Whitman, Walt Leaves of Grass

ISBN 13 : 9780451419170

Leaves of Grass

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INTRODUCTION

Walt Whitman’s poetry collapses boundaries: between past, present, and future; between countries, cities, and regions of the world; between races, ethnicities, classes, and occupations; between the young and old, the foolish and wise, the public and private realms. He breaks down all the categories we use to tell us who, when, where, and what we are, the terms we reflexively rely on to structure our everyday lives. He even blurs usually sacrosanct distinctions between body and soul, and man and God. In so doing, he prepares us for the perception of a single, universal truth and for our subsequent transformation into the kind of people we need to be.

In his sweeping impulse to erase difference and approach unity, Whitman’s verse can be considered the poetic expression of the principles of the Transcendental movement that flourished in the northeast in the late 1820s and 1830s. Indeed, Leaves of Grass was Whitman’s direct response to an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the founder of Transcendentalism, who had called for a unique American poetry to give voice to the grandeur and promise of the new land. As Whitman is said to have remarked to a friend, “I was simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil.” The slim volume of verse that Whitman self-published in 1855 answered and exceeded the Emersonian challenge. Shortly after its publication, Emerson praised it as “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.”

Whitman’s poetry bears another and perhaps deeper debt, however (one Emerson also acknowledged), and that is to the great mystical tradition that cuts a wide swath through most major religions, both Eastern and Western. If we define mysticism in its broadest sense, as the development, through certain practices, of a unique state of consciousness that may yield to the seeker a direct perception, often ecstatic, of ultimate reality, then we can begin to make the argument that Whitman’s grand objective is nothing less than to induce mystical insight in the reader through the office of poetry.

Emerson described mystical states in numerous places throughout his oeuvre. In “Nature,” he wrote, “I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God.” But the essay form required him to appeal to his reader through reasoned argument, which, by definition, was antimystical. (As Whitman noted, “To elaborate is no avail, learn’d and unlearn’d feel that it is so.”) Using poetry, Whitman could venture beyond concepts into a suprarational realm, where the ultimate reality that Emerson had presented to readers’ intellects might be experienced as an actual, subjective state. To accomplish this, he needed to use language itself as the necessary mystical practice, the agent of enlightenment. His solution—and his great poetic achievement—was to develop a long-phrased, repetitive, rolling, rhythmic, insistent, climaxing, exclamatory language that brings to mind Hebraic psalms, pagan incantations, monastic chants, and the dance of whirling dervishes. To be in any form, what is that? / (Round and round we go, all of us, and ever come back thither.) By infusing the deep-souled, physical cadences of ancient rituals into colloquial American speech, he was able to create a singular poetic voice (much-imitated and highly recognizable) that sought, with fresh linguistic relevance, to jolt his readers’ minds from the mundane, temporal world into the higher realm of profound insight. In this, Whitman staked out new literary territory altogether. Moving beyond the treatises of the Transcendentalists (and the personal testimonies of the English Romantic poets, who had also lauded insight and intuition), he became a mystic priest.

Walt Whitman, a Kosmos

True to this authorial role, Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is not about himself at all. While close to the beginning of the poem Whitman identifies himself in specific terms—I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin—he quickly abandons the particular Walt Whitman for an “I” of cosmic proportions, whose identity includes all others: Southerner, Yankee, father, mother, farmer, comrade, boatman, coalman, raftsman, and, one assumes, any other kind of man or woman whose temporal identity can be added to a list. Whitman has occasionally been accused of a certain bombastic narcissism, but his “song of himself” is actually the opposite. He eagerly sheds the husk of his personal identity to blend his eternal essence with the spirits of every animate being and inanimate object—with anything and everything that his senses perceive. Unlike a narcissist, he doesn’t care how the world values him, and spares not a single lamentation for the inevitable end of himself in death. Instead, he hungers for self-annihilation, the kind that flattens the walls of the feebly constructed self so that it may be blown away by the strong wind of enlightened joy.

Whitman cannot expand himself into a “kosmos” without first collapsing a significant boundary, the one between God and man. This separation is a crucial, foundational structure of any psyche steeped in and succored by Christian theology—a group that includes most nineteenthcentury Americans and a good portion of our present population. But, as Emerson did, Whitman puts God and man on equal or nearly equal footing, and finds in their new relationship, not the dreaded end to religion, but a fulfillment of the spiritual quest. Whitman’s God is thus quite different from the Calvinist God of the Puritans: He is not separate, not unknowable, not more powerful than man. He is a God brought down to earth, so to speak; who reveals Himself in all aspects of His creation—in plants and animals, in all the organs and processes of the human body; who is present in every blade of grass on the field of existence; whose truth and goodness reside in the purity of our own hungering or satiated souls. When Whitman says, “And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is,” he is not mouthing a pretty cosmological notion. I do not say these things for a dollar or to fill up the time while I wait for a boat. He believes he is stating a Word of God more truthful and profound than any word in the Bible. A typical reader of Whitman’s time could not have fully accepted this teaching without experiencing an almost total psychic reorganization—a kind of nonreligious conversion experience—an outcome Whitman eagerly awaits.

Conversion was practically a sport in nineteenth-century America. In 1855, the year of the publication of Leaves of Grass, the Second Great Awakening, which had carried on for fifty or more years, burning with special intensity in the Midwest and Northeast, had given way to the Third Great Awakening, which would add an estimated one million converts to the churches of the United States. The hellfire and damnation sermon was the instrument of the sought-after conversion experience; by Whitman’s time it had become a finely tuned art form in itself.

Whitman’s proselytizing verse might fit easily into the category of conversion literature were it not for one important difference. While Christian preachers sought to bring sinners to Jesus, to guide them to peace and rest in the bosom of the risen Christ, Whitman puts forth himself as a redeemer. When he says, “Who wishes to walk with me?” and “Now I wash the gum from your eyes,” his words clearly echo the words of Christ. “Many times have I been rejected, taunted, put in prison, and crucified, and many times shall be again,” writes Whitman without apology. In “Whispers of Heavenly Death,” the “I” who speaks is none other than “Santa Spirita, breather, life.” The poet Whitman is even capable of raising the dead:

To any one dying, thither I speed and twist the knob of the door,

Turn the bedclothes toward the foot of the bed,

Let the physician and the priest go home.

I seize the descending man and raise him with resistless will,

O despairer, here is my neck,

By God, you shall not go down! hang your whole weight upon me.

I dilate you with tremendous breath, I buoy you up,

Every room of the house do I fill with an arm’d force,

Lovers of me, bafflers of graves.

Sleep—I and they keep guard all night,

Not doubt, not disease shall dare to lay a finger upon you,

I have embraced you, and henceforth possess you to myself,

And when you rise in the morning you will find what I tell you is so.

—from “Song of Myself”

Here we see Whitman at one of the highest peaks of his conviction and artistic power. Unabashed author of a new kind of sacred text (which is Leaves of Grass itself), he is confident of his spiritual magnetism, of his sure possession of the profound esoteric wisdom that he knows is the only prize worth winning, one that can never, by its very nature, be handed over wholesale to the supplicant or drily parsed in a doctrinal text. You are also asking me questions, and I hear you, / I answer that I cannot answer, you must find out for yourself. Because we want, or ought to want, the precious stuff that he holds and owns and cannot give away, we are endlessly drawn to him, always gathered round, always in need. I teach straying from me, yet who can stray from me?

O You and I!

The tension between Whitman’s separation from the reader (the separation of the enlightened from the unenlightened) and his generous embrace of the reader, his healing Christlike love, is at the heart of his poetry’s ability to move us. For Leaves of Grass, we sense immediately, is a book written for us. Whitman has us in his sights at every moment; he knows our deepest, most secret need, even when it is so deep and secret that we ourselves do not realize it exists. We are his children, his pupils, his misbehaving charges, and we are well and truly loved. (I might as well say that reading Whitman requires a state of regression in the reader. Despite his straw hat, tattered coveralls, and “common man” posing, we are still being asked to submit to the authority of his masterful, imperious “I,” to leave aside what we think we know and become teachable.) Whitman is so passionately dedicated to reaching and teaching his readers that no strategy of communication is too undignified for him to employ. At times he seduces with feigned intimacy: “I might not tell everybody, but I will tell you.” At others he yells across a roadway: “What are you doing, young man?” He resorts to stealth: “Closer yet I approach you.” He lectures, cajoles, humors, and charms us—he demands a relationship and will not let up. He believes that his urge to reach us is greater than ours to resist; if nothing else, he will simply tire us out. Failing that, he is prepared to mock and accost us.

You there, impotent, loose in the knees,

Open your scarf’d chops till I blow grit within you,

Spread your palms and lift the flaps of your pockets,

I am not to be denied, I compel, I have stores plenty and to spare,

And any thing I have I bestow.

—from “Song of Myself”

It is interesting to skim the pages of Leaves of Grass, scanning for pronouns. The verses are dotted with multitudinous I’s and a goodly number of you’s. There are very few we’s because Whitman and his reader are made of different spiritual stuff and cannot yet think, feel, or act together in a unified way. They are in the courtship stage; the marriage that would allow them to claim a joint identity has not yet taken place. As for they’s, it comes as no surprise that there is a dearth of this pronoun in the pages of Leaves of Grass. The various occupations and kinds of people Whitman references are understood in their singularity and their symbolism; they rarely coalesce into a functioning group. Indeed, what difference could they—the vast, anonymous public—make to Walt Whitman and me, entwined as we are in our high-stakes, tumultuous affair? What is it to us that the rest do or think?

Which brings us to sex. Whitman’s nineteenth-century readers, we have long been told, considered it a base, shameful, animal function best kept out of the light. With radical bravura, Whitman raised sex, celebrated it, exulted in it. Ever the collapser of boundaries and destroyer of categories, he merged sex with the human being’s highest faculty, the soul. Indeed, in the first lines of the inscription to Leaves of Grass, before he embarks upon a single verse, Whitman informs the reader that body and soul are one. “Come, said my Soul, / Such verses for my Body let us write, (for we are one).” The soul’s yearning and the body’s appetites spring from the same ground, from existence itself. Soul and body are, in their essences, the same thing. The seeker who chants and sways after enlightenment, and the man or woman who gives his or her body in the act of love, are engaged in fundamentally identical acts. So the long, rhythmic lines that bring to mind Sufi whirling and monastic chants also conjure the sex act itself. Consider the anaphoric thrusts, the building, breathless commas, and the orgasmic exclamation points. Or simply consider the words themselves: “Love-thoughts, love-juice, loveodor, love-yielding, love-climbers, and the climbing sap, / Arms and hands of love, lips of love, phallic thumb of love, breasts of love, bellies pressed and glued together with love . . .”

Even staunch defender Emerson suggested toning down the imagery, but the warning went unheeded by the exultant poet, who had sworn an “oath of procreation.”

But Whitman is no mere shock artist, out to upset stuffy nineteenth-century taboos. Nor is he a gaudy exhibitionist. He “sings the body electric” because the body—through its senses, sensuality, sexuality—knows how to break down its boundaries and open itself to the world. In its natural wisdom, the body is our sure and constant teacher: the man or woman who explores and revels in his or her physicality, who loves each of the body’s processes, touches upon Truth. Body and soul entwine and inform each other, and to repress one or the other is to stunt the growth of man. Thus, Whitman’s swagger is a prayer of joy; his open shirt a testament of faith. When Whitman writes, “I pour the stuff to start sons and daughters,” his seed is as generous, sacred, and ordinary as the letters of God that he finds “dropped in the street, and every one is sign’d by God’s name, / And I leave them where they are, for I know that wheresoe’er I go / Others will punctually come forever and ever.”

E Pluribus Unum

Whitman as mystic priest tells only half his story. To more completely know him, we need to see that his near-constant state of rapturous unity, and his passion for sharing and inducing it, is not an abstract esoteric pursuit, not an end in itself; it is a political mandate. In both Whitman and Emerson’s estimations, the success of democracy depended on the strength and sanity of its citizens. So Emerson invented and described the selfreliant man who thought for himself and took his own conscience as his guide. Such a man stood eyetoeye with priests and governors. He didn’t...

Biographie de l'auteur :

In 1855, Walt Whitman (1819–92) published his great tribute to America, the volume of poems that was to become his masterpiece, Leaves of Grass. Although praised by Emerson, the work met with a disappointing reception, and Whitman went on to become a war correspondent and government clerk, devoting much of his time to caring for the sick and wounded in hospitals around Washington. His reactions to and interpretations of the struggle for freedom are to be found in Drum-Taps and the Civil War section of Specimen Days.
 
Billy Collins has published nine volumes of poetry, most recently Horoscopes of the Dead. He is also the editor of Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry.  He served as United States poet laureate from 2001 to 2003 and was New York State poet laureate from 2004 to 2006.  He is a Distinguished Professor of English at Lehman College (CUNY) and the Senior Distinguished Fellow of the Winter Park Institute in Florida.
 
Peter Davison was the author of ten books of verse, culminating in The Poems of Peter Davison, 1957–1995, before his eleventh and final collection, Breathing Room. Davison also wrote a memoir, Half Remembered: A Personal History; a book of criticism, One of the Dangerous Trades: Essays on the Work and Workings of Poetry; and a literary chronicle, The Fading Smile: Poets in Boston from Robert Frost to Robert Lowell to Sylvia Plath, 1955–1960. He was also poetry editor of The Atlantic Monthly.

 Elisabeth Panttaja Brink teaches writing in the Woods College of Advancing Studies at Boston College.  She has a PhD in American Literature and is the author of scholarly essays, short stories, and two novels, Save Your Own and (as Elisabeth Elo) North of Boston.

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Description du livre Penguin Putnam Inc, United States, 2014. Paperback. Etat : New. Reprint. Language: English. Brand new Book. Ralph Waldo Emerson issued a call for a great poet to capture and immortalize the unique American experience. In 1855, an answer came with Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Today, this masterful collection remains not only a seminal event in American literature but also the incomparable achievement of one of America's greatest poets--an exuberant, passionate man who loved his country and wrote of it as no other has ever done. Walt Whitman was a singer, thinker, visionary, and citizen extraordinaire. Thoreau called Whitman "probably the greatest democrat that ever lived," and Emerson judged Leaves of Grass as "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed." The text presented here is that of the "Deathbed" or ninth edition of Leaves of Grass, published in 1892. The content and grouping of poems is the version authorized by Whitman himself for the final and complete edition of his masterpiece. N° de réf. du vendeur BTE9780451419170

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Description du livre Penguin Putnam Inc, United States, 2014. Paperback. Etat : New. Reprint. Language: English. Brand new Book. Ralph Waldo Emerson issued a call for a great poet to capture and immortalize the unique American experience. In 1855, an answer came with Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Today, this masterful collection remains not only a seminal event in American literature but also the incomparable achievement of one of America's greatest poets--an exuberant, passionate man who loved his country and wrote of it as no other has ever done. Walt Whitman was a singer, thinker, visionary, and citizen extraordinaire. Thoreau called Whitman "probably the greatest democrat that ever lived," and Emerson judged Leaves of Grass as "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed." The text presented here is that of the "Deathbed" or ninth edition of Leaves of Grass, published in 1892. The content and grouping of poems is the version authorized by Whitman himself for the final and complete edition of his masterpiece. N° de réf. du vendeur ABZ9780451419170

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