Moments Before the Wind: The Illustrated Whitman
Written by Max Dunbar
Has anyone tried to illustrate Whitman before? Has anyone not felt dizzy and overloaded contemplating such a project? A poem about everything. World, society, kings, thieves, soldiers, seas, love, death, sex, grass – every atom. Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’ is intensely individual – I, I, I – but also empathetic to the level of pantheism: Whitman declares ‘all the men ever born’ his brothers, and ‘the women my sisters and lovers’; declares solidarity with ‘sharp-hoof’d moose of the north, the cat on the house-sill, the chickadee, the prairie-dog’; he is ‘old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,’ he is ‘A Southerner soon as a Northerner, a planter nonchalant and hospitable down by the Oconee I live… Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest.’ Although the science is wonky, I always thought there was something in Huxley’s idea of a reducing valve in the brain: something that filters our perception of the world into a manageable flow. If you could see and feel everything it would be difficult to hold down a job or stay sane. In George Eliot’s phrase, ‘it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.’ But Whitman could live without this reducing valve. He crossed over to the other side and never came home.
This is why, although Whitman is traditional Americana, he was also a modernist, and a modernist with economy. Joyce wrote thousands of pages to accomplish what Whitman does in 1346 lines. He was a laureate of impermanence. And he was ahead of his time on matters like gender (‘I am the poet of the woman the same as the man/And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man’) and race (‘I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs’). Although Allen Crawford, in the preface to his illustrated edition, tells us that Whitman ‘use [d] biblical verse as a model for his own’ he was first and last a materialist: he understood that we are matter, that ‘the soul is not more than the body.’ In ‘Song of Myself’ Whitman grapples with the fact of eventual annihilation – ‘And as to you Death, and you bitter hug of mortality, it is idle to try to alarm me’ – and argues that death means a return to the physical world: ‘If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles,’ he says, a wish gorgeous in its humility, and salutary in a 2015 where people still murder each other to establish who has the best brand of paradise.
What of the illustrated edition? The artist, Allen Crawford, lives in Philadelphia, and completed the project over a year in his basemen: ‘During the coldest weeks of winter, I was often wrapped in multiple house robes, socks, boots, and a Russian fur hat. I did my best to make a decent workstation for myself, but at times my shoulders, neck and wrist were locked up in great pain from holding contorted positions in the cold for a hours at a time.’ Did Crawford’s labour in the cold pay off? The book starts well with Whitman’s first five lines ‘I celebrate myself… and loaf at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass’ stamped around a two-page sprawl of the man himself, reimagined as a kind of pagan gryphon, with beard, wings and horns. Other pages have evocations of owls, insects, at one point a child in the womb. The illustration for lines 131 – 138 (‘Has anyone supposed it lucky to be born?/I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it’) is lovely and perplexing, a kind of furry monster, outlandish but not menacing, cradling a human skull as if it were a newborn.
Crawford’s problem is the urge to compress. He telescoped a sixty-page poem into a 234-page A5 book – really, he should have used more patience and space. Many pages are just bewildering mazes of text with words and phrases jammed in any old how, like a lost Tetris game or a Martin Shovel cartoon. Maybe it’s meant to represent the great rush of Whitman’s thought: but as I said, Whitman was also economical and there is a difference between economy and cramming. It doesn’t help that all this is done in the Portlandia ‘put a bird on it’ style that makes you think of shops selling bric-a-brac and wicker tote bags with quirky slogans, and I must have missed the ‘variety of contemporary or near-contemporary images’ Crawford promises in his intro: imagine the Whitman of K-Mart realism!
Crawford could have learned from the experimental writer Mark Z Danielewski who understood that great things could be achieved by just using a simple word or phrase on an otherwise blank page. (The title of Danielewski’s classic House of Leaves comes from a marvellous Whitmanesque poem, buried in the appendices: ‘Little solace comes/to those who grieve/when thoughts keep drifting/as walls keep shifting/and this great blue world of ours/seems a house of leaves… moments before the wind.’)
But I don’t want to be too hard on Crawford. When he takes his time, and reflects, he’s a great illustrator. For lines 1327 – 1330 – ‘I concentrate toward them that are nigh’ – the words occur in a sky above a cabin, with a figure walking towards the ocean, simple and happy and calm. The famous line ‘Do I contradict myself?/Very well then, I contradict myself, I contain multitudes’ is done as a beautiful, defiant scrawl. A perfect evocation of Whitman as a comic is beyond our reach. It would take you twenty years… and you would never finish it.
Max lives in Yorkshire and can be found on twitter as @MaxDunbar1.
Allen Crawford, Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself, (Jonathan Cape, London, 2014), ISBN 978-0-224-10194-3, hardback, 256 pages.