'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
When I give I give myself.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to 'Breaking Bad' brings Walt Whitman back to the forefront of pop culture
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today