'Breaking Bad' brings Walt Whitman back to the forefront of pop culture

'Breaking Bad' includes lines in which characters quote passages from Whitman, and a copy of the writer's 'Leaves of Grass' was recently a pivotal plot point.

Frank Ockenfels/AMC/AP
'Breaking Bad' stars Bryan Cranston (r.) and Dean Norris (l.).

Thanks to the frequent use of Walt Whitman’s poetry as a plot element in the acclaimed cable drama “Breaking Bad,” the 19th-century bard is getting a heightened profile in popular culture.

Characters sometimes quote Whitman in the dramatic series, which chronicles terminally ill teacher Walter White’s descent into evil when he decides to make and sell crystal meth to leave a nest egg for his family.

“Leaves of Grass,” Whitman’s most famous collection of poems, plays a pivotal role in a  recent episode when Walter’s brother-in-law Hank, a DEA agent, comes across a copy of Whitman’s poetry that incriminates Walter as a drug kingpin.

Kera Bolonik, writing recently at poetryfoundation.org, noted that at first glance, the pairing of the cosmically ebullient Whitman and the darkly mercenary Walter is an odd one, to say the least.

But Bolonik also pointed to some similarities between Whitman and Walter, mentioning that they’re both intellectual pioneers in their field, doing work that puts them at society’s margin, and they’re both obsessive perfectionists. You can read the full text of Bolonik’s splendid essay here.

One other parallel between the two is that Whitman, despite the generally optimistic tone of his poetry, remains alert to the grimmer implications of mortality, a running theme in “Breaking Bad."

Readers will notice that awareness in quite a few passages of Whitman’s poetry.

Here, in honor of Whitman’s newly enhanced celebrity, are 10 quotes from his “Leaves of Grass” collection:

1) “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.... Here at last is something in the doings of man that corresponds with the broadcast doings of day and night."

2) “The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.”

3) “Nothing can happen more beautiful than death.”

4) “I celebrate myself and sing myself. And what I assume you shall assume.” 

5) “I loaf and invite my soul.” 

6) “Has anyone supposed it lucky to be born?”
I hasten to inform him or her, it is just
As lucky to die, and I know it.”

7) “Walt Whitman am I, a Kosmos, of
Mighty Manhattan the son,
Turbulent, fleshy and sensual, eating,
drinking and breeding . . .” 

8) “I dote on myself, there is a lot of me
and all so luscious.”

9) “I believe a leaf of grass is no less than
the journey-work of the stars.”

10) “Behold! I do not give lectures or a little
charity,
When I give I give myself.”

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