Every Atom | No. 35

Dana Levin

Introduction to Every Atom by project curator Brian Clements

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There are so many kinds of Whitmans: Bard. Cosmic Self. Nurse. National Mourner. Lover. Zaddy posing jauntily in photographs. Here in “Song of Myself,” we encounter Whitman as proto-tweeter: “This hour I tell things in confidence,/I might not tell everybody, but I will tell you.” When I posted these lines to Twitter early in 2019, it was because they nail that strange contemporary mix of public/private speech we encounter everywhere on social media: canny wielders of this new tech understand that it is intimate connection we crave, the whispered confidence, even in the most public and noisy of spaces; they have a knack, like Whitman does, for connecting with every you in the crowd. Despite Whitman’s assertion that he might not confide in “everybody,” he is of course telling this to anyone who reads his poem, which he went to great lengths to publish, paying for and typesetting the first edition of Leaves of Grass himself. Not only did Whitman self-publish our primary book of American poetry, he reviewed it anonymously in numerous newspapers and journals, in one declaring, “He is the true spiritualist. He recognizes no annihilation, or death, or loss of identity. He is the largest lover and sympathizer that has appeared in literature.” Beginning this rave with “An American Bard at last!” we find Whitman the Self-Promoter, a familiar presence to anyone with a social media feed. My Twitter post led to some spirited comments, and a few threads, and someone proposed a new Whitman to add to his already brimming cornucopia of selves: Whitman the Bot, which I’m sure is out there somewhere, sounding its virtual yawp into the digital commons. 

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Dana Levin’s latest book is Banana Palace, from Copper Canyon Press. She serves as Distinguished Writer in Residence at Maryville University in St. Louis.


Cover art by Sarah Pauls