Specimen Days by Walt Whitman: An excerpt from Leslie Jamison’s introduction.

How Whitman Turned the World’s “Specimens” Into an Electric Song

How Whitman Turned the World’s “Specimens” Into an Electric Song

Reading between the lines.
Jan. 9 2015 1:50 PM

Abundance and Praise and Pleasure

Leslie Jamison on the bounty of Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days.

Walt Whitman's delight at trees and moths and glowworms
Whitman loved the world in its dross and guts and glitter, in its everything—the tulip trees and all trees, the glowworms and all worms.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez Jaramillo. Photos by Thinkstock and National Archives.

Excerpted from Specimen Days and Collectby Walt Whitman, with an introduction by Leslie Jamison, published in November 2014 by Melville House.

What is Specimen Days? It doesn’t sit easily in any genre. It’s restless in its recounting. Structurally, it’s a collection of prose fragments written across two decades of Walt Whitman’s life: his hospital visits during the Civil War, his recovery from a paralyzing stroke, his jaunts through the broad western states of America, his delight at trees and moths and glowworms, his disappointment at the posturing of prairie women. In his own words, it’s a “mélange of loafing, looking, hobbling, sitting, traveling—a little thinking thrown in for salt, but very little— ... wild and free and somewhat acrid—indeed more like cedar-plums than you might guess at first glance.”

This is signature Whitman, deploying the rhetoric of explanation to make everything more mysterious: more like cedar-plums than you might guess at first glance. He’s right, of course: I hadn’t imagined this book like cedar-plums at all. After helpfully describing what cedar-plums are (bunches of “china-blue” berries that grow along the cedar’s “thick woolly tufts”), Whitman explains that they resemble the book in “their uselessness growing wild— ... thin soil whence they come—their content in being let alone—their stolid and deaf repugnance to answering questions.” Questions like the one that opened this introduction: What ARE you, anyway? We are invited to imagine the cedar-plums hanging there, blank-faced, refusing our inquiries.

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Much of the bliss of this book lives in its particulars: watching kingfishers with their milk-white necks splashing water into jets of diamonds, appreciating the “sea-prairies” of salt-grass meadows on the Jersey shore or a field of “malachite green” cabbages, watching a squirming flotilla of red worms wriggling out of the soil after a rainstorm, finding the white-flowering wild carrot, appreciating the “doubled brightness” of nighttime fishermen’s candles floating on the sea.

Whitman’s democratic awe is distinctive not simply for its range and its exuberance and its surprise, but for its willingness to dwell—to unfurl a pleasure fully. “Let me say more about the song of the locust, even to repetition,” he says, and does—“like a brass disk whirling round and round.” He also loves the sound of ice giving way to sunlight, and isn’t afraid to parse the pleasure: the “occasional crunch and cracking of the ice-glare congeal’d over the creek, as it gives way to the sunbeams—sometimes with low sigh—sometimes with indignant, obstinate tug and snort.”

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Part of our pleasure in reading his book, in turn, is not just feeling close to his sensory perceptions, but feeling invited more deeply into our own—to feel the world more fully in all its snorting ice and malachite cabbages and whirling locusts and wriggling worms. For Whitman, rehabilitating from a stroke years after the war—with his self-designed program of physical therapy, taking mud baths, and wrestling with young trees—nature was a kind of nursemaid: “How it all nourishes, lulls me, in the way most needed; the open air, the rye-fields, the apple orchards.” In this way, we see how some specimen days give way to others—it’s no longer Whitman ministering to soldiers but nature ministering to Whitman, inviting him back into the physical wonder of the world after he had been so willing to dwell so long—so deeply, so unbearably—with the most unimaginable kind of physical damage. These “blood-smutch’d little notebooks” don’t let us forget the war, but they don’t let us forget the world that survived it either.

In fact, this book wants to hold as much of that surviving world as it can. It wants to hold the trees—“Persimmons ... Hornbeam ... Gum-trees, both sweet and sour”—and the blossoms, especially the most wild—“wild honeysuckle, wild roses ... wild geranium”—and even the “friendly weeds” of its author’s daily strolls: “snakeroot ... dandelions ... bloodroot.” It wants to honor everything. In the section called “A Civility Too Long Neglected,” Whitman announces that he wants to dedicate the second half of his book to the creatures he celebrates in its pages: water snakes, mosquitoes, peppermint, moths “great and little.” But the dedication is bursting at the seams; it wants to grasp too much. He dedicates the book to “cat birds (and all other birds),” “tulip-trees (and all other trees).” The whole thing dissolves into an effusion of incandescent worms: “glow-worms, (swarming millions of them indescribably strange and beautiful at night).” This indecision is the mark and signature of his attention. His poetry isn’t the poetry of choosing between; it’s the poetry of inclusion and accumulation. The worth is everywhere, the song electric in everything: the coarse and the crude beside the fine, the gritty and the dirty beside the polished.

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Whitman chose the title Specimen Days, but for him the notion of a specimen wasn’t anything clinical or dissecting; it was a mode of celebration. He wanted to preserve “specimen interiors” from his “strange, unloosen’d, wondrous time”; he wanted to commemorate “a regular Irish boy, a fine specimen of youthful physical manliness—shot through the lungs—inevitably dying.” Specimens exemplified ideals and represented the possibilities of citizenship and masculinity, being an individual in a collective. Types weren’t a way of reducing anyone so much as a way of organizing the world’s abundance. Whitman was on the lookout everywhere for specimens to praise. (Except Kansas City, where he found the women lacking the “high native originality of spirit or body” he saw evident in their male counterparts—instead they seem “dyspeptic-looking and generally doll-like.”) He returned the specimen to its etymological roots: the Latin word for “that by which a thing is known, means of knowing,” from the verb specere, “to look at.” Specimens, for Whitman, weren’t just about typicality and representative capacity; they were a way of learning—relearning—how to see.

I had a home full of specimens, once. I spent a year of my life living with one of my closest friends after we’d both weathered the end of long relationships. We’d both lost homes we’d spent years trying to build, and so we built a new one together, our living room decorated with her collection of globes (she is a travel writer) and my collection of old medical slides, small slips of glass with sepia labels: tongue of frog, bladder of cat, gnat’s eye. We loved those slides: They partitioned the world into miniature enchantments and we were looking for this kind of enchantment. We needed it. We were shadowed by the past; we needed to remember the world was full of what we hadn’t yet discovered. We needed to be reminded of the malachite in cabbages, the glow in certain worms, the doubled brightness of fishing lanterns over inky waters. How it all nourishes, in the way most needed.

Once a week we cooked a minor feast—roasted vegetables and heaping grains and spiced tea and sliced fruit—and set out candles, switched on our salt lamp, talked for hours. We called these Specimen Nights—in honor of Whitman’s collection of days, his gathering of nerve endings—and we marked each of these evenings by choosing an old medical slide and hanging it on our wall, beneath a quote copied from these pages: Out of the sane, silent, beauteous miracles that envelope and fuse me—trees, water, grass, sunlight, and early frost—the one I am looking at most to-day is the sky.

Specere. Those nights we were practicing seeing our own lives differently. We were harvesting glints from our days and offering them to each other, honoring what might have otherwise felt transitional or provisional or logistical—train commutes and difficult students, giddy first dates and mediocre ones, the early expiration dates of unlived futures—all of this, in the glow of the right salt lamp, also part of the mystery and grace of trusting our evolving and unprogrammed lives.

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Which gets to what I’ve found in Specimen Days, and why I’ve read it more than once, why I’ll no doubt keep returning to it over the years to come: not just for its singular visions of the world—in war and peace, suffering and beauty, grandiosity and banality—but for the way it permits me, coaxes from me, a certain kind of vision too, expansive and honoring. It encourages a kind of piecemeal reading that feels permissive and forgiving.

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Author Leslie Jamison.

Photo by Colleen Kinder

I read this book in pieces, in many places, and everywhere I was, it asked me to be sensitive to that place—to note its details, to remain alive to the way my body was coming into contact with everything else: that object she became, and that object became part of her. I went whale-watching in the middle of a rainstorm just offshore from Mirissa, Sri Lanka, and paid attention to how it felt to get soaked—already drenched with rain, hit by each slapping wave, tasting the kind of salt I associate with weeping—and admired the determination of a woman beside me, clutching a plastic baggie of her own vomit but still determined to see a Blue, even just a tail or fin. The sheer force of her desire was like another kind of natural phenomenon beside me. Whitman relished these energies; these ferocities in
our beings. 

I decided to carry Specimen Days through Brooklyn one day, the Brooklyn Whitman had wandered back when Joralemon Street was still surrounded by pastures. I walked with him—or rather, walked as I imagined he might have walked, in this Brooklyn so different from the one he’d known.

I walked without headphones, without precise destination, along the broad expanse of Eastern Parkway. The trees were full of leaves just starting to yellow. What kind of trees? I’d never bothered to wonder before. I wondered now. (Later, I would look them up—all elms at first, then interspersed with maple, oak, and ash.) This kind of detail—knowing what was right in front of me—was another gift from Whitman: the contagion of curiosity, those nerve endings embedded in his transcription of the world. I sing the body electric. I thrilled at autumn in the air, its first crisp notes. I thrilled at the familiar curling awning of my favorite Mexican place, my regular subway stairs, my bodega and its many flavors of sparkling water. I felt myself turning sentimental about the season and the neighborhood—the rich generosity of each, if only I could muster enough attention to inhabit them properly. This was Whitman’s beat and passion, of course, this kind of inhabitance.

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Everything turned to specimen before me as I walked: a man in a red suede jacket, an elderly guy with a bag full of rotting lettuce, a woman with bright-pink running shoes. Whitman’s allegiance was so firmly to this world, in its mess and trash and grit and noise; his allegiance was to the toddler boy staring wide-eyed at the museum fountain, jets of water coming up and falling down, slapping the marble.

Whitman loved the world in its dross and guts and glitter, in its everything—the tulip trees and all trees, the glowworms and all worms. The long lines of his poems spoke his urgent need to craft a lyric that could hold it all. The collect was just another word for this desire: how can I gather all of these fragments in one place? Not just Brooklyn putting on its best show—sunlight sparkling and shattering off fountains—but also Brooklyn underground, grimy and gum-caked, where rats scamper between tossed cigarette butts and nose their way into the crumbed insides of crinkled potato chip bags.

“The days are full of sunbeams and oxygen,” Whitman wrote in August of 1880, and his gaze—for us, years later—still holds this robust balance in its cadences: pleasure without naiveté, relish without simplicity. In these pages, his vision still seeks pleasure and sustenance without blinding itself to anything, and there is a secular holiness—a sense of gratitude and consecration—in this way of speaking, this way of being alive.

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Excerpted from Specimen Days and Collectby Walt Whitman, with an introduction by Leslie Jamison, published in November 2014 by Melville House.