On Reading Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” While Desperately Trying to Patch Up My Ate-up Lawn So We Don’t Look Like the Hillbilly Methhead Ne’er-do-wells in this Neighborhood


In this essay I shall establish a connection between Walt Whitman’s seminal “Leaves of Grass,” a germinal moment in American poetry and a monumental efflorescence of free verse, and my ongoing efforts to patch up and thicken my ratty, dirt crater-ridden lawn that is the pronounced and enduring shame of my neighborhood of entry-level starter homes now occupied by bedraggled people in their 60s in faded Harley-Davidson tank tops who never really amounted to anything in their long but largely pointless and draining lives spent in smoot-caked factories run by bosses who could care less if they lived or died. You’d want to grab a beer and brat with every last one of them, they are warm and interesting people with rich inner lives, but they are hardly empowered by the merciless machinations of late-stage capitalism and also have tacky-ass dream-catchers hanging on their porches. My lawn is the worst of the worst on a block of people who mostly could really care less, and haven’t really bothered to care for years or decades in many cases, since my house was most recently previously owned by an apathetic landlord who never seeded a dirt ocean left behind by the removal of a tree in the front yard and never mowed the grass that now looked like a war zone and I’m even more apathetic and indifferent to the preening and high-stakes showmanship of lawn care. But feeling the social pressure from the cigarette butts cavalierly flicked onto our lawn and the dirty glaring looks, I now spend my days and early evenings tilling flinty, rock-riddled soil, trying to get the unforgiving and mocking dirt to mate with the Scotts Turf Builder Thick’ R Lawn 3-In-1 Solution for Thin Lawns I had acquired from a Menards, the fancy one off the state highway with the escalators and the grand piano on the second floor that no one ever plays and that’s there for no apparent or logical reason at all and that it would be hard to envision any practical use for at all, as though some hired schlub in a tux with his hair parted in the middle and gelled down is going to tickle the ivories while contractors in sweat-stained tank tops with chapped hands, bad attitudes, and wispy facial hair load up on landscaping and plumbing supplies.

I spend my nights reading Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” absorbing profound poems well-rooted in the canon like “Song of Myself,” “O Captain! My Captain!,” “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” and “I Hear America Singing.”

Though I was reading about grass seeding in the metaphorical sense and flailingly failing at grass seeding in a grimy reality mucked with dirt-dipped gloves, I failed to make any connection until weeks into the quarantine. I had watched all of “Tiger King,” was halfway through “The Last Dance,” and was bored and subsequently drunk as hell. A dog-eared copy of “Leaves of Grass” sat on our dining-room table where I had just served a DIY pizza shaped like skewed printer paper and topped with spinach, whole garlic cloves, and whatever other crap was threatening to go bad in the fridge.

Oh damn, my slogging brain begrudgingly finally realized, I’m reading this book about sowing grass in the fertile soil of metaphor, allegory, and symbolism, and also trying to Johnny Appleseed my torn-up, garbage front lawn into a remote approximation of suburban normalcy. Right now, it looks like a junky, janky, and butt-ass casualty of bottomless apathy. There’s more dirt than grass. There’s more stone, stick, and weed than dirt. There’s no apparent path back to respectability amid all the endless ant hills and mud pits. But like Michael Jordan or Joe Exotic, I’m like trying to accomplish something, no matter how crazy or difficult.

Whitman sought to capture the exuberance of the American experience. I fantasized about smooshing ants in the many anthills with my thumb if they somehow threatened my wife, who came out in my dreams to bring me ice water and tell me what a lovable and tireless worker I was and which she actually did in reality without being attacked by a siege of imaginary death bugs.

In conclusion, Whitman was a great genius whose creative flourishes and insights will resonate throughout the ages, a poem whose symbolic conception of grass was deeply rooted and robustly flourishing. I was a beer-guttered and lazily bearded overeater of cheese, both artisanal and decidedly not, whose efforts to grow grass met with only comical, hopeless frustration and unending disappointment. I was convinced I could turn this black-and-green patch of aesthetic assault on the sensibilities, a weedy attack on all that is holy and decent, into a carpet of gleaming, glistening sod—a carpet of uniform greenness. But it all seemed futile and frustrating to my impatient mind as I sprinkled seed and worked the rake. I told my wife I needed to run back to Menards to grab a hoe and she laughed for far longer than was warranted. Maybe all this time and effort devoted to gardening would all eventually pay off and maybe it wouldn’t, but why was I spending so much time out in such a boring yard getting crowded by ants, stalked by hornets, and tormented by an elusive mole?

Walt Whitman famously self-published and my efforts to be less of a horrid nightmare neighbor never started to take root. No one on my block would ever care if the cucumbers or basil in the back yard ever came up, just if the grass out front did. So long as my house didn’t stand out, no one really cared one way or another if anything ever flourished there.

You can be whatever you want in this world; you should just try not to be an inconsiderate jerk who could care less about the people you share space with.

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