Yawping with Whitman: The Annual Walt Whitman Marathon at Central Michigan University

Reviewer: Edwin Williamson

Venue: Central Michigan University

There is no better way to describe autumn in Michigan than with two simple words: cold and wet. Pure Michigan, some would say. Most of us have come to understand that these particular mornings are for staying in bed, or at the very least, not leaving the house. Yet, one English professor at Central Michigan University finds himself unphased by neither the cold nor the wet of Michigan autumn mornings. He has a tradition to uphold. The tradition being—obviously—a day-long marathon of Walt Whitman reading.

The Annual Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass Marathon Reading was born by way of CMU students. Following their graduation, professor of creative writing Robert Fanning so dutifully carried on the tradition and has done so for the past 14 years. While attendance is mainly composed of students and faculty from CMU, the event itself is open to any and all who wish to travel out to the Fabiano Botanical Gardens. If, of course, you can manage to pull yourself out of bed as the event starts at the exact minute of sunrise. I was, shamefully, late.

The reading doesn’t start so early (7:45am, this year) just to torture Fanning and anyone hoping to attend. It actually must start so early if there is any hope of successfully marathoning Leaves of Grass. Despite its original 1855 publication being a meager 95 pages of poetry, the version you’ll find in the hands of marathoners at CMU is the hulking Deathbed Edition. The Deathbed Edition, released in 1892, contains nearly 400 poems; my copy, at 736 pages, could be considered a legal weapon. Needless to say, it’s a lot of poetry that requires a lot of time to complete.

The event itself is almost magical in its own way. It’s painfully easy to walk through those gardens and ignore the small slice of nature in front of you when you’re rushing to your next class or trying to get home. At the reading, however, you are gifted a moment of peace. Encouraged, even, to take in not only the splendor of Whitman’s poetry but the sensation of the world around you. The sound of the pond. The feeling of dew on your ankles. The smell of grass. The chill that reminds you that you really didn’t dress for the weather.

“Poetry is,” as Fanning describes it, “a living language that stirs the soul.” The Leaves of Grass Annual Marathon is most certainly an event for creatives to enjoy, but it speaks to the world as a whole. Contrary to what we’ve been led to believe, poetry can be enjoyed by anyone. It isn’t just for those romantics in tweed or your high school English teacher. When asked what his favorite part of the event was, Fanning said, “I love that students who didn’t know about Whitman, or who only have read a bit of his poetry, can feel its timeless relevance to being alive and being American—in any time. I love how the book speaks to all of us in different ways and for different reasons. Mainly, it’s a collection of poems celebrating the power of the individual, the soul, the miracle of being alive in a human body. In times like these, Leaves of Grass reminds me that being alive is electric and wonderful.”

Leaves of Grass is by no means a collection that should be exclusively reserved for academics. It’s a collection of poetry with themes of humanity, nature, philosophy, explorations of the self, time, transcendentalism, and the joys of being incredibly horny. All things that can be considered timeless and fundamental aspects of the American experience—yes, I mean all.

With this in mind, don’t you think, perhaps, it’s time to pick up some poetry, go outside, and feel your soul come home? Why not set a reminder to make your way to Mt Pleasant in a year for the next marathon while you’re at it?

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