Every Atom | No. 25

Bill Koch

Introduction to Every Atom by project curator Brian Clements

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For the past 20 years I have opened my one man show, “Walt Whitman Live!!” with these words from the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. I’ve not changed the show’s main parts in any major way, except for the closing. Now I end the show with the final lines of “Song of Myself” (“I stop somewhere, waiting for you”) and it has produced a nice symmetry to the hour long program. ……… I performed the show this past May 16 at the Bettendorf Library before 20 fine citizens of the Quad Cities area……… Each show is a new experience for me: Words I’ve recited hundreds of times suddenly strike me differently.  It occurred this time when I was reciting the lines, “No array of terms can say how much I am at peace about God and about death.” When I was about to utter the last three words, I got a hitch in my throat, and my eyes teared up, and I thickly whispered the last three words……….

In the May issue of The Atlantic, Mark Edmundson notes that before Leaves of Grass, Walt’s literary output, though extensive, was nevertheless “dramatically undistinguished.” ……Most of the college students who enter my writing class believe that they can only produce “dramatically undistinguished” prose. But if every atom belonging to Walt belongs to us, then we can believe that even our presently undistinguished writing can take wing……However, the lesson that Whitman gives the American people isn’t that they are to become poets. Instead, we are to have dramatic changes in our engagement with words……  

For instance, most adults do not realize that words conjure up images automatically in the adult mind, but when they become conscious of this word-image dynamic, they are on the road to perceiving new aspects of their intellectual life. They see how these mistaken notions about words had acted like “ties and ballast.” But now, freed from them, they join Walt and “fly the flight of the fluid and swallowing soul.”………

When Walt describes his soul being “intimate” with him (in what would become Section 5 of “Song of Myself”), we can imagine that he is also describing what words were doing to his intellect, to his body of assumptions. When adults see these images from words and seize control of this word-image dynamic (children need not be concerned with this), they engage with words at an intimate, at an adult and imaginative level. Then “swiftly the peace and joy and knowledge that passes all art and argument of the earth” spreads through their Self……

For the American adult, words (especially written words) are doing what Walt does: they loaf and they invite us to examine our soul. They wait for us, ready to filter and fiber our intellectual blood, in a body we share with all humanity……..

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Bill Koch holds a PH.D. in American Studies from St. Louis University. He teaches writing at the University of Northern Iowa with occasional forays into Humanities and Introduction to Literature. His many performances of his one man Whitman show include performances at the Old State Capital in Springfield Illinois and Iowa Wesleyan University in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa.