Walt Whitman is one of those writers we should at least try to feign knowledge of, a 19th-century author without any of Edgar Allan Poe's easy melodrama and gory bits. But the opening of his classic Song of Myself - "I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass" - is just as evocative as any dungeon swarming with rats. Who doesn't enjoy lolling around a sunlit field, thinking about whatever isn't work?
South Jersey artist Allen Crawford has thoroughly studied the centerpiece of Whitman's Leaves of Grass and spent months holed up in his basement drawing a 234-page accompaniment titled Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself. It is a wonderfully engrossing book that pays homage to the original, wrapping the poem's words around Crawford's art, in conversation with and inspired by Whitman's lines.
"I wanted to actually incorporate the imagery in the text of the poem," says Crawford. "A part of the work, rather than something that complements the work. It would have been easy to do something lurid, like H.P Lovecraft or Poe, but Whitman is very naturalistic" and therefore a greater challenge.
Crawford's book isn't for neophytes. The sentences twist and wind around his drawings in a fashion that is often hard to follow. But people who just want to read can go online, where it's available in its entirety and in all its iterations (Whitman was a notorious self-editor). Crawford's work is almost something else entirely, a pictorial guidebook to Whitman's catalog of Americana. The poem is so vivid it's almost surprising no one has thought of this before.
The few samples of the work available online thus far are stunning. They also tend to focus on the intricate beauty of the natural world, which Whitman's name is so often affiliated with. It'll be even more exciting to see what Crawford does with Song of Myself's urban-centered segments. ("What living and buried speech is always vibrating here, what howls restrain'd by decorum. . .") Whitman was as much an urban poet as anything else, spending many years in Brooklyn and ending his days in Camden.
Allen Crawford will talk about "Whitman Illuminated," which is scheduled for release Tuesday, at 7 p.m. Saturday at Brickbat Books, 709 S. Fourth St.