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 @TweetsOfGrass, that'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."