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Video Killed the Poetry Star: Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” Trippily Animated

Still from "The Poetry of Perception," animated by Sophie Koko Gate
Still from “The Poetry of Perception,” animated by Sophie Koko Gate

Since Walt Whitman published Leaves of Grass in 1855, the famously banned poetry collection has inspired all kinds of contemporary artistic homages, including Breaking Bad subplots, illuminated manuscripts, Lana Del Rey songs, and a typeface made from images of naked men, to name just a few. London-based animator Sophie Koko Gate‘s mesmerizing cartoon rendition of “Song of Myself” is the latest in this slew of Whitman tributes, and perhaps the most accessible for the internet age. 

Narrated in baritone by Peter Blegvad, with suggestive, psychedelic graphics, the animation gives fresh life to the 160-year-old epic poem. Set to Oswald Skillbard’s spastic electronic music, Whitman’s words sound as radical and contemporary as ever. Even those who have read and reread the poem “Song of Myself” will find it strange and new here, thanks to colorful visualizations of “love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine” and strange alien creatures mouthing “the belch’d words of my voice loos’d to the eddies of the wind.” It’s basically a Walt Whitman music video, with a bit of a Tom Waits vibe.

The animation is the first of an eight-part series, called Poetry of Perception, which explores representations of perception and sensation. The series, all animated poetry, is produced by Nadja Oertelt as part of Harvard’s free online course, the Fundamentals of Neuroscience. Gate, a Royal College of Art graduate, is best known for her work animating The Guardian‘s Agony Aunt advice column.

Still from "The Poetry of Perception," animated by Sophie Koko Gate
Still from “The Poetry of Perception,” animated by Sophie Koko Gate

The series kicks off with an Erwin Schrödinger quote: “The world is given to me only once, not one existing and one perceived. Subject and object are only one.” “Song of Myself” is still among Western literature’s best lyrical illustrations of this concept, as Canadian doctor and Whitman’s friend Richard Maurice Bucke elaborated in his 1898 book Cosmic Consciousness, which analyzed the poem as a kind of mystical text, exploring human relationships to the infinite. If it sounds dry, perhaps this animated visualization will help — high school English teachers could even get screen-addicted students to pay attention to Walt Whitman for, oh, two minutes. 

[h/t Vimeo Staff Picks]

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