(photo: PJ Sauerteig)
Welcome to Musicians And Their Favorite Books. Every month a musician writes about one of their favorite books and how it influences their work.
PJ Sauerteig is a recent graduate of Columbia University, and a classically trained pianist from Fort Wayne, Indiana. Aside from his work as Slow Dakota, he also manages the boutique label, Massif Records, split between New York and Indiana. This past June, PopMatters argued that Bürstner and the Baby was the best concept album of this decade so far. Slow Dakota’s new double LP is due out Spring 2016.
The following piece is in PJ’s own words.
“Leaves Of Grass” – Walt Whitman
I bought Whitman’s Leaves of Grass my freshman year of college, but didn’t end up opening it until the beginning of senior year. The poetry is so divine, so transformative, that I remember feeling like the first 21 years of my life had been wasted; for to see the world without Whitman’s clarity seems a blundering, pointless affair. It is that moving. And there is no other book I know (besides The Holy Bible, perhaps) that makes me feel like a more complete and compassionate person every time I pick it up.
Leaves of Grass is effectively Whitman’s life’s work – a massive volume of poems spanning the years of Whitman’s life. Inside, one finds poetry of all shapes and sizes: tiny little whispers nestle up against massive works like “Song of Myself” – perhaps the most famous of Whitman’s poems. A collection so sprawling cannot be summed up; it is, like The Holy Bible, about simply everything. One page shows brotherly love, while another depicts The Civil War; one depicts lilacs in bloom, the next: slaves at auction. Science, religion, the stars, the sea, the trees, death, eternity, and the sweetness of touch; America’s greatest poet leaves no leaf unturned.
If there is a nucleus to Whitman’s magnum opus, it is the divinity of mankind – a devout reverence for the limitless power and beauty of the human race. Indeed, Whitman seems to ache with love for his fellow man – to the point that it nearly overwhelms him. More specifically, Leaves of Grass spells out a throbbing and moving image of the American Spirit: the eternal vigor of farmers, of blacksmiths and laborers along the frontier; nascent democracy; New York; and the unspoiled fields through which Whitman walks with his friends and lovers. But he turns his eyes also to firemen, and grief, and the smoke flickering after a great battle. To read Leaves of Grass is to peer into our history when it was still budding and incomprehensible.
“If Whitman’s work teaches young writers one thing, it is that not all great poetry is melancholy.”
Whitman’s life and persona are just as fascinating; on paper he is larger than life – a magnanimous bonfire of charisma and affection (both platonic and erotic) for everyone around him. All-seeing, all-understanding, and full of both ego and grace: Whitman often seems almost Christ-like in his magnitude. (In one poem, Whitman even speaks to Christ with an intimacy that only comrades share: “My spirit to yours, dear brother/… We few, equals.”) For, as a poet, Whitman understood that myth supersedes fact. In his personal life, he would write anonymous reviews of his own work, and submit them to be published in different newspaper and journals. An iconic photograph of Whitman shows a butterfly perched on his outstretched finger, signifying his deep communion with the natural world. The butterfly, it turns out, was fake, and made of cardboard. What’s even more curious is the amount of Leaves of Grass Whitman wrote from the confines of New York City.
Given that this is a music blog, after all, I’ll briefly mention how Whitman has shaped the way I write song lyrics. Slow Dakota’s first three records came out before I’d read any Whitman, but Whitman plays a central role in our upcoming double LP, The Ascension of Slow Dakota. And I mean that quite literally; the album’s final song is an imaginary conversation with Walt Whitman on an airplane. When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d (Whitman’s great elegy for Lincoln) is also a tremendous influence on the album; and lilacs pop up in several songs as a symbol of both grief and new life. The Ascension also aims to be expansive (at around 15 songs), and to cover a grand host of themes and topics – taking an obvious cue from the size and scope of Whitman’s masterpiece.
And finally, if Whitman’s work teaches young writers one thing, it is that not all great poetry is melancholy. No, no: Whitman shows us that great poetry can boil over with unrestrained joy and celebration – miles away from anything like The Wasteland. In this way, his work defies our cultural archetype of the suffering genius, the hopeless poet. And so, he urges me to not rely on darkness as a necessary tool, and that profundity doesn’t have to be so damn gloomy. Most of all, I read Whitman to be reminded that kindness – and affection – have a great wisdom all their own.
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