Walt Whitman's 'Leaves of Grass': The retelling, Twitter-style

Chris Nichols

While Twitter has adopted many of the not entirely dignified conventions of modern digital communications — coarse language, thoughtless and mean-spirited arguments, widespread use of "u" instead of "you" — it on occasion draws in those among us who harbor an appreciation for the literary side of life.

That's clearly the case for a tweeter who goes by the appellation @TweetsOfGrass and is now, for the fifth time, tweeting Walt Whitman's classic poetry text "Leaves of Grass." Here's a sample:

The Atlantic dug deep in order to shed light on the verse-sharing typist behind the Twitter handle, but alas, he or she would not reveal his or her true identity. From the article, titled "Walt Whitman Is Great at Twitter," the author notes that:

"Since the account first began tweeting the poem in 2011, it has accumulated more than 11,000 followers, people who like just a bit of poetry thrown in among the daily Twitter melee. There are high school teachers, academics, poets, and, not to be forgotten, strong contingents of Lana Del Rey and John Green fans as well."

"I get followed by so many Lana fans it's hilarious," the anonymity-preferring @TweetsOfGrass told the writer, who pointed out that Del Rey, a singer, is known to incorporate Whitman in her lyrics, whereas "Leaves of Grass" is a key player in Green's novel, "Paper Towns."

Why do this? Why offer verbatim, repeatedly and over the course of many months, the work, first published in 1855, of one of the most highly regarded American-born poets? According to the article, @TweetsOfGrass was pressed into service partly because people have a habit of tweeting "tiny snippets" of Whitman, failing as it were to demonstrate or perhaps grasp the manner in which the short outlays factor into the greater whole. As Twitter allows only 140 characters to be displayed at a time, this can, of course, lead to a host of misunderstandings and misinterpretations, whether the topic is the stock market in Frankfurt or 19th-century prose.

For instance, we realize it might be tempting to be impressed should you overhear someone exclaim: "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" — especially among the "Breaking Bad" disciples out there. Still, that hardly would do justice to the timeless Percy Bysshe Shelley sonnet.

"I thought this would be a good way to introduce some of those people to the whole poem, the full context, parts they might not know about, or even parts that might make them uncomfortable," the well-read, yet secretive @TweetsOfGrass explained.

The Atlantic indicates that Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" is currently getting a similar treatment on Twitter.

And that's not all. William Shakespeare is being kept alive on the short-message-sharing platform by the likes of @IAM_SHAKESPEARE. Quotes from Emily Dickinson can be found @E_Dickinson. If you want your Jane Austen, @DailyPP promises to keep you informed about the Bennets and Mr. Darcy, although contrary to its name, every other day appears to be the cadence.

But, sadly, disappointments also abound. Homer's hero @_Odysseus has been doing more journeying than tweeting it seems, and modern updates from the siege of Troy ceased nearly three years ago from scribe @Iliad2011. Twitter might not have been exactly right for @MisterPoe, who was more interested in motor cars than nightmares when we last heard from him in 2010. @Edgar_Allan_Poe, however, appears very much alive and with a 21st-century worldview. Meanwhile, @Charles_Dickens has been writing in private since 2009.