Galway Kinnell opens introduction to The Essential Whitman (1987)
The poems of Walt Whitman meant little to me when I read them in high school and college. Luckily, when I was teaching at the University of Grenoble in my late twenties, I was required to give a course on Whitman. My experience of his work then was intense, the more so because, in a foreign country, it was my one real connection to my own language. Soon I understood that poetry could be transcendent, hymnlike, a cosmic song, and yet remain idolatrously attached to the creatures and things of our word.
It is a viewpoint the carries through to editorial decisions, including this one
A word about “Once I Passed Through a Populous City,” which appears here in the manuscript version. As published, the poem describes an encounter with a woman, but in this version, the encounter is with a man. To fit the poem in the “Enfans d’Adam” poems, that section of Leaves of Grass about love between a man and a woman, Whitman changed the man to a woman and deleted both the poignant “we wandered” and, what is so precious and so seldom found in love poems, the evocation of the actual other — “one rude and ignorant man.” I find the manuscript version stronger by far.
Interesting that Kinnell in his selection placed this poem just before “When I Heard at the Close of Day” which ends: “In the stillness, in the autumn moonbeams, his face was inclined toward me, / And his arm lay lightly around my breath — and that night I was happy.”
And we are too.
And so for day 2496