The message of his democracy is that modern life has not even begun.
Modern man waits in the wings.
I. Searching for the Bard
To have come to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass eager to discover what shines
through its myriad poetic shadows as sun-drenched landscapes is to have come to
a poetry which readers have taken to heart over generations slowly, and sometimes
suspiciously. Indeed, the proliferation of critical and scholarly studies from around
the world on Walt Whitman testifies to the stature of America’s truly ‘international’
poet, a poet subject to ever-changing readings (as befits his remarkable poetic
persona) and to multiple re-configurings East, West, and beyond.
As a poet, Whitman knew and was quick to acknowledge that personalities
or personas of every age spring from the soil of the perspectives of the other, from
the ethers of the times. It is only in otherness, he understood, that the self can
take root and grow only where boundaries dissolve and re-coagulate in constant
flux. For many readers and writers, this often takes place, he also knew, through
language. The reader of a Whitman poem as often as not is brought forward and
onward to (un)common ground in the empathetic journey with the other.
But if words can change us, they can also keep us stuck in the mire, in the
same, monotonous places of our lives. Where we lack words to express our common
experience, that experience becomes lost to us. That is why he enjoins the
reader and ‘poets to come’ to ‘Respondez! Respondez!’ Whitman expects the reader
to take an active part in this process. Reader and poet each have a part to contribute;
each—in holistic terms—is integral to the poem. Indeed within the small,
privately shared sacred space of the poem, a huge amount of energy is concentrated.
When this concentration of energy occurs, language is fraught with risk,
packed with danger. Most poets invest their energy in creating a world where power is
consolidated to validate the poem’s persona.Whitman’s poetic persona is, on the contrary, more unfixed and fluid; its
chief aim lies in reinvesting energy in the reader. In other words, the energies of a
Whitman poem are in perpetual motion. This is known in the larger sense as the
reader/writer exchange. Critic Lewis Hyde calls it “the gifted state.” 1 No poet in
English as evinced by a body of work has gone further in exploring the psyche, or
has taken greater risks in widening the scope of the poem and opening the parameters
of the self than Whitman.
The receptive reader coming to meet Whitman in all his multiplicity and idiosyncrasy,
charmed one moment, put off another, discovers, moreover, that there
is no one Whitman but a Whitman so multitudinous, so furtive and garrulous that
he is exasperating, a Whitman so ‘compassionating’, so death-haunted and flawed
that he is never less than human. Perhaps in being so modern and himself he is
in fact, all of us. And perhaps in searching for the real Walt Whitman we, in the
process, are put in touch with the phenomenon critics have come increasingly to
call “walt whitman.” (If the name ‘Walt Whitman’ may be seen as a ‘brand’ name,
the branding that signifies living both body and soul in this world, Whitman’s
‘I,’ or his ‘walt whitman,’ also represents what is generic about us—the body that
belongs to nature, that is, the body that is of nature, not apart from it.)
Let’s say that any (literary) text—in this case Leaves of Grass—represents
reality, sun-drenched in the light of day, objective reality. Then, anything we could
say or write in response to the text would operate the way dreaming operates—as
with filmic technique, we might sometimes zoom in or out, and the text, much to
our surprise, will mutate into something startlingly different, seen, felt and experienced
through shadows and under moonlight, as it were, from shifting contexts
and new perspectives. Indeed it is possible to view one’s own life in this way.
To focus on ways to ‘read’ Whitman, then, beyond strictly cultural and political
contexts but through the contradictions of his life and work, his stylistic innovations,
his use of reader’s address, and the role death plays in the shaping both of
his awakened sensibility (Whitman’s ‘great poet’) and of the form of his illumined
poetry itself in the creation of what can be considered an originating American
Book of the Dead—is to view Whitman’s poems as a vehicles of life-energy released
in the reader as a means toward having a threshold experience of one’s own.
Once across the threshold, the territory ventured into is where Whitman’s poetry
may be seen to bring into sharp relief certain patterns of psychic movement and
mythic transformation that lie at the heart of the primal poetic journey. As Whitman’s
‘Song of Myself’ radically demonstrates, the poem, too, is a fable, a fiction
without a center but with a protagonist being brought in touch with his miraculous
origins through the process of the poem’s making. The implications—literary,
political, spiritual—of this approach to poem-making can open the form in many
II. Seeing the Traces
Where does one start with Walt Whitman, that consummate American poet?
Born in Long Island, raised in Brooklyn, resident of Manhattan, Washington,
D.C., and Camden, New Jersey—of whose sprawling Leaves of Grass Camille Paglia,
American literary doyenne, has written: “He will not be hushed; he and his
poem will consume and say everything.” 2 To the no doubt bewildered readers of
his 1855 first edition, this poet of the body and the soul was a strange poetic species
indeed, if his work could then even be called poetry.
The outlines of Whitman’s career are now almost legendary: The journeyman
printer, newspaper editor, former schoolteacher, and hack journalist suddenly,
in Dantean mid-life, bursts onto the scene as a brash, youthful trickster and a
wild, prophetic Merlin, mixing it up from the margins of his culture; then later
becomes—through the trial by fire of America’s Civil War, debilitating strokes
and literary neglect—the ‘Good Gray Poet,’ casting a backward glance over traveled
roads while at the same time extending his hand and vision to readers of the
future. For many of those readers, Whitman would seem to have transformed
his love affair with his self into a love affair with America (or vice versa). What’s
refreshing about reading Whitman, however, is that the more you read him, no
matter what your agenda, he always makes you feel like you go in search of what
is best in yourself.
Searching for the ‘real’ Walt Whitman is a different matter. The mercurial
poet is elusive, even to himself. Any hope that he will not turn into somebody or
something else when you go back a second or third or fourth time is soon dashed,
of course, because this is exactly what happens. For often what is at stake in Whitman’s
major poems is not just the survival of the ‘I’ of identity, but the health and
sustainability of the psyche in which it grows and assumes shape, not to mention
the tit, as it were, of identity, that ‘other within’ on which the nascent self suckles
for its nutrition and development. There may be mutability of identity in Whit
man, but there is constancy of soul.
When reading Whitman something unexpected and mysterious happens:
common, everyday discourse consisting of competition, strategy and negativity
gives way to poetic discourse of paradox, contradiction and depth. Is it any real
surprise, then, to learn that our poet himself spent the Civil War years nursing the
wounded and the dying in Army hospitals? Whitman is foremost a healer. Such
healing he offers, however, comes as Ezra Pound famously noted at a steep price:
In America there is much for the healing of the nations, but woe
unto him of the cultured palate who attempts the dose. 3
A mender of spirit, a bracer of resolve, a tonic to cynicism, a force for self-
renewal, Whitman’s poetic discourse concerns itself with how much of the experience
of reality—or the dazzle of the light—one is able to bear. This touches a
chord with the ancient Greeks. In the ancient world, the tragic burden of bearing
one’s fate gave proof of human dignity. In the final scene of The Illiad, victorious
Achilles consoles the vanquished King Priam, saying, “To mourn avails not; man
is born to bear.” A millennia later the Christ appears, showing the way to carry
one’s cross for redemptive purpose. With the Christian world-view the paradigm
shifts—one’s individual cross, one’s unique fate is borne in order to give birth in
an awakening of joy to a new consciousness, situated not in some imagined future
or afterlife but here in the present moment, the kingdom of heaven here on earth.
What emerges is a journey, then, of second birth where each of us as Everyman
is in our ego-suffering being remade by the image of the Christ archetype as redeemer
of the human soul, or psyche. The burden of personal suffering for the sake
of new birth, a new identity in soul, for increased consciousness of the world and
one’s fellow beings—this, then, is Whitman’s call to the reader.
Not I, not any one can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself. 4
As we consume Whitman’s text, then, we are, in effect, consummating it.
Or put differently, in reading the text we are in a sense being read by it. In letting
ourselves be read, we are opened to the possibility of unmaking and remaking
ourselves. This profound and mysterious interaction of reading as human-making,
is not a breaking with the natural order, a breaking with nature but is, paradoxically,
the most natural thing a human being can do. In poem after poem, the reader
moves forward by means of handholds, footholds, as Whitman’s poet-speaker offers
himself as temporary shelter, wherein the weary traveler may re-gather himself
before moving on. The foothold, however, is to turn threshold. The rest is only
temporary, until, when ready, we move on past the threshold out into new territory,
out into the unknown.
Who wishes to walk with me?
Will you speak before I am gone? Will you prove already too late? 5
III. A Glimpse of the Bard
Whitman unmistakably presses his case in the second of the 1855 edition’s twelve
Come, come closer to me,
Push close, my lovers and take the best I possess,
Yield closer and closer and give me the best you possess.
This is unfinished business with me…how is it with you? 6
The work of reading poetry, for Whitman, involves bearing or suffering the
poetic corpus in a labor of love undertaken to make the text, and oneself, anew.
Whitman, in other words, insists that through the reading process a struggle takes
place to name our own profound inwardness and bring it into being out of ourselves.
It is the reader’s individuality that Whitman’s language would nurture:
I seek less to state or display any theme of thought, and
more to bring to you, the reader, into the atmosphere of
the theme of thought—there to pursue your own flight 7
Pursuing our own flight in the atmosphere of this poet’s work points up the
fact that, like any reading of a great poet’s work, whatever can be said about it there
will always be more that can be said (which may well be Walt Whitman’s version
of a happy ending). After all, the ultimate compliment paid to a work of art is that
it doesn’t grow old. It is still fresh and alive, it still speaks to us after the passage of
time. (Ironically, it is we of the future who are still attempting to embrace a poet
who in his own lifetime so profoundly embraced the pains and joys both of his life
and the age in which he lived.)We know virtually nothing of Homer. We know
the bare facts of Dante’s life, and not much more about Shakespeare’s. But the case
of Whitman is special. Though his private life is still in many respects shrouded
in mystery, perhaps more than any other work in Western literature the poems in
Leaves of Grass make the reader feel the presence of the poet, of the personality, of
the person. Here, the book announces, is a live, original human being.
A now-legendary photograph Whitman had staged in a Manhattan studio—
of himself holding up and gazing at a butterfly on his finger (which later turns out
to be made of cardboard)—depicts a tableau of the poet nonchalantly cohorting
with nature. But with the knowledge that the word butterfly, in Greek, means
“psyche,” the photo takes on new meaning. If the butterfly represents spiritual
life, and its two wings portray Whitman’s quest for his own true mate, then it can
be said that he indeed finds his true mate, not narcissistically (“I dote on myself,
there is that lot of me and all so luscious”8; not solipsistically (“I celebrate myself,
and sing myself”9); not homoerotically (“O here I last saw him that tenderly loves
me, and returns again never to separate from me”10). Rather, he finds his true mate
heuristically, in the reader, or imagined multitude of readers (“I spring forth from
the pages into your arms–decease calls me forth.”11) Time and again throughout
his expanding and accreting book, Whitman employs this unlikely strategy: he
situates the reader as actor in the drama at the heart of the poem he is writing, until
the writer is seen to dissolve and in his place stands the reader. In other words,
if the poet speaks it, the reader goes there, until the poem, too, dissolves away to
situate the reader back at the center of his or her own individual life’s drama:
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions
of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor
look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres
You shall not look through my eyes either, not take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.12
Much is made in poetic practice of finding one’s “own voice.” This is crucial,
of course, but it is also a case of letting your voice find you. Once a voice is established,
a channel is opened from the heart of the poet to the heart of the reader,
as it were. Like any ‘made’ thing, the voice of a poem is realized bodily out of the
depths of one’s being, but at the same time is also realized out of the depths of the
world’s being, out of the age in which one is living.
(Certainly English-speaking poets that came after Whitman have had in
one way or another to come to terms with his voice, his presence on the American
literary landscape. Indeed, as Ezra Pound said of Whitman, “He is America.”13)
In his historic essay ‘The White Aboriginal,’ poet Karl Shapiro considers
what Whitman does in his poetry to be a ‘new kind of giving’:
Whitman knew that giving in the past had always been a form
of taxation and protection. This new kind of giving is reckless
and mystical, differing from the old giving because Whitman
gives body and soul without sacrificing one to the other. 14
Whitman’s reader—each “you” that is all the more universal for not being
gender-specific—is shown throughout Leaves to be integral to the shaping energies
of the work, as well as to the poet himself. Neither the poet nor the reader
exists at the expense of the other. Whitman, speaking as “witness of us,” may not
speak for each of us, but each of us in authentically engaging the poet-speaker may
come to hear our own voice.
Being mindful of our otherness in the world vis-à-vis poetic consciousness is
where the poet’s thought leads in associative, not necessarily logical, development,
defined by negotiations between one’s ego-self and one’s larger Self. In the poetic
text otherness persists through metaphor. The poet for Whitman, then—who is
in the business of relating separate, distinct things to one another, of “fitting” the
world of the old with the world of the new, “Always a knot of identity…always
distinction…always a breed of life./ To elaborate is no avail…Learned and unlearned
feel that it is so.” 15—leads us to experience otherness deep in the self that
is, as Frost later said, “more felt than known.” This mindfulness is the beginning of
a spiritual journey that perhaps we, many of us as readers have yet to undertake.
Until then, we are as grubstakers in the territory Whitman’s poetry would open
IV. Catching the Bard
In the myth that is history, all we truly recognize about a person is his face and
his name. In history only the face and the name remain (after death, for all but a
fraction of us, even these are erased). While the face and name recorded in history
represents some degree of ‘fame,’ the body, meanwhile, remains nameless,
is a ‘nobody.’ History, enforcing its spiritual apartheid, as it were, would rob us
of our bodies, would remove us from our depths, our silences. But we can find
ways to return to the body (through, for instance, meditation, spiritual exercise,
creative work). Whitman himself launches his masterwork ‘Song of Myself’ with
the body-centered image of the poet loafing in the grass. What follows in the rest
of the poem is the image of the poet re-making himself from head to foot, resurrecting
his body, as Henry Miller put it.
Is the poet-persona in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, then, the poet’s ‘original
face’? Yes and no. Yes, in that the poet would have the reader believe his ideal poet-
hero is true and fully realized in the flesh. No, in that Whitman the man was far
from being the ideal he presents readers with in the poems. His poetic-persona
must have served its purpose, however, giving Whitman a hold, albeit an imaginative
one, by which he could privately (in writing) and publicly (in being read)
constellate his personality.
Unlike the young adolescent in a traditional society who asks: What character
or part am I to play in the story I have been ‘given’?, Whitman’s poet-persona
declares: I will invent my identity, my character in the unfolding of my own story.
Joseph Brodsky calls the poet’s part ‘the part of speech’16—a nice pun but still too
intellectual, too cerebral. The body, after all, would have its say. And give it voice
If I worship any particular thing it shall be some of the spread
of my body;
Translucent mould of me it shall be you,
Shaded ledges and rests, firm masculine coulter, it shall be you,
Whatever goes to the tilth of me it shall be you,
You my rich blood, your milky stream pale strippings of my life;
Breast that presses against other breasts it shall be you,
My brain it shall be your occult convolutions,
Root of washed sweet-flag, timorous pond-snipe,
Nest of guarded duplicate eggs, it shall be you;
Mixed tussled hay of head and beard and brawn it shall be you,
Trickling sap of maple, fibre of manly wheat, it shall be you;
Sun so generous it shall be you,
Vapors lighting and shading my face it shall be you,
You sweaty brooks and dews it shall be you,
Winds whose soft-tickling genitals rub against me it shall be you,
Broad muscular fields, branches of liveoak, loving lounger
In my winding paths, it shall be you,
Hands I have taken, face I have kissed, mortal I have ever touched,
It shall be you. 17
The beloved body, for Whitman, is not to be crucified—though that, too, is a
reality the poet-persona must face—but instead is to be glorified, celebrated. For
it is only in making a name for the ‘body’—or one’s ‘no-body’ (recall Odysseus
and Polyphemus)—that one’s soul is revealed to oneself. And it is only by the soul
being revealed to oneself that one can discover one’s true ‘character’, that is, one’s
authentic part in the greater drama of life.
Whitman, as poet and consummate maker, is himself being re-made by, and
of, words. But for the poet, this ongoing creation is not for the myth that is history,
the history into which we ‘go down.’ On the contrary, the fall into language is so
that we may, as Rilke says, “rise again in pure relation.”18
For Whitman as poet is not concerned with fallen man. He is, rather, the
poet of risen man, the poet who as “witness of us”19 declares to the reader:
You shall stand by my side and look in the mirror with me.20
And as St. Francis of Assisi said, who we are looking for is the one who
is looking (known by psychologists as the ‘witnessing self’—or the “I” that sees
beyond self-conscious me). Nevertheless, Whitman in his incarnation as bard of
cosmos entertains no illusion of permanent identity—what we call the “I” is just
a swinging door, which moves when we inhale and when we exhale, according to
Shunryu Suzuki in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. 21
V. Riding Home
We can spend a lifetime remembering names, defining words. And in the evolution
of human individuation, that is just what we do. Japan’s most celebrated
writer and the world’s first novelist, Lady Murasaki (973-1031) of Tale of Genji
fame, for instance, in her lifetime did not possess a name. Her official name was
“somebody’s daughter.” Today, however, we even name our pets. From the poet’s
view, every grain of sand has a name, if we but listened to it speaking to us. Silence
may be golden, but without language giving rise to a second life, how else would
we recognize humanity’s ‘original face’?
The day and year of one’s birth marks one’s appearance on the stage of history.
The exit from the stage will come, when it will, perhaps—if you wish to
believe—at a preordained time and place. (The body, writes poet Robert Bly, ‘offers
to carry us for nothing.’ 22) Meanwhile, the body on the open road must carry its
own load to its destination.
Whitman’s plot-line, then, is simple: With the body as narrator, the soul is
the real story. Thus he will forever be a religious poet, first and last. But what does
one make of a religious poet who in his poetry, against the advice of well-meaning
Emerson, does not shy from the expression of human sexuality—real, unadulterated,
not couched-in-mystic-lingo erotica—a religious poet who, indeed, roots
religious experience itself in the physical body? If post-modern literature were to
advance his (cosmic) vision and take Whitman even further than he has gone, at
the very least it would have to slow…everything…down…and include detailed
scientific observations minutely described and artfully inscribed, perhaps along
the lines of a naturalists’ notebooks. In the meantime, although we are awash in
the banalities of sex courtesy of mass media and corporate advertising, the amorous
intimacies of the Whitmanian, cosmic kind—where ‘live’ connections between
above and below, or within and without, are felt to be the soul of nature—
are still novel enough to be spine-tingling and more. Whitman’s lines—the best
of them—grounded in ordinary human realities of the body and of nature and
fostering in the reader an awe before the larger mysteries of the cosmos, still have
the power to shock and move us.
Walking the path worn in the grass and beat through the leaves of
Where the quail is whistling betwixt the woods and the wheat-lot,
Where the bat flies in the Seventh-month eve, where the great
gold-bug drops through the dark,
Where the brook puts out the roots of the old tree and flows to
Where cattle stand and shake away flies with the tremulous
shuddering of their hides,
Where the cheese-cloth hangs in the kitchen, where andirons
straddle the hearth-slab,
Where cobwebs fall in festoons from the rafters;
Where trip-hammers crash, where the press is whirling its cylinders,
Wherever the human heart beats with terrible throes under its ribs,
Where the pear-shaped balloon is floating aloft, (floating in it
myself and looking composedly down,)
Where the life-car is drawn on the slip-noose, where the heat
hatches pale-green eggs in the dented sand,
Where the she-whale swims with her calf and never forsakes it,
Where the steam-ship trails hind-ways its long pennant of smoke,
Where the fin of the shark cuts like a black chip out of the water,
Where the mocking-bird sounds his delicious gurgles, cackles,
Where the hay-rick stands in the barn-yard, where the dry-stalks
are scatter’d, where the brood cow waits in the hovel,
Where the bull advances to do his masculine work, where the stud
to the mare, where the cock is trading the hen,
Where the heifers browse, where geese nip their food with short jerks;
Where sun-down shadows lengthen over the limitless and
Where herds of buffalo make a crawling spread of the square miles
far and near;
Where the humming-bird shimmers, where the neck of the long-
lived swan is curving and winding,
Where the laughing-gull scoots by the shore, where she laughs
her near-human laugh,
Where bee-hives range on a gray bench in the garden half hid by
the high weeds,
Where band-neck’d partridges roost in a ring on the ground with
their heads out,
Where burial coaches enter the arch’d gates of a cemetery,
Pleas’d with the native and pleas’d with the foreign, pleas’d with
the new and old,
Pleas’d with the homely woman as well as the handsome,
Pleas’d with the quakeress as she puts off her bonnet and talks
Pleas’d with the tune of the choir of the whitewashe’d church,
Pleas’d with the earnest words of the sweating Methodist
preacher, impress’d seriously at the camp-meeting;
Looking in at the shop-windows of Broadway the whole
forenoon, flatting the flesh of my nose on the thick plate glass,
Wandering the same afternoon with my face turn’d up to the
clouds, or down a lane or along the beach,
My right and left arms round the sides of two friends, and I in
Coming home with the silent and dark-cheek’d bush-boy (behind
me he rides at the drape of the day,)
Far from the settlements studying the print of animals’ feet, or
the moccasin print,
By the cot in the hospital reaching lemonade to a feverish patient,
Nigh the coffin’d corpse when all is still, examining with a candle;
Voyaging to every port to dicker and adventure,
Hurrying with the modern crowd as eager and fickle as any,
Hot toward one I hate, ready in madness to knife him,
Solitary at midnight in my back yard, my thoughts gone from me
Walking the old hills of Judea with the beautiful gentle God by
Speeding through space,
Speeding through heaven and the stars,
Speeding amid the seven satellites and the broad ring, and the
diameter of eighty thousand miles,
Speeding with tail’d meteors, throwing fire-balls like the rest,
Carryng the crescent child that carries its own full mother in its belly,
Storming, enjoying, planning, loving, cautioning,
Backing and filling, appearing and disappearing,
I read day and night such roads.23
known world, as the above-mentioned excerpt from ‘Song of Myself’ demonstrates,
are intended in part to stretch the limits of the reader’s mind and imagination,
rushing headlong through the universe all the way from the grass on the
ground out to the furthermost reaches of time and space, and then back again
to the body. This journey through poetic imagination forges a new relationship
between the reader and time and space, as if the natural phenomena described,
including the reader, could be altered or alchemically transformed by the words
themselves. Indeed Whitman’s poetry establishes—the way all great art does—a
profound interrelationship between physical nature and the human psyche. It cannot
be stressed enough how crucial this dialogic relation is. As a function of nature
in all its phases (how like the moon!), the human psyche serves as conduit between
inner and outer worlds through which is channeled the known universe, and entire
unknown universes besides. It is not too much to say that the human psyche
and the cosmos are co-collaborators (see Richard Tarnas’s Cosmos and Psyche24),
where the backwards, forwards and spiraling interchange between worlds allows
for human (and non-human) growth and evolution, else all for us would be linear,
VI. Bard Forgotten, Self Remains
When—after many years of avoiding Whitman altogether or reading him with
pinched nose due, in Pound’s words, to his exceeding stench—I was ready finally
to listen to what he had to say, I heard a liminal voice at times grand and outsized,
at other times egoless and humble, which made my ears, one might say, wiggle.
Whitman’s voice, particularly in an age of so-called American empire, makes exemplary
use of the kind of ‘soft power’ which we say we are so much in need of
in order to correct the imbalances of a technologically over-developed age. His
voice, bardic in reach, is an excelsior for learning how to listen and engage the
world at the threshold between nature and culture. For wakefulness, Whitman-
style—meaning, to be ‘all-ears’—teaches us not only how to wake up (the law of
the world applies: wake up when you can) but also how to dream.
…in silence, in dream’s projections,
In nature’s reverie…I enter the doors—
(while for you up there,
Whoever you are, follow me without noise, and be of strong heart). 25
A traditional Chinese proverb puts it this way: Teachers open the door, but
you must enter by yourself. To free our minds, Whitman shows us the door, the
threshold—but we’re the ones who have to walk through it. Just as the sun-goddess
Amaterasu of ancient Japanese myth is cajoled or pulled out of her cave by
Uzume, the goddess of Mirth, so Whitman would lure his reader out onto the
open road by the poet-speaker:
Allons! Whoever you are! come forth!
You must not stay in your house, though you built it, or
though it has been built for you. 26
Oftentimes, however, we would deaden all feeling in ourselves, afraid of
where it might take us, afraid it might sweep us away, drag us under, dismember
us. Yet Whitman as poet, knowing a life constructed out of clock-hungry moments
is tailor-made for consumer society, also reveals how, in our broken-apart
consciousness, there can occur a healing out of which emerges, phoenix-like, a restored,
replenished self in touch with the essential soul. Whitman stakes his claim
in the new territory of “free verse” not by eschewing argument, avoiding solid
dictates of logic, or bypassing gatekeepers of reason but by appeasing, as he called
them, “specters in books,” 27 those ghosts he believed had been haunting American
literature for so long. His countermeasure would be found in speech:
Speech is the twin of my vision…it is unequal to measure itself.
It provokes me forever, Walt, you understand enough…why don’t
you let it out then? 28
Reading Whitman, one enters through the language of poetry an archetypal
drama that can form or inform the basis of one’s own personal mythology. But
there are whirlpools of feeling, rivers of emotion in Whitman’s world that few
readers may be prepared for. T.S. Eliot was among the poets of the High Modernist
tradition in the 20th century, it might be said, who left the open road and
scampered back inside to the safety of the cathedral. (Though admittedly, in a
world of contemporary violence, not even the cathedral is refuge. Murder in the
Cathedral anyone?). Those poets of the so-called Whitman tradition who stayed
on Whitman’s open road taking up his call, like Hart Crane or Dylan Thomas,
would seem to have paid a steep price. That is, bonding with Whitman in his poetry
of personal mythmaking can land one, to put it mildly, in deep waters.
Put simply, in reading a great poem or encountering any great work of art
one must be prepared for anything to happen, like the opening of Pandora’s Box.
For to engage it with the fullness of one’s being may spell catastrophe, threatening
to rewrite, change, and generally disrupt the present status quo or presiding interpretation
of key aspects of one’s life. For Walt Whitman is nothing if not the poet
of plentitude. Consider yourself warned! That’s how powerful a charge his poems
pack, a force unparalleled in the annals of English language poetry. Knowing this,
however, you still engage with it. And just as you feared, all hell breaks loose—the
contents of Pandora’s box is unleashed upon your world. And through all the upheavals,
beyond all the storms, underlying all the crises, after the last full barrage
of ‘bad times’ is spent, you discover that, last out of the box, there is the wispy, thin,
frail presence of hope. And with that meager thread as your only guide you begin
wending your way slowly, painstakingly back out of the long, dense maze of chaotic,
painful transformations you’ve undergone, and in the process begin weaving
together all the seemingly random, disparate, arbitrary materials of the brokenness
of life—mere shadows—into a semblance of its wholeness. Gradually a shadowy
semblance of wholeness begins to take shape, only this time richer, more resonant,
deepened by experience, ensouled by pain, illumined by self-reflection. This
is what every artist, every craftsman worth his or her salt, and in the deepest sense
of the word ‘striving,’ strives to do—to translate the “bad times” into the “good
times” to give the fullest account of one’s life and times through the imaginative
experience of one’s world. This is what the poet in us would do: Effect a recovery
of lost meaning that is the source of one’s real life.
The task, enormous and fateful, of trying to come to terms with Walt Whitman
for our time means, in one sense, that there will be room for a different
Whitman for each new conscious reader: the saintly Whitman appropriated by
a saintly reader, the maverick Whitman appropriated by a maverick reader, the
subversive Whitman appropriated by a subversive reader. But that’s like putting
the cart before the horse or the egg before the chicken. Nevertheless, even in his
afterlife Whitman remains something of an ongoing creation, which, considering
that he made a lifework out of resisting easy definition, is as it should be. Out of
contradictions he seems to emerge anew, fresh, as if despite the reader’s approach
to the poems, the poet frees himself each time his songs are sung. It’s as if the
reader offers Whitman’s disembodied poetic spirit a foothold in the realm of our
senses, where, ghost-like, it momentarily takes up residence in the reader’s body.
(The idea of reader and writer engaged in a process of flux and transformation,
entering a zone where the self is fluid, putting on character like clothes, comes into
play here.) It is in the body that the poet’s presence, his influence, his touch, is felt,
if only for the duration of our reading.
The spirit of the departed poet roams abroad in the land of the living, east or
west, subject to our—the living, breathing reader’s—re-creation, or re-animation.
Whitman’s poetic spirit, it would seem, ends up haunting the reader, too.
VII. Self and Bard Forgotten
Whitman for us, it is obvious by now, cannot be other than just a face and a name;
his is another disembodied voice or talking-head, a lá the Wizard in Frank L.
Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. His is no miraculously re-embodied voice. The body
fully in nature that we all know and recognize deep down as ours, which calls to
us to remember our authentic selves, is lost to those no longer with us, to those
who are lost to history.
The living person for Whitman is everything, is what brings the dead to life.
What is personal—whether private or public—is all. The personality he builds up
layer by layer in his poetic text that includes, not excludes, all manner of otherness,
cannot surmount this fact. Though his inclusiveness or diversity is perhaps
one of his greatest accomplishments (the by-word of American cultural discourse
in recent years has been ‘diversity,’ and no American poet speaks for diversity
better), still Whitman remains on the other side, where the dead dwell.
In his poetry, he does not eschew the use of a persona in the quest for authentic
life; rather, he succeeds in creating not for a tribal but a cosmic drama the
mask that could be called ‘democratic.’ But it is neither heroic nor anti-heroic—it
is a persona of a democratic personality rendered in poetic form to meet the demands
of his age. This persona, however, continues to undergo change according
to the requirements of each successive age. Readers of Whitman should be aware
of this fact. And in changing to meet the requirements of our own time, in being
adopted for its own uses according to the challenges of the present era, his democratic
poetic-persona shows just how resilient, flexible, and fluid it was intended
to be. The breakdown of identity that precedes a breakthrough in poetic utterance
may or may not lead to a wider social or political transformation. The fluidity of
identity that imagination allows for acknowledges history but is not trapped by
it. Imagination, in other words, is crucial to a thriving, vital democracy, which is
founded, like all civil society is founded, on a myth of brotherhood
In Whitman, historical man would meet the re-sexualized body. The cosmic
sun-king, or the royal ego no longer cut off from its magical bower of bliss, learns
it need not always be in control. The wizard steps out from behind the curtain. He
is but a man, after all, a “witness of us,” an ordinary mensch wanting just to create
a “beautiful fable” before he dies. For that is what he is—after all his creative
rigamarole and mumbo-jumbo—he’s just another human being who has to die,
who is mortal.
We sing our song, like the escaped prison-convict played by Sidney Poitier
at the end of the classic Stanley Kramer film The Defiant Ones, where, after being
re-captured by the sheriff’s deputies he turns to his fellow prisoner played by Tony
Curtis and says, “Well, we’ve given them a run for their money!” then breaks out
into song, an old Negro spiritual. The beaming look on his face while he is singing
says it all. It is the song that redeems us, the song we lift up when faced with going,
as it were, under the knife of Time, the song not only in defiance of, but also
in acceptance and celebration of, our mortal fate.
VIII. Going Back to the Beginning
The end of a great dream is at hand. We are in the gap between the end of one
era and the beginning of a new era. We are all in the process or midst of making
the leap to the next stage, of awakening. In the meantime, the environment of the
in-between is where we are most at home, where we can be most ourselves. We
would not power over the gaps but learn to be poised in between them, between
genders, ideologies, cultures, realities, betwixt and between, like a bridge. We are
to learn to speak from somewhere at the place between inner and outer, east and
west and beyond, enchanted by all cultures yet bound by none, freely picking and
choosing, blending and weaving, imagining new hybrid cultures existing between
fantasy and reality that serve somehow not only as an aesthetic, but also moral
compass for our strivings as human beings and as citizens, using whatever works.
For the poet’s deepest allegiance, arising out of the feeling in the recesses of his
or her being, is to creation as a whole. (The way a child picks up and plays with
whatever materials are around him is what the poet does, after a fashion, in the
making of his or her poems.) For when poetry speaks to the heart and matters to
the mind, one green thought at a time, such language restores the body of one’s
first great love…
…Yes, we have entered poetry’s Dreamtime. No longer captive of historical
logic, we roam the centuries. We have entered the dialogue of the ages. Stroll
through and smell the roses of prose; climb the trees and branches of poetry. Turn
the compost on the ground for new compositions, new composures, and watch
creation flower out of the flux of time. Here in the garden of literature our literary
mothers shyly unlock the mysteries and give us the gifts of Nature; here our
literary fathers proudly share what they received (wanting only to dare to pull the
beards of our venerable fathers, have we gone and shorn their beards off entirely?)
Here the children of Dante, the children of Dickinson, of Shakespeare, of Whitman,
of Kabir, of Hughes, of Neruda, of Rumi happily thrive and flourish, living
each hour romping and frolicking in the wilds of the imagination in preparation
for the great work ahead. Here History can be heard saying, “Hey! Got something
to say here!” And the Future can be heard saying, “I’m afraid it is you who must
change my life.” And the stars above can be heard saying, “What comes next is not
foisted upon you, you help create it.” Earth here below is saying, “You’ll be fighting
for it the rest of your life….While the poet in us, in humble gratitude, welcomes
those voices which collectively, sanely say to us: “Deep love the world. Deep love
somebody. Tell your story.”
For it is the strikeness of friendship that Whitman’s poems are worth, wherein
what lies broken is salvaged, bits and pieces gathered in the arduous touch of
wanting, where whole and healed can be spoken of again, from a certain angle,
storying the words in a voice with no beginning or ending but in between, for
things and their aliveness now. (Now is not the time, we know, for inside-the-
box-thinking.) The spiritual health and vitality of a community, after all, depends
on its ability to identify with all of its members, to include not just its strongest
(namely, women, gays, transgendered, physically challenged, poets, children (of
all ages), but also its weakest (namely, politicians, war-mongers, fundamentalists,
you know who you are), not just its successes (hairy-chested seven-year-old boys;
yellow butterflies adrift on autumn air), but also its failures (old bald men humbugging
& baited by bucks). Only then will we have a truly functioning and viable
Meanwhile, in Whitman’s cosmic vision, presiding over all is what he calls
Ma femme, the poet-speaker’s soul, his Venus—the feminine principle (neither
male nor female) that is alive and well in Whitman, and without whom all would
be empty words, a babbling, the braying of a dumb ass.
We stand amid time, beginningless and endless—we stand amid
evil and good;
All swings around us—there is as much darkness as light;
The very sun swings itself and its system of planets around us. 29
IX. Entering the Marketplace with Extended Hands
If the processes that give rise to poems operate outside the marketplace to begin
with, poem-making, we learn from Walt Whitman’s intrepid example, doesn’t
end there. Like ancient ox-herders who searched for, found traces of, saw, caught,
tamed, rode home, forgot , even transcended the ox and returned to the source, the
journey isn’t ‘complete’ until the poet enters the marketplace and shares the fruit
of her or his labor, in accordance with the community and its needs.
In mid-nineteenth century America, just starting out, was in Whitman’s
words “A Nation announcing itself.” The poet lived during America’s initiatory rite
of passage from adolescence to adulthood, and the democratic values and esoteric
beliefs he inherited and cherished naturally would enter the poems he composed.
From his poems, he cries out to the reader, “Contend for your lives!” And contend
Americans would. In 1860, with the nation teetering on the brink of civil war,
Whitman declares, “We wield ourselves as a weapon is wielded,/ We are powerful
and tremendous in ourselves,/ We are executive in ourselves, we are sufficient in
the variety of ourselves…/ America brings builders, and brings its own styles.” 30
In short, Whitman’s pale literary skin gets bronzed, as it were, under the heat of
direct political, social and literary engagement with his times, and the (sacred) lore
he learned from these processes, from the poetical to the political, from the lunar
to the solar, he—as poet but also as forebear, as father-spirit—would labor (“O
America because you build for mankind I build for you” 31) to pass on to his readers
and to the future through his life’s work he called Leaves of Grass.
If the word ‘cosmic’ were to fit any modern poet’s persona, then, it would fit
Walt Whitman’s. Weaving by universal sympathy all things into his self on a scale
hitherto unimaginable, Whitman’s poetic persona in Leaves of Grass is a kind of
Rosetta stone of the known cosmos of the nineteenth-century and beyond. To the
modern mind that poses the question, What does it mean to be oneself? Whitman,
with the breadth and depth of his human sympathies, would seem to pose
another question: If I’m not ‘other,’ who am I? He proceeds to answer it as poet by
dialoging with the ‘other within’ that is of such infinite scope and variety as to be,
in its achieved expression, a kind of cosmic vision, or view of the self discovered
to be a ‘kosmos.’
“Cosmos”—at its root—means harmony. Whitman’s own life touches on
this harmony in the most common ways possible, the ways any person’s can—via
the particularities of physical, material existence in the body. His conscious interweaving
of his life and art testifies to the power of his story, how the life of the
spirit, tested again and again in the forge of daily sufferings and joys of material
existence, gives proof of the inherent divinity of the body. All human and non-
human existence runs through this paradox.
In the work of Walt Whitman, however, we are for the most part spared
animosities, hates and revulsions (the poem “Respondez,” and the prose works The
Eighteenth Presidency and Democratic Vistas being main exceptions) not because
they are beyond his descriptive powers or understanding, or because they are absent
from his experience of the world; far from it. Like Dante’s pilgrim in Purgatory,
however, he only wants to promote or rejoice in those potentialities of soul
which, as his story unfolds, parallels America’s story-in-the-making. Evil is not
viewed as good’s polar opposite so much as, socially or politically, an imbalance of
the natural state of harmony, and psychologically, as an illness of the soul. In being
true to the natural state of things, then, Whitman would embrace harmony and
balance, a ‘good order,’ a kosmos.
Thus, by his artful construction of a larger-than-life persona or self Whitman
triumphs. Leaves of Grass: What is it?…A birth-cry…a battle hymn…a belly
laugh…a soul enshrined…a spirit animated…a stellar performance…a death
throes…a swan song…a corpse enlivened…a staged leave-taking…a gift outright…
That somebody could create such a thing—how marvelous! That what is
not a part of oneself can become a part of oneself by reading it—how amazing!
That one day with grace and luck you might find such a great good thing within
Reading Walt Whitman makes us feel all this and more. Indeed any great
book engenders optimism in the fact that such a book or such an identifiable character
or spirit ever was to begin with, could ever have been created by somebody.
Reading of this order gives you everything, so you enter into the realm of reciprocity
and want to give everything back. The reader entering Whitman’s world
thrills to have his or her imagination put to work. One feels energized, not shy and
bewildered. Reading Whitman, in short, makes one feel empowered.
Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!
Whoever degrades another degrades me…and whatever is done
or said returns at last to me,
And whatever I do or say I also return.
current and index.
I speak the password primeval….I give the sign of democracy;
By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their
counterpart of on the same terms. 32
Such a vision of the cosmic self situates the human being at the crossroads
of history, poetry, and nature. It is a vision of time as song, of poetry’s touch as the
ever-present origin, and of the metamorphosis of the poet-hero standing at the
doorway opening onto the world “where the future becomes present.” To experience
the cosmic vision is, by Whitman’s lights, to undergo an upheaval psychologically
and spiritually of such pressure and magnitude that one must search for
suitable (artistic) forms both to contain and communicate it, lest one be totally
overwhelmed by it. The creative/destructive force of such a vision would be like,
say, that of the Berlin Wall coming down in 1989 when all the energy of masses
of people held back for years was suddenly released. The closest most of us might
get to experiencing what we may imagine is the cosmos of our everyday lives, perhaps,
is when we look up into the night sky and see flickering all around us in the
dark the myriad and luminous stars. Or it would be like all the films ever made,
combined with all of one’s life’s memories on earth simultaneously projected, hologram-
like, in the amphitheater of one’s mind. Such might be the impact and
dimension, were one to try to begin to imagine it, of the cosmic vision. The cosmic
vision, in short, must have energized the farthest reaches of his imagination so that
the more of otherness he would allow to live imaginatively in his poetic world, the
more energized his world would become. This, in small part, would help account
for the power we feel upon reading his best poems. No longer dormant within
Whitman, the soliterraneous kosmos would be released through speech by the
poet and be given a lyric voice:
I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.33
To this day the name Walt Whitman in literary and other circles remains
controversial. Here is a poet who makes dubious claims both for himself (“Walt
Whitman, a kosmos” 34) and (perhaps more dangerously) for democracy (“the
destin’d conqueror” 35). (Of the danger of universal myths Whitman anticipates,
as he goes on to say – “Democracy, the destined conqueror—yet treacherous lip-
smiles everywhere,/ And death and infidelity at every step.” 36) Here is a poet who
speaks directly to readers (“Listener up there!”) and calls for our response (“Will
you speak before I am gone? will you prove already too late?” 37). Here is a poet
whose essentially two-sided or dialogic nature can be felt in his poetry wherever
we turn, addressing as he does now nature, now reader, now ocean, now seashore,
now mother, now father, now brothers and sisters, now night, now democracy,
now the stars—his paeans and apostrophes, his metonyms and oxymorons all alchemically
thickening the plot and at the same time moving it forward to evolve
a poetics and poetries of the future still unimagined by us.
Where, in the meantime, will we make tangible the inner life? To the State
we certainly cannot turn, for the State, as contemporary American poet Irving
Feldman reminds us, is a Midas:
The State abhors the inner life,
Finds its rich wantlessness,
Its invisible reverie uninteresting
Because unmanageable, damned because
Unusable. Incapable of inactivity, the
State cannot submit to stillness and seeks
Precisely to create the desire it will manage.
It requires neither pensive persons nor upright
Citizens but a smiling multitude. The State
Is a Midas. Every absence and invisibility
It would make bright material, for
What is invisible….What is invisible the
State believes deplorable, knows to be dangerous.38
Who is Midas of ancient myth but that part in each of us who, in moments
of weakness or, god forbid, in lifelong delusion would prefer to live like a god,
identifying ourselves with the spectral worlds the gods inhabit, foolishly seeking
to possess their bloodless, bodiless immortality even while, hungry for mortal life,
they would seek to possess us. We ignore the gods or the cosmic energies at our
own peril, of course, as ancient Odysseus learns. It is the poet’s proper task to be
in touch with the gods, be they blessing or curse or both, as the myth of Midas
reminds us. But through the simple human body Whitman inclines our ear towards
a higher spirituality: “O the magnet! The flesh over and over!” 39 For what
lowers one to the level of the beasts, the bard declares, also raises one to the level
of the divine:
Divine I am inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch
or am touched from;
The scent of these arm-pits is aroma finer than prayer,
This head is more than churches or bibles or creeds.
If I worship any particular thing it shall be some of the
spread of my body… 40
* This essay undertakes, with the aid of the Zen Buddhist tradition of the
Ten Oxherding Pictures, a journey of reading a poet who, the author discovers, is
all the more ‘cosmic’ for being grounded in bodily experience. Section titles are
drawn from Lewis Hyde’s “American Oxherding,” a modern American version of
the Sung Dynasty Chinese Oxherding Series with drawings by Max Gimblett,
exhibited at the Japan Society in New York City in September 2010.
1. Lewis Hyde, The Gift. Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (New
York: Vintage Press, 1983).
2. Camille Paglia, Break, Blow, Burn (New York: Pantheon Books, 2005),
3. Ezra Pound, “Walt Whitman,” in Whitman: A Collection of Critical Essays,
ed. Roy Harvey Pearce (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962), 9.
4. Walt Whitman, Selected Poems 1855-1892, ed. Gary Schmidgall (New
York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), 61. (All citations of Whitman’s poetry from this
volume, unless otherwise stated.)
5. Ibid., 65.
6. Ibid., 66.
7. Ibid., 377.
8. Ibid., 35.
9. Ibid., 15.
10. Ibid., 227.
11. Ibid., 266.
12. Ibid., 16
13. Ezra Pound, 8.
14. Karl Shapiro, “Whitman and Lawrence,” in Start with the Sun: Studies
in the Whitman Tradition, James E. Miller, Jr., Karl Shapiro, and Bernice Slote
(University of Nebreska Press), 69.
15. Walt Whitman, 16.
16. Joseph Brodsky, A Part of Speech (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
17. Walt Whitman, 35.
18. Ibid., 42-44.
19. Rainer Maria Rilke, The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, ed. & trans.
Stephen Mitchell (New York: Vintage International,1989).
20. Walt Whitman, 46.
21. Suzuki Shunryu, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (Bangkok: Weatherhill,
22. Robert Bly, Eating the Honey of Words: New and Selected Poems (New York:
Perennial. 1999), 143.
23. Walt Whitman, 13.
24. Richard Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View (New
York: Viking, 2006).
25. Walt Whitman, 272.
26. Ibid., 147.
27. Ibid., 16.
28. Ibid., 36.
29. Ibid., 338.
30. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass and Other Writings, ed. Michael Moon
(New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), 129.
31. Ibid., 286-287.
32. Walt Whitman, Selected Poems, 34.
33. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass and Other Writings, 26.
34. Ibid., 34.
35. Ibid., 286.
36. Ibid., 286.
37. Ibid., 65.
38. Ibid., 255.
39. Irving Feldman, Collected Poems, 1954-2004, (New York: Shocken,
40. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 35.