I keep thinking about an episode of the Backstory podcast, where they talked about Walt Whitman.
One of the historians they interviewed, Robert Shultz, described how Whitman destroyed his health during the war by working long hours in the hospital, caring for wounded soldiers. He read them letters from their families, he dressed their wounds, he held them as they died. Shultz reports:
He talked to Horace Traubel, the man who documented almost everything Whitman said late in life when he was living back in Camden, New Jersey, in the years before he died. He told Traubel about the way he ruined his health. He suffered a few strokes, pretty bad strokes at the end of the war. He really wore himself out. He told Traubel, you know, “I had to pay a lot for this experience, but it seemed cheap.” And then he says, “And what did I get? Well, I got the boys. For one thing, the boys. Thousands of them. They were, they are, they will be mine. I gave myself for them, myself. I got the boys. Then I got Leaves of Grass, the consummated book. The last confirming word.” So he understood that his vocation during the war and the writing that he did completed and consummated this lifelong book, Leaves of Grass, that he started building in 1855.
I deeply understand that. It’s like Whitman put into words something I’ve been trying to say and haven’t been able to.
That’s the poet’s job, after all.