This is What You Shall Do: Walt Whitman

There are only two dead white men in Grapheme’s Tiny Letterpress 2018 calendar, and Walt Whitman is one of them (the other is Edward Abbey, in August). I spent a lot of time trying to find quotes and stamp combos to celebrate women and people of color, which is hard to do considering many, many of the folks featured on vintage American postage are dead white men. Still, Whitman is among my favorites for his celebration of life and the natural world, both of which I try to do in the calendar as a whole.

I also love Whitman because he talks about the connection between the body and soul at a time when the soul was thought to be a separate, uncorrupted entity–not held back by the “worldy,” “fallen” flesh (think Cartesian duality). If you are interested in reading more about Whitman’s theory of an intertwined body and soul, check out Jonah Lehrer’s Proust Was a Neuroscientist. And, for another treatment of the soul, check out Mary Oliver’s “Bone,” which may be my favorite of hers.

Whitman’s joy in Leaves of Grass felt like a positive way to start off the year, and his admonishments in the Preface (which is where January’s quote comes from) felt strangely relevant to our current political moment. The stamp drove home the idea with its literal celebration of the earth in minerals and petrified wood–plus it’s one of my all time favorite stamp series.

Another little fragment of Whitman’s poem I love:


I am the poet of reality
I say the earth is not an echo
Nor man an apparition;
But that all the things seen are real,
The witness and albic dawn of things equally real
I have split the earth and the hard coal and rocks and the solid bed of the sea
And went down to reconnoitre there a long time,
And bring back a report,
And I understand that those are positive and dense every one
And that what they seem to the child they are
[And that the world is not a joke,
Nor any part of it a sham.]

May we remember that the natural world “is not a joke, nor any part of it a sham,” as we head into this new year.