The Slow-Cooked Sentence

Artist Allen Crawford liberates Walt Whitman’s vigor from verse

Rachael Conlin Levy

 

This illustration and all that follow are from “Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself” by Allen Crawford. Published by Tin House, 2014.

The playful and singular “Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself” by artist Allen Crawford is my introduction to Walt Whitman. I opened to a random page and began to read, only to tilt my head, then spin the book round and round as word and meaning and image spiraled, deepened, and drew me into this quintessentially American poem.

 

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Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems, Whitman wrote.

I’m amused with myself, that only now, aged 49, do I open this sacred secular text. My long ignorance of the poem can be blamed on gaps in a public education, hubris of youth, exhaustion of motherhood, while my piqued curiosity for “Song of Myself” might be due to the melancholy of middle age.

But never mind: I begin.

A poem raucously expansive and singing of diversity in blade of grass and individual, which took Crawford a year to survey, savor, and celebrate, will likely take me much, much longer.

 

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Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes,) Whitman wrote. I look up from the book, take a breath, turn the page.

The self-published 1855 masterpiece was among the first experiments in extended free verse, and touches on issues of democracy, sexuality and the body, science, politics, nature, and the cosmos, according to an online, interactive study of the poem offered by the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 2014. The poem teaches us “how not to participate as individuals in a society, but how the ‘I’ is never individual,” according to its syllabus.

 

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The poem is “Whitman’s record of the self expanding out into the world, absorbing more and more experience, then contracting back into the self, discovering that he can contain and hold the wild diversity of experience that he keeps encountering on his journeys through the world,” according to the forward in Section One of “Song of Myself” on the Whitman Web. “He sets out to expand the boundaries of the self to include, first, all fellow Americans, then the entire world, and ultimately the cosmos. When we come to see just how vast the self can be, what can we do but celebrate it by returning to it again and again?”

 

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The mix of handwritten text and illustrations in “Whitman Illuminated” are a prismatic interpretation by Crawford, who expanded the original 60 pages into 234 illustrated pages.

“Whitman wanted to create a new form of verse, one that was indigenous to America,” Crawford wrote. “He wanted to break free not only in form but also in content: He sought complete candor, not allegory or symbolism. His sensibility was American: exuberant, rough, and wild. He reveled in the vitality and sublimity of the physical. He exalted the nature around and within us. His work is an expression of primal joy: He celebrated our animal senses, and the pleasure of being alive.”

 

Walt Whitman. 1887. Photographer George C. Cox. From the Ohio Wesleyan University, Bayley Collection.

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Some pages are nothing but words, expanding and contracting, heavy and dense, through which my eyes wander: I tramp a perpetual journey (come listen all!), Whitman wrote. Eyes linger on a phrase, skim across others; word and thought made at once accessible and beyond comprehension.

“I’ve tried to make the vigor of ‘Song of Myself’ tangible, I’ve attempted to liberate the words from their blocks of verse, and allow the lines to flow freely about the page, like a stream or a bustling city crowd,” Crawford said.

His defense for “unreadable” books like “Whitman Illuminated” is a 2010 Princeton University study that showed that recall improves with the use of smaller, less legible type. “Texts presented in unusual typefaces (…) created ‘disfluency’ in readers, triggering deeper processing and significantly improved retention. When people are forced to stare at something to decipher what it says, it sticks with them,” he wrote on his blog.

Other pages are nearly empty of words, and Crawford’s images, which draw on the fantastical and the scientific, while spanning time and place, dominate. He considers it a visual journal of a yearlong exploration of Whitman’s poem. For a year, he worked in his basement where each two-page spread took eight to 10 hours to complete. In the coldest months, he could only continue working when wrapped in layers and wearing a Russian fur hat.

“I wanted to make this book an object that is viewed as well as read, and I made every effort to encapsulate a complete thought or mood in each spread before moving on to the next cluster of verse,” Crawford wrote. “There are parts where the pages spill into each other, but generally each spread retains its own imagery, personality, and mood.”



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