Walt Whitman Is Great at Twitter

@TweetsofGrass has just begun its fifth reading of the poet's seminal work.
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Ol' Walt himself (Wikimedia Commons)

It began like this:

Those are the first lines of Whitman's 1855 Leaves of Grass, now being tweeted in its entirety under the handle @TweetsOfGrass for the fifth time. Each iteration—each reading, if you will—occurs tweet by tweet, a few tweets a day. One complete round takes about six months. 

It may seem odd to revive a book-length poem in a medium famous for its brevity, but the combination has proved a salubrious one, bringing out something special about Whitman and Twitter both.

Since the account first began tweeting the poem in 2011, it has accumulated more than 11,000 followers, people who like just a bit of poetry thrown in among the daily Twitter melee. There are high school teachers, academics, poets, and, not to be forgotten, strong contingents of Lana Del Rey and John Green fans as well. "I get followed by so many Lana fans it's hilarious," @TweetsOfGrass told me over Twitter's direct message feature. (Del Rey references Whitman extensively in her lyrics; the plot of Green's novel Paper Towns turns on a highlighted copy of Leaves of Grass.) 

Certain parts play predictably well with different Twitter crowds. "People like the sexy bits. There's a gay following for sure. But there's a Christian following too that likes the eternal life stuff," s/he added. In our conversation, @TweetsOfGrass would not reveal his/her identity, nor his/her gender, requesting that I use the conventions "s/he" and "his/her".

@TweetsOfGrass says that part of the motivation for tweeting the whole poem is that people tend to tweet Whitman in tiny snippets, without any sense of their place in the larger work. "I thought this would be a good way to introduce some of those people to the whole poem, the full context, parts they might not know about, or even parts that might make them uncomfortable." @TweetsOfGrass does not approve of people who tweet "the cheesiest stuff" out of context. "Twitter quoters are the worst," s/he says.

At a basic, mechanical level, one reason that Whitman works well on Twitter is the fact that most of Whitman's lines fit into Twitter's 140-character limit. "It turns out Twitter is perfect for Whitman's line breaks," @TweetsOfGrass told me. Compared with Allen Ginsberg's Howl, another long poem currently being tweeted serially, @TweetsOfGrass believes that Twitter works better for Whitman. "Whitman's lines are shorter," s/he says, by way of explanation. Howl's lines often get broken up awkwardly across a few tweets.

In substance too, Leaves of Grass has some overlap with Twitter. @TweetsOfGrass says that in tweeting the poem s/he's realized how journalistic Whitman was. "He creates little scenes, almost like ledes or headlines or little cinematic flashes," s/he said. "Sometimes these expand into whole action sequences."

But, of course, Whitman doesn't exactly blend right in. Though some of his passages may be journalistic, and they may break down into the right lengths, Whitman's words glow a bit brighter than your standard tweets. 

Here is his telling of an 1836 massacre in Texas, which he leads with a hook about the more familiar Alamo battle:

Not your standard Twitter fare. But for those following @TweetsOfGrassthat's exactly the point.

"I haven’t studied the 1855 Leaves of Grass since graduate school and don’t often teach Whitman," MIT literature professor Noel Jackson wrote to me. "@TweetsOfGrass helps keep the poetry rattling around in my head."

Jackson says that the presentation of the poem on Twitter can change how he sees or hears a specific phrase. "I like how on Twitter each line of poetry is a miniature, free-standing event," he says. "Individual lines take on lives of their own this way. Standing separate from the whole, each line is free to be engaged and quarreled with."

"Sometimes," he continues, "the lines are familiar and expected; sometimes they are utterly unexpected, and appear newly fresh and relevant. A line you might have read many times before will jump out at you. This happens all the time when reading or re-reading poetry, of course, but Twitter certainly assists the process with its line-by-line presentation."

To Jackson, there is something about who Whitman was and what he was trying to capture that matches Twitter's spirit. Whitman, Jackson wrote to me, was "the poet who celebrated and sought to capture 'the blab of the pave'." Could one imagine a more appropriate setting than Twitter?

"Whitman’s 'tweets' appear in my timeline alongside tweets by friends, colleagues, writers I admire, and strangers I happened to follow," Jackson says. "It is a heterogeneous and sometimes cacophonous mixture, as Twitter timelines often are." Among that hubbub, that blab of the pave, Whitman "fits easily right in there."

And sometimes, just sometimes, across the cacophony, across the centuries, a few lines will reach out and speak so directly to whoever is out there following, that there is poetry in it—not just in the words themselves, but in the fact that they live on Twitter, and that on Twitter they can touch any reader, despite the distance of time and space.

Like this one passage, from near the poem's end, which @TweetsOfGrass says people just love on Twitter:

It's "as if he wants to be known by readers so many years hence," @TweetsOfGrass says. "I'm happy to play a part in making that happen, I guess."

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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