Friday, April 26, 2013

W is for Walt

Another one with whom I'm on a first-name basis.  How can I not be on a first-name basis with Walt Whitman (1819-1892), poet laureate of this transcendental kosmos?

Artist: Robert Lacy
I may have to apologize for taking up another letter of the alphabet with someone who is already very well known.  But have you read Leaves of Grass from start to finish?  If not, then I'll happily quote Frances McDormand from the movie Raising Arizona and say "Well you've got to!  You've got to this instant!"

The phrase "one of a kind" points you in his direction, but one has to invent new vocabularies to really get at his uniqueness.  You can read about his career as a journalist, a teacher, a friend to Emerson and Thoreau.  A few years ago there was a PBS special that drove home, to me, the immensity of his service to the wounded during the Civil War.

His poetry was celebratory.  What did he celebrate?  Every freakin' thing you can imagine... but especially the new...
Victory, union, faith, identity, time,
The indissoluble compacts, riches, mystery,
Eternal progress, the kosmos, and the modern reports.
This then is life,
Here is what has come to the surface after so many throes and

How curious! how real!
Underfoot the divine soil, overhead the sun.
His approach to religion has been called Deistic, Pantheistic, and Transcendentalist, but to me it brings to mind the immanent embrace of John Lennon's God (and Bono's God part 2):
Lover divine and perfect Comrade,
Waiting content, invisible yet, but certain,
Be thou my God.

Thou, thou, the Ideal Man,
Fair, able, beautiful, content, and loving,
Complete in body and dilate in spirit,
Be thou my God.

All great ideas, the races' aspirations,
All heroisms, deeds of rapt enthusiasts,
Be ye my Gods.

Or Time and Space,
Or shape of Earth divine and wondrous,
Or some fair shape I viewing, worship,
Or lustrous orb of sun or star by night,
Be ye my Gods.
Uniqueness like Walt's generates controversy.  Leaves of Grass was banned and condemned as immoral over the years.  The historians are still debating his sex life.  (Beat poet Allen Ginsberg proudly claimed to have slept with a man who slept with a man who slept with a man who slept with Whitman.)  He was a lot of things, but he warned readers of future generations that the one thing he isn't is easy to understand if approached superficially...
I give you fair warning before you attempt me further,
I am not what you supposed, but far different.
I could go on all day quoting my favorite bits.  There's one four-line stanza that I've incorporated into my life so completely that it probably borders on OCD. (Though it's only invoked a couple of times a year -- I think it's safe for me to avoid the shrink's couch for now.)  Let me just leave you with another favorite that encapsulates so much about what's awesome about Uncle Walt...
When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and
   measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much
   applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.


  1. I've read Leaves of Grass. The real trick is which edition, because there are so many.

    I also recently read Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days.

    1. I've got a nice one that contains the first and the last editions. It's very interesting to compare passages.

      I read Specimen Days a few years ago. Some interesting concepts (from what I remember), and the Whitman shout-outs were cool. But I recall also being turned off by that contemporary trope of "tragedy p0rn." In modern fiction, it's almost required that somebody's got to get abused, mangled, or otherwise horribly traumatized. I guess the same complaints were made, long ago, about Dickens' portrayal of London urchins and whatnot, but still, it seems to be turned up to 11 these days.

  2. Deistic, Pantheistic, and Transcendentalist certainly, but I would add Panpsychic. Whitman addressed the intelligence of the universe as manifestable in humanity --and consequently, its stupidity, kindness and cruelty. His cosmos included personal adjustment.

    1. Yes! I never thought of it in those words before, but I get it. It reminds me of the end of Blake's Auguries of Innocence,

      God appears, and God is light,
      To those poor souls who dwell in night;
      But does a human form display
      To those who dwell in realms of day.

      I don't think he was talking just about the 2nd person of the trinity, there... but something deeper; closer maybe to the "image and likeness" from Genesis, but even that may not do it justice.