Allen Crawford's Illustrated Song of Myself
Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself
By Walt Whitman, Illustrated by Allen Crawford
Tin House Books, 2014
Review by Wendy Bourgeois
So it may be no surprise that this new edition, published by Tin House and illustrated by Allen Crawford, disappointed me upon first viewing—because how could it possibly live up to first love? It’s small, not coffee-table sized, with a beige linen cover and a blue psychedelic line drawing of Whitman, looking dour but surrounded by circular doodads and leaves. The images and text are drafted together, on monochrome pages of green, blue, or red. The text itself is often unreadable, laid out in concentric circles or swooping parabolas or sideways blocks—the patience it takes to read the thing makes enjoying it a meditative practice. It reminds me a bit of the seminal New Age how-to book, Ram Dass’s Be Here Now, and points to Crawford’s interest in the more spiritual, less embodied aspects of Whitman. It looks childish yet precise, like Nicky McClure posters of happy families, and feels similarly scrubbed spotless.
Images by Ram Dass (top) and Nikki McClure (bottom).
I’m sure the book I remember from childhood was like that, too. I mean, who’s going to make an illustrated edition of Song of Myself with all the onanism left in? A truly accurate illustrated version probably wouldn’t make it onto most coffee tables with children around, so it seems unfair to want that from this book—and yet, as an adult, its cleanliness bothers me.
Crawford says in the foreword that he conceived of this project as “a visual journal I kept as I explored the wild expanses of Whitman’s poem,” and the book does bear the mark of someone trying very hard to fully inhabit the verse. I admire the impulse, and envy it—it makes me wish I drew more. At its best, the creatures in the margins feel alive with Jungian weirdness. There are some parts that seem to make Crawford avert his eyes, though. Pages with homoerotic content tend toward abstract designs rather than pictures of people or animals, as if any concrete image at all would be too explicit. At times, Whitman himself seems to rebuke the illustrations: on one page containing the lines “I make short account of neuters and geldings, and favor men and women fully equipped, and beat the gong of revolt,” the only graphic is a border of what looks like quilt squares, as if Crawford is not exploring, but containing the “wild expanses” in the exact pat domesticity Whitman despised.
Still, I feel generous towards this book. I hope that if it sits on my coffee table long enough, some kiddo who needs poetry will find it engaging enough to take home. Then if it sticks I can buy them a cheap copy of Leaves of Grass and we can draw pictures of it together.
Wendy Bourgeois is a poet and writer. She writes the Reading Lines column.