A STORY OF SPIRIT: Walt Whitman (Part One)
Finding a voice.
In school days back in the 70’s, I heard that some dead and forgotten American poet had said that “All truths wait in all things.” But I never figured I would or even could, begin to find it in London, Ontario, where I lived for 38 years within sight of the hospital I was born in. That is, until that day I came across a slim book called “Leaves of Grass” by someone called “Walt Whitman” in the library. Talk about ‘inflection points!’ He introduced me to myself!
Anyway, as I got into him, I found out that he’d lived in a dusty old town called “Camden” just across the border in New Jersey. The old pictures I saw of it were not at all inviting; they left me with a distinct feeling that Camden would be a hard place to even be from. I had zero interest in going there, ever.
Except for one thing: and that’s the small grey ship-lapped wooden two story house at 330 Mickle St. that Walt Whitman died in.
It’s not so much that he died there as that he lived there, for the last three years of his life, never recovering for long since he had the stroke. Seems to me his brother lived downstairs, but anyway I do know that every day a young man named Horace Trauble climbed the well worn stairs with the daily papers and news for Walt. That’s all told in the book ‘With Walt Whitman in Camden’ that Trauble wrote about Whitman in his last invalided years as he lingered one floor up and closer to God, so to speak.
Indeed, according to young Horace, Walt was almost always in good spirits albeit often physically sick when Horace bounded up those stair boards:
“Friday, August 9, 1889
7:45 P.M. Walt at parlor window. There had just been a tremendous rain with thunder and lightning. He had kept by the open window through it all. But had not been well today. “It has been a poorly time with me – a poorly time. But now I am relieved…News? What have you brought?” …said at one moment: “More and more do I see that it is with the young man, the young woman – that there lies the future of Leaves of Grass – that its real constituency will be these newer personalities.”
On March 26, 1892, Whitman died in his bed with brother George, Horace and others close at hand. Indeed, in the last half of his seventy-one years, he had left the world a spiritual legacy far greater than the sum of its parts. As he noted after the ninth edition of his only intentional book – Leaves of Grass:
“I have found the law of my own poems”
Perhaps, he found aspects of that law February 9, 1878 when he had noted:
“After an hours’ ramble, now retreating, resting, sitting by the pond in a warm nook, writing this, sheltered from the breeze, just before noon. Oh the emotional aspects and influences of Nature. I too, like the rest, feel this modern tendencies (from all the prevailing intellections, literature and poems) to turn everything to pathos, ennui, morbidity, dissatisfaction, death. Yet how clear it is to me that those are not the born results, influences of Nature at all, but of one’s own distorted, sick or silly soul. Here, amid this wild, free scene, how healthy, how joyous, how clean and vigorous and sweet!”
In other words, per his extended and revised poems, he had explored that sweet ‘law’ for decades, all the while revising his poems as his understanding broadened and deepened:
“Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am”
We’ll move on to a select few of his poems shortly, after this brief color commentary on one of the many notable events in Whitman’s daily life in civil war Washington:
President Lincoln: a passing acquaintance.
Walt Whitman, August 12, 1861
“I see the President almost every day as I happen to live where he passes to or from his lodgings out of town…he always has a company of twenty- five or thirty cavalry, with sabres drawn…Mr. Lincoln on the saddle generally rides a good-sized, easy-going grey horse, is dressed in plain black, wears a stiff black hat…looks about as ordinary as the commonest man.”
“I see very plainly Lincoln’s dark brown face, with the deep cut lines, the eyes, always to me with a deep latent sadness in the expression. We have got so we exchange bows, and very cordial ones…none of the artists or pictures has caught the deep though subtle..expression on this man’s face. There is something else there. One of the great portrait painters of two or three centuries ago is needed.”
So now, without further ado, let’s turn directly to a small sampling of some of the finest portraits of the wordless and leave you with a little of that ‘something else’ with which Whitman communed, both in his poetry and prose but, more importantly – in an abundant daily life fully lived in the wonder of awareness.
It seems useful here to note that throughout Whitman’s writing, he repeatedly talks about – and points to – the same “beloved” as the Sufi poet Rumi. For Whitman, the self is his lover. He – writ large – is his lover, friend and companion in the ‘unicity’, the oneness.
Song of Myself (1&2)
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.
Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.
Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded with perfumes,
I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it,
The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.
The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is odorless,
It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it,
I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.
The smoke of my own breath,
Echoes, ripples, buzz’d whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine,
My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air through my lungs,
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and dark-color’d sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn,
The sound of the belch’d words of my voice loos’d to the eddies of the wind,
A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms,
The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag,
The delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields and hill-sides,
The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun.
Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d the earth much?
Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
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 in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
(To be continued, it seems) 🙂