Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Company of Your Voice

I hope people like this journey through Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. I think it's refreshing to hear Whitman's voice, to accept the prompts of his poetry, and thereby to think these thoughts.

We pick up on page 15:
As God comes a loving bedfellow and sleeps at my side all night and close on the peep of the day,
And leaves for me baskets covered with white towels bulging the house with their plenty,
Shall I postpone my acceptation and realization and scream at my eyes,
That they turn from gazing after and down the road,
And forthwith cipher and show me to a cent,
Exactly the contents of one, and exactly the contents of two, and which is ahead?
These are difficult lines. Whitman has us exploring ideas of intimacy and bounty. He has us thinking through a rather weighty decision: do we look down the road and out in the open or do we instead focus on counting beans and creating inventories?

Of course, we decide to not to postpone the "acceptation and realization." We take up the charge to see and to search for "the Me myself":
Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looks with its sidecurved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it.
Whitman here seems to distinguish the working Me--the laboring We--from what I guess we can call the poetic Me. The word "poetic" is full of meaning, as I think Whitman wants us to understand this reflective, descriptive, and beautiful Me as both the object and subject of these pages. But Whitman is remarkable for never succumbing to exclusion. The laborer and the poet are intimate and mutually reinforcing:
I believe in you my soul . . . . the other I am must not abase itself to you,
And you must not be abased to the other.
I take "the other I am" to refer to the working Me, and I think the soul must be the seat of poetry. Perhaps it's the working Me, another name and a symbol for the reader, that the poet then addresses directly:
Loafe with me on the grass . . . . loose the stop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want . . . . not custom or lecture, not even the best,
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice.
There's humility here and simplicity. The poet asks only for company and for the sound of a voice. And yet even this sound is momentous. Even the sound gives and teaches. In Whitman's world, everything images everything else:
Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and joy and knowledge that pass all the art and argument of the earth;
And I know that the hand of God is the elderhand of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the eldest brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers . . . . and the women my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love;
And limitless are leaves stiff or drooping in the fields,
And brown ants in the little wells beneath them,
And mossy scabs of the wormfence, and heaped stones, and elder and mullen and pokeweed.

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