving Walt Whitman and the Problem of America” (1992), that what Pound likely meant in his own desire to “make friends” with Whitman and what continues to move women and men most about Leaves at 150 is

… his capacity to be shamelessly receptive as well as active, to be expansive on an epic scale without a shred of nostalgia for narratives of conquest, to invent a rhetoric of power with authority, without hierarchy, and without violence. The omnivorous empathy of his imagination wants to incorporate All and therefore refuses to represent anything as unavailably Other.

CNN’s images of the Washington Monument gave way to images of the New Orleans’ Superdome, horrific home to the poorest of the poor, mostly blacks, when the evacuated city was inundated in the Biblical Floods of ’05. I recalled that before the release of the First Edition, Whitman edited the New Orleans Daily Crescent, having arrived there in February of 1848 traveling down the Mississippi with his brother Jeff. New Orleans was perhaps the turning point in his still young life. There, he witnessed the slave auctions, firsthand. Living at 67 Gravier Street, only a few blocks from the site of Pierson & Bonneval whose auction blocks are what started him writing poetry, his favorite spots were along the levees––the levees that took the city down in the flood and left corpse “sacs merely floating with open mouths for food to slip in” (“Song of Myself,” 1855, 1129). Poetry soon overtook all other activities Whitman was involved with at the time.

On July 4, 1855, an unknown Walt Whitman brought out a 95-page book to mixed reviews and general disregard. Ten pages or so were the preface he is believed to have typeset himself. The original twelve poem Leaves was put on sale in two stores, one in New York and the other in Brooklyn. Printed in the shop of the brothers James and Thomas Rome of Brooklyn, the quarto-size volume was designed and published by Whitman himself. 795 copies were printed in all, 200 of which were bound in cloth, the rest in cheaper material. They sold for two dollars each.

He gave most of the twelve poems first-line titles, a practice he would frequently employ during the rest of his career. The poems appear in an order significantly different from the arrangement he finally settled on: “I celebrate myself” (“Song of Myself”) came first (as it would in the printed edition), followed by “A young man came to me” (the poem that would develop into “Song of the Answerer”), “A child went forth” (“There Was a Child Went Forth”), “sauntering the pavement” (“Faces”), “great are the myths” (“Great Are the Myths”), “I wander all night” (“The Sleepers”), “Come closer to me” (“A Song for Occupations”), “Who learns my lesson complete” (“Who Learns My Lesson Complete”), “Clear the way there Jonathan” (“A Boston Ballad”), “Resurgemus” (“Europe: The 72d and 73d Years of These States”), “To think through the retrospections” (“To Think of Time”), and “Slaves” (“I Sing the Body Electric”). “Doubtless in the scheme this man has built for himself,” wrote the 36-year old Whitman in an anonymous self-review of the First Edition published in September 1855,

The writing of poems is but a proportionate part of the whole. It is plain that public and private performance, politics, love, friendship, behavior, the art of conversation, science, society, the American people, the reception of the great novelties of city and country, all have their equal call upon him and receive equal attention. ... He does not separate the learned from the unlearned, the Northerner from the Southerner, the white from the black, or the native from the immigrant just landed at the wharf. Everyone, he seems to say, appears excellent to me, every employment is adorned, and every male and female glorious.

Experimentation with poetic technique remains a Whitmanic legacy. Leaves is famous for its catalogs and lists, its persona of the “loafer” or “hipster”, its drama of identity characterized by the Empty Self containing multitudes and encountering nothingness, its “leisure” long vowel-toned stanzas, its direct attention to minutiae––as in its mediation on a leaf of grass, its undifferentiated direct first-person address from the I-body to the soul and from the I-poet to the reader, its sexual and erotic idiom celebrating the body, its tenacity of the poet as social and cultural witness and critic, its unmitigated epic of killing off past literatures, killing off the Homer, Ovid, Dante, Shakespeare, Blake, its vast projecting of democratic vistas.

The centrality of consciousness is perhaps the most prominent experiment of the Whitmanic legacy. Thoreau remarked to Whitman upon reading the first edition of Leaves of Grass that it was "Wonderfully like the Orientals." Emerson's remarked to the prominent writer Franklin B. Sanborn that Leaves of Grass was a "mixture of the Bhagavad Gita and the New York Herald." Malcolm Cowley, among others, expressed the view that Whitman was absorbed in the Vedantic transcendental philosophy that had penetrated American literature in the 1840s and 1850s. His introduction of Eastern consciousness in the context of subjective American poetic explorations cannot be underestimated. It is a model of mindfulness widely visible in the Beat Generation Buddhist-influenced poetries of Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Whalen and Joanne Kyger.

By the time of Whitman's death in March 1892, the small book had gone through eight, nine, or, as Sam Abrams has pointed out in The Neglected Walt Whitman: Vital Texts, maybe ten editions. Leaves grew from its initial twelve poems to the 289 poems of the death-bed edition (4-5). Of Whitman’s death, there remains the strange case of Guillaume Apollinaire’s April Fool’s Day accounts in the Mercure de France (1913). Apollinaire composed a false description of Whitman’s funeral as being held in a traveling circus tent complete with a barbecue, barrels of beer, tubs of whisky, vats of lemonade and sparkling pure water. Three brass bands played continuously and over 3500 men women and children—everyone Whitman had every known, all without invitation––as the spirit moved them giving spontaneous readings and remembrances or song punctuated by pounding on the coffin until at dusk the entire party, enjoined by crowds–– workmen searching after damages, unshaved sailors, calm martyrs, old-faced infants, the 28 bathers from “Song of Myself,” nurses, army surgeons, buggy drivers, artillerists, the lunatic and abolitionist just out of the whip-stocks, politicians and journalists, mothers and fathers of boys killed in the war he had held in his arms when they died, dwarfs and harlots and poets he had known and loved over the years––moved to the cemetery outside Camden where 6 drunken pall bearers wielded the poet’s remains to his tomb as the strains of minstrels played New Orleans rag-time.

One hundred and fifty years later, American democracy would remain far too naked to be shamed by exploding suicide bombers or Patriot Acts or National Security or viral pandemic or the effects of global warming or cronyism in the Oval Office. With the proliferation of real-time digitally-based video and audio signals subsuming the Old Print Industry concentration of messages and imagery, Whitman is mentioned on C-Span, appears in The Weekly World News (September 19, 2005), on thousands of websites, including (at 150). Bloggers note him––as though the lines “If no other in the world be aware I sit content,/And if each and all be aware I sit content” are scotched tape to their monitors (“Song of Myself”, 1855, 414-415). Current administration online critics only seem to reiterate the Whitmanic accounting of a misguided Chief Executive: “Have you outstript the rest ? Are you the President ?” (“Song of Myself,” 1855, 432).

George W. Bush has probably never read Leaves of Grass. Abraham Lincoln did. Whitman attended Lincoln’s second inaugural ball. He had a younger brother named George. Consider the Second Inaugural Addresses by Lincoln and Bush to see how much or little has changed in America in 150 years. In 1865, ten years after Leaves was first published and only a month before he was assassinated, Lincoln spoke elegantly and prophetically of U.S. karma:

The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

Or, as Whitman would say in the 1855 original publication of “Song of Myself” translating this “woe due to those by whom the offense came” into a more universal policy:

Every condition promulges not only itself …. it promulges what grows after and out of itself…. (1180)


We should surely bring up again where we now stand,
And as surely go as much farther, and then farther and farther.

A few quadrillions of eras, a few octillions of cubic leagues, do not hazard the span,
or make it impatient,
They are but parts …. any thing is but a part.

See ever so far …. there is limitless space outside of that,
Count ever so much …. there is limitless time around that. (1191-1196)

And Bush in 2005––having been re-elected by a vulnerable-turned-paranoid American electorate on the basis of threats manufactured into a post 9/11 terrorist spectacle Iraqi War, and having consolidated the power and privilege of the executive branch more than any president in modern history––spoke without any apparent forethought of the repercussions of his 21st century neo-imperialist policy of militarily exporting democracy as a colonizing force:

We have seen our vulnerability––and we have seen its deepest source. For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny––prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder––violence will gather, and multiply in destructive power, and cross the most defended borders, and raise a mortal threat. There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.

God moves and chooses as He wills. We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul. When our Founders declared a new order of the ages; when soldiers died in wave upon wave for a union based on liberty; when citizens marched in peaceful outrage under the banner "Freedom Now"––they were acting on an ancient hope that is meant to be fulfilled. History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty.

For the current administration, engaging the nation’s human and natural resources all for a destructive power fantasy in the name of post September 11, 2001 national security interests, Whitman’s taking comfort in the existence of other universes, in his being made up of contradicting multitudes only emphasizes the persistent pretensions that underlie any construction of a sensationalized conformity by which America’s political leadership backchannel their constant need to create situations of dominance and submission as a means of peddling democracy, freedom, and justice as a kind of erotic property.

At 150 years, what has changed is that Leaves of Grass makes a mockery of such verbal formulations of government speech, mind, attitude, purpose of life and action––all directed with a certain deviancy toward those they supposedly represent and those they must be part of in inhabiting the globe. “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” wrote Whitman in the opening stanza of the ’55 “Song of Myself.” By that he surely meant its opposite: for every atom belonging to you as evil belongs to me. “Lack one lacks both,” wrote Whitman in “Song of Myself,” “…. and the unseen is proved by the seen,/Till that becomes unseen and receives proof in its turn.”

Although the number of skillful commentaries by scholars and linguists, biographers and poets and the like will continue to increase, the original 1336 lines of the 1855 “Song of Myself” remain as they are––the original multifaceted break-through of Whitman, a man whose humble origins and limited education replaced the conventional unfestive and destructive society with a new world of infinite capacity for compassion. Putting himself here and now, in “the ambushed womb of shadows” (SOM, 1049), Whitman’s echo affects poets to this day. Among the post-Beat generation, the current heralds of the 150th year, the Wisconsin poet Antler provides the most comprehensive model of Whitmanic tradition. Allen Ginsberg judged Antler’s long poem “Factory” (Factory, City Lights, 1980, and Antler: The Selected Poems, Soft Skull Press, 2000) as “more fineness than I thought probable to see again in my lifetime from younger self-inspirer US poet” and proclaimed Antler “one of Whitman’s ‘poets and orators to come’.”

Antler has written that Whitman would not have had any idea of the world we inherited from him. “In Whitman’s time,” Antler writes in an essay entitled “About ‘Factory’,” “Mannahatta was smaller than Milwaukee is now. When he died in 1892, the tallest building in Manhattan was ten stories high.” Citing a 1971 interview with Albert Speer, Hitler’s second in command, Antler argues, through Speer’s own admission years after the factories of genocide had risen and fallen, that the greatest difference between our time and Whitman’s is that it is the “vast gulf between our technological potential and our moral development that makes this age both so challenging and so terrifying” (City Lights, 66). Could Whitman even have gotten a following today? Would Bob Dylan have taken him on the Rolling Thunder Review Tour? What would he think of Ground Zero, Osama bin Laden, postmodern art, cellphones, internet porn, Wal-Mart, Andy Clausen, Indian Hot Springs, Frank O’Hara, the prices of homes, St. Marks Poetry Project, all the shelves of blatherers that have made careers out of his work? How would he evolve, this master who dreamed on paper? Where would Democratic Vistas (1870) find a publisher?

Whitman’s rejection by the literary establishment would be expected today. Anticipated. But if invited, like Sam Hamill and Sharon Olds he would no doubt have turned down literary functions with the President’s wife in order to offer up “Respondez”––Whitman’s “outlaw moment” as Kenneth Burke calls it, or as Ted Berrigan knew it, “Whitman in Black.” Whitman was no “simplistic optimist,” as Sam Abrams points out (28), and Leaves of Grass is no transformable sound-bite fodder for presidential speechwriters looking for poetic outs by which to hypnotize the masses into accepting budget deficits, machinations toward war, losses of social services, abysmal disparity, willful suffering, dead-end consumerism, corporate welfare, low mileage transportation fleets, environmental refugees usurped by Eminent Domain, masked bigotry and religious claims to the halls of state. Rapping from “Respondez,” I can hear him, the King of the Killers, take out the best of the best at the poetry slam:

Let the theory of America still be management, caste,
(Say! What other theory would you?)


Let freedom prove no man’s inalienable right! every one
who can tyrannize, let him tyrannize to his satisfaction.


Let all the men of These States stand aside for a few
smouchers! let the few seize on what they choose!
let the rest gawk, giggle, starve, obey!


Let the reflections of the things of the world be studied
in mirrors! let the things themselves still continue

“Respondez,” as Abrams has pointed out, is to be “read against the acute sense of negativity” from someone “who claims to never doubt America.” This psychological subtext runs throughout the exultant, idealized, athletic America that Whitman portrayed in Leaves. It signifies a sense that Whitman had an equally dark understanding of an America gone bad, a “vilified America, cursed America.” Citing scholar David Reynolds, Abrams writes that the suppression of Whitman’s “outlaw sermon” after its appearance in the second edition is to be taken as “the substratum for (the) intense affirmations” that permeate all of Leaves of Grass (Abrams, 31-32). What is interesting is that the poem, in its absence, forms the bedrock of unconformity that was later mined so extensively throughout the various schools of Twentieth Century American Poetry. William Carlos Williams––in 1960, just before the end of his life––noted the major contribution Whitman had made to American poetry in his introduction to the big hardbound Illustrated Leaves of Grass (Grosset & Dunlap, 1971):

A jarring note had been struck by Whitman. The use of the language in the New World might have to be modified — if not yet, eventually — to accommodate the more variable principal enunciated for the first time by this man. With a shock we realized that, postpone as we may, this was the time our rigid dictates would be modified… That the entire structure might be outmoded occurred to no one else of his generation.

But finally, Whitman remains America’s first bodhisattva poet. He is the time-spanning teacher on the path whereby anybody can become aware of the Greater Self––the celebratory Great Self, the Great “I” he opened with in the 1855 Leaves. Rejecting any and all castes and priests as intermediaries between people and their own inherent divinity accords with the self-reliant and unblinking heart of a bodhisattva, he was determined not to leave the world without the total liberation of all sentient beings. When he wrote in the Preface to the ’55 edition that “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem,” what he was referring to was that the people have within their power a peace beyond man’s continuous suffering and turmoil, and that America was able of achieving peace through other means than war.

Also from the Preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman prophesizes American society as a place where individuals do not constantly wish for conditions to change, conditions they desired into being. He understood that there are no conditions to be overcome, that there is no hope in wishing to escape conditions. “America,” he wrote, “does not repel the past or what it has produced under its forms or amid other politics or the idea of castes or the old religions … accepts the lesson with calmness … is not so impatient as has been supposed….” So, in reading Whitman at 150 years, there is always the potential for an individual to experience radical and unfixated verbal approximations of mindfulness that are not pushed back, mocked, seen cynically or discarded by outcomes that culminate in disappointment––even though the America I live in throws away the past as quickly as possible, purges on news cycles, thrives on megalomaniacal political repellency, is far too quick to mule its underclass with the beastly burdens, exerts a fundamentalist Christian dogma over all other secular and religious believers, expedites anger with Overwhelming Force, assassinates the peace-loving, allows dictators to thrive, creates technology that only promotes the robotic, the stressed-out, the medicated, the willing to trade in their membership as human beings.

In 1997, when I began a series of interconnected online exhibits known as the Museum of American Poetics (, I wished for nothing short than a celebration of the remarkable tradition established by Walt Whitman and continued by Allen Ginsberg in my own time. Even today, as I reread the Preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, I am amazed at the breadth and depth of its totality. But at this moment in our history––a moment when many poets would argue that the era of the prophetic voice is dead, when the idea of the “author” is a mere convention, a fallacy––I am most amazed by the insight with which the teachings of a thirty-six year old poet and his thoughts on Liberty convey themselves across time.

“Liberty relies upon itself,” wrote Whitman, “invites no one, promises nothing, sits in calmness and light, is positive and composed, and knows no discouragement.” Without Liberty, which he called “The Grand Idea,” Whitman understood that there is only illusion, for partial liberty can never be liberty and any form of inequality is no equality at all, only the accumulation of indignity. He described an America––and through the image of America he signaled an enlightened policy of conduct with all other inhabitants (living and dead), not by imagining a world of only partial liberation, not by denying a world where the reader is freed from the direct responsibility of resultant suffering to others and herself through inaction:

… when I and you walk abroad upon the earth stung with compassion at the sight of numberless brothers answering our equal friendship and calling no man master––and when we are elated with noble joy at the sight of slaves … when the soul retires in the cool communion of the night and surveys its experience and has much ecstasy over the word and deed that put back a helpless innocent person into the gripe of the gripers or into any cruel inferiority … when those in all parts of these states who could easier realize the true American character bud do not yet … when the swarms of cringers, suckers, doughfaces, lice of politics, planners of sly involutions for their own preferment to city offices or state legislatures or the judiciary or congress or the presidency, obtain a response of love and natural deference from the people whether they get the offices or no … when it is better to be a bound booby and rogue in office at a high salary than the poorest free mechanic or farmer with his hat removed from his head and firm eyes, and a candid and generous heart … and when servility by town or state or the federal government or any oppression on a large scale or small scale can be tried on without its own punishment following duly after in exact proportion against the smallest chance of escape … or rather when all life and all the souls of men and women are discharged from any part of the earth––then only shall the instinct of liberty be discharged from that part of the earth.

What would this world be if the Buddha hadn’t left his palace, if Jesus hadn’t thrown out the moneylenders, if Krishna hadn’t illuminated love, if Mohammed had not said “Verily, man is foolish and cruel,” if Walt Whitman had never been born? “A child said, What is the grass?” There are many who dream, but few with the inspiration and power to answer. We live in a period of extreme anxiety. America has a new kind of enemy––a non-state actor that doesn’t wear uniforms, doesn’t operate in normal units, blends into civilian populations and conducts surprise attacks against civilians. But America has an old kind of enemy––it concerns itself with all that is transitory, it knows itself as an entity separate from friend and foe. The further we go, the more difficulties there are. One feels the faults in oneself more sharply as time passes, knowing that earlier they were present, but went unnoticed. Whitman stripped the body naked, vaunted its processes, sang our perfections. Many happy returns tender ghost.

Jim Cohn is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently Quien Sabe Mountain (Museum of American Poetics Publications, 2004). He has also released of five recordings of his poems, and two collections of essays on his life working with people with disabilities, including Sign Mind: Studies in American Sign Language Poetics. In 1997, Jim founded the on-line Museum of American Poetics (MAP) at In conjunction with MAP, he edits the online poetry magazine Napalm Health Spa. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.