An approach to Walt Whitman’s poetry profitably begins with the “Inscriptions” to Leaves of Grass, for these short, individual pieces introduce the main ideas and methods of Whitman’s book. In general, they stake out the ground of what Miller has called the prototypical New World personality, a merging of the individual with the national and cosmic, or universal, selves. That democratic principles are at the root of Whitman’s views becomes immediately clear in “One’s-Self I Sing,” the first poem in Leaves of Grass. Here, Whitman refers to the self as a “simple separate person,” yet utters the “word Democratic, the word En-Masse.” Citizens of America alternately assert their individuality—obey little, resist often—and yet see themselves as a brotherhood of the future, inextricably bound by the vision of a great new society of and for the masses. This encompassing vision requires a sense of “the Form complete,” rejecting neither body nor soul, singing equally of the Female and Male, embracing both realistic, scientific, modern humanity and the infinite, eternal life of the spirit.
Leaves of Grass
Whitman takes on various roles to lead his readers to a fuller understanding of this democratic universal. In “Me Imperturbe,” he is at ease as an element of nature, able to confront the accidents and rebuffs of life with the implacability of trees and animals. As he suggests in Democratic Vistas, the true idea of nature in all its power and glory must become fully restored and must furnish the “pervading atmosphere” to poems of American democracy. Whitman must also empathize with rational things—with humanity at large and in particular—so he constructs what sometimes seem to be endless catalogs of Americans at work and play. This technique appears in “I Hear America Singing,” which essentially lists the varied carols of carpenter, boatman, shoemaker, woodcutter, mother, and so on, all “singing what belongs to him or her and to none else” as they ply their trades. In longer poems, such as “Starting from Paumanok,” Whitman extends his catalog to all the states of the Union. He intends to acknowledge contemporary lands, salute employments and cities large and small, and report heroism on land and sea from an American point of view. He marks down all of what constitutes unified life, including the body, sexual love, and comradeship, or “manly love.” Finally, the poet must join the greatness of love and democracy to the greatness of religion. These programs expand to take up large parts of even longer poems, such as “Song of Myself” or to claim space of their own in sections of Leaves of Grass.
Whitman uses another technique to underscore the democratic principle of his art: He makes the reader a fellow poet, a “camerado” who joins hands with him to traverse the poetic landscape. In “To You,” he sees the poet and reader as passing strangers who desire to speak to one another and urges that they do so. In “Song of the Open Road,” Whitman travels the highways with his “delicious burdens” of men and women, calling them all to come forth and move forever forward, well armed to take their places in “the procession of souls along the grand roads of the universe.” His view of the reader as fellow traveler and seer is especially clear in the closing lines of the poem:
Camerado, I give you my hand!I give you my love more precious than money,I give you myself before preaching or law;Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me? Shall we stick by each other as long as we...
(This entire section contains 5268 words.)
Finally, this comradeship means willingness to set out on one’s own, for Whitman says in “Song of Myself” that the reader most honors his style “who learns under it to destroy the teacher.” The questions one asks are one’s own to puzzle out. The poet’s role is to lead his reader up on a knoll, wash the gum from his eyes, and then let him become habituated to the “dazzle of light” that is the natural world. In other words, Whitman intends to help his reader become a “poet” of insight and perception and then release him to travel the public roads of a democratic nation.
This democratic unification of multiplicity, empathic identification, and comradeship exists in most of Whitman’s poems. They do not depend on his growth as poet or thinker. However, in preparing to analyze representative poems from Leaves of Grass, it is helpful to establish a general plan for the various sections of the book. Whitman revised and reordered his poems until the 1881 edition, which established a form that was to remain essentially unchanged through succeeding editions. He merely annexed materials to the 1881 order until just before his death in 1892, then authorized the 1891-1892 version for all future printings. Works originally published apart from Leaves of Grass, such as Drum-Taps or Passage to India, were eventually incorporated in the parent volume. Thus, an analysis of the best poems in five important sections of this final Leaves of Grass will help delineate Whitman’s movement toward integration of self and nation, within his prescribed portals of birth and death.
“Song of Myself”
“Song of Myself,” Whitman’s great lyric poem, exemplifies his democratic “programs” without diminishing the intense feeling that so startled his first readers. It successfully combines paeans to the individual, the nation, and life at large, including nature, sexuality, and death. Above all, “Song of Myself” is a poem of incessant motion, as though Whitman’s energy is spontaneously bursting into lines. Even in the contemplative sections of the poem, when Whitman leans and loafs at his ease observing a spear of summer grass, his senses of hearing, taste, and sight are working at fever pitch. In the opening section, he calls himself “nature without check with original energy.” Having once begun to speak, he hopes “to cease not till death.” Whitman says that although others may talk of the beginning and the end, he finds his subject in the now—in the “urge and urge and urge” of the procreant world.
One method by which Whitman’s energy escapes boundaries is the poet’s ability to “become” other people and things. He will not be measured by time and space, nor by physical form. Rather, he effuses his flesh in eddies and drifts it in lacy jags, taking on new identities with every line. His opening lines show that he is speaking not of himself alone but of all selves. What he assumes, the reader shall assume; every atom of him, and therefore of the world, belongs to the reader as well. In section 24, he represents himself as a “Kosmos,” which contains multitudes and reconciles apparent opposites. He speaks the password and sign of democracy and accepts nothing that all cannot share. To stress this egalitarian vision, Whitman employs the catalog with skill and variety. Many parts of “Song of Myself” list or name characters, places, occupations, or experiences, but section 33 most clearly shows the two major techniques that give these lists vitality. First, Whitman composes long single-sentence movements of action and description, which attempt to unify nature and civilization. The poet is alternately weeding his onion patch, hoeing, prospecting, hauling his boat down a shallow river, scaling mountains, walking paths, and speeding through space. He then follows each set of actions with a series of place lines, beginning with “where,” “over,” “at,” or “upon,” which unite farmhouses, hearth furnaces, hot-air balloons, or steamships with plants and animals of land and sea. Second, Whitman interrupts these long listings with more detailed vignettes, which show the “large hearts of heroes”—a sea captain, a hounded slave, a fireman trapped and broken under debris, an artillerist. Sections 34-36 then extend the narrative to tales of the Alamo and an old-time sea fight, vividly brought forth with sounds and dialogue. In each case, the poet becomes the hero and is actually in the scene to suffer or succeed.
This unchecked energy and empathy carry over into Whitman’s ebullient imagery to help capture the physical power of human bodies in procreant motion. At one point Whitman calls himself “hankering, gross, mystical, nude.” He finds no sweeter flesh than that which sticks to his own bones, or to the bones of others. Sexual imagery, including vividly suggestive descriptions of the male and female body, is central to the poem. Although the soul must take its equal place with the body, neither abasing itself before the other, Whitman’s mystical union of soul and body is a sexual experience as well. He loves the hum of the soul’s “valved voice” and remembers how, on a transparent summer morning, the soul settled its head athwart his hips and turned over on him. It parted the shirt from the poet’s “bosom-bone,” plunged its tongue to his “bare-stript heart,” and reached until it felt his beard and held his feet. From this experience came peace and the knowledge that love is fundamental to a unified, continuous creation. Poetic metaphor, which identifies and binds hidden likenesses in nature, is therefore emblematic of the organic world. For example, in answering a child’s question, “What is the grass?” the poet offers a series of metaphors that join human, natural, and spiritual impulses:
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?
The grass becomes hair from the breasts of young men, from the heads and beards of old people, or from offspring, and it “speaks” from under the faint red roofs of mouths. The smallest sprout shows that there is no death, for “nothing collapses,” and to die is “luckier” than anyone had supposed. This excerpt from the well-known sixth section of “Song of Myself” illustrates how image making signifies for Whitman a kind of triumph over death itself.
Because of its position near the beginning of Leaves of Grass and its encompassing of Whitman’s major themes, “Song of Myself” is a foundation for the volume. The “self” in this poem is a replica of the nation as self, and its delineation in the cosmos is akin to the growth of the United States in the world. Without putting undue stress on this nationalistic interpretation, however, the reader can find many reasons to admire “Song of Myself.” Its dynamic form, beauty of language, and psychological insights are sufficient to make Whitman a first-rate poet, even if he had written nothing else.
Celebration of self and sexuality
The passionate celebration of the self and of sexuality is Whitman’s great revolutionary theme. In “Children of Adam,” he is the procreative father of multitudes, a champion of heterosexual love and the “body electric.” In “From Pent-Up Aching Rivers,” he sings of the need for superb children, brought forth by the “muscular urge” of “stalwart loins.” In “I Sing the Body Electric,” he celebrates the perfection of well-made male and female bodies. Sections 5 and 9 are explicit descriptions of sexual intercourse and physical “apparatus,” respectively. Whitman does not shy away from the fierce attraction of the female form or the ebb and flow of “limitless limpid jets of love hot and enormous” that undulate into the willing and yielding “gates of the body.” Because he sees the body as sacred, as imbued with divine power, he considers these enumerations to be poems of the soul as much as of the body.
Indeed, “A Woman Waits for Me” specifically states that sex contains all—bodies and souls. Thus, the poet seeks warm-blooded and sufficient women to receive the pent-up rivers of himself, to start new sons and daughters fit for the great nation that will be these United States. The procreative urge operates on more than one level in “Children of Adam”—it is physical sex and birthing, the union of body and soul, and the metaphorical insemination of the poet’s words and spirit into national life. In several ways, then, words are to become flesh. Try as some early Whitman apologists might to explain them away, raw sexual impulses are the driving force of these poems.
Whitman’s contemporaries were shocked by the explicit sexual content of “Children of Adam,” but modern readers and critics have been much more intrigued by the apparent homoeroticism of the poems in the “Calamus” section of the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. Although it is ultimately impossible to say whether these poems reflect Whitman’s gay associations in New York, it is obvious that comradeship extends here to both spiritual and physical contact between men. “In Paths Untrodden” states the poet’s intention to sing of “manly attachment” or types of “athletic love,” to celebrate the need of comrades. “Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand” deepens the physical nature of this love, including the stealthy meeting of male friends in a wood, behind some rock in the open air, or on the beach of some quiet island. There the poet would permit the comrade’s long-dwelling kiss on the lips and a touch that would carry him eternally forth over land and sea. “These I Singing in Spring” refers to “him that tenderly loves me” and pledges the hardiest spears of grass, the calamus-root, to those who love as the poet himself is capable of loving.
Finally, two of Whitman’s best lyrics concern this robust but clandestine relationship. “I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing” is a poignant contrast between the live oak’s ability to “utter joyous leaves” while it stands in solitude, without companions, and the poet’s inability to live without a friend or lover near. There is no mistaking the equally personal tone of “When I Heard at the Close of the Day,” probably Whitman’s finest “Calamus” poem. The plaudits of others are meaningless and unsatisfying, says Whitman, until he thinks of how his dear friend and lover is on his way to see him. When his friend arrives one evening, the hissing rustle of rolling waves becomes congratulatory and joyful. Once the person he loves most lies sleeping by him under the same cover, face inclined toward him in the autumn moonbeams and arm lightly lying around his breast, he is happy.
Other short poems in “Calamus,” such as “For You O Democracy,” “The Prairie Grass Dividing,” or “A Promise to California,” are less obviously personal. Rather, they extend passionate friendship between men to the larger ideal of democratic brotherhood. Just as procreative love has its metaphorical implications for the nation, so too does Whitman promise to make the continent indissoluble and cities inseparable, arms about each other’s necks, with companionship and the “manly love of comrades.” Still other poems move this comradeship into wider spans of space and time. “The Moment Yearning and Thoughtful” joins the poet with men of Europe and Asia in happy brotherhood, thus transcending national and continental boundaries. “The Base of All Metaphysics” extends this principle through historical time, for the Greek, Germanic, and Christian systems all suggest that the attraction of friend to friend is the basis of civilization. The last poem in the “Calamus” section, “Full of Life Now,” completes Whitman’s panoramic view by carrying friendship into the future. His words communicate the compact, visible to readers of a century or any number of centuries hence. Each seeking the other past time’s invisible boundaries, poet and reader are united physically through Whitman’s poetry.
“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”
“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” is the natural product of Whitman’s idea that love and companionship will bind the world’s peoples to one another. In a sense it gives the poet immortality through creation of a living artifact: the poem itself. Whitman stands motionless on a moving ferry, immersed in the stream of life and yet suspended in time through the existence of his words on the page. Consequently, he can say that neither time nor place nor distance matters, because he is with each reader and each fellow traveler in the future. He points out that hundreds of years hence others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore, will see the sun half an hour high and watch the seagulls floating in circles with motionless wings. Others will also watch the endless scallop-edged waves cresting and falling, as though they are experiencing the same moment as the poet, with the same mixture of joy and sorrow. Thus, Whitman confidently calls upon the “dumb ministers” of nature to keep up their ceaseless motion—to flow, fly, and frolic on—because they furnish their parts toward eternity and toward the soul.
Techniques match perfectly with these themes in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” Whitman’s frequent repetition of the main images—sunrise and sunset, ebb and flow of the sea and river, seagulls oscillating in the sky—reinforces the belief in timeless, recurring human experience. Descriptions of schooners and steamers at work along the shore are among his most powerful evocations of color and sound. Finally, Whitman’s employment of pronouns to mark a shift in the sharing of experiences also shows the poem’s careful design. Whitman begins the poem with an “I” who looks at the scenes or crowds of people and calls to “you” who are among the crowds and readers of present and future. In section 8, however, he reaches across generations to fuse himself and pour his meaning into the “you.” At the end of this section, he and others have become “we,” who understand and receive experience with free senses and love, united in the organic continuity of nature.
The short section of Leaves of Grass entitled “Sea-Drift” contains the first real signs of a more somber Whitman, who must come to terms with hardship, sorrow, and death. In one way, this resignation and accommodation follow the natural progression of the self from active, perhaps callow, youth to contemplative old age. They are also an outgrowth of Whitman’s belief that life and death are a continuum, that life is a symphony of both sonatas and dirges, which the true poet of nature must capture fully on the page. Whereas in other poems the ocean often signifies birth and creation, with fish-shaped Paumanok (Manhattan) rising from the sea, in “Tears,” it is the repository of sorrow. Its white shore lies in solitude, dark and desolate, holding a ghost or “shapeless lump” that cries streaming, sobbing tears. In “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life,” Whitman is distressed with himself for daring to “blab” so much without having the least idea who or what he really is. Nature darts on the poet and stings him, because he has not understood anything and because no man ever can. He calls himself but a “trail of drift and debris,” who has left his poems like “little wrecks” on Paumanok’s shores. However, he must continue to throw himself on the ocean of life, clinging to the breast of the land that is his father, and gathering from the moaning sea the “sobbing dirge of Nature.” He believes the flow will return, but meanwhile he must wait and lie in drifts at his readers’ feet.
“Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”
“Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” is a fuller, finally more optimistic, treatment of the poet’s confrontation with loss. Commonly acknowledged as one of Whitman’s finest works, this poem uses lyrical language and operatic structure to trace the origin of his poetic powers in the experience of death. Two “songs” unite with the whispering cry of the sea to communicate this experience to him. Central to the poem is Whitman’s seaside reminiscence of a bird and his mate, who build and tend a nest of eggs. When the female fails to return one evening, never to appear again, the male becomes a solitary singer of his sorrows, whose notes are “translated” by the listening boy-poet. The bird’s song is an aria of lonesome love, an outpouring carol of yearning, hope, and finally, death. As the boy absorbs the bird’s song, his soul awakens in sympathy. From this moment forward, his destiny will be to perpetuate the bird’s “cries of unsatisfied love.” More important, though, Whitman must learn the truth that this phrase masks, must conquer “the word” that has caused the bird’s cries:
Whereto answering, the sea,Delaying not, hurrying not,Whisper’d me through the night, and very plainly before daybreak,Lisp’d to me the low and delicious word death,And again death, death, death, death.
Whitman then fuses the bird’s song and his own with death, which the sea, “like some old crone rocking the cradle,” has whispered to him. This final image of the sea as an old crone soothing an infant underscores the central point of “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”: Old age and death are part of a natural flux. Against the threat of darkness, one must live and sing.
Like the tone of the “Sea-Drift” section, darker hues permeate Whitman’s Civil War lyrics. His experiences as a hospital worker in Washington, D.C., are clearly behind the sometimes wrenching imagery of Drum-Taps. As a wound dresser, he saw the destruction of healthy young bodies and minds at first hand. These spectacles were in part a test of Whitman’s own courage and comradeship, but they were also a test of the nation’s ability to survive and grow. As Whitman says in “Long, Too Long America,” the country had long traveled roads “all even and peaceful,” learning only from joys and prosperity, but now it must face “crises of anguish” without recoiling and show the world what its “children enmasse really are.” Many of the Drum-Taps lyrics show Whitman facing this reality, but “The Wound Dresser” is representative. The poet’s persona is an old man who is called on years after the Civil War to “paint the mightiest armies of earth,” to tell what experience of the war stays with him latest and deepest. Although he mentions the long marches, rushing charges, and toils of battle, he does not dwell on soldiers’ perils or soldiers’ joys. Rather, he vividly describes the wounded and dying at battlegrounds, hospital tents, or roofed hospitals, as he goes with “hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds.” He does not recoil or give out at the sight of crushed heads, shattered throats, amputated stumps of hands and arms, the gnawing and putrid gangrenous foot or shoulder. Nevertheless, within him rests a burning flame, the memory of youths suffering or dead.
Confronted with these horrors, Whitman had to find a way to surmount them, and that way was love. If there could be a positive quality in war, Whitman found it in the comradeship of common soldiers, who risked all for their fellows. In “As Toilsome I Wander’d Virginia’s Woods,” for example, Whitman discovers the grave of a soldier buried beneath a tree. Hastily dug on a retreat from battle, the grave is nevertheless marked by a sign: “Bold, cautious, true, and my loving comrade.” That inscription remains with the poet through many changeful seasons and scenes to follow, as evidence of this brotherly love. Similarly, “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night” tells of a soldier who sees his comrade struck down in battle and returns to find him cold with death. He watches by him through “immortal and mystic hours” until, just as dawn is breaking, he folds the young man in a blanket and buries him in a rude-dug grave where he fell. This tale of tearless mourning perfectly evokes the loss caused by war.
Eventually, Whitman finds some ritual significance in these deaths, as though they are atonement for those yet living. In “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim,” he marks three covered forms on stretchers near a hospital tent. One by one he uncovers their faces. The first is an elderly man, gaunt and grim, but a comrade nevertheless. The second is a sweet boy “with cheeks yet blooming.” When he exposes the third face, however, he finds it calm, of yellow-white ivory, and of indeterminable age. He sees in it the face of Christ himself, “dead and divine and brother of all.” “Over the Carnage Rose Prophetic a Voice” suggests that these Christian sacrifices will finally lead to a united Columbia. Even though a thousand may have to “sternly immolate themselves for one,” those who love one another shall become invincible, and “affection shall solve the problems of freedom.” As in other sections of Leaves of Grass, Whitman believes the United States will be held together not by lawyers, paper agreements, or force of arms, but by the cohesive power of love and fellowship.
“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”
“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” another of Whitman’s acknowledged masterpieces, repeats the process underlying Drum-Taps. The poet must come to terms with the loss of one he loves—in this case, the slain President Lincoln. Death and mourning must eventually give way to consolation and hope for the future. Cast in the form of a traditional elegy, the poem traces the processional of Lincoln’s coffin across country, past the poet himself, to the president’s final resting place.
To objectify his emotional struggle between grief, on one hand, and spiritual reconciliation with death on the other, Whitman employs several vivid symbols. The lilac blooming perennially, with its heart-shaped leaves, represents the poet’s perpetual mourning and love. The “powerful fallen star,” which now lies in a “harsh surrounding could” of black night, is Lincoln, fallen and shrouded in his coffin. The solitary hermit thrush that warbles “death’s outlet song of life” from a secluded swamp is the soul or spiritual world. Initially, Whitman is held powerless by the death of his departing comrade. Although he can hear the bashful notes of the thrush and will come to understand them, he thinks only of showering the coffin with sprigs of lilac to commemorate his love for Lincoln. He must also warble his own song before he can absorb the bird’s message of consolation. Eventually, as he sits amidst the teeming daily activities described in section 14, he is struck by the “sacred knowledge of death,” and the bird’s carol thus becomes intelligible to him. Death is lovely, soothing, and delicate. It is a “strong deliveress” who comes to nestle the grateful body in her flood of bliss. Rapt with the charm of the bird’s song, Whitman sees myriad battle corpses in a vision—the debris of all the slain soldiers of the war—yet realizes that they are fully at rest and no longer suffering. The power of this realization gives him strength to let go of the hand of his comrade. An ever-blooming lilac now signifies renewal, just as death takes its rightful place as the harbinger of new life, the life of the eternal soul.
Matters of spirit
Whitman’s deepening concern with matters of the spirit permeates the last sections of Leaves of Grass. Having passed the test of the Civil War and having done his part to reunite the United States, Whitman turned his attention to America’s place in the world and his own place in God’s design. As he points out in “A Clear Midnight,” he gives his last poems to the soul and its “free flight into the wordless,” to ponder the themes he loves best: “Night, sleep, death and the stars.” Such poems as “Chanting the Square Deific” and “A Noiseless Patient Spider” invoke either the general soul, the “Santa Spirita” that pervades all created life, or the toils of individual souls, flinging out gossamer threads to connect themselves with this holy spirit.
“Passage to India”
Whitman was still able to produce fine lyrics in his old age. One of these successful poems, “Passage to India,” announces Whitman’s intention to join modern science to fables and dreams of old, to weld past and future, and to show that the United States is but a “bridge” in the “vast rondure” of the world. Just as the Suez Canal connected Europe and Asia, Whitman says, America’s transcontinental railroad ties the eastern to the western sea, thus verifying Christopher Columbus’s dream. Beyond these material thoughts of exploration, however, lies the poet’s realm of love and spirit. The poet is a “true son of God,” who will soothe the hearts of restlessly exploring, never-happy humanity. He will link all human affections, justify the “cold, impassive, voiceless earth,” and absolutely fuse nature and humanity. This fusion takes place not in the material world but in the swelling of the soul toward God, who is a mighty “centre of the true, the good, the loving.” Passage to these superior universes transcends time and space and death. It is a “passage to more than India,” through the deep waters that no mariner has traveled, and for which the poet must “risk the ship, ourselves and all.”
“Prayer of Columbus”
Whitman also uses a seagoing metaphor for spiritual passage in “Prayer of Columbus,” which is almost a continuation of “Passage to India.” In the latter, Whitman aggressively flings himself into the active voyage toward God, but in “Prayer of Columbus” he is a “batter’d, wreck’d old man,” willing to yield his ships to God and wait for the unknown end of all. He recounts his heroic deeds of exploration and attributes their inspiration to a message from the heavens that sped him on. Like Columbus, Whitman is “old, poor, and paralyzed,” yet capable of one more effort to speak of the steady interior light that God has granted him. Finally, the works of the past fall away from him, and some divine hand reveals a scene of countless ships sailing on distant seas, from which “anthems in new tongues” salute and comfort him. This implied divine sanction for his life’s work was consolation to an old poet, who, at his death in 1892, remained largely unaccepted and unrecognized by contemporary critics and historians.
The grand design of Leaves of Grass appears to trace self and nation neatly through sensuous youth, crises of maturity, and soul-searching old age. Although this philosophical or psychological reading of Whitman’s work is certainly encouraged by the poet’s tinkering with its structure, many fine lyrics do not fit into neat patterns, or even under topical headings. Whitman’s reputation rests more on the startling freshness of his language, images, and democratic treatment of the common American citizen than on his success as epic bard. Common to all his poetry, however, are certain major themes: reconciliation of body and soul, purity and unity of physical nature, death as the “mother of beauty,” and above all, comradeship or love, which binds and transcends all else. In fact, Whitman encouraged a complex comradeship with his readers to bind his work to future generations. He expected reading to be a gymnastic struggle and the reader to be a re-creator of the poem through imaginative interaction with the poet. Perhaps that is why he said in “So Long” that Leaves of Grass was no book, for whoever touches his poetry “touches a man.”