Whitman for Another Generation

By | May 11, 2011

Review: The Tao of Walt Whitman by Connie Shaw and Ike Allen, Sentient, Boulder, 2011

If there is any person who had a life dream and followed through on it, it was Walt Whitman. He set out to write America’s book of poetry—verse for laborer and intellectual alike. His vision was to have poetry be as common as grass, and he was so dedicated to the pursuit that his collection, titled Leaves of Grass, was the only work he ever produced. He not only self-published and promoted it, but he spent the rest of his life revising it and putting out new editions.

As is often the case with writings that touch a common thread, they speak for the current generation and then get relegated to the shelf of classics, only coming down to be studied in some college literature class. Not so with Whitman. With his unabashed yearning for the substance of life and the courage he exhibited in fulfilling his sexual and cultural yearnings, he was a beatnik before the word was invented. He became a guru of the Beat generation, and in doing so helped inspire the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.

Now his verse comes to inspire another generation, in the form of Connie Shaw and Ike Allen’s The Tao of Walt Whitman. For a contemporary audience, Leaves of Grass in its original form has a flaw—it is a book. A century ago, inspirational books were commonly found on the mantles and desktops of homes throughout the country. The world has changed, and our reading styles with it. I know of very few people who sit down to a leisurely breakfast anymore, or spend a quiet evening at home with family, where a favorite book might be read from. Yet we need that insight and pause for reflection on a daily basis—perhaps now more than ever. It has to be a bite-size piece that we can take with us on our busy day, or a pearl to reflect on in meditation.

The Tao of Walt Whitman gives us this. “Tao” means “essence,” and this book presents one essential Whitman verse for each day of the year. They are organized by the week, with weekly Taoist themes such as generosity, movement, receptiveness, peace, and silence. The authors offer suggestions for incorporating the guidance of each verse into your daily life. The book is every bit the wellspring of insight our great grandparents had constantly at their sides with Leaves of Grass, and thanks to Connie and Ike, it is now in usable form for another generation of Americans.

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